Greatest Players to Wear #31-40

A continuation of the series I started the other day.  In many cases, I’ll agree with MLB Network’s choice, but in some cases you’ll see I disagree.  So, let’s keep going:

#40 – MLB Network chose Troy Percival for this spot.  And, Percival does have a fairly impressive resume.  4-time All-Star, a World Series ring, and ranks 8th on the all-time saves list with 358 saves.  But, he never led the league in saves, has a career 3.17 ERA (a little high for a closer), never led the league in any statistical category, and those 4 all-star appearances were spread out over a 14-year career with the Angels and Rays.  Again, Percival was a very good closer for many years, but I think perhaps the more deserving candidate is someone who has had their #40 retired – Danny Murtaugh.  Murtaugh had an okay career as a player, leading the league in stolen bases in 1941.  But, he wore the #40 as a manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  In 4 different stints with the team (once on just an interim basis), he led the team to 5 division titles, 2 National League pennants, and 2 World Series titles (’60 & ’71), winning over 1,000 games along the way. And the Pirates retired his number in 1977, after Murtaugh passed away 2 months after he retired the final time.  Most baseball fans today are going to remember Percival a lot quicker than Murtaugh, but I believe Murtaugh’s contribution was a little more significant.  

#39 – This number doesn’t have many options.  Possibly the second best choice here is the likes of Mike Greenwell, who played 12 seasons in Boston, accumulated a .303 career average, appeared in 2 All-Star games, and finished a distant 2nd in the MVP voting in ’88.  The best to wear the number, however, is the only one to ever have his #39 retired – Roy Campanella.  “Campy” only played 10 seasons in the majors, as his career was cut short by a paralyzing car accident.  So, while his career stats aren’t staggering (especially since he was a catcher), he still had a fantastic career.  He’s still in the top 10 in home runs for catchers, he still appeared in 8 All-Star games, he still won 3 MVP’s (’51, ’53 & ’55), and helped his Brooklyn Dodgers to 5 World Series appearances.  Unfortunately for Campanella, every time they made it to the Series, they had to face the Yankees who were in the midst of winning 7 championships in 9 years.  So, one of those years they didn’t win was the one year Campy’s Dodgers were able to prevail.  

#38 – Here we have another number that has yet to be retired by any team.  But, even if the number doesn’t end up being retired, there’s almost definitely one player heading for the Hall of Fame that wore #38.  He struck out 3,116 batters (15th all-time) over 20 seasons.  He won 4 World Series titles with 3 different teams.  He appeared in 6 All-Star games, and finished 2nd in Cy Young voting 3 different times, and finished 4th once.  He led the league in wins twice, WHIP twice, and K/BB ratio 5 times.  But, in spite of all those accolades, he’s most often remembered for a bloodstained piece of footwear.  Curt Schilling had an impressive career with the Phillies, Diamondbacks and Red Sox, and doesn’t really have any legit challengers at #38 at this point.  If Carlos Zambrano could figure out how to keep his emotions in check, he might eventually could challenge Schilling.  But, not at this point.

#37 – Another number with little-to-no competition.  With all due respect to 7-time All-Star Dave Stieb, there’s just no one close to the manager who led the New York Yankees to 10 AL pennants and 7 World Series titles in 12 seasons as their coach (’49-’60).  Casey Stengel ranks 11th on the all-time wins list as a manager, and had his number retired by the Mets in ’65 (who he managed from ’62-’65), and the Yankees in ’70.  

#36 – Two Hall of Fame pitchers, and a third pitcher with nearly HOF credentials occupy #36.  Jim Kaat won 283 games in 25 seasons (mostly with the Minnesota Twins), and won an unprecedented 16 Gold Gloves.  But, Kaat only had one top-10 finish in Cy Young voting, and only appeared in 3 All-Star games.  Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts also wore #36 – which was retired by the Phillies in ’62.  He won 286 games in just 19 seasons.  Roberts’ best seasons were prior to the existence of the Cy Young award, but he appeared in 7 consecutive All-Star games, and led the league in wins 4 times, strikeouts twice, and WHIP once.  But, in spite of the impressive resumes of these two guys, there’s one more pitcher that stands ahead of the rest – Gaylord Perry.  314 wins (17th all time), 3,534 K’s (8th all time), a career ERA of 3.11, 2 Cy Young awards (’72 & ’78), as well as 3 more top-10 Cy Young finishes, and 5 All-Star game appearances.  His #36 jersey was retired in ’05 by the Giants. 

#35 – This is easily the toughest call up to this point.  One Hall of Famer, and one that will be eventually.  One was a pitcher from ’64-’87.  The other a first baseman and DH from ’90-’08.  It’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, since they played in different era’s and played entirely different positions.  But, I’m going to have to give my runner-up award to Phil Niekro.  His 318 wins place him 16th all time, but his 274 losses are 5th all time (he had 18+ losses 5 times!).  His 3,342 K’s are 11th all-time, but he only led the league in K’s once in 24 seasons (21 with the Braves, who retired his jersey number in ’84).  5 All-Star appearances, and 5 Gold Gloves helped him get into the HOF.  But, he never won a Cy Young, and finished in the top 5 only 3 times.  So, in my opinion, Frank Thomas had the better career.  Wearing #35 for the White Sox, A’s and Blue Jays, Thomas amassed 521 home runs in 19 seasons (18th all time), 1,704 rbi’s (22nd all time), and a career .301 batting average (which includes a batting crown in ’97 when he hit .347).  Thomas led the league in walks 4 times, on-base pct. 4 times, and OPS 4 times, including one of the best years anyone has ever had in ’94 when his OPS was 1.217 (22nd best in the history of the game!).  Thomas appeared in 5 All-Star games, won 4 Silver Sluggers, and back-to-back MVP awards in ’93 & ’94.  He also finished in the top 5 in MVP voting 4 other times.  And, thanks to his great career, the White Sox retired his number in 2010.

#34 – This is another very tough call.  Nolan Ryan wore #34 for 14 of his 27 seasons (and had it retired by both Houston & Texas), but for reasons you’ll see later, we’re gonna hold off on giving him the title here (though the argument could possibly be made that half of Nolan Ryan’s career might be better than most anyone’s entire career!).  The remaining two candidates are both HOFers.  And, this is another time I can’t agree with MLB Network.  Their choice was Kirby Puckett, whose #34 was retired in ’97 by the Twins.  And, I loved watching Puckett play.  The ’91 World Series, in my opinion, is still the best ever (followed closely by ’01 and ’11), and Puckett had a lot to do with why it was so great.  And, yes he was on 2 World Series champions.  Yes, he was in 10 All-Star games.  Yes, he won 6 Gold Gloves and 6 Silver Sluggers.  But, he never won an MVP.  In fact, he finished 3rd twice, and 2nd once, and only received 3 first-place votes total.  And, as much as people want to give him credit for the years he didn’t get to play, because of a rare optical disease, people tend to forget that he was already 35, and had spent much of his career in center field on astro-turf.  Even if he had lasted 4-5 more seasons, 3,000 hits would have been very difficult to reach.  So, I’m going to give the nod here to Rollie Fingers.  Fingers spent 17 seasons with Oakland, San Diego, and Milwaukee.  His #34 was retired in ’93 by Oakland, and also in ’92 by Milwaukee.  Fingers was the closer for 3 World Series champions (’72-’74), and won the World Series MVP in ’74.  Fingers was in 7 All-Star games, and led the league in saves 3 times, on his way to 341 career saves (10th all time), which was the record when he retired.  But, what really pushes Fingers over the edge for me is his ’81 season, in which he won the Cy Young and the MVP.  

#33 –  This is one that thoroughly confuses me.  There have been some very good (though not all-time great) players to wear this number.  The likes of Jose Canseco, Joe Carter, and Mike Scott (whose #33 was retired by the Houston Astros in ’92).  But, they’re clearly overshadowed by two HOFers who wore #33.  What confuses me is MLB Network’s choice.  Eddie Murray was a great player for 21 seasons, and his #33 was retired in ’98 by the Orioles.  He amassed 3,255 hits over 21 seasons, though he had only one season with more than 150 in his last seven years, and never led the league in hits in any season.  His career batting average is .287, and he hit under .300 for 2/3 of his career.  And, while he accumulated 504 home runs, he never hit more than 33 in any season, and only led the league in the strike-shortened ’81 season. He won Rookie of the Year in ’77, won just 3 Gold Gloves and just 3 Silver Sluggers.  And, he never won an MVP.  “Everyday” Eddie accumulated some big numbers, but wasn’t overly dominant during his career (a fact that causes some to question his spot in the HOF).  How MLB Network chose Murray over one of the greatest players to ever step foot on a baseball field is beyond me.  He’s one of the original 5 members of the Hall of Fame.  He finished second only to Ty Cobb in HOF voting – and was tied with Babe Ruth!  He’s considered by many, even today, to be the greatest shortstop to ever play the game.  He won 8 batting titles, which ties him with Tony Gwynn for most ever.  He finished his career with 3,420 hits (7th all time), 723 stolen bases (10th all time), and 1,733 rbi’s (21st all time).  Honus Wagner had an amazing career.  He never won an MVP because they didn’t start giving out the award until 1911, when he was already 37 years old (but, he finished 2nd in the MVP voting by only 5 votes in 1912 when he was 38!).  He did, however, lead the league in runs scored twice, hits twice, doubles seven times, triples three times, rbi’s five times, stolen bases five times, on-base pct. four times, and in spite of only hitting 101 career home runs, he led the league in slugging six times, and OPS eight times.  And, even though he hit 400 fewer home runs than Murray, he finished his career with a higher OPS (.858 to .836), and a batting average that’s 41 points higher (.328 to .287).  The Pirates retired his number in ’56, and I’m baffled by anyone that would choose Eddie Murray over Honus Wagner.

#32 – When I first saw the show on MLB Network, and I saw that Steve Carlton (whose #32 was retired in ’89 by the Phillies) was 2nd best here, I thought they were crazy.  A 4-time Cy Young award winner is second?  The pitcher that’s 4th all-time in strikeouts with 4,136 K’s is in second place?  Who’s the 10-time All-Star, 4-time leader in wins, 5-time strikeout leader, 4-time NL Champ, and 2-time World Series champion going to take a back seat to?  And, even when they said the name Sandy Koufax I was still a little skeptical.  I’ve always thought Koufax was one that we assumed a little too much about, just because we didn’t get to see him finish his career the way we would have liked.  So, I looked it up.  Koufax played 12 years for the Dodgers, though his first 3 seasons only saw limited playtime (only 28 total starts in 3 years).  So, realistically, Koufax’s full-time career didn’t start until he was 21, and he only had 9 seasons before he had to retire due to arthritis in his hand.  What did those 9 seasons produce for Koufax? 156 wins, 2.64 ERA, 2,214 K’s, 1.08 WHIP, 3-time league leader in wins (including his final season), 5 consecutive years leading the league in ERA (including his final one), 4-time leader in strikeouts (including the 2nd most since 1900 with 382 in ’65), 4-time WHIP leader, 6-time K/9 leader, and 4-time K/BB ratio leader.  On top of these gaudy numbers, Koufax appeared in 6 All-Star games, won 3 Cy Youngs, one MVP, and finished 2nd in MVP voting two more times.  You can pick any consecutive 9 years in Carlton’s career, and his numbers won’t come close to Koufax’s.  Even moderate projections make 3,000+ K’s and 300+ wins a reasonable expectation for Koufax, had he played a typical career.

#31 – Interestingly, both of the best candidates here have had their number retired by the same team – the Chicago Cubs, who decided to retire the number in honor of both players in ’09.  To me, the choice between the two is so obvious it’s painful.  But, MLB Network must be looking at something besides the numbers.  Their choice was Ferguson (Fergie) Jenkins, but I think the clear choice is Greg Maddux (whose #31 was also retired in ’09 by the Braves).  Here’s the comparison:  Wins – Maddux, 355; Jenkins, 284.  Career ERA – Maddux, 3.16; Jenkins, 3.34 (in a much more pitcher-friendly era).  Career Strikeouts – Maddux, 3,371; Jenkins, 3,192.  Career WHIP – Maddux, 1.14; Jenkins, 1.14.  Career K/BB ratio – Maddux, 3.37; Jenkins, 3.20.  All-Star appearances: Maddux – 8, Jenkins – 3.  Cy Young awards: Maddux – 4, Jenkins – 1.  Gold Glove awards: Maddux – 18; Jenkins – 0.  Where do you go to decide that Jenkins was better than Maddux??  I don’t see any way that’s possible.

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