You might have seen that Michael Jordan recently announced his idea of an all-time all-star basketball five, one that he thought would never lose a pickup game. It’s caused a lot of dissension, not least because it’s all contemporaries of Jordan’s, not an Abdul-Jabbar or a LeBron in sight, but what it led me to wonder is what the all-time best baseball team might look like. I set out to construct one, armed only with my trusty Baseball Reference.
The first order of business was to set some parameters. First, the goal wasn’t a team that would never lose a game: that’s impossible. And not one that would always win championships: even a five-game series can get away now and then. (Ask any Mariners fan about 2001.) Instead, it’s one that, over the long haul of the 162-game season, would finish first every year.
Second, a team can be constructed in different ways. The way relief pitchers are used nowadays, a team will have 11 or 12 pitchers. This leaves only five or six people on the bench, one of whom is the reserve catcher. My team is going to have starting pitchers I expect to go deep into games and relievers I won’t pull the minute they get in to trouble, so I’ll go with a more classic ten-man staff.
Third, there’s the question of how to evaluate the players. I want to steer between the Scylla of picking someone who had only a few great years and saying “In Left Field, the Yastremski of 1967”, and the Charybdis of going only by career value, making Koufax, who was maybe the top pitcher in history between ’61 and ’66 but below average otherwise, unavailable. I chose to be guided by a stat called WAR7, which adds up the Wins Above Replacement (basically, how many games did a player win for his team above what a guy called up from the minors would have won) for his best seven, not necessarily consecutive, years. WAR7 gives a good sense of how good a player was in his prime. You can find WAR7 for the top catchers here, and from there it’s easy to navigate to the other positions.
Fourth, there’s the question of what era to pick players from. Baseball was a very different game before Babe Ruth showed what a weapon the home run is. (One measure of what a revolutionary Ruth was: in 1919, he hit 29 home runs. Second place in the American League was George Sisler with 10. First place in the National League was Gavvy Cravath with 12. By 1921, there were seven players with at least 20, and things went up from there.) That changed pretty much everything about the way the game is played. So I’m going to pick only players from the 1920s onward.
So, here we go….
Starting pitchers (5)
If we go to the page for starting pitchers and click on WAR7 to sort by that, we see that one pitcher stands out: Walter Johnson, known as The Big Train. He started before our target era, but had enough success into the ’20s that we’ll take him. Next come some fellows from before our time, and Roger Clemens, whom I’ll veto as more trouble than he was worth. Now we arrive at the rest of our choices: Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson, and Pedro Martinez (for whom I’ll bypass Seaver, because at his very best he was completely unhittable. Also, because I love the way the Dodgers gave him away in return for the 81st best second baseman in history.) Not only are they great pitchers, but they’re terrifying: a hitter who had to face the two Johnsons back-to-back with the threat of Gibson the next day would just call in sick. We also have a nice balance with Grove and R. Johnson being lefties, and the rest righties.
Relief pitchers (5)
Here, more than with the starters, we want a mix of lefties and righties, but the guys with the best stats are all righties. I’ll address this by adding pitchers who were mostly starters as left-handed specialists. We’ll start with the top two closers in history, Dennis Eckersley and Mariano Rivera, and add some variety with Hoyt Wilhelm and his knuckleball. For lefties, we’ll add Warren Spahn, who pitched almost 100 games of relief in his career, and Steve Carlton with his almost 3-1 ration of strikeouts to walks.
Using only 10 pitchers gives us the freedom to carry three, so we can bring one in from the bench whenever convenient. The choices here are quite clear: Gary Carter, Johnny Bench, and Mike Piazza. Piazza’s really in for his hitting; he’ll catch only in emergencies.
First Basemen (2)
Here we’ll carry the traditional two. And they will be (of course) Lou Gehrig and Albert Pujols. (Jimmie Foxx, or “Double X”, as my Dad used to call him, doesn’t quite make the cut.) Both are monsters at the plate, but if Gehrig starts, we can bring Pujols in for some late-inning defense.
Second Basemen (2)
Our starter will be Rogers Hornsby, who was such an amazing player that we’ll put up with his personality. Or we’ll let some of our more modern players teach him that 5’11”, 175 lbs. isn’t all that intimidating anymore. Our backup is Joe Morgan. We won’t let him broadcast, just play.
There is one best third baseman in history, and his name is Mike Schmidt. On his rare days off, we slot in Pujols or one of the shortstops, all of whom have considerable experience at the hot corner.
Honus Wagner, alas, came too early for us. We will have to “settle” for A-Rod and Cal Ripken. Both big, strong guys with lots of power, but also excellent defenders. (We don’t even consider “past a diving” Derek Jeter.)
Our starters are, clearly,
- Left Field: Barry Bonds
- Center Field: Willie Mays
- Right Field: Babe Ruth
Our backups? Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. I’d love to make room for Hank Aaron, but we need another center fielder and I can’t give up the best pure hitter who ever lived.
Our starting eight position players include five right-handed batters (Carter, Hornsby, Schmidt, A-Rod, Mays) and three lefties (Gehrig, Bonds, and Ruth). My notion of the lineup would go like this (dispersing the lefties, so the other team’s left-handed specialist could only pitch to one batter without facing a menacing right-hander)
But, really, I’ll let Mr. Stengel figure that out.