The Greatest Players in the Baseball

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
6:01
PM ET
In the throes of Hall of Fame season, Joe Posnanski set about figuring who were the best players in baseball over the last four decades. Reasonably enough, he identified the players who led the major league in Win Shares over five-year periods. Snapshots. Here are the results, beginning with 1970-1974, then 1971-1975, and so forth. For presentation's sake -- and for just a hint of mystery -- we'll start with just the great ones' initials ...

JM JM JM JM JM
KS
MS MS MS MS MS MS MS
TR
WB WB WB
WC WC
BB BB BB BB BB BB
CB
JB
BB BB BB BB
AP AP AP AP

Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols ... I hope none of those names surprise you.

But some of those other initials might, beginning with KS - Ken Singleton. Posnanski's comment:
    There he is — Ken Singleton, best player in baseball. Wow. Now, to be fair, he’s only one Win Share ahead of Schmidt and three ahead of Parker — so really it’s about a three-way tie.

    Still, he is ahead. He is our official best player in baseball. This is why I really believe it’s important, as baseball fans, to look back at players with a fresh eye and new approaches. Because Ken Singleton was wildly under-appreciated. He punched up a 152 OPS+ from 1975-79 — second only to George Foster. But he got about 200 more plate appearances than Foster, and his on-base percentage was about 50 points higher.

    If you had told people in 1979 that Ken Singleton was better — markedly better in many cases — than Parker or Jim Rice or Dave Winfield or Steve Garvey, they would have called you nuts. Many of them still would call you nuts. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Ken Singleton played in a low-scoring era and in a bad hitters ballpark. And he did the things that win games — he got on base, which leads to scoring runs, which leads to winning games. It was that way 1912, and in 1958 and in 1979 and today.

Singleton's career ended rather abruptly. In 1983 he posted numbers right in line with his career stats, with the fifth-best on-base percentage in the American League. In 1984 his numbers crashed, and he never played again. But he really was a great hitter. If he had any real defensive value or had played for another few seasons, it wouldn't be terribly difficult to make a Hall of Fame case for him.

You know how I feel about Tim Raines. But Will Clark is another terribly underappreciated player. Like Singleton, Clark got on base a lot and had mid-range power. Like Singleton, Clark's career ended relatively early. Unlike Singleton, Clark went out on top with fantastic numbers. I doubt if he'd have done well in Hall of Fame balloting even if he'd hung around for a few more years -- in real life, he got 23 votes on his first try and fell off the ballot -- but it would have been a more interesting discussion, anyway.

Those other two sets of initials belong to Craig Biggio (1995-1999) and Jeff Bagwell (1996-2000). When Bill James' New Historical Baseball Abstract was first published in 2001, Bill raised thousands of eyebrows for 1) ranking Biggio as the fifth-greatest second baseman, 2) ranking Biggio as the 35th greatest player -- ahead of Tom Seaver, Yogi Berra, Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs, etc. -- and 3) writing, "Craig Biggio is the best player in major league baseball today."

Bill was relying almost exclusively on Win Shares, which is highly understandable considering that Bill James invented Win Shares. Still, it does seem now that he (and Win Shares) might have been just a tad too enthusiastic about Biggio.

Which isn't to say he wasn't a great player. I think he wasn't quite as good as Bill thought, but was (and is) better than most people think now. Hall of Fame voters love to use MVP balloting to support their cases, and today I notice that Biggio has just three top-10 MVP finishes -- 4th, 5th and 10th -- which is no better than Tim Raines' voting history. Remember that, when you see voters -- many of whom will vote for Biggio, but not Raines -- using MVP results to justify their balloting.

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