I’m going to take a bit of a break from the rundown of every team in order to talk about a very intriguing episode I recently saw on MLB Network. They decided to go through the history of baseball, and determine who the greatest player in history is to ever wear the numbers 1-50. I thought this was a fantastic idea, and a great opportunity for debate and lively discussion. So, I’m going to go through and give you my picks, and we’ll see how it goes from there. We’ll start with the first 10 – #’s 41-50.
#50 – Well, there have been very few players to wear #50 that are of any historical significance. Matt Lawtonwas a career .267 hitter for 12 seasons with a career .785 OPS, mostly with the Twins. He went to 2 All-Star games (’00 & ’04), but that wasn’t quite enough to take the top spot here. Our winner is Sid Fernandez. The lefty starter for 15 seasons (10 with the Mets) was good enough to make consecutive All-Star Game appearances (’86-’87), and had several very good seasons – four seasons with an ERA below 3.00, and finished with a career 3.36 ERA. He was also an important part of the World Series champion Mets in ’86.
#49 – Tim Wakefield won Rookie of the Year in ’92, and was 3rd in Cy Young voting in ’95, and made his lone All-Star appearance in ’09. And, while he did pitch on two World Series winners in Boston, he never put together the total package in any one season to take a serious run at the Cy Young. Larry Dierker was a 2-time All-Star for the Astros in ’69 & ’71. And, while he never pitched in the postseason as a player, his greater achievements came in the years he was the manager of the same team. In 5 seasons as the head coach of the Astros, he led them to win the division 4 times, and was NL Manager of the Year in ’98. But, none of those Astros teams ever won a postseason series – in fact, they only won 2 postseason games in 4 appearances. So, our winner is Ron Guidry, who spent 14 seasons with the Yankees, and helped them win consecutive World Series titles in ’77 & ’78. Guidry appeared in 4 All-Star Games (’78-’79, ’82-’83), won 5 Gold Gloves (’82-’86), and won the Cy Young in ’78 (and came in 2nd in ’85 and 3rd in ’79). That ’78 season was one of the greatest seasons a pitcher has ever had, as he was 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, 248 K’s, and a 0.94 WHIP. He finished 2nd in the MVP voting as well that season.
#48 – No team has ever retired the number 48. And, it doesn’t look like we’re anywhere close to that happening in the future. So, the best to wear the number is probably Torii Hunter. A four-time all-star in 15 seasons (so far), split between the Twins and Angels. But, he’s certainly more well known for his defense, as he won 9 consecutive Gold Gloves from ’01-’09. Though, he did win his first Silver Slugger in ’09 with a .299 avg., 22 home runs, 90 rbi’s, and an .873 OPS.
#47 – There’s only one clear choice here. The only #47 that’s been retired by his team. 22 seasons. 305 career wins. 3.54 career ERA. 10 All-Star games, 4 Silver Sluggers, and 2 Cy Young awards (’91 & ’98), as well as 4 other finishes in the top 3. Who is this future HOFer? None other than Tom Glavine.
#46 – Another number that hasn’t been retired by any team. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great players that have worn this number. However, this is also the first place I have to take issue with MLB Network’s choice. They chose Andy Pettitte. Pettitte is absolutely a very good player. But, in 16 seasons, he only won 240 games with a 3.88 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP. It’s not like those numbers are bad, but they aren’t the greatest, especially considering he played on some fantastic teams that could easily pick him up on the days he didn’t pitch well. And for every great performance he had in the postseason, there were just as many series where his ERA was 8.49 or 11.57. He only appeared in 3 All-Star games, and never won a single Gold Glove, Silver Slugger or Cy Young. In fact, he only led the league in any significant pitching category once – with 21 wins in ’96 (and he still finished 2nd in Cy Young voting). Again, I’m not saying Pettitte was a bad pitcher. But, for the purposes of this discussion, he just doesn’t measure up to another guy that wore the number 46 most of his career – Lee Smith, who wore #46 with the Cubs. Lee was a 7-time All-Star during his 18-year career, and he led the league in saves 4 times. In fact, Lee Smith obliterated the career saves record that was set by Rollie Fingers in 1985. When Smith retired, he had more than 130 more saves than Fingers ever did (478), which stood as the all-time record for a decade. Because of his great performance as a closer, many wonder why he isn’t already in the Hall of Fame. But, I don’t think even the most diluted homer of a Yankees fan is going to suggest Pettitte belongs in the Hall. I think this is one of those times when our more recent memories overshadow some of the great players of the previous generation.
#45 – To me, the top two candidates at this number are both so good, I can’t even figure out how to pick one. Can I call it a tie? Okay, let’s not do that. We’ll give honorable mention here to . . . Bob Gibson (who actually was chosen as the winner by MLB Network). It’s in part because of Gibson’s ridiculous season in ’68 that the pitching mound was lowered in ’69 – he was 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA, 268 K’s, and a 0.85 WHIP. He won the Cy Young (one of 2) and the MVP that season as he led the Cardinals to their second consecutive World Series appearance, which they lost. But, he did win 2 rings in ’64 & ’67. Gibson also made 8 All-Star game appearances, and won 9 Gold Gloves. His #45 was retired by the Cardinals in 1975. And, since I have to choose between the two, I’m going to give a very slight edge to . . . Pedro Martinez, who wore #45 from ’94-’09 with the Expos, Red Sox, Mets & Phillies. Gibson’s numbers are staggering, but you have to take into account the years he was playing. As great as his numbers were, he only led the league in wins once, ERA once, K’s once, and WHIP once. Pedro, however, had to pitch from that lowered mound Gibson helped instigate, and pitched during one of the greatest hitting era’s in the history of the game. Yet, Pedro’s numbers are very comparable to Gibson’s – in 73 fewer starts in a far better hitting era, Pedro has a 2.93 ERA (Gibson a 2.91), 219 wins and just 100 losses (a .687 win pct. – Gibson was 251-174, a .591 win pct.), 3,154 K’s (Gibson had 3,117), while walking just 760 (Gibson walked 1,332 – more than 1.5 times as many), a 1.05 WHIP (for his career!!, Gibson’s was 1.19), and an impressive 10 K/9 & 4.15 K/BB ratios (Gibson had 7.2 K/9 and 2.33 K/BB). Add to this the fact that Pedro won one more Cy Young than Gibson, while also finishing 2nd twice, and in the top-5 two more times (while Gibson only had one top-5 finish other than his two wins). And, while Pedro only led the league in wins once, he led the league in ERA 5 times, K’s 3 times, and WHIP 6 times. And Pedro appeared in just as many All-Star games as Gibson. Gibson is a HOFer for a reason, but Pedro was the more dominant pitcher of his era – and may have been one of the most dominant ever for a 4-year stretch from ’97-’00.
#44 – Here’s our first number with multiple HOFer’s that have worn the number (at least until Pedro gets into the HOF for #45). Willie McCovey hit 521 HR’s, won the MVP in ’69, and the Rookie of the Year in ’59, and had his number retired by the Giants in ’75. But, Reggie Jackson overshadows McCovey a bit with his 563 HR’s, 1702 RBI’s, 14 All-Star Game appearances, and MVP in ’73. Jackson wore #44 for the Yankees and Angels, as well as his final year in ’87 when he played one last season in Oakland. And, the Yankees retired his number in ’93. So, who could overshadow these two great Hall of Fame players?? How about the all-time home run king (the one that didn’t use PED’s)? How about the all-time RBI king? How about the guy that’s had his number retired by two teams (the Brewers in ’76 and the Braves in ’77)? How about the guy that appeared in 21 consecutive All-Star games from ’55-’75? How about the guy that finished in the top 3 in MVP voting 7 times, and won it in ’57? I don’t see any way anyone could argue with Hank Aaron as the clear choice for #44.
#43 – This one is a fairly easy choice. In 24-seasons, our winner wore the #43 with 4 different teams (Red Sox, Cubs, A’s, & Cardinals). He won 151 games as a starter from ’75-’86, but wasn’t heading for the Hall of Fame until he went to Oakland in ’87, and became their full-time closer in ’88. Dennis Eckersley went to 4 All-Star games as a closer in 11 seasons. He won the Cy Young and the MVP in ’92. And, he amassed 390 saves (3rd all-time when he retired, and 6th all-time today) in just 10 seasons as a full-time closer.
#42 – Here we have two of the greatest closers in the history of the game. Bruce Sutter set the standard for closers. His split-finger fastball was nearly unhittable. And, he was the first person inducted into the Hall of Fame that spent his entire career as a closer – having never started a single game. His 300 saves and 2.83 ERA are stellar. And, he set the NL record with 45 saves in ’84. Mariano Rivera, however, is probably the greatest closer in the history of the game. He’s already set the all-time record for saves with 603, and still has a year left on his contract. He has a lifetime 2.21 ERA, and a 1.00 WHIP. He also has 42 saves in the postseason, where his ERA is a ridiculous 0.70, and his WHIP is 0.76, and he’s been a part of 5 World Series championships. But, Rivera was fortunate he was already wearing #42 in ’97, because it was that season that Major League Baseball paid the ultimate tribute to the obvious winner for this jersey number – Jackie Robinson. And, for the purposes of this debate, I wasn’t totally sure Robinson was the right choice. Breaking the color barrier is absolutely historic and one of the most important events in the history of the game. But, does that actually make him the “best” player to have worn this number? A little more research suggests that he, in fact, does deserve this title. Rookie of the Year in ’47, the year he dealt with indescribable pressures that no one before or since has faced. MVP in ’49, as well as two more top-10 MVP finishes. A career .409 OBP and .311 batting avg. He led his Dodgers teams to 6 NL pennants, and 1 World Series title. And all of this was done in just 10 seasons in the Majors, since he wasn’t allowed to play until he was already 28 years old.
#41 – Another number with multiple HOFers. Eddie Matthews (Milwaukee Braves) was a fantastic hitter. He slugged 512 home runs, leading the league twice. And, he appeared in 8 All-Star games. Over the course of a career, Matthews’ numbers are great. But, he never really put together that single season of greatness, as he only finished in the top 10 in MVP voting 3 times, reaching as high as 2nd in ’53 and ’59 (the two years he led the league in home runs), and he never won a Gold Glove. Tom Seaver, however, was one of the greatest pitchers of his era, wearing #41 with the Mets, Reds, White Sox & Red Sox, and had it retired by the Mets in ’88. He appeared in 12 All-Star games, winning Rookie of the Year in ’67, and 3 Cy Youngs (’69, ’73 & ’75). He led the league in wins 3 times, ERA 3 times, K’s 5 times, and WHIP 3 times. And, even though he was a pitcher, he had more top-10 finishes in MVP voting than Matthews (5), reaching as high as 2nd in ’69, when he was narrowly beaten by Willie McCovey in one of the tightest votes in history.