All-Time MLB Draft

I like ranking things. I rank the best quarterbacks in the NFL and the greatest Led Zeppelin albums (each of their first six are tied for first). And, like many before me, I’ve ranked the greatest baseball players in history.

But there’s a problem with doing that. For starters, how does one compare batters and pitchers? Is having a Ted Williams on your team more valuable than a Walter Johnson? Would you rather have Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens? WAR helps bridge the gap between the two, but since there are different ways to calculate it, the statistic only helps so much.

Secondly, we’re tasked with comparing players from different eras. Tris Speaker and Ken Griffey, Jr. played the same position, but in leagues that played the game very differently. We also have to take fluctuations in league scoring into account. A .300 batting average in the high-scoring 1930s is less valuable than the same mark in the pitching-dominated 1960s. And what to do with current players like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, who might one day rank among the greatest but haven’t yet finished their careers?

In addition to all this, ranking the greatest players in MLB history is not a new endeavor. It’s been done countless times before, and there’s no right way to do it. Plus, at the end of it, all you have is a list.

To get a better idea of the greatest players of all time, I’m going to add an extra layer to it. I’ll clear all the present-day MLB rosters and enter all the players who’ve ever put on a uniform into a draft pool. The draft order is determined by all-time team winning percentage since 1901, the year commonly regarded as the beginning of the modern era. I’ll act as each team’s general manager, and will draft based on which players would fit each organization and the dimensions and scoring factors of  the ballparks.

Some rules: players who spent most of their careers before 1893, when pitching mounds started appearing and the pitchers’ position was moved five feet further from the plate, will be excluded. They played a physically different game, and it’s also safe to say that the talent pool was extremely thin in those days, evidenced by the abnormally high success of teenagers.

Only a players’ peak seasons will be counted. My idea of a peak is pretty broad and includes every season a player posted that would make him a valuable asset in a league filled with the best baseball players in history. Also, we’ll assume each player is at the beginning of his peak years.

Although the general assumption is that the quality of play has increased since 1893, because there’s no concrete way to measure this, we’ll assume that a season worth 5.0 WAR in 1893 is worth the same as one in 2015.

I used a few unique statistics:

AVG+, OBP+, and ISO+ are how many points above and below league average each of that hitters’ stats are.

BsR is how may runs a player contributed on the basepaths. This includes stealing and advancing to third on hits.

Fld is fielding runs above average determined by Ultimate Zone Rating since 2002 and Total Zone before that.

WAR/162 is the Wins Above Replacement a player would be expected to produce in a full modern-day season playing every game.

Def is the runs above average per year each pitchers’ defenses were. I included this in attempt to explain large gaps between some pitchers’ ERAs and FIPs.

Lastly, I won’t enter relief pitchers into the draft pool. There have barely been enough elite closers to spread out among 30 teams, and the duties and workload of relievers has changed dramatically over the years, making it difficult to compare across eras.

First on the clock: the Evil Empire.

  1. New York Yankees – RF: Babe Ruth

Years     wRC+     AVG+     OBP+     ISO+     Fld     WAR     WAR/162

17             200        .058        .125        .240       4.8      164.5       11.6

An obvious choice. He may not have built the house they currently play in, but the Bambino will take full advantage of the 117 home run factor for lefties at the new Yankee Stadium. Still the all-time record holder for SLG% and OPS.

  1. San Francisco Giants – SP: Walter Johnson

Years     ERA-     FIP-     WHIP    K/BB    WAR     RA9War    Def

19           65           74          1.05       2.64      111.7      151.8            27.3

This is a team that’s won three of the last five World Series through pitching, so why stray from that strategy? In Johnson they get a workhorse who is rightfully regarded by most pundits as the greatest pitcher ever. Led the AL in ERA 5 times and FIP 9 times.

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers – SS: Honus Wagner

Years     wRC+     AVG+     OBP+     ISO+     BsR     Fld     WAR     WAR/162

14             161         .075        .078        .075       51.4    6.1      118.1      9.8

An elite hitter, fielder, and baserunner at a premium position. And despite playing in the dead-ball era, the Flying Dutchman put up some impressive slugging numbers – his ISO was .075 above league average.

  1. St. Louis Cardinals – LF: Ted Williams

Years     wRC+     AVG+     OBP+     ISO+    Fld     WAR     WAR/162

15             191        .071        .130        .161        -1.7     164.5      11.6

Probably tied with Ruth as the greatest hitter ever. Didn’t do much in the way of running or fielding, but he still deserves the #4 slot. Had league’s highest OBP an astounding 12 times.

  1. Boston Red Sox – CF: Willie Mays

Years     wRC+     AVG+     OBP+     ISO+     BsR     Fld     WAR     WAR/162

18             159         .043        .058        .128      32.8     9.8      142.8      8.6

In San Francisco, Mays had to deal with one of the worst environments for right-handed sluggers. In Boston, he’ll find himself quite at home. I shudder when I think about the dirty things he’ll do to the Green Monster. Plus, who better to navigate the treacherous center field dimensions in Fenway than the Say Hey Kid?

  1. Cleveland Indians – 2B: Rogers Hornsby

Years     wRC+     AVG+     OBP+     ISO+     Fld     WAR     WAR/162

15             175         .080        .096        .114       3.9      128.8      9.9

The greatest right-handed hitter of all time, Hornsby gives the Indians a lethal bat from a valuable position. Some historians have debated his fielding credentials, but from what I could find, he was above average with his glove.

  1. Detroit Tigers – CF: Ty Cobb

Years     wRC+     AVG+     OBP+     ISO+     BsR     Fld     WAR     WAR/162

19             171         .101        .101        .062       65.3     0.2      139.1     8.7

The Georgia Peach returns to Motown and he brings with him the best actual and relative batting average in league history. He’s not just a slap hitter, though – his .062 ISO+ suggests he can hit anywhere in the order.

  1. Pittsburgh Pirates – SP: Roger Clemens

Years     ERA-     FIP-     WHIP    K/BB    WAR     RA9WAR    Def

20           69           71          1.17       2.96      122.8      131.7            0.7

The Rocket dominated the league for longer than any pitcher since, well, Walter Johnson. It’s tough to say that steroids had a part in it, especially since he wasn’t proven guilty, so I’ll assume his numbers are legit. Speaking of not proven guilty…

  1. Chicago White Sox – LF: Barry Bonds

Years     wRC+     AVG+     OBP+     ISO+     BsR     Fld     WAR     WAR/162

12             162         .032        .087        .133       29.4    15.1    95.8       8.7

I only counted Bonds’ stats before his (allegedly) steroid-induced tear starting in his late 30s to prove his greatness before that stretch. He still ranks among the elite, and his all-around skills are matched only by his godfather, Willie Mays, among outfielders.

  1. Cincinnati Reds – CF: Mickey Mantle

Years     wRC+     AVG+     OBP+     ISO+     BsR     Fld     WAR     WAR/162

13             178         .051        .100        .146       21.5    -1.2      98.4       8.9

We’ve come to the first injury-prone player in this draft. Mantle still put up amazing numbers despite being hurt much of his career, and with his prodigiously powerful swing, he’ll clear the short fences in Cincinnati often.

Picks 11-30 will be posted tomorrow.


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