The all-decade team: the ‘90s

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.

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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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. Carl said...

    Hi Richard,

    Is PEDs the reason that you chose Walker over Sammy Sosa?  Sosa had far more HRs and RBIs in the decade.  Ignoring PEDs would you have chosen Sosa or would you stick w Walker anyway?

  2. Carl said...

    Richard,
    So sorry, skipped over the paragraph you wrote about steroids.  You obviously prefer Walker’s decade to Sosa’s.  I prefer Sosa’s w his 98-99 total of 129 HRs and 299 RBIs.

  3. Tyler said...

    The Yankees are the team of the decade but their manager is not the manager of the decade?

    “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.”

    How does this make any sense? Torre won more rings than Cox, and I think he deserves the “best manager” crown. Cox did have a hell of a decade though.

    Great write-ups as usual this series was awesome.

  4. Canard said...

    Thanks for fighting the Good fight with Walker vs Sosa. Many will see Sosa’s farcical home run totals and conclude that he was the better player. Walker was better. By a LOT. Sosa averaged a 115 arc+ for the decade – Adam Dunn’s 2000s were better than that. Larry Walker averaged 141. While being as good a base runner and a somewhat worse fielder.

  5. David said...

    Richard,

    I’m not surprised that Biggio was your pick for Second Base, but I would’ve expected at least an obligatory acknowledgement of Robbie Alomar. His production at Second (Biggio didn’t play there full-time until 1992), play for two World Series winners and some regular playoff teams should’ve merited at least a tip o’ the hat.

    The Ventura pick is pretty shocking. Not that he wasn’t as good or better than his contemporaries (like Matt Williams or Ken Caminiti), but rather that the position was so thin at top tier talent for the decade. I don’t think many people beyond the most hardcore White Sox fans would think of Ventura as the best third baseman of the decade.

  6. Carl said...

    It’s items like this that drive my crazy over War:

    For the 1990s, Biggio played in 1,515 games and had triple slash line of .297/.383/.441 for an OPS of .824.  He had 319 SBs and was caught 100 times. Select raw stats reflect 1,042 R, 362 doubles 136 HRs and 641 RBIs to go w being a 7-time All Star.  He won 4 gold gloves. 

    For the 1990s Alomar played in 1,421 games and his triple slash was a near-identical .308/.378/.460 for an OPS of .838.  He had 311 SB and was caught 73 times meaning he had a better SB rate than Biggio.  The same selected raw numbers selected for Biggio show that for the decade Alomar had 951 R, 321 doubles, 135 HRs and 732 RBIs to go w his 10 All-Star selections. Alomar won 7 gold gloves.

    To me a slight nod to Alomar based on the higher OPS, more RBIs and more All Star games and gold gloves, but the two are very, very close.  But WAR???? For the decade, Biggio had 52.8 War, way ahead of the 45.5 War of Alomar. 

    How is this possible?

  7. Richard Barbieri said...

    On Walker vs. Sosa, it’s not really that close. Sosa was basically a non-entity as a ballplayer until ‘94 and while he slugged a huge number of HRs, even something as simple as OPS+ puts Walker (161 OPS+)  ahead of Sosa (155 OPS+) during the 98-99 period. Sosa probably ends up on top in that period because he played a lot more games than Walker—who had trouble staying healthy—but not enough to make up for the lead Walker built in the early part of the decade.

    For Biggio and Alomar, the big difference between them is in their home parks. The Astrodome killed Biggio, as it did everyone. If you put themboth in a 750-run environment, Biggio has three seasons with a .915 or better OPS, and just two below .800, while Alomar has three seasons with a sub-.800 OPS and just two with a .915 or better OPS.

    I’m inclined to believe that if you flipped where they played for their whole career, the WAR numbers would make “more sense.”

  8. Carl said...

    Hi Richard,

    That’s a great explanation, thank you very much.  I concede 100% on the Sosa v Walker issue, and I believe I now understand your point on Biggio v Alomar.  I had not considered park effects and did not know (though I should have) park effects were included in War.

    I still take Schmidt over Boggs in the 80s, though.

  9. Barney Coolio said...

    These lists are fun, but gaining inclusion depends largely on whether or not a player’s peak years coincided with a decade. 

    Of the 14 players listed, Roger Clemens is the oldest, born in August 1962.  Ken Griffey Jr. is the youngest, by over a year, born in November 1969.  1966 had the most players, with 4, with no other year having more than 2.

    If you’re born in the first quarter of a decade, like Tony Gwynn, it is really hard to make these lists.  Then again, Randy Johnson probably makes the 2000’s pitching rotation as well.

  10. Paul G. said...

    Also keep in mind that there is more than one version of WAR.  You are using bWAR.  fWAR makes Biggio look slightly better (51.3 vs 43.3, +8.0) but WARP reduces the gap a bit (48.2 vs 43.9, +4.3).  Biggio still comes out on top.

    Fielding is an important issue in the disparity between the stats and your analysis.  The statistical measures of fielding prowess are not nearly as kind to Roberto as the Gold Glove voters.  For his career Alomar is only +2.4 defensive bWAR which is merely above average-ish, not the second base equivalent of Ozzie Smith (+43.4) by any means.  WAR is not especially friendly to Biggio either, rating him -3.9 for his career, but for the 1990s he was more or less average, falling apart in his later years.  Whether the WAR fielding ratings are reliable is up to debate, but the stat sees neither Alomar or Biggio as especially noteworthy with the glove, save a few special seasons.  When compared to the Gold Glove count, Biggio comes across as overrated in the field but Alomar is majorly overrated.  When combined with the park factors, it opens up a significant gap.

  11. 87 Cards said...

    The “unidentified Yankee” next to John Wetteland is Mariano Rivera.  Those boots were part of the Rangers’ contribution to the 42 Farewell Tour.

  12. EB said...

    @Jim – Two things to keep in mind here:

    1. The offensive difference between Piazza and Pudge is so substantial that the defense can’t make up the difference. We’re talking a 156 OPS+ to 107, 42.7 oWAR to 26.3. It’s extremely difficult to make up to 16 points of WAR on defense, which explains why Piazza’s overall WAR during that decade is 41.5 to Pudge’s 37.5.

    2. In the Bagwell vs Thomas debate, it goes beyond just defense. Thomas did outperform Bagwell in terms of offense (58.9 oWAR to 52), but besides the fact that Bagwell was a substantially better fielder, he was also a substantially better baserunner, with Bagwell scoring an Rbaser of 26 to Thomas’ -3. Add those two aspects of Bagwell to the pile and it makes up for the roughly 6 points in WAR.

  13. Jim said...

    Consistency?  The pick of Piazza over Pudge, the deciding aspect was Piazza’s offense, yet over at 1B, it was also a tie, but Bagwell’s glove carried him past the Big Hurt?  So, our author cannot decide which is more important, offense or defense, or is at least inconsistent in his opinion of those factors.

  14. dennis Bedard said...

    Dear Richard.  I have to disagree strongly with your opinion of this audience’s demographics.  The readers, like me, are heavily tilted to the 60’s and mid 70’s.  This hunch is exactly that but take a look at the responses to the all 60’s and 70’s teams compared to the rest.  Your all 60’s team set off the equivalent of an internet jihad.  The comments were very strong.  Ditto the 70’s.  I just don’t see the same intensity with the earlier and later decades.  But that is just my hunch.

  15. Ian R. said...

    I’ll echo what EB said. The gap between Piazza and Pudge on offense is massive, so much so that even a historically great defensive catcher couldn’t make up the difference with his glove, er, mitt. The difference between Thomas and Bagwell on offense is much smaller, such that Bagwell’s superior defense carries him through.

    It’s not about assessing whether offense or defense is more important. In the first case, a historically huge gap in offense overwhelmed a big gap in defense. In the second, a big gap in defense overwhelmed a fairly small gap in offense.

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