So you might be wondering why I’m breaking my rule of doing one of these teams per month and having a second consecutive all-decade team column. Well, the answer is that I was planning to do another “Throwback Thursday” yearbook column, but I’m having a bit of trouble obtaining the necessary yearbook. Instead, the best players of the decade just passed are stepping in.
This is the first decade, of course, for which I can well and truly remember all the time period that is being discussed. While I’d like to claim that my youth allowed me to remain free of any biases towards the earlier teams—though that’s probably impossible for anyone—I can assure you I’ve applied the same standards here.
Speaking of which, since this is the last column before the wrap-up, we’ll review those standards here, for old time’s sake. To qualify for any non-pitching position, a player must have played at least 500 games there during his career—though not necessarily during the decade in question. For starting pitchers, to appear on the team requires at least 200 starts in a given decade, for relievers, they have to appear in at least 400 games while starting no more than 30.
Having done that for the last time, let’s check out final squad:
Catcher: Jorge Posada
Coming into this decade, it might have seemed hard to believe Posada would end up as the all-decade catcher. The first year of the decade represented his age-28 season (by contrast, Mike Piazza had his age-21 season in 1990 and Gary Carter was 26 in 1980). In 1999, he hit just .245 and posted a worse-than-average OPS.
Posada overcame all of that to make himself a relatively easy choice for the position. He led all catchers in doubles and home runs, and had more than 700 walks—no other catcher topped 520. Among catchers with at least 700 games, no one had a better OPS+. He earned his value not just with consistency, but also reaching a strong peak, putting up three seasons with a WAR of 5.4 or better.
It is true that Posada was not a strong defensive catcher and—I say this as a Yankee fan—his base running was truly appalling. None of that, however, can outweigh what he did overall.
|The man at the keystone for the ’00s (US Presswire)|
(Incidentally, you know who is a really great, probably underappreciated catcher? Joe Mauer. Despite not debuting until 2004—and playing fewer than 700 games in the decade—Mauer accumulated more value than anyone save Posada and Ivan Rodriguez. If one is a strong believer in peak performance, there’s a case to be made for him having this spot.)
First Base: Albert Pujols
I know, can you believe it? Albert Pujols? Crazy, right?
Though there are a number of excellent players—Todd Helton, Lance Berkman, etc.—who qualify at this position, there’s no question that Pujols is the man. A brilliant hitter and strong defender from the moment he arrived in St. Louis, Pujols won three MVP awards, four Silver Sluggers, eight trips to the All-Star game, a Gold Glove and the Rookie of the Year award during this decade.
Writing these columns has presented some hard choices, but this is not one.
Second Base: Chase Utley
Among those players who qualify at second base and played in more games in the decade than Utley—who saw time in fewer than 900 games—are the likes Marlon Anderson, Adam Kennedy, and Ronnie Belliard. So how does a man who saw, relatively speaking, little action in the decade end up at the top of the list?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is that when he was on the field, Utley was excellent. He was the only second baseman to post a better than .900 OPS, and the only hitter within 65 points of OPS was Jeff Kent. For his part, Kent was generally regarded as, at best, a serviceable second baseman, while Utley’s defense was at the level that John Dewan—author of all three volumes of The Fielding Bible—once wrote an article for this very site about Utley’s defense titled “What Makes Chase Utley So Good?”
It is not easy to make a team without having played at least 1,000 games in the decade, but Utley’s combination of offense and defense lets him do it.
Third Base: Chipper Jones
Like Posada, Jones was 28 as the decade began, meaning that time was not on his side to earn this spot. As the decade went on, Chipper’s health did begin to betray him: after 2003 he never played more than 143 games and averaged just 111 in his final three seasons.
Nonetheless, when Jones was on the field, he could flat out hit. His OPS+ for the decade was 147, and he led the league in OPS and OPS+ in 2007. In fact, Jones had four seasons with an OPS of 1.000 or higher. Perhaps more impressively, he won the batting title in 2008 at age 36.
It is true that Chipper was never a great defensive player—he spent two seasons in left field in the early part of the decade—but not so much as overwhelm his greatness at the plate.
Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez
I suppose there’s no more controversial player—not even the man next on this list—than A-Rod. He started the decade signing the richest contract in sports history, and ended it being widely hailed for having finally come through in the clutch in New York. In between, he moved to third base, was involved in a PED controversy, signed the new biggest contract in sports history, and dated—if the tabloid press is to be believed—Madonna, Kate Hudson and notorious madam Kristin Davis.
Of course, none of that is why he takes this spot. A-Rod is here because he led all players in home runs, runs, and RBI. Among non-1B infielders, Rodriguez had the highest OPS and SLG, and was second in walks.
No one generates more controversy than Alex Rodriguez. But he’s here because few players generated more offense than Alex Rodriguez and none did it playing premium defensive positions.
Left Field: Barry Bonds
As I mentioned last time, I’m not interested in rehashing Bonds’ (or anyone’s) PED issues here and while I could rattle off his statistics, I really only need one number: 270. That’s the number of games Bonds played from 2005-2009, including none the last two years of the decade. In other words, Bonds was so good when he was on the field during the first half of the decade (and, to be fair, during the 2006 and 2007 seasons) that he won this position—and easily—over names like Manny Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Alfonso Soriano despite being a non-entity for three full seasons.
Finally, on what might be loosely termed a “housekeeping” note, Bonds joins elite company, as one of four position players to hold down the same position for two consecutive decades. The others: Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron. Pete Rose and Stan Musial also made consecutive teams, but did it at different position each time, which is arguably more impressive.
Center Field: Carlos Beltran
Several members of this team—Bonds, Utley, and some pitchers yet to come—earned this spot based on greatness in a handful of seasons. Beltran, though certainly the owner of some outstanding seasons, is here more for his consistency and ability to do many things very well. Case in point, Beltran is not the decade’s leader in hits, runs, doubles, triples, walks, or stolen bases among center fielders. But Beltran is the only center fielder to appear in the top five for each of those statistics.
Of course, Beltran was not just manning center field in order to get his bat in the line-up. He was widely regarded as a superior defender, winning two Fielding Bible Awards to go along with three Gold Gloves in the decade.
Right Field: Ichiro Suzuki
These days, as Ichiro enters the twilight of his career, is the owner of nearly 2,750 career hits, two batting titles, the single season hit record and a MVP Award, it’s hard to remember that his coming to the United States was widely seen as a risky move for Ichiro and the Mariners. ESPN’s Rob Dibble famously promised to run naked through Times Square if Ichiro won the batting title. (To his credit, he did so, perhaps giving to meaning to Dibble’s status as a member of the “Nasty Boys.”) Others claimed Ichiro was “kind of weak.”
|Ichiro about to have one of his 4000 career hits (US Presswire)|
Of course, Ichiro was none of those things, instead leading the league in hits six times in the nine seasons he played in the Majors. It should be no surprise that he was the decade’s leader in hits, second in average, and third in steals.
Starting Pitchers: Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay
The decade started pretty well for Johnson, who won the last three of four straight Cy Young Awards to open it, along with a World Series MVP trophy. He had some rough seasons, including a collective 4.37 ERA during two years in New York, but overall he was the decade’s leader in WAR and strikeouts, second in wins and third in ERA. Before we move on to Schilling, a quick note: Johnson is one of just three pitchers to appear on a team in multiple decades. The others are Pete Alexander and Bert Blyleven. That’s an eclectic list.
Like many of the players on this team, Schilling—a better pitcher than a video game company owner, obviously—earned his spot on the list thanks to his peak performance. From 2001 through 2004 Schilling averaged 18 wins, more than 250 strikeouts and a 150 ERA+. Collectively those numbers gave him nearly 8 WAR per season. Sxhilling was no slouch in other seasons through the decade (his 2006, for one, was All-Star caliber) but it is his four-year peak that allowed him to make the team despite not playing at all after 2007.
Among those pitchers who threw the majority of their innings in the American League, only one had more strikeouts per nine innings than Santana. For good measure, the Venezuelan left-hander also posted the second best ERA+ (and ERA) of the decade, among pitchers in any league. Of course, this should be no surprise from a man who won two Cy Young Awards in the decade and probably should have won a third.
I mentioned before that only one American League pitcher struck out more strikeouts per nine than Santana, and that just one pitcher had a better ERA and ERA+. That was the same pitcher, and as you might guess, it was Pedro Martinez. In addition to striking out more hitters per inning than anyone but Johnson, and leading the league in ERA, Martinez also had the decade’s best winning percentage. He was also among the league’s best in home runs and walks per nine.
After the 1999 season, it seemed reasonable to believe Roy Halladay’s name would be on this list. Entering his age 23 season, he had thrown more than 150 innings in the Majors with a 130 ERA+ and a 9-7 record. After 2000, it seemed he might not make it to 2001. Halladay’s 2000 was famously horrible—he posted a 10.64 ERA—but he rebounded by the end of the decade to be its leader in complete games and shutouts while finishing fourth in the league in wins.
Relief Pitcher: Mariano Rivera
I suppose this one is no more surprising than was Pujols. For the record, Rivera is the leader among qualifiers in ERA, ERA+, saves, BB/9, and HR/9. Put another way, on a per inning basis, no reliever in the decade allowed fewer runs, walks and or home runs and less than 20 struck out more batters while doing it. And for good measure, only David Weathers pitched more innings.
Of course, all this talk of Rivera’s dominance—and make no mistake, he was dominant—misses what was probably his greatest gift: consistency. Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez and Keith Foulke, are, in descending order, the four men who follow Rivera on the ERA+ leader board for the decade. Collectively they had six seasons in the decade during which they threw 45 or fewer innings or posted an ERA+ below 140. Rivera never did.
Plying a trade in which pitchers burn brightly and then flame out, Rivera was a model of reliability. His dominance in any single year is worthy of praise, but Rivera has this spot because he could do it every season for a decade. No other pitcher could do that.
Manager: Joe Torre
The obvious contender for this spot would be Terry Francona, the only manager in the decade to win multiple World Series. But it is also true that Francona only managed for seven seasons during the decade, missed the playoffs in two of those and won just one division title. Torre, meanwhile, managed every year of the decade, won nine division titles and missed the playoffs just once. For good measure, he did win three pennants and had three seasons of 100 or more wins. And, of course, Torre continued to win even after moving to the Dodgers, averaging nearly 90 wins a season in LA.