How might bWAR help us identify baseball's greatest players? As a useful but inevitably imprecise measure of human performance, Jim uses career bWAR (and other career stats) on the front end to highlight outstanding nominees. Another, more targeted approximation of "peak" performance might be looking at a player's top five or seven bWAR seasons, or top five consecutive years or something similar.
During a recent Johnny Bench discussion, I stumbled across a third imperfect application of bWAR that isnt "better" but which may add additional perspective. I asked how often a great player leads his league in seasonal bWAR. Bench, for example, an unequivocally great player, did this once, in 1970. Frank Robinson did it once. Graig Nettles and Bill Terry did it twice, as did Hank Aaron and Lou Gehrig. This clearly doesnt mean Nettles was better than Bench, or in Aaron and Gehrig's company. What I hope it does suggest is that it's really really hard to lead your entire league in bWAR, even once.
Since 1900, there've been just over 240 seasonal bWAR "champs" across the two leagues, and only 26 players have led their leagues three times or more. These arent necessarily the greatest 26 players ever (see Aaron, Gehrig, Bench etc), but they are 26 All Time Greats, all comfortably among the game's Top 100, imo. There are no Brady Anderson types here.
Among the three-timers are greats like Jackie Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski and...well, heck, let me just run down the list chronologically. There are only ten.
- Tris Speaker
- Jimmie Foxx
- Jackie Robinson
- Rickey Henderson
- Griffey Jr
As one might expect, there are fewer "four-timers". It's harder to do something great, like lead a league in something, four times rather than three times. Here are the four timers:
- Arky Vaughan
- Joe Morgan
- Mike Schmidt
...and harder still to be a "five-timer":
- Ty Cobb
- Mike Trout
That's it. Cobb and Trout. A century apart.
But here's where things start to get interesting. Perhaps you're braced for me to tell you that there's not one or zero "six-timers", that the bell curve breaks and there's more than that. And you'd be right! There's no less than five superstars since 1900 with six bWAR titles apiece:
- Nap Lajoie
- Ted Williams
- and Pujols
Incredibly impressive. Ok, we've gotten through most of the All-Time Greats but maybe your favorite hero hasnt been mentioned yet, so let's move onto the "seven-timers".
Well, that was easy. There are none. Let's move onto the eights...
hmmm. There aren't any of those either. If you didn't appreciate how great Babe Ruth was relative to his peers, maybe it's coming into focus now. Was he a nine-timer?
Nope. There arent any of those either. To think Ruth was this ten time colossus, and the ceiling for everyone else was six is pretty dang conclusive, right?
But it would also be wrong, because there arent any ten-timers either. Ruth led the American League in bWAR eleven different seasons. And here's the mind-blowing part, to me. So did four other guys!
There are five players who led their respective leagues in bWAR eleven times! That's an incredible statistical demarcation, I think. Right across the board! Eleven! Eleven! Eleven! There's this kind of unexpected pile up of "six-timers", then a huuuuuge empty gap, followed by an almost implausible glut of "eleven-timers".
The first was Honus Wagner (age 59 here), Pittsburgh's turn of the century shortstop, followed by Ruth and Rogers Hornsby in the 1920's and 30s when the game was still young. The most recent member of the group is Barry Bonds, three quarters of a century later, who the less said about on this particular topic the better. Roughly equidistant between Bonds and Ruth/Hornsby chronologically is the final and perhaps most eye-opening eleven-timer.
It's not eye-opening in the sense he's already universally regarded as one of the top five all time players. But it's startling to me when he did it. Just after integration and before steroids. In a league with peers like Aaron, Musial, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson (CIN), Duke Snider, Clemente, Ernie Banks, McCovey..and all the usual "one-hit" (ie one season) wonders. It's an astonishing testament to Mays and his underlying year to year excellence.
It may also say something about bWARs limitations. Does it tend to overvalue individual defense in certain parks or positions? Were the six greatest positional players ever all outfielders, mirroring bWAR's top six individual career totals? Does it tend to undervalue great defensive catchers, like Bench? Can we say with confidence that our "Eleven Timers" are the five greatest position players of all time?
I suspect it's not that simple. Critically evaluating the greatest warrants evaluating our various tools along the journey and is akin to peeling off an onion's layers. Layers of statistics and testimony, segregation and expansion and the long generally ascendant arc of competitive excellence.
But when we utter the names, Wagner and Ruth, Hornsby and Bonds and that of Willie Mays, we can say one remarkable thing about them - and of no one else.
These go to eleven.