To my knowledge, we here at The Hardball Times haven’t done much (if any) demographic research on our readership. Nonetheless, I would hazard a guess that many of you, like me, came of age as baseball fans during the 1990s. So for those of you are like me, this is the first team for which all of the players can be remembered in their prime. As such, I’m sure there is some lively debate yet to come.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ll spare you all a recap of the qualification rules—which can be found in all previous columns—except to briefly note that relievers must have appeared in at least 400 games while making no more than 30 starts.
Finally, a quick thought on performance enhancing drugs. Specifically, I’m not in the business of trying to figure out who was using what and when and how much that improved them. The rankings are based on the players’ performance on the field and nothing else. I’ll leave other debates to other people.
Having said that, let’s see just who earned their spots with that performance on the field.
Catcher: Mike Piazza
If you’re talking catchers in the decade, there are two names: Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez. No other catcher is close to them, so the debate is which of those two you pick. For the decade, Rodriguez played in more games, scored more runs, had nearly 150 more hits (including more doubles) than Piazza. He also did all that while playing a defense sometimes regarded as the greatest ever; he won 13 Gold Gloves and led the league in caught stealing percentage nine times.
So why does Piazza win out for the decade? Because nobody ever mashed a baseball like Mike Piazza did while playing catcher. Upon becomubg a regular player in 1993, Piazza hit. And hit. And hit. It is true that Pudge played more games, but when Piazza was on the field, his hitting made up for a multitude of sins.
For the decade, he slugged 240 home runs while playing primarily in Dodger and Shea Stadiums, neither famous for their friendless to hitters. No catcher is within 75 of that total. His OPS is nearly 100 points better than any qualifying catcher. Twice he led the league in OPS+, finishing in the top five in MVP voting three times.
Rodriguez was a brilliant defensive catcher, and by the end of the decade he had matured into a strong offensive player. Piazza’s bat, though, carries the day.
First base: Jeff Bagwell
When it comes to first baseman for this team, the debate is between Bagwell and Frank Thomas. There are a number of strong players who manned the position (including Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and John Olerud), but they ultimately are chasing these two.
So why did Bagwell come up on top? The answer isn’t in offense, where Thomas overcomes Bagwell’s advantages as a base runner—he stole more than 150 bases at a nearly 75 percent success rate—with his hitting to be the superior offensive force at his peak.
|The best of the hot corner in the ’90s, Robin Ventura (US Presswire)|
Defensively, however, Bagwell makes up the difference. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the award, Bagwell won a Gold Glove, while Thomas was so weak defensively that he ceased playing the position full-time in 1998.
Even the season before Thomas conceded—in reference to being replaced for defensive purposes late in games—“my thing is on offense, not defense.”
With the offense being a close-run thing, Bagwell’s edge with the glove puts him over the top.
Second bBase: Craig Biggio
Only two players reached base more times than Biggio during the decade. Among players who came to the plate at least 6000 times, just three players with a lower batting average had a higher on-base percentage than Biggio. For good measure, Biggio made all those times on base pay off, stealing more bases than all but five players.
And of course, when it comes to second baseman, Biggio stands even taller. He leads the position in runs, hits, and doubles. Biggio wasn’t just accumulating statistics though; no second baseman had a better season than Biggio’s incredible 1997 campaign.
Third base: Robin Ventura
I don’t really know who I was expecting to take this spot—Chipper Jones, maybe—but somehow Ventura never crossed my mind. Perhaps that’s because Ventura’s real talent was being good at everything without being great at anything.
Of those who qualify at the hot corner, Ventura leads only in one statistic: walks. (It is true, however, that he really leads that one; no other third baseman is within 75 of his total.)
But Ventura quietly did everything well. He’s third in runs, third in hits, fourth in home runs, second in RBI and fifth in OPS+, all while playing a strong a third base. The current White Sox manager may be a surprising choice for the position (at least for me) and may not have the glitz of some other names on the team. However, the team is selected on talent, not glitz, and that’s why the position belongs to Ventura.
Shortstop: Barry Larkin
Larkin is illustrative of an interesting element of constructing these teams. There are a number of shortstops who played at some point in the decade who were, candidly, better players than Larkin. This includes Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, and Alex Rodriguez. Still, when it comes to the actual decade, Larkin is the man.
This is not to say that he was some kind of slouch. The 1995 National League MVP, he hit .303 for the decade and led all shortstops in walks while ranking third in extra- base hits. This goes a long way to explaining both how Larkin had the highest OPS among shortstops in the decade who played in every season and how he earned this spot.
Left field: Barry Bonds
Since I’m not especially interested in rehashing the Barry Bonds PED thing here—and since even his most ardent detractors concede he was unlikely to be using until the end of the decade—he is the clear choice for the all-90s left fielder. Bonds’ advantage is so substantial (more than four wins per year over Albert Belle by WAR) that I’m instead going to comment on something odd about this team.
If one is discussing which the best franchise of the 1990s was, there are only three choices: the Braves, the Yankees, and wrong. Personally, I’d go with the Yankees, but it has to be one of those. Despite this, the team is conspicuously short on players from those teams. There are no position players from either team and only two pitchers who threw significant innings for either of them.
One interpretation of this is that baseball is game where a team can be more (or less) than the sum of its parts, and superstars aren’t necessary. There’s probably some truth in that, but then, the all-’70s team had numerous parts of the Big Red Machine, and the earlier decade teams had the usual Yankee names you would suspect.
The Yankees’ success did not begin until the middle of the decade, so it is perhaps somewhat explicable that they don’t have more names on the list, but I don’t have a real explanation for the decided absence of players from the two best franchises.
Center field: Ken Griffey Jr.
The post-trade Griffey was such an injury-racked, inconsistent player—he played in more than 140 games just three times, including one season spent primarily as a DH—that it actually became easy to forget what an incredible player the young Griffey was. Debuting at age 19 in 1989, by 1991 he was already one of the league’s best players (he was fifth in WAR that season), and for a while there it seemed like he had a shot at being one of the five or ten greatest players who ever lived.
For the decade, Griffey was second in home runs, third in runs, and fourth in OPS. And he did all that while playing a center field that was so well-regarded by his contemporaries that he won a Gold Glove every year of the decade.
|John Wetteland poses with an unidentified Yankee (US Presswire)|
Somehow, despite all the awards and all the numbers, Griffey was also more than the sums of his parts, at least in the popular consciousness.
He was “The Kid,” the star of Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, and a man who guest starred on both The Simpsons and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which is pretty good.
None of that paragraph has anything to do with why Griffey earned his spot—his exploits on the field are more than enough—but for a man whose legacy is somewhat tarnished, it seems important to remember when he was a player who could seemingly do no wrong.
Right field: Larry Walker
There’s a decent sized portion of baseball fandom—albeit likely not Hardball Times readers—who mostly think of Walker as a Coors Field creation. That certainly would seem to be the cause of his relatively modest Hall of Fame voting totals.
The truth, though, is that Walker could hit anywhere. And often he did. Playing in Montreal until 1995, Walker twice put up seasons good enough to rank him in the top 10 in WAR. And even well past his prime in 2004-05, Walker managed an OPS over .900 playing for the Cardinals.
(For good measure, it’s also worth noting that Walker’s road OPS was .865 for his career, a more than respectable number.)
Of course, Walker’s number in Coors Field must be taken with a hearty grain of salt, but even thin air alone cannot account for two seasons with an OPS over 1.165—part of four overall with OPSs over 1.000. For the decade, his OPS+ is 12th in baseball. That’s a number only a man capable of hitting anywhere can give you.
Starting pitchers: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, David Cone, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown
Many of the comments about the All-’80s team focused around the relative weakness of the pitching staff. I suspect we won’t be having that problem when it comes to this team. After all, there’s a collective 17 Cy Young Awards on this roster, to go along with 40 All-Star appearances. The rotation is definitely no weak spot here.
It starts at the top, with Clemens. Owner of the decade’s second-best ERA+, second-most strikeouts and third-most wins, Clemens also pitched probably the two most valuable seasons of the decade. The first was in 1990, and then his incredible 1997 when he won 21 games while leading the league in innings, ERA, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts. Some pitchers, notably Pedro Martinez, were better inning-for-inning, but no pitcher contributed more to his team than the Rocket did for the Jays that season.
During a four-year run in the middle of this decade, Maddux went an incredible 75-29, averaging almost 19 victories a year despite two of those seasons being strike-shortened. For good measure, his ERA+ during those years was over 200, and he led the league in innings each season. It should be no surprise, even if one didn’t already know, to learn that during those four years Maddux won four Cy Young awards.
Given some of the more marquee names in the group, like the aforementioned Martinez, Cone may seem an odd choice. Despite bouncing around considerably during the decade—he would play for five teams and be traded three times—Cone was remarkably consistent, posting just one ERA+ below 120 and often pitching much better than that. Cone also deserves credit for his postseason performance, going 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA in the World Series and 7-2, 3.71 overall in the postseason for the decade.
Johnson spent the first three seasons of the decade as a good-but-not-great pitcher, putting up a 3.81 ERA, good for a 105 ERA+ while going 39-35. Starting in 1994, he became a different pitcher. His numbers the rest of the decade: 92-32 with a 2.78 ERA, good for a 167 ERA+. He won Cy Young awards in both leagues and continued striking out enough hitters to lead all pitchers for the decade.
Brown wasn’t winning any personality contests and probably was not the man you wanted pitching in October (his playoff ERA was a relatively underwhelming 4.19, with an especially gruesome 6.04 in the World Series). But when he was on, Brown could be as dominant as any pitcher in baseball. In 1996, he led the league in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, homers per nine and shutouts. Keeping the ball in the ballpark was Brown’s specialty; thanks to a hard sinker, his HR/9 was the second-best figure of the decade among qualified starters.
Relief pitcher: John Wetteland
Like all of you, I can see the obituary headline already: John Wettleland, age whatever, Yankees closer prior to Rivera. That’s his legacy, and that’s a shame. From 1992 through the end of the decade, no reliever with at least 250 appearances was better. Well, no reliever except, of course, Mariano Rivera.
For the first (and probably only) time I’ll say this, enough about Rivera. Among qualifiers for the spot, Wetteland has, by a fair measure, the best ERA+, the second-best K/9 and the third-best WHIP. It should perhaps be no surprise then that Wetteland also led all pitchers in saves for the decade.
So Wetteland’s place in history is the man before Rivera. There are worse things to be—like, for example, the man after Rivera, as I suspect poor David Robertson is about to find out. We can only hope that when people remember Wetteland, they remember the man before Rivera as being a pretty good pitcher in his own right.
Manager: Bobby Cox
Given that earlier—and in longer column form—I’ve said that I would take the Yankees as the team of the decade, it may seem odd picking Cox as the all-decade manager. The reason, though, is relatively simple. While Joe Torre had a tremendous run managing the Yankees, he was the team’s skipper for only four years in the decade. He spent the first half of the decade managing the Cardinals, where he won as many as 87 games but also finished with a below-.500 record.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Cox won five pennants and never managed a full season without taking the Braves to the playoffs. The team won 90 or more games eight times and were on pace to do it again in 1994. For good measure, four of those seasons saw the Braves win 100 or more games.
Teams play to win championships, which is why the Yankees are the franchise of the decade. For picking the most successful manager of the decade, though, the choice is Cox.