Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The HoG 25: The 25 Best Hitters of the Past 25 Years, Part 2

Enough with the twitching. Here's your Top 9. Hurl brickbats in the comments as is your wont.

9. Paul Molitor

I’ll always think of Paul Molitor as the face on one of my very first baseball cards. Not sure if it was his rookie, but it was close enough—he had this totally stoned-out, eyes-rolled-back-in-head expression that was pretty hilarious. I thought it funny enough to rip the card front off and tape it to my wall. That, friends, is how you treat the merchandise. Roll hard.

If I had known the dude would accumulate 3,319 hits, including four seasons of 200+, more than 500 steals and a lifetime batting average of .306, would I have dealt with his cardboard visage so cavalierly? Probably, because I was a doof. The thing that gets me about Molitor, now that I find myself reading his stats for the first time in decades, is how much better he got at the end of his career. The DH really prolonged things for him—three of his 200 hit seasons came after he turned 35, and he hit .340 at the age of 40.

Now, I know ol’ Paulie Molitornuts is widely beloved as some sort of Nice Guy Prince of the Baseballs, but I’d be remiss not to spread a baseless, scurrilous rumor that maybe he was juicing. Or screwing one of Kirby Puckett’s wives. Or eating Chinese infants, which reputedly have healing properties.


8. Wade Boggs

Boggs is a bit of a peculiar animal. He was the subject of a lot of hype in the 1980s and well into the ‘90s as well, much of which was deserved. Obviously, there’ve been a lot of great hitters in the last 25 years, and I’d be surprised to see such a list without Boggs on it. He just has to be there, right? I think he does, and it’s for reasons of that good old-fashioned consistency. There are many great numbers associated with Boggs’ career, but I say the most important was his average. He retired after 18 seasons with a career average of .328, which is impressive by itself, and it’s also the second-highest (Gwynn) of retired players on our list. Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols have slightly higher averages than Boggs, but haven’t yet added those tapering-off later years to their career numbers.

But Boggs’ ability to make contact, to put the ball in play with such regularity makes the hype over him stand up on its own. In 18 seasons, Boggs hit .300 or better in 15 of them. In those that he did not, 1992 (.259), 1997 (.292), and 1998 (.280), he still hit the ball pretty well. I mean, what other professional baseball player can you think of who hit .259 in the worst year of his career? It was also his 11th and final year in a Boston uniform, so the argument could be made that he was under stress about his future. He came close to getting Rookie of the Year in 1982, and he nearly nabbed an MVP in ’85. He did, however, make 12 consecutive All-Star games in his time, and bat for .301 in his final year in baseball. Across those 18 years, 578 of his 3,010 hits were doubles, 61 were triples, 118 left the park, and he brought home over 1000 runs. So Boggs didn’t have the power and the versatility per se of some of the other chaps we’ve examined, but he was one of the best at routinely putting some wood on the ball, and getting on base after doing so.


7. Ichiro Suzuki

Suzuki has played no fewer than 157 games per season over the course of his career. He hasn’t seen fewer than 161 since 2004. And, mind you, this small fellow will turn 36 in October.

It’s that regularity and durability that has enabled Ichiro to be so damned good at what he does: hit singles with metronomic regularity. (Lest anyone try and devalue him as merely a slaptastic Vince Coleman type, remember that legions of his teammates have attested to his power, which they all claim is something he can unleash on a whim. He evidently just doesn’t choose to hit home runs—which is weird, but so is Ichiro.) When we were drafting these, No. 7 mentioned that, if he had played his entire career in the states instead of spending his first several years in Japan, he would have already long supplanted Pete Rose as the all-time hit king. Maybe that’s because, since he showed up stateside in 2001, he has made more than 200base hits every single year, including a 2004 campaign wherein he set the all-time record with 262. He also batted .372 that season, and hilariously had over 700 at-bats.

I’m sure there have been many other players with more than 700 Abs, and I expect you all to let me know their names, but I can only think of one off the top of my head: Juan Samuel. And that happened only because he struck out 435 times. In 2004, Ichiro experienced only 63 Ks. My God. It’s a good thing he only likes hitting singles and stealing second, because otherwise Bonds’ numbers would be toast.


6. Manny Ramirez

I’m hardly qualified to pen this bit, what with No. 7 drooling in the corner, but I’ll give it a go anyway: Man-Ram is not merely the best right-handed hitter I have ever seen, but one of the best of all time.

The numbers don’t just speak for themselves, they declaim in Iambic Hexameter: from 1995-2008, he hit fewer than 30 homers only twice—in 1997 and 2007, so he must have figured he could take a break each decade. His ability to drive in runs is legendary; he came as close as anyone has seen in our lifetimes to breaking Hack Wilson’s single season RBI total, totaling a truly ridiculous 310 (!) combined ribbies over the ’98 and ‘999 seasons, and he’s topped 120 in a season seven times. Sure, part of that stems from playing on talented teams, but plenty of great hitters have spent their careers on loaded squads and not even come close to that number.

He has a career slugging percentage of .593. He has a career OPS of 1.005. He’s won a batting title. He’s got wrists so quick that he can wait on pitches that would befuddle literally every other player in the Majors and hit them out of the park. By the end of his career, his stats will be worthy of Baseball’s version of Mount Rushmore—which, it’s true, only exists as a cliché for lazy-ass opinionators like myself, but still.

So what if he’s a complete asshole? So what if he supposedly knocked down the Red Sox’s beloved elderly traveling secretary? So what if he pees in the outfield, whined his petulant ass out of Boston and basically epitomizes the “doesn’t get it” pro athlete? That shit matters, for the purposes of this discussion, not even one iota. The only argument we can have re: Manny is his position in the Top 10.


5. Tony Gwynn

As I’ve mentioned before, election into baseball’s Hall of Fame isn’t synonymous with great hitting. But it helps. When Tony Gwynn was voted in as a first-balloter in 2007, 97.6 percent of the vote went in his favor. The only reason that this occurred was because Tony Gwynn was an absolute monster. He retired with a .338 average, collected 3,141, hits, drove in 1, 138 runs, and slugged an impressive .459 over 20 years playing for el Vagin’ del Whale.

His Friars also made two World Series in that span. They lost both, but Gwynn hit a collective .306 in all of his post-season years, and he went absolutely batshit in the ’98 Series against the Yankees, hitting .500 and slugging .688 through the four-game sweep. Some of Gwynn’s regular-season averages are even more impressive, considering the number of games played.

In 1984, just his second year in the Majors, he hit .351. Three years later he hit .370 and slugged .511, and in 1994, he hit .394 and slugged .568 through 110 games. The 15-time All-Star did what very few batters in the history of the game can say: He hit .300 or better in every year of his career, minus his rookie, which was a measly .289 in 54 games. Gwynn won himself a handsome eight N.L. batting titles, landed himself in the company of Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig for career averages, and, at the time of his Cooperstown induction, he became the only HoFer to never play with another Hall-of-Fame teammate. Gwynn’s ability to hit as well as he did for two decades went in the books as a rarity among greats.


4. Alex Rodriguez

Because A-Rod is such a circus, such a doofus, such a socially retarded freak show of a person, it’s easy to dismiss what he’s done in the batter’s box over the course of his career, which is most likely still very much in its prime.

He’s hit 574 home runs, and he’s 34 years old. That, my friends, is a joke. He hit 36homers when he was 20 years old, and he’s averaged—averaged!—44 HR for every 162 games he’s played in his career.

But dude, he did steroids.

He did. Admitted it, even, in his socially retarded freak show manner. What to do about that? How to properly punish him, downgrade him, contextualize his heinous crime against baseball in the proper somber tones? I don’t know, you’re the one moralizing about what A-Rod did, you figure it out. All I know is the guy’s a freaking amazing machine of a hitter and has been his entire career.

He has 4696 total bases and has scored 1657 runs, both more than Tony Gwynn tallied in 1126 more at-bats than A-Rod.

His career OPS of .965 is higher than Hank Aaron’s. Willie Mays’ too, and Joe Jackson’s, and Tris Speaker’s.

His career OPS+, a wonderful stat which takes into account the tiny ballpark A-Rod played in with the Rangers and the aggregate offensive statistics of the Steroid Era in which he’s played, is 147. That’s higher than Joe Morgan, Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew and Mike Schmidt—again, measured not solely against history but against the numbers put up by other dirty players in his time.

So if you choose to dislike A-Rod, that’s fine. I detest him with the heat of a thousand suns. If you’re not willing to give him his due as a hitter, well, you’re just not paying attention.

--Ol' No. 7

3. Rickey Henderson

In the course of making these rankings, we’ve stumbled on one particular metric—should we judge a particular item based on greatness or impact? Are we looking for the best, or are we looking for the most important?

If we’re lucky, they’re one and the same. "Pulp Fiction" was both great cinema and the most important film in recent memory, at least for guys of my generation. Peyton Manning is both a great quarterback and an extremely influential one, in that he showed the NFL that you could consistently win with a pass-first finesse offense. In being both great and important, Pulp and Peyton both excelled in their field and spawned legions of imitators, changing their respective games.

What happens, though, when someone changes the game, but he changes it so much that those who follow are simply unable to match what the innovator invented? This is the case with Rickey Henderson.

Prior to Rickey, baseball teams always batted their best hitter third, maybe fourth. Your leadoff hitter was important—a fast guy who could get on base, move around and score. The No. 2 hitter was also important—he needed to be a contact guy who could hit to all fields, bunt if needed, not strike out and keep the inning moving. Then you got to your big boys, your three and four hitters, whose job it was to drive in the runs. They got the biggest cheers and made the most money, and almost every player in the Hall of Fame batted third or fourth for much of their career.

Rickey Henderson is the best leadoff hitter in the history of baseball, but he was almost always the best hitter on his team and he was the best hitter in the American League for a pretty fat portion of his tenure with the A’s and Yankees. This was unprecedented—never had a leadoff man been such an offensive force. Even great leadoff hitters, guys like Tim Raines, Lou Brock, Craig Biggio, Ichiro and Kenny Lofton took a back seat to the elite power hitters of their generation. Rickey took a back seat to no one—in his prime he was No. 1.

So Rickey showed what was possible—how a great athlete with a killer batting eye and sneaky power could impact the game in dozens of different ways from the top of the order. This could be a blueprint for future lineups, a new way to win baseball games and championships.

Only no one else has tried it. Because no one else has been able to do what Rickey did.

You’ve seen some feeble attempts, I guess. Alfonso Soriano hit leadoff for years, in theory because he could steal bases in bunches when he was young. But Soriano’s career on-base percentage is .326 (Rickey’s was .401 in twice as many at-bats) and he strikes out almost four times as often as he walks (Rickey had almost 500 more walks than Ks in his career). So Lou Piniella did what should have been done years ago and moved Soriano down to sixth. Alfonso Soriano is no Rickey.

Hanley Ramirez was the Marlins’ best hitter out of the leadoff spot for a couple years, but this season he was moved back to third, because his run production is needed there. That’s what happened to every hitter that displayed the combination of power and strike zone knowledge Rickey had, but Rickey could not be moved. He was simply too valuable at leadoff. It cost him maybe 800 RBI over his career, but he filled every other statistical category with unprecedented volume.

He scored more runs and stole more bases than any player in history. He’s second-all-time to Barry Bonds in walks, but if you remove intentional passes Rickey walked 259 times more than Barry. No one has hit more leadoff homers, no one referred to himself in the third person more often, no one wore more different uniforms. Rickey told us he was the greatest, I think we should take him at his word.

--Ol' No. 7

2. Albert Pujols

Everyone wants to believe that Pujols, at least, left the intramuscular syringes where they belong—on the bedside table, dripping with morphine—and is not all juiced up on the roidballs. He’s the face of Clean. Of course, you can ask Big Papi how quickly that can change. By the time you read this, Pooholes might be unleashing a paranoid, self-serving rant about those circling vultures in the notoriously tough St. Louis press.

Here’s the thing, though: even if it were to come out that his ass had been jabbed so many times that it looks like Edward James Olmos’ face sans makeup, it wouldn’t really matter. Because, like Bonds and Manny, Pujols is legitimately one of the best hitters we have ever seen.

The numbers glow with a faint golden light: his career OPS is over 1.000. He has failed to score 100 runs one time in his 9-year career; 2007, when he scraped by with 99. His BA has dipped below .315 one time, his second year in the league, when the sophomore slump and/or the Freshman 15 saw it drop down, down to .314. His low mark for home runs is 32, also in that pathetic ’07. He’s led the league in total bases four times, slugging percentage and runs three times each. He’s won a batting crown. He is currently leading in runs, home runs, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+ and total bases. If you invented a new metric by which to measure baseballing success, right now, in your head, Albert Pujols would be pacing the majors in it. I can’t recall the exact quote, but Bill James basically said that Phat Albert’s worst year, if it were the norm over the length of his career, would be enough to justify the Hall of Fame. He’ll likely end up at or near the top of most of the big dog offensive categories.

So if it comes out that he eats Stanozolol Flakes for breakfast and bathes in pure rhinoceros testosterone, it will cause a stir. But it wouldn’t invalidate his career(as has potentially happened with lesser lights like Ortiz), because Pujols is just that fucking good.


1. Barry Bonds

If you can catalog for me which pitchers that Barry faced in his career were on PEDs and which were not, and do the same for the sluggers he passed on the home run list, and chemically break down the exact difference in muscle output between anabolic steroids and legal “supplements,” then I’m willing to discount what Barry Bonds achieved in his career. Until then, he’s the greatest hitter since at least Hank Aaron, and possibly since Babe Ruth.

Barry is the best hitter I’ve ever seen, on every single level. Albert Pujols is very close, inching closer every day, but Pujols is the modern-day DiMaggio. He hits for a lot of power but maintains a nice average and balance at the plate. Barry was Ruth, with prodigious, ungodly power and a super average. Pujols may be well on his way to a third MVP this season, and he may well win several more before he’s done. Barry won seven.

From 2001 through 2004, Barry Bonds posted the best stretch of hitting the game has ever witnessed. Sure, he jacked 73 bombs in ’01, besting Ruth, Maris, Sosa and McGwire for the single-season record. But his averages during that span: .328, .370, .341, .362. Pujols hit .359 for a batting title in 2003, Aaron hit .355 in 1959, but you have to go back to Ruth to find a monster slugger hit three-sixty-plus.

Even better, his on-base those four seasons: .515, .582, .529, .609. His slugging percentages: .863, .799, .749, .812. If you dig on the OPS as the best measure of a hitter’s total plate output as I do, you know that every season there are a handful of guys who reach 1.000. This year Pujols, Joe Mauer and Prince Fielder have topped that plateau, which means they’ve assembled a potent blend of power, bat control and plate discipline. Barry went 1.379, 1.381, 1.278, 1.422, numbers we may literally never see again, not by Pujols or anyone. Babe Ruth never posted a 1.400 OPS, and only Bonds, Ruth and Ted Williams have ever topped 1.250.

I meant to hit on this in the Top 25 movies we did last week—steroid use does matter, it matters a lot. I mean, we went over a broad variety of films—indies, action, comedy, drama, Keanu, the whole spectrum. There are some people that won’t even think of a mainstream studio picture as watchable, some that wouldn’t watch a foreign film with a gun to their head, some that would never consider an animated movie art. There are a million subgenres of movies and almost infinite ways to judge them, but there is no standard set of criteria for what is great. Sports are much, much easier. We have a top league or association in almost every sport, and we have statistics and awards that allow us to discern who the greatest actually were. It took us about three minutes to haggle on who the Top 25 QBs were. We may have whiffed on Donovan McNabb, but McNabb is a historic loser and choker, having gone 1-for-6 in conference and world championship games in his career. If McNabb is so great, why do the Eagles keep drafting and signing other quarterbacks to replace him?

Performance-enhancers make a mess of this decision-making process. They force every one of us to make a value judgment about our heroes. We have to look at someone like Pete Rose, who, in addition to being a lowlife degenerate gambler and tax cheat, lived with a steroid dealer named Paul Janszen and trained at a gym linked to steroid use. Did Rose himself ever dabble in the juice? I have a hard time believing that someone as ethically compromised as Pete Rose resisted the temptation of artificially enhancing his game because it was “wrong” or “illegal.” But we’ll most likely never know.

Or take Lance Armstrong. The guy competed in the dirtiest sport known to man, professional cycling. He won a record seven Tours de France at a time when every—and I mean every—other top competitor was linked to doping. You’re telling me that Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, from a country that couldn’t care less about his sport, surrounded by cheats, was clean? If you say so.

Barry competed in a sport similarly lacking in integrity, with the added mess of having no oversight or testing for most of his career. This doesn’t absolve him from cheating, in fact I am irate with Barry Bonds for forcing me to make his case and justify his bullshit. It pisses me off that someday I’ll have to tell my kid about Barry Bonds, how astronomically great he was, and then couch it with all the legalese and shady allegations. My dad didn’t have to do that when he told me about Hank Aaron, he just said Hank Aaron was the greatest hitter who ever lived. My grandfather had no reservations when he told me that watching Ted Williams was the greatest treat one could ever imagine. But we in this era are stuck with Barry, that fucking cheater prick. Them’s the breaks.

--Ol' No. 7


old no. 7 said...

Funny you should mention inventing a new stat and having Pujols come out on top, because last week Joe Posnanski did just that, and guess who was No. 1?

Also, this section is woefully lacking in moustache.

Cecil said...

Posnanski has to stop ripping me off in advance. That hack.

Maybe Barry would have been more lovable if he kept the little 'stache he had as a Pirate. Or maybe he just would have continued to look like a black Hitler.

Hercules Rockefeller said...

Where's Will Clark?

Cecil said...

I went back and looked at Clark's stats. He certainly could have claimed a spot here, but that would have required one of us (me) to abandon a sentimental favorite. I also don't think Clark ever truly delivered on his potential--I mean, he had a good career, but the beginning of it was miles ahead of the middle and end. He's kinda like a modern Norm Cash.

Dylan said...

I only pray G. Brett's early career did not fall under the 25 yr. umbrella.
If not the case, I will fight upon first glance, with the authors of this piece.

Cecil said...

It didn't. Not that he didn't have some good years in the mid-'80s, but his best seasons didn't make the cut.

Dylan said...

Well that officially makes me an old guy now. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Ken Griffey is on the top 50 players all times in R,H,2B,HR,RBI,TB,BB,and SLG. How does he not make the top 8 in the last 25 years?