Here are the debut seasons of the 15 greatest position players in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference.com's WAR (wins above replacement-level) statistic, listed in chronological order:
1897 (Honus Wagner)
1905 (Ty Cobb)
1906 (Eddie Collins)
1907 (Tris Speaker)
1914 (Babe Ruth)
1915 (Rogers Hornsby)
1923 (Lou Gehrig)
1926 (Mel Ott)
1939 (Ted Williams)
1941 (Stan Musial)
1951 (Willie Mays)
1951 (Mickey Mantle)
1954 (Hank Aaron)
1979 (Rickey Henderson)
1986 (Barry Bonds)
You see the issue here, right? Only two of the greatest 15 players debuted in the past 55 years. Yes, I cheated a little. If I'd listed the top 20 players, Alex Rodriguez slides on to the list; if I listed the top 30, Albert Pujols joins the list. Chipper Jones is the only other active player in the top 50. But the point is: WAR suggests the greatest of the greatest played 50 years ago or 75 years ago or more than 100 years ago.
As the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his essay "The Extinction of the .400 Hitter," there are common explanations for this: "The first, naive and moral, simply acknowledges with a sigh that there were giants in the earth in those days. Something in us needs to castigate the present in the light of an unrealistically rosy past." Gould also cites the simple explanation that pitching and fielding have improved.
There is another layer to the argument, something that sabermetricians from Bill James to Richard Cramer have argued, that the skill of the average player has increased through time, thus making it more difficult to exceed the norm like Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or Rogers Hornsby did. Gould writes that "The disappearance of the .400 hitter is largely the result of a more general phenomenon -- a decrease in the variation of batting average as the game standardized its methods of play -- and not an intrinsically driven trend warranting a special explanation in itself."
Gould was writing about hitting .400, but the same idea can be carried over to WAR. Essentially, the reason the list of greatest players ever is backlogged with players from the early 20th century is the game hadn't fully developed yet. We saw more extreme results, as it was easier for the best players to excel in a sport that wasn't fully mature.
Here's an example. Hornsby's 1922 season, when he hit .401 with 42 home runs, was included in our Greatest Season Ever bracket. Hornsby was the best hitter in the National League that season. His WAR is calculated, in part, by comparing him to the other second basemen in the NL from that season. Besides Hornsby, there were nine other second basemen who accumulated at least 300 plate appearances:
Hornsby, Cardinals: 1.181 OPS (704 PAs)
Cotton Tierney, Pirates: .893 OPS (487 PAs)
Lew Fonseca, Reds: .882 OPS (318 PAs)
Frankie Frisch, Giants: .824 OPS (582 PAs)
Frank Parkinson, Phillies: .757 OPS (618 PAs)
Johnny Rawlings, Giants: .729 OPS (346 PAs)
Sam Bohne, Reds, .705 OPS (435 PAs)
Zeb Terry, Cubs, .677 OPS (571 PAs)
Ivy Olson, Dodgers, .653 OPS (595 PAs)
Larry Kopf, Braves, .630 OPS (530 PAs)
The overall National League OPS in 1922 was .753.
Now, compare that to National League second basemen in 2011. Running a similar query, we get a list of 17 players, ranging from Rickie Weeks (.818 OPS) to Jonathan Herrera (.612 OPS). And Herrera was an extreme case; the next-lowest OPS belonged to Aaron Miles at .660. The overall NL OPS in 2011 was .710, so only Herrera was more than 50 points below the league-average OPS figure. In 1922 there were three second basemen (nearly half the league; remember, there were only eight teams in the league back then) at least 75 points below the league-average OPS. I'm not going to suggest I completely understand how WAR is calculated, but I believe this suggests the replacement-level floor in 2011 was much higher than it was in 1922. Weeks isn't Hornsby, but even if he was, it would be more difficult for him to obtain the same level of WAR since the level of play is stronger in 2011.
That doesn't mean Hornsby wasn't a great player or didn't have a terrific season; I'm suggesting it was easier for him to excel against a weaker caliber of competition. It's like it would be if somebody invented a new version of chess or something: Initially, there would be a few people who excelled at the game, but over time others would catch on, adapt and learn the skills necessary to compete.
That's what happens in baseball. I would hope that most of you believe the quality of the game improves over time. Trust me: Babe Ruth didn't face many 6-foot-4 pitchers who threw 95 mph. (In fact, from 1920 through 1935, Baseball-Reference lists 35 pitchers at least 6-4, only 16 of whom pitched at least 100 innings in their careers. In 2011 alone, Baseball-Reference lists 218 pitchers at 6-4 or taller, 58 of whom threw at least 100 innings.)
At some point this becomes a philosophical argument, I suppose, because in the end you can only mathematically compare a player to his contemporaries. But while I believe there were giants back in 1922, I also believe there are giants in 2012.
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OK, the quarterfinals. Ken Griffey Jr. upset Barry Bonds in the second round, proving (not surprisingly) that there is no love for Bonds' 2001 season. I do wonder how he would have fared if I had chosen his magnificent 1993 season. The matchups:
1921 Babe Ruth versus 1967 Carl Yastrzemski: Our first of two Yankees-Red Sox battles. Can Yaz stop the Babe? I suspect not.
1911 Ty Cobb versus 1956 Mickey Mantle: Should be a close one. Mantle won the Triple Crown, but Cobb hit .420, stole 83 bases and scored 147 runs.
1997 Ken Griffey Jr. versus 1948 Stan Musial: I suspect many of you may know this, but Griffey and Musial were both born in Donora, Pa.
1927 Lou Gehrig versus 1941 Ted Williams: Williams hit .406, but Gehrig hit .373 with 47 home runs and 175 RBIs. Gehrig in an upset?
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.