Monday, March 13, 2006

Top Ten Lists: They're Not Just For Letterman, You Know

Baseball, to me, creates the best barroom debates of any team sport:

Do Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

Who was the greater homerun hitter -- Babe Ruth or Henry Aaron?

Who deserved the MVP more in 1941: Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams?

And so on.

You know what they say about opinions. They're like ... well, they're like eyes -- everyone has them.

Starting today, I will serve up to you my Top Ten players at every one of the nine positions. For pitchers, I will choose ten starters and ten relievers. But I'm not going to be one of these guys who pretends he knows Tris Speaker or Walter Johnson. After all, I may be old, but ...

Instead, these will be guys I actually saw play -- and not in newsreel footage. So basically, we're talking since 1971 -- the last 35 seasons. You won't see too many active players, because part of greatness is doing it over a long period of time, and having history kind of place you where you belong.

Here's the schedule:

Today - Catchers
Tuesday - First basemen
Wednesday - Second basemen
Thursday - Third basemen
Friday - Shortstops
Sunday - Corner outfielders
Monday, March 20 - Centerfielders
Tuesday, March 21 - Starting pitchers
Wednesday, March 22 - Relief pitchers

CATCHERS (main team played for in parentheses)

10. Jim Sundberg (Texas). "Sunny" Sundberg is here because he was one of the best defensive backstops of his time -- maybe THE best. He wasn't much at the plate, but he played all those games in the Texas heat and was consistently among the leaders in fielding percentage, and he had an above average arm.
9. Tony Pena (Pittsburgh). Pena had that unusual crouch behind the plate, with his right leg extended as he sort of rocked on it. But from that cockeyed position he threw potential base stealers out at a high rate of success. At the plate, Pena held his own, though he was a tad inconsistent. But he makes it mainly for his defense, a la Sundberg.
8. Bob Boone (Phillies/Royals). Methuselah. What did Boone do -- play till he was 50? Okay, maybe not quite that old, but Booney stuck around because he was a cerebral catcher -- a thinking man's guy who knew baseball inside and out. So-so with the bat, but one of the most respected catchers ever.
7. Gary Carter (Expos/Mets). Good, solid overall player. Didn't do anything mind-boggling well, but well enough to be a solid multi-tool player. Key member of the Mets' 1986 championship squad.
6. Lance Parrish (Detroit). If he had hit for a higher average -- or not struck out so much, I may have snuck him in the top three. But he sits at number five because few catchers were as complete as The Big Wheel for defense, power, and handling pitchers. His love/hate relationship with Jack Morris worked, especially in 1984 when Morris pouted midseason.
5. Bill Freehan (Detroit). I caught -- no pun intended -- Freehan toward the end of his career, but I saw enough to put him here, because defensively he had the highest career fielding percentage in history for catchers for the longest time. He was no slouch with the bat, either, though his power numbers were up and down.
4. Carlton Fisk (Red/White Sox). The original "Pudge." Fisk could be here simply because of his longevity, like Boone, but that would cheapen his career. Few were better signal-callers. Offensively, Fisk was a great "bad ball" hitter. Behind the mask, Fisk fielded the position with the smoothness of silk.
3. Ivan Rodriguez (Texas). When a catcher wins an MVP Award, as Pudge did in 1999, it's a real testament, because catchers rarely are hitting for high average. And when they flirt with a batting crown, as Rodriguez did in Detroit in 2004 -- at age 32 -- it's celestial. This will be an interesting season for Pudge, because we'll see if his 58-point drop in BA from '04 to '05 is a portend of things to come because of his age, or a fluke. One of the best arms of his time.
2. Mike Piazza (Dodgers/Mets). At his prime, Piazza may have been the best player in baseball, for the position he plays is so physically taxing. Combining power, defense, and hitting for average, Piazza was the most complete package at catcher since ...
1. Johnny Bench (Cincinnati). Bench WAS the catcher's position, as far as I'm concerned. There was really nothing he couldn't do -- including stealing bases. I'm not talking Rickey Henderson here, but Bench stole bases at a high percentage of success because he was smart and knew when to pick his spots. Defensively he had no peer. With the bat, he could be deadly. One of the top five best players of his era -- regardless of position.

How about that -- not a lefthanded-hitting one in the bunch. That wasn't intentional. Sorry, Ernie Whitt fans -- I'm not going to put a "token" lefty in there.

So break out the beer and pretzels, and let the name-calling begin.


Blogger Ian C. said...

It's not a "beef," per se, but the only ranking I might disagree with is Piazza - but only because of his defense. His bat is obviously enough to rank him among the best because he might be the best hitter at that position.

And maybe Piazza's defense late in his career is fresher in my mind. But it's the one thing that keeps him from being a "complete" catcher in my mind.

But you have to wonder how large of a consideration that is, because the bat is so good, and still better than almost anyone at the position. Wasn't everyone shocked to see the Padres sign Piazza as their starting catcher for this season?

8:47 AM  

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