“Baseball’s Best Player”, by Bill James

It’s pretty obvious from the last few posts that I spend a lot of time on Bill James Online. It’s a pay site, but it’s ridiculously affordable (only $3/month) and gives you some interesting things. You get access to a unique stable of Bill James stats (many of which you can only see on his site or in his books like The Bill James Handbook), a steady-flow of new articles (beyond just baseball), and even access to Bill himself in the “Hey Bill” section (where he responds personally to reader’s questions). Other perks of the site are access to the smart group of forum users and a pretty good list of older articles that Bill published elsewhere (or not at all). I highly recommend becoming a member.

Going through that back-catalog of articles a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a pair of articles Bill originally wrote after the 2003 season called “Baseball’s Best Player” and “Baseball’s Best Player (mirror)”. Without going too deep into the method or the findings (that’s what Bill’s site is for, after all), I’ll say that Bill used a player’s four-year (weighted) average of Win Shares to see who was the best player over those past four years (in the “mirror” article, he looked ahead to the next four years, using real numbers of course, not predictions). The method seemed pretty sound to me, and gave some really fair and mostly expected results (Babe Ruth rules for a few years, then Gehrig, then Williams, etc, with Bonds ruling for much of the last 10-12 years, even before BALCO).

What makes the list most interesting, I think, are those years between the true greats, when the historically great players are either too old or too young to have dominated the league for three straight years. The players who emerge during these times as the “best player in baseball” make you pause for a minute but, upon further reflection, seem sensible. These players include: Ron Santo in 1967; Bobby Murcer in ’72; Dave Parker in ’78-’79; Tim Raines in ’87; and Will Clark in ’89-’91.

That’s right, Will Clark was the best player in baseball for three straight years (meaning he dominated for 6 years overall). It’s sometimes hard to remember how good some of these guys were compared to their contemporaries but, when you look at their numbers and their contemporaries’ numbers in the same years, it’s hard to argue.

I didn’t have much more to say about this article besides how fascinating it was. I did run the numbers to get the leaderboards since 2003 (since that’s when Bill last ran the numbers). Those numbers are below.

It’s important to note, however, how A-Rod has never been able to bust through the reigns of Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols as the best player in baseball. He’s always 2nd or 3rd, but Bonds was putting up insane numbers when A-Rod was in his 20s, and now Pujols is putting up insane numbers as A-Rod plays in his 30s. The comment I made on the article itself: “Using these numbers, it’s clear that A-Rod had the great misfortune of playing his early years opposite Barry Bonds and his later years opposite Albert Pujols, two of the greatest talents since Mantle & Mays. Does the fact that Hank Aaron never controlled the crown before he was 35 keep him out of the conversation of greatest player of his generation/all-time? Of course not, and I don’t think A-Rod constantly finishing just behind Bonds and Pujols should mean anything different.”

The 2004-2007 leaderboards using Bill’s method of looking at the past three years are as follows:
Barry Bonds…………48.1
Albert Pujols……….37.6
Alex Rodriguez………32.2
Bobby Abreu…………31.7
Scott Rolen…………31.2

Albert Pujols……….38.6
Alex Rodriguez………33.7
Gary Sheffield………32.1
Bobby Abreu…………30.8
Manny Ramirez……….30.2

Albert Pujols……….39.1
Carlos Beltran………31.1
Alex Rodriguez………30.3
Manny Ramirez……….30
Bobby Abreu…………29.8

Albert Pujols……….36.1
Alex Rodriguez………33.5
Miguel Cabrera………30.2
Carlos Beltran………29.9
David Wright………..29.7

As you can see, Pujols does succeed Bonds as the reigning “Best Player” for at least three straight years. I find it interesting how quickly David Wright found himself on that list, especially considering that his 2004 year gave him only 9 WS in 69 games played.

And, using the next three years, the leaderboards are:
2001: Bonds, A-Rod, Pujols
2002: Bonds, Pujols, A-Rod
2003: Pujols, Bonds, A-Rod
2004: Pujols, A-Rod, Abreu

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.