There's something important you should know about our insane attempt to rank the top 100 baseball players of all time. This list was not assembled by mathematicians, statisticians, sabermetricians, academicians or even dieticians.
No sir. This list was assembled by us. By actual human beings. By a bunch of people who love baseball. Who cover baseball. Who write and talk about baseball. And who are pretty sure that we know a little something about baseball (or at least we used to be pretty sure, until we read our Twitter replies).
So as you rummage through these rankings, it won't take long before the truth hits you. Some of the players on this list are way, way, way too high. Or way, way, way too low.
Let's face it. Ken Griffey Jr. was not the 14th-best player in history. Roberto Clemente was not the 18th-best. Johnny Bench was not the 29th-best. Mariano Rivera was not the 49th-best. They were great. They were cool. They were awesome to watch. But you know what else they clearly were, judging by these rankings? Overrated. By us, anyway.
On the other hand, I'm not sure how we can possibly explain why Honus Wagner, Cy Young and good old Roger Clemens didn't even make our top 10. Heck, Tris Speaker didn't even dent our top 40. Mel Ott didn't crack our top 50. Grover Cleveland Alexander wasn't even in our top 90.
Wow. That's pretty, pretty, pretty crazy when you step back and think about it. But maybe these men always wanted to be considered underrated some day. Well, congratulations to them. They finally made it.
Then there is a third group of iconic players on this list, men who fascinate me by where they wound up in these rankings. Pedro Martinez at No. 11. Joe DiMaggio at No. 15. Sandy Koufax at No. 16. Jackie Robinson at No. 30. Hmmmmm. Are we sure about those numbers? Really sure? Boy, I don't know about that.
Our hearts tell us: "We love those guys. What's the problem?" Then we hear a voice speaking to us from the computer command center, which may or may not (we can't confirm) be located in Bill James' attic. That voice is wondering what the heck got into us. That voice has checked the numbers, apparently. Now it wants some explanations.
Somehow or other, we managed to rank Pedro as the second-greatest pitcher in the history of baseball, behind only Walter Johnson. And we ranked Koufax as the fourth-greatest (with Greg Maddux squeezing in between Pedro and Koufax). Wait. We did what?
We ranked both of them ahead of Cy Young (No. 17), Christy Mathewson (No. 28), Clemens (No. 19), Bob Gibson (No. 20) and Tom Seaver (No. 34)? And we ranked them so far ahead of poor Grover Cleveland Alexander (No. 97), he'd need to change elevators three times just to get to check in with the receptionist in their penthouse.
So what's up with that? Um, let me tell you what I think was up with that.
I believe there's a mysterious force that washes over us as we watch sports, and especially as we watch certain charismatic people who play those sports. We're so drawn to them when they're at their greatest, we're willing to pretend that that's what they always were. Forever and ever.
I once wrote a book on the most overrated and underrated baseball players of all time ("The Stark Truth," still available wherever books are sold online, by the way). So I devoted like 50,000 words of eloquent prose to this subject. It was a book that kept coming back to one overriding theme, about how perception and reality can be two very different things. And since it generated so much "conversation" (polite word of the day) when I used that theme to explain why I thought Koufax was (gasp) overrated, let's start with him.
If we use wins above replacement to measure Koufax's all-time greatness, baseball-reference.com tells us he was not quite the fourth-best starting pitcher in the history of the universe. He was, well, the 117th. But hey, he's ahead of Bartolo Colon (No. 129) anyway.
Maybe that's unfair, though, since we're talking about a man whose throbbing elbow forced him to retire at 30 years old. So any data based on longevity doesn't apply to the great Koufax, right? His awesomeness was defined by his best years, not his staying power.
So instead, we'll use Jay Jaffe's fantastic invention, JAWS, to measure Koufax's standing among the legends. JAWS also factors in a player's seven-year peak, which would seem to be right in Koufax's wheelhouse. Naturally then, JAWS elevates Koufax's standing considerably -- all the way up to (uh-oh) the 88th-greatest starter of all time. Behind the likes of Tim Hudson, Dave Stieb and Chuck Finley, but ahead of Mark Buehrle and Mark Langston at least.
I could explain more about why that is, but whatever. This is all we really need to know about how perception and reality diverge when anyone mentions that magical name, Koufax.
There's a certain romance that wraps itself around someone like him. Someone who disappears into the shadows of time at not just the peak of his own greatness but a peak that eclipses almost any pitcher's greatness.
That peak really lasted only four spectacular years, which you maybe can stretch to six if you're the biggest Koufax fan in the universe and you want acknowledgement of the two B-plus seasons that led up to that peak. But if you want to reflect on the very nature of perception versus reality, reflect on that.
All we have, in Koufax's case, is this: He was great. No, he was the greatest. And then he was gone. Click. So the perception of the superhuman phase of his career blots out all the reality those numbers above reflect. In reality, Koufax's period of greatness was way too brief to merit ranking where he ranks on this list. He rode the perception express to a place he honestly shouldn't reside. And that's OK. It tells us something.
It's not exactly what it tells us about Pedro, but it's similar, right? JAWS would say he was the 21st-best starter ever, not the second-best. But here's the deal. Every one of us who voted remembers Pedro Martinez when he was at the pinnacle of his inimitable Pedro-esque brilliance. Grover Cleveland Alexander? Apparently, we're a little fuzzier in our memories of him.
So it was our vivid recollection of that Pedro, the dude firing 17-strikeout one-hitters at Yankee Stadium, that drove us to pile on the votes that landed him at No. 11 overall on the top 100, and No. 2 among starting pitchers. And that's OK, too. We might not be able to justify it mathematically. But it's a reflection of who we are, just as much as a reflection of the dominator he could be on any given trip to the mound.
Then there is DiMaggio. When I was writing my book, I talked to people who were trying to convince me he was the most overrated center fielder who ever lived. You know what I told them? No, he wasn't. But I've never stopped thinking about those debates. How could I?
Joe DiMaggio played baseball at a time when very few people actually saw him play baseball. So there are really two versions of DiMaggio's career. There is the actual version, where he shows up as the sixth-greatest center fielder of all time, according to both JAWS and WAR. Then there is the romanticized version, where it feels as if he's hitting in 56 straight every season, in between dates with Marilyn Monroe.
Should we have ranked the actual DiMaggio at No. 15, ahead of Rogers Hornsby, ahead of Frank Robinson, ahead of Mike Schmidt and Jimmie Foxx? Of course not. The actual Joe D should have shown up at No. 68, according to wins above replacement. Apparently, we're romantics here at #MLBRank headquarters. Who knew?
Finally, there's Jackie. In one corner of my brain, I cheered when I saw Jackie Robinson at No. 30 on this list. It's a reflection not only of the player he was but also the man he was. And the history-altering figure he was. We should never forget he was all of that and more.
In the other corner of my brain, where the baseball historian in me still needs to be heard, I had to admit I asked myself: Isn't No. 30 kind of high? Truthful answer: Yeah, it is.
We were instructed as voters to factor in players' Negro League accomplishments. But remember, Robinson played only one season in the Negro Leagues, followed by 10 seasons in the big leagues. He was an amazing player. Rookie of the Year. MVP. Two stolen-base titles -- including one in a season in which he also won a batting title and slugged .528. But he was not the 30th-best baseball player of all time.
WAR ranks him as the 165th-best. As voters, we ignored that. We rewarded him for being one of the five most important baseball players of all time. No one told us we couldn't. Hey, it's our list. So we get to place him anywhere we like.
As with all rankings -- whether it's the greatest baseball players of all time or the greatest ice-cream flavors of all time -- certain things don't always apply. Science. Math. Facts. Reason. Reality. All optional.
Perception? Emotion? Pure, unabashed irrationality? They can be powerful forces when someone says: Start ranking! So feel free to disagree. Feel free to debate. But don't call us crazy. You know what we really are? Human. That's all.