By Cliff Corcoran
The National Baseball Hall of Fame will induct its 313th through 317th members on Sunday, increasing the number of former Major League players inducted to 220 with the additions of Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez. That got us thinking about what an all-time 25-man roster of Major Leaguers might look like. Let's assemble one.
The following roster is based on Major League performance, with no other eligibility restrictions. Active players are eligible, but they are handicapped by the relative brevity of their careers. I considered both peak and career performance, but placed larger emphasis on the former as the idea here is to assemble a great roster -- just imagine all of these men playing together at their peaks. I did consult wins above replacement player (Baseball-Reference's version) and JAWS, but I did not use either as the final word on any player. Finally, I largely populated my bullpen with actual relief pitchers, though my 'pen is much smaller than on a typical modern roster. Why, you ask? Have you seen my rotation?
On that note, I'll point out that this isn't a list of the best 25 players of all time. Constructing a roster is a more complex exercise, and including any reliever (even the great Mariano Rivera) results in a few snubs. Still, I felt I should approximate what an actual roster would look like, so that's why we see some names below that wouldn't ordinarily make a historical cut.
Still think I got it wrong? Have suggestions for other starters or subs? Let me know in the comments or through Twitter @cliffcorcoran.
C: Johnny Bench
Bench wasn't the best-hitting catcher in Major League history, nor the best defensive catcher, but the sum total of his contributions on both sides of the ball made him the best ever. From 1969-81, Bench hit .269/.349/.490 (131 OPS+) while averaging 27 home runs per year, and from his arrival in the Majors in '67 until '79, he threw out 45.5 percent of attempting basestealers against a weighted league average of 34.9 percent. A 10-time Gold Glove winner, Bench helped revolutionize the catcher position via the transition to a hinged mitt, which allowed him to catch one-handed and play more like any other infielder once the ball was in play. The combination of his power at the plate with his athleticism and leadership behind it made him the platonic ideal of a big league catcher.
1B: Lou Gehrig
Albert Pujols has made the discussion about the best first baseman of all time more interesting than it was 15 years ago, but this is still a relatively easy pick. In his first dozen Major League seasons, Pujols hit .325/.414/.608 (168 OPS+) averaging 40 home runs, 86 walks and 350 total bases per season. In five seasons since then, he has hit another 130 home runs, but with a mere .257/.315/.450 (113 OPS+) line. In Gehrig's 12 best seasons, from age-23 to age-34, he hit .347/.456/.650 (186 OPS+) averaging 37 home runs, 112 walks and 375 total bases per season, and that doesn't include his 133 OPS+ in 539 plate appearances prior to 1924 or his 126 OPS+ in 722 plate appearances after '37. Pujols was a better fielder than Gehrig in their respective primes, but Gehrig still averaged 8.7 bWAR during that 12-year peak to Pujols' 7.6. Gehrig retains his title as the greatest first baseman of all time. Pujols goes to my bench.
2B: Rogers Hornsby
Hornsby was unquestionably the best hitter ever to make second base his primary position. Over a six-year span from 1920-25, he led the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and OPS+ every season. Over a 14-year span from 1916-29, Hornsby hit .364/.437/.586 (180 OPS+), and over the final 10 years of that stretch, he averaged 9.3 wins above replacement per season. His career OPS+ of 175 is the fifth highest of all time among players with at least 3,000 plate appearances, and among everyday players, only Babe Ruth had more seasons worth 10 or more wins above replacement than Hornsby's six. The only reason the Rajah is not considered a slam dunk as the greatest second baseman of all time is a poor perception of his fielding. However, modern advanced stats suggest that Hornsby was well above average in the field, and contemporary observers praised him as a master of the double play. Without his fielding to hold him back, he's the obvious choice here.
SS: Honus Wagner
The greatest player of what is considered the Major Leagues' first modern decade, Wagner hit .352/.417/.508 (175 OPS+) from 1900-09, posting league-leading totals in 12 offensive categories (AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, H, 2B, 3B, R, RBI, TB, SB) a total of 58 times. He was 35 in the last of those seasons, but remained an above-average player for seven more seasons, compiling 8.1 wins above replacement at the age of 38 in 1912 and 5.6 bWAR at the age of 41 in '15. Though barrel-chested and bow-legged, Wagner was an excellent fielder and a fleet baserunner who stole 723 bases, still 10th all-time.
3B: Mike Schmidt
Schmidt is the easiest pick on this entire roster. Not only was he the most productive hitter ever to play primarily at third base, but he was an elite fielder at the position, winning 10 Gold Glove awards, and in his youth, he could run, as well, averaging 16 steals per season from 1974-82. From 1974-87, his age-24 to -37 seasons, Schmidt hit .274/.387/.546 (153 OPS+), while averaging 36 home runs, 98 walks and 289 total bases per season, leading the NL in home runs eight times, the Majors six times and winning three NL MVP Awards.
LF: Barry Bonds
Set aside his Ruthian outburst in the new millennium for a moment. In the 11 years prior to that, from 1990-2000, Bonds hit .302/.435/.609 (180 OPS+), while averaging 37 home runs, 115 walks, 298 total bases and 32 steals a year, and he won the Gold Glove in eight of those 11 seasons. Did I mention that those cumulative averages don't correct for the strike that shortened the 1994 and '95 seasons? From 1989-98 he was worth 9.1 wins above replacement per 162 games. Bonds' OPS+ from his debut through 2000 was 165, which would be 10th all-time. His actual career mark is 182, third all-time, his 162.4 career bWAR is second all-time among everyday players behind only Ruth. Bonds' seven MVP Awards, three of which he won in the 20th century, is the all-time record.
CF: Willie Mays
Mays is third all-time among regulars in bWAR (156.2). From 1954-65, he hit .318/.392/.605 (167 OPS+) while averaging 40 home runs, 22 steals and 353 stolen bases per season. Mays won 12 Gold Gloves. In a just world, he might have won nine NL MVP Awards. To many, Mays is the greatest player who ever lived. At the very least, he is the greatest five-tool player in the game's history.
RF: Babe Ruth
Ruth's career line over parts of 22 seasons: .342/.474/.690 (206 OPS+), with those last two numbers all-time career records (minimum 3,000 plate appearances). In his first dozen seasons with the Yankees, he averaged 47 home runs, 125 walks and 364 total bases per season. So what if Ruth was an indifferent fielder who refused to play the sun field for the final 13 1/2 years of his career? He did have a rifle of an arm out there, or did you forget he also has a 2.28 ERA in 1,221 1/3 innings and led the AL in ERA (1.75) and ERA+ (158) in 1916? Speaking of forgetting, don't forget the .326/.470/.744 line with another 15 homers in 167 World Series plate appearances or the 0.87 ERA in three World Series starts. Ruth is yet another reason that I only need five men in my bullpen.
DH: Ted Williams
Again, career numbers: .344/.482/.634 (190 OPS+). Williams is the all-time leader in the most important offensive category in the game: on-base percentage. He's second to only Ruth in OPS+ and slugging. Williams is tied for seventh in batting average and the only one of the top 17 men in that category to have played in an integrated Major Leagues. Ruth may have been the greatest hitter who ever lived, but the Splendid Splinter is next on the list.
Albert Pujols (1B)
Eddie Collins (IF)
Alex Rodriguez (IF)
Collins backs up second base. Rodriguez can handle short or third.
Ty Cobb (CF)
Hank Aaron (OF)
Mike Trout might make one of these outfield spots interesting someday, but we're at least 10 years from that point.
Gary Carter (C)
Backup catcher was the hardest call among the 15 hitters on this team. Rodriguez, Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza all got extensive consideration. Piazza was clearly the best hitter of that bunch. Rodriguez was arguably the best fielder, but that's less clear. Wins above replacement, and thus JAWS, like Carter. Berra could also play the outfield (remember this is a team roster and I'm looking for a bench player) and has a strong an extensive postseason track record to add to his regular season accomplishments. Ultimately, I went with Carter (which jibes with this piece I wrote on Rodriguez's all-time ranking upon his retirement) because Carter didn't have the ballpark advantages that Berra, Rodriguez and Fisk enjoyed, and I believe his play behind the plate remains underrated, giving him a big advantage over Piazza and Fisk on that side of the ball.
Walter Johnson (R)
Greg Maddux (R)
Randy Johnson (L)
Pedro Martinez (R)
Clayton Kershaw (L)
It's startling to think that in 2008, four of the five best pitchers in Major League history were active at the same time, albeit all at the extreme ends of their careers (Kershaw in his first year, Maddux in his last, Martinez and Randy Johnson in their penultimate seasons), or that three of those pitchers were active at the same time for 17 years (from Pedro's debut in 1992 to Maddux's final season in '08). Of course, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens and the ghosts of Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander may argue that was not the case. Given how much workloads, strikeout rates and strikeout-to-walk ratios have changed over time, I made my decision here based on run prevention relative to league average, measured by ERA+, over a 10-year peak. Walter Johnson had a 183 ERA+ from 1910-19. Martinez had a 177 ERA+ from 1996-2005. Maddux had a 172 ERA+ from '92- 01. Randy Johnson had a 169 ERA+ from '93-02. Kershaw, currently in his 10th season, has a career ERA+ of 162 and climbing. I gave Kershaw only a slight benefit of the doubt there to choose him over Grove (162 ERA+ from 1930-39). None of the other pitchers mentioned above measured up to those five, most falling in the neighborhood of a 150 ERA+, as did Cy Young. Sandy Koufax's final 10 seasons, only eight of which were qualifying seasons, produced a 133 ERA+.
Mariano Rivera (CL)
Craig Kimbrel (R)
Goose Gossage (R)
Hoyt Wilhelm (R)
Lefty Grove (L)
It might be cheating to put Grove in here, but he did make 159 relief appearances and (retroactively) record 54 saves. He's also the lone lefty in my 'pen. Rivera is an easy and obvious choice, arguably easier than Schmidt, come to think of it. I penciled Gossage and Wilhelm into their spots based on this analysis of the greatest relief pitchers of all time that I did upon Trevor Hoffman's retirement in 2011. That discussion boiled down to a nine-season peak. From 1961-69, knuckleballer Wilhelm posted a 171 ERA+ (1.99 unadjusted ERA) in 956 1/3 innings. Those were his age-38 to -46 seasons, by the way. From 1977-85, fireballer Gossage posted a 182 ERA+ (2.10 unadjusted) in 833 innings. With those four, I was surprised to find that my rotation had more pitchers of recent vintage than my bullpen. Kimbrel thus represents the modern closer, edging out Aroldis Chapman, who, like Kimbrel, is in his eighth Major League season. Both have thrown roughly half as many innings in their careers as Gossage and Wilhelm did, with similar stinginess, in their nine-year peaks, but Kimbrel has 219 ERA+ in 444 innings to Chapman's 187 ERA+ in 403 2/3 innings. Rivera's ERA+ over his 18 seasons of pure relief? 223.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.