I was recently leafing through my New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, easily my favorite baseball book ever and one that I've read so much it is now being held together with duct tape, when I realized how badly it was in need of an update. The bulk of the book was James' ranking of the top 100 players ever at each position and that was the part that felt somewhat dated to me, even though it was released only 10 years ago. I made it my mission to update that part of the book in several ways.
First of all I should mention that I stopped my lists at the 10 best players ever for each position, save pitchers, (although I will throw a couple other interesting names on the back end) to save time. Maybe someday I will continue working on this and take each to 100 but that seems extremely unpractical right now.
James used Win Shares as his primary statistic for evaluating a player. While I still consider win shares to be a major breakthrough, I think most experts would agree that WAR (Wins above replacement) has surpassed it and is now the yardstick for overall player evaluation. War expresses a player's value in a single number that is logical and easy to work with. The first way I updated James' lists was to use WAR instead of win shares.
I also disagreed slightly with the methods James chose to come up with his way of evaluating the "best" player. For each player, James combined their top 3 seasons, their best 5 year stretch, their win shares per game played and their total career win shares, as well as a subjective element to come up with their ranking.
I liked the concept of a multi-pronged approach like this and kept some elements (I used a player's top 3 seasons and career value in terms of WAR as well as the subjective element) but changed others. I dropped the best five year stretch in favor of a best eight year stretch, because I wanted the gap between that measure and a players top 3 seasons to be greater. Five years to me is a small stretch in a players career, and eight would hypothetically represent the entirety of their prime. I also removed the value per game played element because it seemed superfluous to me.
A brief word about the subjective element before I continue. This is my personal adjustment of a players value for obvious reasons that cannot be evaluated in statistics. Examples of this would include increasing Jackie Robinson value because he was not allowed to play in the majors for a chunk of his career, increasing Ted Williams' value because he missed several prime seasons while fighting in a couple of wars, or lowering Cap Anson's value because he was playing a game without modern rules and against lesser competition. This is also where I can give players some credit for post-season statistics that would not show up in the raw numbers.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest update is the inclusion of all the recent players on my lists. There are some obvious ones like Albert Pujols but there are a couple that might surprise some people. This was the tipping point that finally made me decide to sit down and start doing this, I wanted to see where guys like Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter stacked up against the all time greats.
1. Johnny Bench - One of the most predictable rankings in the entire list, Bench was an outstanding hitter and defender. I was actually surprised just how close some other players were to him, I thought he would have a much larger lead.
2.Mike Piazza - The best hitting catcher ever by a huge margin. Although never a great thrower, Piazza was underrated as a receiver and game caller throughout his career, masking some of his value.
Other players of note: Joe Mauer (11), Jorge Posada (12), Roy Campanella (15), Thurman Munson (16) - Mauer has only played seven years and is a lock to jump into the top 10 with even a mediocre 2011 season. Posada may creep into the top 10 but probably needs two more productive years. Short careers partially hurt Campanella and Munson but both were hurt more by being very inconsistent.
Iwas surprised how highly Carter ranked. I don't think there are many that would consider him top three all time. His raw stats do not jump off the page but when you dig deeper there are some really impressive performances in there. Berra ranking at six is a shock to me, I would have thought he'd be top three somewhere. He could really hit but not better than Bench, Torre or Dickey and certainly nowhere near the level of Piazza. Once you factor in career length, I think he ended up pretty much where he belongs, even with his post season statistics.