Yankees center fielders are baseball’s answer to the Kennedys or the Rockefellers: they’re an American royal family. Their lineage of greatness began in the mid-1920s with Hall of Fame flycatcher Earle Combs, and since then the Bronx Bombers have produced fine center fielders seemingly one after another—Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Rickey Henderson, Bernie Williams.
Recently Patrick Sullivan did a guest column for the Baseball Analysts website in which he stacked up the Yankees center fielders against the Red Sox left fielders. He concluded that the Yanks not only beat Boston in this head-to-head matchup, but that they form quite possibly the best group of players for any franchise at any position.
So I got to wondering what other dynastic legacies have bragging rights. The Fungoes blog mentioned Cardinals first basemen, and Sullivan brought up Pirates shortstops, Yankees catchers and Yankees right fielders. But surely there are more great bloodlines out there, even some that might fly somewhat under the radar. So I sat down and designed a study to see which ball clubs have been, historically, the best at each position.
A few points about my methodology:
But if you’re in a bar arguing center fielders vs. left fielders, you’d discuss Williams vs. DiMaggio, Manny vs. Bernie—not Jerry Mumphrey vs. Joe Vosmik. That is to say, you’d be talking superior players, not a superior accumulation of player seasons. Therefore I established an “entrance fee,” or minimum limit, for each position: 70 lifetime RCAA for catchers, 100 for first basemen, 70 for second basemen, 70 for third basemen, 40 for shortstops, 100 for outfielders and 125 RSAA for pitchers. If that all sounds arbitrary, so be it. But it seemed to conform pretty well to our colloquial understanding of what a top-notch player is.
It’s sort of similar to the “peak vs. career” debate that crops up when comparing players. In the end I decided not to impose a ceiling, but to keep in mind that it can produce some screwy results. (Like check out the Cardinals’ great succession of second basemen—Rogers Hornsby and … Yank Robinson?)
So without further ado, here are my rankings of the best franchises at each position:
Yankees (Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Thurmon Munson, Jorge Posada, Elston Howard): 961 RCAA
Talk about a line of succession—Dickey tutored Berra in spring training of 1949; Berra turned the job over seamlessly to Howard in the 1960s; Howard was the first-base coach when Munson arrived; and Berra was a spring-training instructor when Posada emerged on the scene.
Reds (Johnny Bench, Ernie Lombardi, Bubbles Hargrave): 448 RCAA
Dodgers (Mike Piazza, Roy Campanella): 398 RCAA
Tigers (Bill Freehan, Rudy York, Mickey Cochrane, Mickey Tettleton): 312 RCAA
Blue Jays. Only one catcher in Jays history has had a career RCAA above zero: the glorious Brian Milner, who went 4-for-9 in his only cup of coffee as an 18-year-old.
Cardinals (Johnny Mize, Stan Musial, Jim Bottomley, Mark McGwire, Keith Hernandez, Jack Clark, Ripper Collins, Albert Pujols, Ed Konetchy, Bill White, Jack Clark): 2,295 RCAA
The Cardinals have more superior players at first base than any other franchise at any position—and the above list doesn’t even include Orlando Cepeda, an unanimous MVP for the 1967 El Birdos.
Yankees (Lou Gehrig, Don Mattingly, Bill Skowron, Jason Giambi): 1,803 RCAA
Giants (Willie McCovey, Bill Terry, Will Clark, Johnny Mize, Orlando Cepeda, George Kelly): 1,766 RCAA
Athletics (Jimmie Foxx, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Harry Davis, Stuffy McInnis, Ferris Fain): 1,744 RCAA
Montreal Expos. Their all-time leader in RCAA is Ron Fairly with 56. Rob Neyer named Andres Galarraga as the team’s franchise first baseman, but either way it’s slim pickings.
Detroit Tigers (Charlie Gehringer, Sweet Lou Whitaker, Dick McAuliffe): 781 RCAA
That trio might not sound like a ton, but keep in mind that those three guys combined for 52 years in a Tigers uniform at the keystone position.
Cardinals (Rogers Hornsby, Yank Robinson): 728 RCAA
Indians (Nap Lajoie, Roberto Alomar): 625 RCAA
Giants (Jeff Kent, Larry Doyle, Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby): 607 RCAA
Phillies. Not much here—Juan Samuel had some nice sunrise years, Joe Morgan had some nice sunset years, but when all is said and done Chase Utley will probably stand as the Phillies’ all-time best second-sacker.
Braves (Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, Bob Elliott, Darrell Evans, Bob Horner, Red Smith): 1,467 RCAA
You—or at least I—don’t normally think of the Braves as a third-base factory, but they easily outdistance the next-best team here in terms of greatness. Mathews and Jones, for example, are 1-2 among third basemen on the career list of career OPS.
Phillies (Mike Schmidt, Dick Allen, Scott Rolen): 960 RCAA
Cubs (Stan Hack, Ron Santo, Heinie Zimmerman, Bill Madlock): 773 RCAA
Giants (Jim Ray Hart, Art Devlin, Freddie Lindstrom, Matt Williams, Hank Thompson, Mel Ott, Darrell Evans, Sid Gordon): 702 RCAA
Astros. The ‘Stros are pretty good on the right side of their infield (Bagwell, Biggio, Watson, Morgan, Doran) and pretty lousy on the left.
Pirates (Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan): 1,290 RCAA
Sure, the Pirates had other decent shortstops—Dick Groat and Jay Bell come to mind—but the team’s rep is based entirely on Wagner and Vaughan, whom Bill James ranks as the two best shortstops in major league history. If you go for diversity, you’d pick the Red Sox at this position, but for sheer concentration of value, it’s the Bucs.
Red Sox (Nomar Garciaparra, Joe Cronin, Johnny Pesky, John Valentin, Vern Stephens, Rico Petrocelli): 591 RCAA
Orioles (Cal Ripken, Vern Stephens): 306 RCAA
The best shortstop in Kansas City Royals history is Jay Bell, and he played for them for only one year.
Red Sox (Ted Williams, Carl Yazstremski, Jim Rice, Manny Ramirez, Mike Greenwell, Babe Ruth): 2,494 RCAA
Their top three home run hitters of all time played the position and, true to Patrick Sullivan’s observation, only the Yankees center fielders can boast a better overall track record.
Giants (Barry Bonds, George Burns, Kevin Mitchell): 1,546 RCAA
Pirates (Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell, Fred Clarke, Barry Bonds, Brian Giles): 1,544 RCAA
Cardinals (Stan Musial, Joe Medwick, Lou Brock, Chick Hafey, Albert Pujols, Jesse Burkett, Enos Slaughter): 1,433 RCAA
Athletics (Rickey Henderson, Al Simmons, Bob Johnson, Topsy Hartsel): 1,302 RCAA
San Diego Padres. Gene Richards, anyone?
Yankees (Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Bernie Williams, Earle Combs, Bobby Murcer, Rickey Henderson): 2,592 RCAA
Throughout my college years I put off watching the film Casablanca (co-written by Theo Epstein’s grandfather) because it seemed silly to me; all the famous clips looked canned and corny. But when I saw the film I had a blast. It’s one of Hollywood’s enduring pleasures for a reason.
A couple years later my brother had the exact same experience with the movie—put if off for years, then discovered he loved it. So we coined the phrase “The Casablanca Effect” to describe anything that’s as good as its reputation. Moby Dick, Abraham Lincoln and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” are all examples of The Casablanca Effect. So are the Yankees’ center fielders.
Indians (Tris Speaker, Earl Averill, Larry Doby, Kenny Lofton): 1,516 RCAA
Tigers (Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Al Kaline): 1,360 RCAA
Yankees (Babe Ruth, Tommy Henrich, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, Paul O’Neill, Dave Winfield, Hank Bauer): 2,359 RCAA
Not as stacked as they are in center, but it’s close, most of it due to the Sultan. Gary Sheffield’s a fine addition to this proud lineage.
Tigers (Harry Heilmann, Al Kaline, Sam Crawford, Ty Cobb, Kirk Gibson, Vic Wertz): 1,844 RCAA
Giants (Mel Ott, Ross Youngs, Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark): 1,494 RCAA
Pirates (Paul Waner, Roberto Clemente, Dave Parker): 1,198 RCAA
White Sox. Sure, they had Harold Baines and Magglio Ordonez, but that’s actually not much for one of the “Original Eight” AL franchises.
Red Sox (Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Mel Parnell, Ellis Kinder, Smokey Joe Wood): 1,820 RSAA
When I think “pitching,” I usually think Koufax, Drysdale and Dodger Stadium. When I think “Red Sox” I think Al Nipper, Frank Castillo and balls flying off the Green Monster. Would you ever have guessed that the Sawx have the most dominant pitchers of all time? I sure didn’t. But when you look at those names above, it makes sense.
Braves (Greg Maddux, Phil Niekro, Warren Spahn, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz): 1,674 RCAA
Yankees (Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Mariano Rivera, Ron Guidry, Bob Shawky, Spud Chandler): 1,481 RSAA
White Sox (Ted Lyons, Ed Walsh, Red Faber, Billy Pierce, Ed Cicotte, Thornton Lee): 1,365 RSAA
Pirates. Their career leader in wins is Wilbur Cooper. ‘Nuff said.
References & Resources
Lee Sinins’s Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
The New Bill James Historical Abstract
Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups
And a special thanks to Richard Lederer for additional research