Five best players in baseball: A history

Joe Morgan, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols all made cases for being the best player in the game during different stages of their career. AP Photo

The genesis for this article came out of all the recent Hall of Fame discussions. A lot of arguments were along the lines of “Tim Raines was one of the best players in baseball in the mid-'80s,” or “You know, Don Mattingly was the best in the game there for a few years,” or perhaps “Barry Larkin was as good an all-around player as anybody at his peak.”

None of those statements are necessarily incorrect. But are they good Hall of Fame arguments? How many players can you claim were “one of the best in the game” over a period of years? So here’s what I did. I went back to 1969 and looked at each five-year span to determine the five best players in baseball, based on cumulative Baseball-Reference wins against replacement over those five years. (For the purposes of this piece, I looked just at position players.)

So here we go, with the usual caveats about WAR. You’ll see a lot of the same players and you’ll see a lot of Mike Schmidt and Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols in the top spot. But while the best player may not change all that often, it’s interesting to see who pops in some of the top five slots.

1969-1973: Sal Bando (33.6), Joe Morgan (32.7), Reggie Jackson (32.2), Johnny Bench (30.4), Pete Rose (30.1)

Our first entry and we already get a big surprise: Sal Bando, the best player in baseball? It may seem odd now, but Bando was one of the most respected players in the game at the time and finished second, third and fourth in MVP votes in 1971, 1973 and 1974. He hit for power, drew walks and played a solid third base, putting up big numbers for the era in the Oakland Coliseum, a place where batting averages and fly balls often went to die.

1970-1974: Joe Morgan (37.6), Johnny Bench (31.9), Sal Bando (30.0), Reggie Jackson (29.2), Pete Rose (28.8)

No change in the top five, although Morgan takes a big leap ahead of the others, replacing a more mundane 1969 with a monster 1973. You’re going to see a lot of Morgan here, as his 1972-76 run was one of the greatest five-year stretches in baseball history.

1971-1975: Joe Morgan (46.2), Reggie Jackson (33.3), Johnny Bench (31.9), Pete Rose (29.6), Willie Stargell (29.5)

Some believe Rose was a compiler, a good player who merely played forever. That’s not accurate; while he was never the best player in the game -- although he did win the 1973 MVP Award -- he was clearly one of the best for a period of years. This peak coincides with his years in the outfield; his value started declining once he moved to third base in 1975, where it’s fair to say he wasn’t exactly Brooks Robinson.

1972-1976: Joe Morgan (51.0), Rod Carew (33.2), Cesar Cedeno (32.5), Johnny Bench (32.1), Bobby Grich (32.0)

Absolutely phenomenal: Morgan was nearly 18 wins better than the No. 2 player over this five-year span. I don’t know if any player has ever dominated the game to the extent Morgan did over this stretch (that’s another article). Cedeno was a marvelous talent, a power/speed center fielder who hit .298 while averaging 21 home runs and 55 steals per season over these five years. The Astros moved the fences back in 1977 (10 feet at the foul lines, 12 feet in the power alleys), hurting Cedeno’s power. He injured his knee in 1978 and then broke his ankle in the 1980 playoffs, sapping his speed and effectively ending his years as a productive player.

1973-1977: Joe Morgan (47.2), Rod Carew (39.7), Mike Schmidt (37.6), Reggie Jackson (30.3), Cesar Cedeno (28.9)

Carew’s legacy seems to have dimmed somewhat, but he was the Tony Gwynn of the 1970s, a pure hitting machine who won seven batting titles. This includes his 1977 MVP season, when he chased .400 late into the season before finishing at .388.

1974-78: Mike Schmidt (41.8), Joe Morgan (38.8), Rod Carew (37.3), Johnny Bench (27.0), Graig Nettles (27.0)

A round of applause for the underappreciated Nettles. He never hit for much average, but led the AL in home runs in 1976, finished second in 1977 and played a terrific third base.

1975-1979: Mike Schmidt (38.7), George Brett (34.5), Rod Carew (33.5), Joe Morgan (32.3), Dave Parker (30.1)

In this five-year stretch, Parker hit .300 every year, won two batting titles, twice led the league in slugging percentage, won an MVP Award and finished third twice, had one of the most powerful throwing arms in the game and led the Pirates to a World Series title. And then he wasted away the next four years with cocaine, injuries and the inability to keep his weight down, essentially costing him election to the Hall of Fame.

1976-1980: Mike Schmidt (40.8), George Brett (39.0), Rod Carew (28.5), George Foster (27.3), Dave Winfield (26.2)

The two third basemen had clearly distanced themselves from the pack. Schmidt was the unanimous NL MVP in 1980, but surprisingly Brett wasn’t, despite his .390/.454/.664 line (albeit in 118 games). Reggie Jackson got five first-place votes that year (he hit 41 home runs, but Brett actually drove in more runs and scored nearly as many), Goose Gossage somehow got four, Willie Wilson got one (he was great that year), and Rick Cerone somehow got one after hitting .277 with 15 home runs. MVP votes can be funny stuff.

1977-1981: Mike Schmidt (39.9), George Brett (33.6), Gary Carter (26.4), Buddy Bell (26.3), Keith Hernandez (26.2)

I love that Buddy Bell made it on here.

1978-1982: Mike Schmidt (38.2), George Brett (31.8), Robin Yount (30.2), Gary Carter (29.2), Andre Dawson (28.2)

Yount’s 1982 season may have been the greatest ever for a shortstop: .331/.379/.578 while leading the AL in hits, doubles, slugging percentage, extra-base hits and total bases as he hit 29 home runs, won a Gold Glove and led the Brewers to the playoffs.

1979-1983: Mike Schmidt (39.7), Robin Yount (33.3), George Brett (30.8), Andre Dawson (30.6), Gary Carter (30.3)

Not making the top five: Bob Horner or Sixto Lezcano.

1980-1984: Mike Schmidt (38.5), Robin Yount (37.1), Rickey Henderson (36.7), Gary Carter (31.2), Andre Dawson (29.3)

Here comes Rickey! Because he was a leadoff hitter and not an RBI guy, if anything Henderson was actually underrated in his own time, at least by MVP voters. Baseball-Reference rates Henderson as the best player in the American League four times and No. 2 in two other seasons. He did finish second in the 1981 vote and third in 1985, but it took a monster 1990 season for him to finally win. Even then, he barely edged out Cecil Fielder, even though he actually had a higher OPS (in a tougher park), played better defense and stole 65 bases to Cecil’s zero.

1981-1985: Rickey Henderson (38.1), Mike Schmidt (34.7), Robin Yount (32.1), Gary Carter (31.6), Eddie Murray (29.0)

Henderson’s 1985 was quite remarkable as well, scoring 146 runs in 143 games. Yankees teammate Don Mattingly won the MVP that year, but Rickey was probably the more deserving candidate.

1982-1986: Rickey Henderson (36.7), Cal Ripken (34.7), Wade Boggs (34.5), Mike Schmidt (33.7), Gary Carter (31.6)

Schmidt’s last great season came in 1987. From 1974 to 1987 -- a run of 14 seasons -- his lowest WAR was 5.3. Baseball-Reference ranks him as the first- or second-best position player in the NL in 11 of those 14 seasons.

1983-1987: Wade Boggs (39.6), Rickey Henderson (34.1), Cal Ripken (33.3), Mike Schmidt (31.4), Tim Raines (30.7)

I don’t think many really considered Boggs the best player in baseball during this time, other than maybe Bill James in his 1988 Baseball Abstract. But that was coming off Boggs’ 24-homer season during the rabbit ball year of 1987 and that power surge proved to be a fluke, as he would reach double digits in home runs just one other season. Boggs wasn’t exactly ignored in the MVP voting -- he finished in the top 10 four times, with a best ranking in fourth place in 1985 -- but that seems to back up the idea that the mainstream media viewed him a step behind the best players in the game.

His on-base skills made him an enormously valuable player and while he didn’t hit many home runs, he did top 40 doubles eight times. He led the AL in OBP in six of seven seasons from ’83 to ’89, often by large margins. In 1983, his .444 mark was 30 points better than Rickey Henderson's; in 1985, his .450 mark was 14 points better than that of George Brett, just one of four AL hitters above .400; in 1986, his .453 mark was 48 points above Phil Bradley's; in 1987, a .461 mark put him 23 points better than Paul Molitor; a career-best .476 mark in 1988 was 60 points better than No. 2 Mike Greenwell; in 1989, he was down to .430, yet still joined Alvin Davis and Henderson as the only AL hitters better than .400. OBP is the most important skill for a hitter and Boggs towered above most of his contemporaries.

1984-1988: Wade Boggs (40.7), Rickey Henderson (33.1), Cal Ripken (29.2), Don Mattingly (29.2), Alan Trammell (29.1)

You’ll see Trammell get a couple of top-five spots here. From 1983 to 1990, he averaged 5.6 WAR per season, even though he had a couple of mediocre seasons mixed in: 1985, when he hit .258, and 1989, when he hit .243. He peaked at 8.4 WAR with his stellar 1987 season (.343/.402/.551), leading the Tigers to the AL East title. MVP voters rather famously stiffed Trammell and gave the award to Blue Jays left fielder George Bell. Do not bring this up with Tigers fans -- they’re still angry about it.

1985-1989: Wade Boggs (43.1), Rickey Henderson (35.4), Ozzie Smith (29.9), Tim Raines (26.6), Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken (26.5)

Ozzie actually gets a bit of a bad rap as a hitter, but while he hit just 11 home runs over this five-year span, he hit .281 and averaged 72 walks and 38 stolen bases per season while playing 153-plus games every year. Combined with his brilliant glove, it made him one of the best players in baseball.

1986-1990: Wade Boggs (37.4), Rickey Henderson (35.4), Barry Bonds (31.9), Alan Trammell (30.2), Darryl Strawberry, Cal Ripken (27.4)

I think sometimes we forget how good Strawberry was, viewing his career as a disappointment and waste of talent through the lens of his drug use and other personal problems. But he had power and speed, drew walks and played a decent right field. Critics often focused on his weaknesses -- the strikeouts and the sometimes indifferent play in the field. It all went downhill after one year in Los Angeles, and you sometimes wonder if his career would have turned out differently if he had never left the Mets.

1987-1991: Barry Bonds (37.3), Rickey Henderson (34.8), Wade Boggs (34.8), Cal Ripken (31.8), Will Clark (29.0)

Get used to Bonds topping these lists: He’ll be No. 1 for the next 15 five-year groupings. While Bonds certainly had a breakthrough in 1990, his first MVP season, he was quietly a very good player before that. In 1987, he ranked as the 10th-best position player in the NL; in 1988, he ranked fifth; in 1989, he ranked third. He hit primarily leadoff those seasons, keeping his RBI totals low, but he still had the wide range of skills that he took to another level in 1990.

1988-1992: Barry Bonds (41.9), Rickey Henderson (35.7), Cal Ripken (31.6), Ryne Sandberg (30.8), Will Clark (28.8)

Clark had only two seasons above 5.0 WAR, but his 1989 season was an absolute monster: His .333/.407/.556 line may not wow you at first glance, but consider the offensive context of that year. The National League hit just .246/.312/.365 as a whole. Clark’s best seasons all came in the depressed offensive environment of 1988-1992. If he’d had one of those seasons in 1993, the year the Giants lost the NL West by a game to the Braves, the Giants would have won the division. Instead, Clark had one of his worst years, hitting .283 with 14 home runs.

1989-1993: Barry Bonds (46.3), Rickey Henderson (34.3), Cal Ripken (30.3), Ryne Sandberg (29.4), Ken Griffey Jr. (28.6)

Speaking of 1993, Bonds was off-the-charts spectacular that season, as he led the NL in home runs, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging and total bases, scored 129 runs, won a Gold Glove, stole 29 bases, cured the sick and kept the fog out of San Francisco. An interesting note: Bonds spent most of that season batting fifth, as Dusty Baker wanted to split Clark and Bonds, two left-handed batters, with righty Matt Williams. So Baker hit his best hitter fifth, giving him fewer plate appearances over the course of the season (about 30 fewer than if he’d hit third all season), and the hitter with the lowest OBP fourth, cutting into Bonds’ RBI opportunities. It’s likely that if Baker had gone Williams, Bonds, Clark or Bonds, Williams, Clark, the Giants may have won an extra game or two ... and beat out the Braves.

1990-1994: Barry Bonds (45.0), Ken Griffey Jr. (32.4), Frank Thomas (30.9), Rickey Henderson (29.2), Cal Ripken (28.3)

Ripken appears for the final time, hanging in the top five largely on the strength of his 1991 11.0-WAR season, one of the best ever for a shortstop, when he hit .323 with 34 home runs and 46 doubles. It’s really one of the great outliers in baseball history. Consider his season averages from 1987 through 1993: .252, .264, .257, .250, .323, .251, .257. He won the MVP even though the Orioles lost 95 games -- and he deserved it. (Although he barely edged out Cecil Fielder, who hit .261 with an OPS 80 points lower and played a fat first base versus an excellent shortstop, but heck, he drove in 19 more runs. Man, MVP voters had a big crush on Cecil, didn’t they?)

1991-1995: Barry Bonds (42.6), Frank Thomas (33.3), Ken Griffey Jr. (31.3), Jeff Bagwell (28.8), Rafael Palmeiro (25.9)

You read sometimes that Rafael Palmeiro compiled huge career stats (569 home runs, 1,835 RBIs, 3,020 hits) even though he was never one of the best first basemen in his league. But this would indicate there was clearly a stretch in which he was one of the best players in baseball, although Thomas and Bagwell were also first basemen.

1992-1996: Barry Bonds (45.1), Ken Griffey Jr. (33.7), Jeff Bagwell (32.4), Frank Thomas (29.4), Kenny Lofton (29.5)

Lofton appears on the Hall of Fame ballot next year for the first time and will almost certainly receive less than the 5 percent of the vote needed to remain on it. He was a tremendous player in the mid-to-late '90s, a fleet leadoff man who got on base, tracked down everything in center field and led the AL five straight years in stolen bases. In fact, Baseball-Reference rates Lofton as the best player in the AL in the strike season, a year Lofton hit .349 and had 53 extra-base hits in 112 games.

1993-1997: Barry Bonds (43.9), Ken Griffey Jr. (37.7), Jeff Bagwell (35.8), Mike Piazza (32.7), Frank Thomas (31.0)

The raging debate throughout the '90s was Bonds versus Griffey for title of best player in baseball. The answer, of course, was Bonds. During the decade, Griffey averaged .302/.384/.581 with 38 home runs, 109 RBIs and 15 steals per season. Bonds hit .302/.434/.602 and averaged 36 home runs, 108 RBIs and 34 steals. Griffey won 10 Gold Gloves and Bonds eight, although Griffey started losing a step on defense late in the decade. Bonds led his league five times in OPS in the '90s, Griffey zero. That 50-point edge in OBP essentially means Bonds was creating a similar number of runs as Griffey but using up far fewer outs to do so. He was the better player.

1994-1998: Barry Bonds (42.6), Jeff Bagwell (37.4), Ken Griffey Jr. (35.3), Craig Biggio (32.7), Mike Piazza (31.9)

Yes, Hall of Fame voters, Jeff Bagwell was awesome.

1995-1999: Barry Bonds (40.2), Jeff Bagwell (36.2), Ken Griffey Jr. (33.5), Craig Biggio (33.1), Mike Piazza (32.2)

My man Edgar Martinez checks in at sixth during this period.

1996-2000: Barry Bonds (41.6), Alex Rodriguez (37.8), Jeff Bagwell (36.3), Ken Griffey Jr. (35.8), Mike Piazza (31.1)

By Baseball-Reference WAR, A-Rod’s best season was 2000, his final year in Seattle, when he hit .316/.420/.606 with 41 home runs. When you factor in that he did that while (A) playing in Safeco Field, and (B) playing a good shortstop, it makes sense.

1997-2001: Barry Bonds (43.3), Alex Rodriguez (36.4), Jeff Bagwell (33.3), Sammy Sosa (30.9), Andruw Jones (30.1)

Andruw Jones? Yes, Andruw Jones. He actually ranks one spot ahead of teammate Chipper Jones for this span and the next one as well, and will appear a couple of other times as well. From 1997 through 2006, A-Jones averaged 5.8 WAR per season, with 2.4 per season coming from his otherworldly defense. Then he turned 30, got fat and his career went downhill faster than Bode Miller.

1998-2002: Barry Bonds (46.7), Alex Rodriguez (39.8), Jason Giambi (35.5), Sammy Sosa (34.0), Andruw Jones (33.0)

Well, yes, that’s an interesting collection of players.

1999-2003: Barry Bonds (47.3), Alex Rodriguez (39.9), Jason Giambi (36.9), Todd Helton (31.4), Andruw Jones (30.9)

Will Helton have much of a Hall of Fame case? Despite a .323 career average, the lack of support Larry Walker has received indicates that Helton will likewise suffer a similar fate. His Coors Field home/road splits are generally less dramatic than Walker’s, but his bad back probably ruined his Hall of Fame chances.

2000-2004: Barry Bonds (56.1), Alex Rodriguez (41.1), Todd Helton (36.7), Jim Edmonds (36.1), Albert Pujols (33.0)

Yes, 56.1 WAR over five seasons. Babe Ruth’s best five-year stretch was 1920 to 1924, when he accumulated 59.7 WAR. Willie Mays’ best five-year stretch was 1961-65, with 51.4 WAR. Over those five seasons, Bonds posted a .535 on-base percentage. He drew 232 walks in 2004 alone (120 intentional). Compare that to, I don’t know, how about Andre Dawson? From 1985 through 1991, Dawson drew 234 walks over seven seasons.

2001-2005: Barry Bonds (47.8), Albert Pujols (41.2), Alex Rodriguez (38.5), Jim Edmonds (36.1), Todd Helton (32.3)

Edmonds’ career counting numbers -- 393 home runs, 1,199 RBIs, 1,949 hits -- are generally short of Hall of Fame standards for an outfielder. But his .284/.376/.527 batting line is impressive, and he won eight Gold Gloves, played in seven postseasons (and hit .274/.361/.513) and had this terrific peak. His career WAR of 67.9 is similar to that of players such as Brooks Robinson (69.1), Barry Larkin (68.9), Tony Gwynn (68.4), Duke Snider (67.5), Eddie Murray (66.7), Gary Carter (66.3), Willie McCovey (65.1) and Ozzie Smith (64.6).

2002-2006: Albert Pujols (42.6), Barry Bonds (39.9), Alex Rodriguez (34.7), Jim Edmonds (31.3), Andruw Jones (28.4)

Pujols’ run in MVP voting is amazing: fourth, second, second, third, first, second, ninth, first, first, second and fifth. That’s 11 straight top-10 finishes (and 10 in the top five). I believe Mays is the only player with a similar run: He had 10 straight top-six finishes from 1957 to 1966 and 12 in 13 seasons, with only a 17th-place finish in 1956 tarnishing a run of 13 straight top-sixes.

2003-2007: Albert Pujols (45.1), Alex Rodriguez (36.4), Barry Bonds (31.0), Ichiro Suzuki (28.7), Carlos Beltran (28.3)

The great thing about using a metric like WAR is it does truly measure the great all-around players like Ichiro and Beltran. Ichiro certainly has had his detractors, and while he never drew many walks or hit many home runs, he was still a career .326 hitter who played great defense, was a terrific percentage base-stealer (45-of-47 in 2006, for example) and was extremely durable. Wait, did I just write that in the past tense?

2004-2008: Albert Pujols (43.8), Alex Rodriguez (34.1), Ichiro Suzuki (28.2), Carlos Beltran (27.7), Chipper Jones (26.8)

A-Rod won two MVP awards in this five-year span yet still doesn’t touch Pujols in cumulative WAR.

2005-2009: Albert Pujols (43.6), Chase Utley (32.8), Alex Rodriguez (31.8), Joe Mauer (31.6), Mark Teixeira (28.0)

Utley did everything well in this period but was criminally underrated by the mainstream media, as teammates Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won MVP awards.

2006-2010: Albert Pujols (42.5), Joe Mauer (34.1), Chase Utley (31.2), Hanley Ramirez (29.3), Alex Rodriguez (26.6)

You can make the argument that Mauer deserved MVP awards in 2006, 2008 and 2009. He won in ’09, finishing sixth and fourth the other two seasons.

2007-2011: Albert Pujols (39.6), Chase Utley (29.1), Joe Mauer (28.8), Adrian Gonzalez (26.6), Matt Holliday (26.4)

And this takes us up to the present. Amazingly, Utley still ranks second on the list despite two straight injury-plagued seasons. In fact, considering Pujols had his worst season in 2011 and A-Rod has battled injuries and decline, the title of “best player in baseball” is more wide open than it’s been in years. Some of the recent pretenders to the throne developed injuries (Grady Sizemore, Hanley Ramirez, David Wright). Some of the best hitters have limited defensive value (Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun). Some of the best players in 2011 have to prove they can do it again (Matt Kemp, Jacoby Ellsbury). Maybe the best player is still Pujols. Maybe it’s Jose Bautista. Maybe it’s a younger player such as Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki or Joey Votto.

Or maybe it’s just as well to have the debate unsettled and ongoing. After all, it gives us something fun to discuss in the middle of winter.