The all-decade team: best of the best

We have come, at long last, to the wrap-up column for our best-of teams for the decades. Here we’ll cover the best (and briefly, the worst) that teams constructed from the decade’s best players have to offer. If you would like a refresher of any (or all!) of the squads, the complete columns found be found in my archive to the left.

Worst Position Player: Pie Traynor
Now, obviously, “worst player” is a pretty relative term here. The “worst” player who was the best at a given position is still, by any conventional measure of quality, a pretty good one. This is certainly the case with Traynor, a man who is often listed as one of the 10 greatest third baseman to play the game. He isn’t, as his receiving this dubious honor establishes. Among such elite company, Traynor’s career 107 OPS+ and failure to post a single season with a WAR above 4.5 puts him in this spot.

Worst Pitcher: Vic Willis
For the record, I excluded relievers from this category, since comparing them to starters in terms of “best” and “worst” isn’t really a viable concept. That leaves us with Vic Willis. Now, all the same caveats about “worst” apply here as they do Traynor. And Willis was no slouch; one could make an argument he was the most valuable pitcher during the 1906 season, when he finished fourth in ERA but threw nearly 50 more innings than leader Mordecai Brown. Nonetheless, his overall career ERA+ of 117 is not enough to avoid this spot when being compared the best of all-time.
(For the record, I’m not doing a best category for either pitchers or position players, since ultimately that just comes down to a debate about the best players of all-time, which isn’t really the point here.)

Best Infield: The Fifties
We’re counting catchers as infielders for these purposes, which presents us with—going around the diamond as you would in your scorebook—Yogi Berra, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Eddie Matthews and Ernie Banks. That’s five Hall of Famers, two members of the 500 HR club, a 3000-hit player, and arguably the greatest catcher to play the game. There’s some pretty good infielders elsewhere, particularly in the Seventies (Johnny Bench, Rod Carew, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt and Bert Campaneris) but none to beat out this one.

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The Ace of the ’80s acknowledges his fans (US Presswire)

Best Outfield: The Fifties
Well, that’s dull. But that’s the way it is. The decade features, left to right, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Those three men feature an average—an average!—of 609 home runs. The closest contender is probably the Forties, which features Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Musial, but that’s not quite good enough to top the Fifties. Other notable contenders include the Sixties (Frank Robinson, Willie Mays and Aaron) and Nineties (Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Larry Walker) but nothing is topped the slugging on offer here.

Second-Best Line-Up: The Forties
Since the Fifties have the best infield and the best outfield, there’s not much point in discussing which decade has the best line-up. So instead we’ll discuss second place. There’s serious contention for the spot, of course, but ultimately the Forties take the spot. I discussed their outfield above, but the infield features Hall of Famers Johnny Mize, Lou Boudreau and Joe Gordon, along with solid contributors Walker Cooper and Bob Elliott.
Other decades—including the Sixties and Twenties—can match that number of Hall of Famers in their line-up, but the overall quality of the Forties wins out.

Best Pitching Staff: The Sixties
The Sixties was a great decade for pitchers—at least until they started fooling around with the mound—but the men who make up this staff, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning in the rotation, with Hoyt Wilhelm in the pen, would have been great at any time. That’s six Hall of Famers (even if Bunning is an underwhelming choice), including two of the all-time strikeout kings (Koufax and Gibson both rank in the top 25 for K/9 pre-1990, when the strikeout rate began to soar) and probably the single best multi-inning reliever to play the game.

Worst Pitching Staff: The Eighties
Excluding the Nineties and the first decade of the 2000’s, every decade’s pitching staff features at least two Hall of Famers. Well, every decade but one. That decade is the Eighties. Bert Blyleven‘s election to the Hall of Fame was well-earned, but as the decade’s best pitcher he is not comparable to the likes of Cy Young, Tom Seaver, Warren Spahn and other aces. The rest of the pitchers are collection of pitchers who had careers that shone brightly, but briefly: David Stieb, Fernando Valenzuela, even reliever Dan Quisenberry.

Worst Team: The Teens
Everything I mentioned about the worst players being a relative quality goes doubly so for the worst team. It takes a lot for a “worst” team to feature the likes of Eddie Collins, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. On balance though, this is the weakest of the squad, with players like Chief Meyers and Art Baker peppering the line-up. Though the pitching staff features the aforementioned Johnson, along with Pete Alexander that quality is unable to make up for the line-up’s weakness.

Second-Best Team: The Sixties
Given that this decade features the best pitching staff, they had an obvious leg—well, arm—up on their competition. (Sorry about that.) Of course, the decade didn’t earn second place merely on the basis of a strong pitching staff. I mentioned the outfield above and while the infield isn’t quite to that level, it does feature three Hall of Famers (Carl Yastrzemski, Pete Rose and Ron Santo) along with Joe Torre behind the plate.
Put together, that’s enough to give this spot to the Sixties, beating out the contenders for second place, notably the Seventies and Nineties.

Best Team: The Fifties
So perhaps that’s an anticlimax. The pitching staff for the decade can’t quite compare to some others, though with the likes of Spahn, Robin Roberts and Early Wynn they certainly have the arms to support the best of any all-decade line-up. And of course, if that were not enough, the team is managed by Casey Stengel, a man with seven World Series titles, a number not bettered by any skipper.

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Comments

  1. Dr. Doom said...

    I have a couple questions.  You say that you discussed the 40s outfield “above” in the “Second-Best Lineup” comment . . . but I don’t see the comment on the 40s outfield, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember who was in their outfield.  Mind making an edit so you can include that info?

    Since you did “best lineup,” it would have been kind of cool for you to tell us who had the best defensive team.  I’d be curious.

    One more request (and this one is most important of all):  any chance you could put in hyperlinks to the old articles in this one?  It would be fun to be able to go back and look at them all, and for the links to all be gathered in one place.

    Sorry for agitating for a bunch of changes in this final post.  It makes it seem like I don’t appreciate your work; the opposite is, of course, true.  I LOVED this series, and could hardly wait between installments.  Thanks so much, and I look forward to whatever series you come up with next, after the the last two you’ve done.  Thanks SO much for your hard work on this, Richard!

  2. Ian R. said...

    @Dr. Doom – “The closest contender is probably the Forties, which features Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Musial, but that’s not quite good enough to top the Fifties.”

    That’s the comment I assume he’s referring to. It’s not exactly obvious, but it’s there.

    As far as defense is concerned, I like the ‘90s outfield of (young) Bonds, Griffey and Larry Walker. The ‘00s outfield features Bonds, Carlos Beltran and Ichiro, three fantastic defenders in their respective primes, but the aughts version of Bonds wasn’t a great fielder anymore. The ‘60s infield of F. Robinson, Mays and Aaron is a pretty strong unit as well.

    For infield (+battery) defense, I’ll take the ‘70s team with Bench, Carew (as a first baseman), Morgan, Schmidt and Campaneris.

    Anyway, I’m inclined to agree that this was a terrific, terrific series.

  3. Greg Simons said...

    ” three Hall of Famers (Carl Yastrzemski, Pete Rose and Ron Santo)”

    When did Rose get into the HOF?  Unless you’re saying he was a HOF-qaulity player, which is difficult to argue with.

  4. Matt Daniels said...

    One issue I want to raise is that you mention HOFers as a seemingly determinant factor in who are the greatest players. However, that would automatically lean towards older decades. Many players from the 90’s who played into the 2000’s are not even HOF eligible yet (Chipper Jones, Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddox (who is this year) for example).

    Because this is the first post of this thread that I have read so I’m not certain if I missed some eligibility requirement. Additionally I understand they are HOFers because of their great careers/ stats so you may have just been using that as short hand of sorts, but in some ways it seemed to be a determining factor.

    Secondly I believe there should be some adjustment for competition level. With racial desegregation and the globalization of baseball there is a strong argument to be made that the competition league wide is much tougher now. Just imagine if Mike Trout was playing in the 40’s/ 50’s/ or 60’s .

    Not to sound like a nay sayer, because I really enjoyed the article and just wanted to bring up a few points.

    Thanks

  5. Marc Schneider said...

    “Secondly I believe there should be some adjustment for competition level. With racial desegregation and the globalization of baseball there is a strong argument to be made that the competition league wide is much tougher now.”

    Matt,

    That’s a good point but if you take it to the logical extreme, you could never do an article like this because athletes are constantly getting better. The only way, I think, you can analyze is to consider them in the context of their era.

  6. Donnie said...

    One more thing in favor of the 50’s outfield.  Everything I’ve read says that those three were team leaders that were well liked and respected by their teammates.  I don’t know that you can say that about some of the other decades’ outfields.

  7. Gabriel said...

    If you click on the author’s name in the lefthand column, you get an index of previous articles of his, most of the recent ones are this series (I hadn’t seen the series until this article either).

    He chose not to use negro-league players it seems like and I think that obviously reduced the quality of the pre-war squads he chose, one factor probably in making them all among the worst squads in the series.

    I do wonder about those 1950s, why there were players just so far beyond replacement. Is it that the blacks who were allowed to play were just way better than most of the white players in the league? In other words, replacement level was lower than it should have been since replacement-level blacks still were being discriminated against?

  8. Anon said...

    Secondly I believe there should be some adjustment for competition level. With racial desegregation and the globalization of baseball there is a strong argument to be made that the competition league wide is much tougher now. Just imagine if Mike Trout was playing in the 40’s/ 50’s/ or 60’s .

    This competition level is higher now for many reasons.

    Think of all the pitchers (and hitters) who have undergone surgery; for much of baseball history, modern medicine and advanced surgery did not exist. An injury had a large chance of ending a career.

    Players, agents, and teams have training facilities, nutrition experts, fitness experts, etc. that players use all year. In a historical sense, it hasn’t been long at all from the time when players worked other jobs in the offseason.

    In terms of talent pool, you focus on segregation but ignore other factors. Baseball was more popular than all other sports combined for a long period of time. Football, basketball, soccer, hockey, etc. all pull from the same talent pool as baseball and are much more popular than they were historically.

  9. Herb Smith said...

    If the All-Star game had started a couple decades earlier, the AL outfield for most of the teens would have been Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

    Not bad.

  10. Philip said...

    Not at all convinced about the 50s outfield being better than the 40s.

    Stan Musial posted five full seasons in the decade with an OPS of .980+, won three batting titles and led the league in slugging four times in the 40s. (He also lost a year due to military service in World War II).

    Hank Aaron put up some impressive seasons in the 50s but his best decade was the 60s. During the 50s, Aaron had one season with an OPS of .980+, won two batting titles and led the league in slugging once in the 50s.

    Musial was a better player in the 40s than Aaron was in the 50s – and clearly so in the context of his era.

    Being a Red Sox fan, I’ll let the Yankee fans here argue about whether they’d rather have DiMaggio during the 40s or Mantle in the 50s.

    But even if the stats say Mantle’s 50 decade washes out the advantage Musial has over Aaron, come on! The tie-breaker comes down to Ted Williams.

    And would anyone here really rather have The Splendid Splinter of the 1950s instead of the 1940s?

    When the author himself picked his outfield of the 40s he wrote: “I haven’t done all the outfields yet, but the chance of a decade topping this one is basically none.”

  11. Jeffrey McGowan said...

    Larry Walker, really?  His stats were really inflated by Coors, he only had one year (1997) where he had great road stats.  Not that they were bad otherwise, but they weren’t among the best three for those years.  98 and 99 his OPS on the road was around .900, nice, but I doubt it would put him in the top twenty.  First half of the decade he was fine, but nothing that special.  Even first two years at coors weren’t great (he lost one of course).  Park adjusted Bernie Williams was at least as good except that he started a couple of years late.  Bernie basically had 5 years in a row of 5.5 WAR every year, Walker had three of those, plus 97 which was a monster year, but if you adjust for Coors you should drop those probably by at least 15% which puts his good years other than 97 maybe in the high 4’s.

  12. Greg Simons said...

    Jeffrey, WAR already adjusts for ballpark.

    And those two years of reduced playing time for Williams largely account for the gap in their numbers.  It’s close, and WAR isn’t the end-all, be-all, but Walker is a very reasonable candidate.

  13. Jeffrey McGowan said...

    Well, I guess it depends on what the criteria are.  If you’re just doing totals for the decade, and assuming they’re playing in their home parks, then Walker is a reasonable candidate.  If you assume they’re playing in a neutral park, then not so much.  If you’re picking based on the best five years in a neutral park then he isn’t really close.  He’s in because he aligned perfectly with the decade, and played in Coors.

  14. Greg Simons said...

    As I said, WAR takes home parks into account, so Coors’ inflationary effects are neutralized.  And Walker spent half of the ‘90s in Montreal.  His ‘97 performance was terrific regardless of where it took place, though Coors Field did help inflate the raw totals.  He also was well regarded defensively, especially earlier in his career.

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