Greatest Players to Wear #21-30

The third installation in this series.

#30 – Honorable mention here goes to Orlando Cepeda, who’s #30 was retired in ’99 by the Giants (though, looking at his numbers, I can’t figure how he’s in the HOF, or how he won the MVP in ’67 when no less than 3 players in the NL had better seasons – career .297 avg., led the league in home runs once and rbi twice, and that’s it for significant numbers – 379 career hr’s? 2,351 hits? 1,365 rbi? 7 All-Star Games in 17 seasons? What in the world were the voters thinking made him a Hall of Famer?? It wasn’t his defense – 10 double-digit error seasons, and a -0.1 career defensive WAR. It wasn’t his contribution to 3 World Series teams – a career .207 batter in the postseason, and just .103 for the team that won the one championship he was a part of – very strange.)  Tim “Rock” Raines had his number retired by the Nationals (who were the Expos when he was playing), and there seems to be a big push for him to get into the HOF for some reason.  But, being 5th on the all-time stolen base list isn’t enough.  His game was too one-dimensional to be worthy of the HOF.  Look at the other guys at the top of the stolen base list, and you’ll see guys that were also leading their teams to World Series’, setting scoring records, winning batting championships, etc.  Raines won one batting title, led the league in stolen bases just four times, and never finished higher than 5th in MVP voting in 23 seasons.  But, all of this is a moot point when you’re going up against Nolan Ryan.  In my previous post, he also showed up under #34, but we’re going to give him the top spot here, because his better years were spent wearing #30, which was retired by the Angels in ’92.  Over half of Ryan’s 5,714 strikeouts occurred while wearing this number with the Angels and Mets.  As did 4 of his 7 no-hitters, and 52% of his 324 wins.  

#29 – Another spot for an honorable mention.  John Smoltz will definitely be in the Hall of Fame.  3,084 strikeouts, 213 wins and 154 saves.  He won the Cy Young in ’96, and has a career 3.33 ERA, nearly all with the Atlanta Braves.  But, it’s gonna be tough to overcome a guy who had his #29 retired by two teams (Angels in ’91 & Twins in ’87) – Rod Carew.  Watching Carew swing the bat might make you wonder how he ever hit the ball at all!  But, he certainly was one of the best at doing it – 7 batting championships, won Rookie of the Year in ’67, MVP in ’77, led the league in OBP 4 times, 3,053 hits, a career .328 batting avg., stole 353 bases, and went to an amazing 18 consecutive All-Star games.  

#28 – As the numbers get lower, it’s going to be more and more rare that we see a number that only has one person who’s ever had that number retired.  But, that’s the case here, as there haven’t been very many great #28’s.  In fact, if you want to call them “greats” you’d have to say there’s really only been one ever to wear 28 (unless you want to call the likes of David Justice a “great”).  So, the easy choice here is Bert Blyleven.  Some point to the fact that Blyleven was only in 2 All-Star games, and never won a Cy Young as reason to discredit his place in history.  But, you don’t get to #5 on the all-time strikeout list (3,701) without being an excellent pitcher.  Eight seasons with over 200 K’s, 10 seasons with an ERA of 3.00 or less, and who knows how many more wins beyond his 287 he’d have if he’d played on more winning teams (7 of the 10 seasons with an ERA at or below 3.00, he had double-digit losses in spite of the good ERA and a WHIP of never more than 1.22).  And, Blyleven may have had the best straight curve-ball in the history of the game.  

#27 – This is an incredibly difficult choice.  Three Hall of Famers, all of whom have had their #27 number retired.  What makes this decision so difficult is that between the three of them we have zero MVP awards, one Rookie of the Year, and one Cy Young award.  So, there isn’t one that stands out from the rest when it comes to awards, or even All-Star games (8, 9 & 11 appearances).  So, I’m just gonna go ahead and go with MLB Network’s choice – Carlton Fisk, who wore #27 with the Red Sox from ’71-’80, who retired his number in 2000.  Fisk won Rookie of the Year in ’72, as well as the Gold Glove that year.  And, of this group, he’s the one with 11 All-Star game appearances.  The reason I’m going to give the nod to Fisk here is because of where he ranks among the greatest catchers of all time.  He never led the league in much of anything (except triples in ’72 – how does a catcher do that??), but his numbers as a catcher are among the best ever – 2nd all-time in home runs, 3rd all-time in rbi’s, etc.  Our other two candidates had Hall of Fame careers, for sure, but don’t rank as high at their respective position – which happens to be pitcher for both of them.  Juan Marichal, who wore #27 for the Giants from ’60-’73, has a career 2.89 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP.  He never won a Cy Young, but was unfortunate to be a contemporary of Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson.  Lastly, Catfish Hunter wore #27 for most of his career with the A’s.  He won the Cy Young in ’74, and finished in the top 4 three other times.  

#26 – Once again, I have to take issue with MLB Network’s choice.  There are two Hall of Famers who wore #26 for most of their career.  MLB Network chose Billy Williams as their best player to wear the number, who had his #26 retired by the Cubs in ’87.  His 2,711 hits and 426 home runs are impressive.  And, he did win Rookie of the Year in ’61.  But, he never finished higher than 2nd in MVP voting (’70 & ’72 – when he finished a distant second both times to Johnny Bench, and only accumulated 7 total first-place votes in those two years).  He led the league in runs scored once, hits once, and won one batting title in ’72.  He also only appeared in 6 All-Star games in 18 seasons, and it took him 7 years on the ballot before being elected to the HOF in ’87.  Even as a Cubs fan, I can’t give him the nod here.  That honor has to go to Wade Boggs.  Boggs’ best seasons were spent wearing #26 with the Red Sox, though they have yet to retire it.  Boggs never won an MVP either, but his 3,010 hits in the same number of seasons outshines Williams.  Boggs also won 5 batting crowns, led the league in hits once, runs twice, OBP 6 times, and OPS twice.  Boggs appeared in 12 consecutive All-Star games, won 8 Silver Sluggers (something that wasn’t around when Williams played), and 2 Gold Gloves (something that was around when Williams played).  And, to top it all off, Boggs was a first-ballot HOFer in 2005.  

#25 – Only one player has had his number #25 retired – Jose Cruz, a 2-time All-Star with the Astros in the ’70’s and ’80’s.  I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why they retired his number.  But, in recent years the #25 has been associated with both greatness, and scandal.  Two of the biggest names associated with steroids wore #25.  Yet, they may very well still be the best to ever wear the number.  “Honorable” (if you want to call it that) mention goes to Mark McGwire.  McGwire did win Rookie of the Year in ’87 with Oakland, and set an impressive rookie record with 49 home runs.  But, his career came back down to earth over the next 5 seasons as he averaged just 34 home runs and 96 rbi per season – still very good numbers, and enough to get him into the All-Star game each year, but he only won one Gold Glove and one Silver Slugger in that span.  It’s after the ’92 season that I believe McGwire’s career took a turn toward steroid use.  ’93 and ’94 were seasons riddled with injuries for McGwire, as he only played in a total of 74 games, and hit just 18 home runs.  It makes sense to me that he would seek out ways to heal quicker – which is one of the added “bonuses” of steroid use.  And, it’s after these injury-plagued seasons, when McGwire came back in ’95 at the age of 31, that his numbers began to spike.  From ’96-’99, he averaged 61 home runs per season, when he was ages 32-35.  Instead of the typical downward trend a player sees in his numbers at those ages, McGwire had the best 4 seasons of his career.  When his typical season had been 34 home runs per year, as he grew older, those numbers should have been more in the 25-30 home runs per year range.  His claim that he’s blessed with a “gift to hit home runs” is a little over-stated.  Without steroid use, McGwire may have never been on the field enough to reach 300 home runs.  But, even assuming he recovered and was able to play those seasons without injury, his home run totals would have been more in the 400 range – not 583.  Without steroids, McGwire is an above-average player – but, certainly not a Hall of Famer.  That can’t be said, however, of our winner at #25 – Barry Bonds, who wore #25 in San Francisco because his #24 that he’d worn in Pittsburgh had been retired by the Giants (see the following paragraph).  Can’t stand Barry Bonds as a person? Fine.  Think he’s arrogant and a jerk? Fine.  But, you can NOT deny that he was one of the greatest players to play the game, even before PED’s came into the picture.  In his first 14 seasons (the only ones we can be certain he was clean), Bonds hit 445 home runs, and stole 460 bases – one of only 4 players in baseball history to have over 400 of each at the time.  He led the league in walks 5 times, OBP 4 times, OPS 5 times, and home runs and rbi’s once.  His career OPS at that point was a ridiculous .968!  He had already won 3 MVP’s (and should have won a 4th in ’91, when Terry Pendleton barely beat him in spite of the fact that Bonds had more home runs, 30 more rbi’s, an OPS that was over 40 points higher, and had stolen 33 more bases than Pendleton!), appeared in 8 All-Star games, won 8 Gold Gloves, and 7 Silver Sluggers.  Another 5-6 seasons without steroids, and Bonds still reaches 600+ home runs and 500+ stolen bases fairly easily – the only player ever to reach that high in both categories.  The most stolen bases anyone in the 600-home-run club has, other than Bonds, is Bonds’ godfather, Willie Mays, who has 338!  And Mays is considered by many to be the most complete player in the history of the game!  You may not like that he took steroids, and you may not like his personality.  But, unlike guys like McGwire, Palmeiro, and Sosa, Bonds was one of the all-time greats with or without PED’s.  

#24 – This is the first number we’ve come to that is absolutely loaded with star players.  Six teams have retired #24.  Five of them are Hall of Famers!  In an effort to save time, I’ll simply mention briefly that Whitey Herzog (manager, St. Louis Cardinals), Tony Perez (1B & 3B, Cincinnati Reds), and Walter Alston (manager, Brooklyn & LA Dodgers) all had excellent careers wearing #24.  But their careers don’t really come close to two of the greatest in history.  Rickey Henderson is the greatest lead-off hitter of all time, no questions asked.  He has over 3,000 hits, holds the all-time record for runs scored (2,295), and the all-time record for stolen bases (1,406) with nearly 500 more than 2nd place Lou Brock.  He also appeared in 10 All-Star games, won the MVP in ’90, and won one Gold Glove and 3 Silver Sluggers.  But, no one could ever argue that as great as Rickey was, he didn’t measure up to Willie Mays.  As I said before, Mays is considered by many to be the most complete player in history.  660 home runs ranks him 4th all-time (3rd among non-steroid users).  He also led the league in stolen bases 4 times, leading to a career total of 338.  1,903 rbi’s ranks him 9th all-time.  2,062 runs scored ranks him 7th all-time.  He won Rookie of the Year in ’51, and MVP in ’54 & ’65 (when he was 35 years old!).  In fact, from ’54-’66, Mays finished in the top 6 in MVP voting 12 times, and in the top 3 six times! He appeared in 20 consecutive All-Star games, and won 12 consecutive Gold Gloves in center field.  He has the highest total offensive WAR for any right-handed batter in history, and ranks 9th all-time in career defensive WAR.  Willie Mays could literally do it all.  

#23 – Three teams have retired the number 23.  And, Don Mattingly deserves mention here.  His #23 was retired by the Yankees in ’97.  In 14 seasons, Mattingly won the MVP in ’85, and came in 2nd the following season to Roger Clemens.  He appeared in 6 All-Star games, won 9 Gold Gloves, and 3 Silver Sluggers.  He won a batting title in ’84, led the league in hits twice, and in OPS once.  But, there’s only one Hall of Famer to have his #23 jersey retired – Ryne Sandberg.  Sandberg appeared in 10 consecutive All-Star games, won 9 consecutive Gold Gloves, and 7 Silver Sluggers.  He won the MVP in ’84, and finished in the top 5 in ’89 & ’90. He led the league in runs scored 3 times, and in home runs once (when he hit 40 in 1990 – the 2nd most ever in a single season by a second baseman).  The argument could be made that Sandberg was the greatest all-around second baseman in history.  Rogers Hornsby was definitely the best-hitting second baseman, but he spent nearly 30% of his career at other positions.  Joe Morgan was an offensive juggernaut at second base, but Sandberg broke Morgan’s home-run record for second baseman, and he has a better career batting average than Morgan, and his OPS is right there with him (Morgan – .819, Sandberg – .795).  Plus, Morgan only won 5 Gold Gloves, and actually has a negative career defensive WAR (-5.6).  We won’t even get into the fact that Jeff Kent may hold the record for home runs at 2B, but didn’t start producing until he was 29, and batting in front of Barry Bonds through several questionable seasons regarding the use of PED’s, and never led the league in a single offensive category.  Or the fact that Kent fielded second base about as well as my 3-year-old son could (double-digit errors in 13 of 17 seasons).  Even if you placed Sandberg behind a couple second-baseman offensively, his defense is well ahead of these fellow sluggers.  He still holds the all-time career fielding percentage mark (.989 – Placido Polanco’s is .993, but he’s played nearly half his career at other positions), and set the record for most consecutive games and chances without an error at second base (which was broken in ’08 by Polanco).  His 9 Gold Gloves rank second only to Roberto Alomar (whose offense was a step behind Sandberg), and his career fielding numbers are better even than Bill Mazeroski (half the errors Mazeroski made in just one less season), who many point to as the elite fielding second baseman of all-time.  

#22 – Only one player has had his #22 retired, and the only #22 even close to being worthy of honorable mention here is 6-time All-Star Will Clark, who wore #22 with the Giants and Rangers.  The obvious choice here is Jim Palmer.  In 19 seasons (all with the Baltimore Orioles, who retired his jersey number in ’85), Palmer won 268 games with a career ERA of 2.86, and career WHIP of 1.18.  Palmer won 3 Cy Young awards (’73, ’75 & ’76), and finished in the top 5 in Cy Young voting 5 other times.  Palmer appeared in 6 All-Star games, and won 4 Gold Gloves.  He also helped lead the Orioles to 6 AL championships and 3 World Series titles with his 8-3 record and 2.61 ERA in the postseason.

#21 – Oh, boy.  This is a tough call, and I’m afraid I may upset a few people with my choice here.  Semi-honorable mention will go to Roger Clemens, who wore it for the first 15 seasons of his career.  With all of the speculation about Clemens’ use of PED’s, a quick look at his career tells you a lot.  Through his first 15 seasons, he had accumulated 192 wins, a 3.06 ERA, and 2,590 K’s, on his way to 3 Cy Youngs and an MVP.  Already a Hall of Fame career, had he been willing to allow himself to digress as other players do.  His last 4 seasons with Boston (ages 30-33), saw a major decline in production – just 40 total wins, and a 3.77 ERA and 1.29 WHIP.  It’s no surprise Boston let him go to Toronto in free agency.  And, perhaps it was out of spite toward his former team that Clemens may have began using PED’s.  But, outside of steroids, I’m not sure how you explain a guy going from 40 total wins from the ages of 30-33, to 41 wins in two Cy Young seasons at the ages of 34 & 35, when he’s pitching in the exact same division.  And, some of Clemens’ best seasons were after the age of 35.  That just doesn’t happen without some help.  So, I can’t give him total credit for the 354 wins and 4,672 K’s.  So, the legit honorable mention here will go to the guy MLB Network chose as the top choice here – Roberto Clemente.  I know, I know.  Clemente was a fantastic player with the Pirates, who retired his number in ’73.  3,000 hits. A career .317 batting average, leading to 4 batting crowns.  12 All-Star games, 12 Gold Gloves and an MVP while playing for 2 World Champions.  All before his career was tragically cut short when he died in a plane crash after the ’72 season.  But, I believe this is another case where we have aggrandized a player because his career was cut short.  Don’t get me wrong here – Clemente was a Hall of Famer before the accident.  But, I think we might be forgetting the fact that he was already 37 when he passed away, and had already played 18 seasons.  And, the season before the accident, he’d only hit .312 (his 2nd lowest in the last decade), and only had 118 hits (his lowest total since his 3rd season in the league!).  At best, I’d say Clemente only had about 4-5 more seasons left in him, and I think half of those would have been mediocre.  He could have climbed up the all-time hits leaderboard a little more, but that’s about all he could have done offensively.  Another Gold Glove or two would solidify him as one of the greatest fielding right-fielders ever (if he wasn’t already considered such).  So, let’s not pretend he was greater than he was – just one MVP, and only 3 top-5 finishes besides the win; led the league in hits twice, and that’s it, other than his batting championships.  A great player for sure, but I have to give the “greatest to wear #21” title to Warren Spahn, who wore the number with the Boston/Milwaukee Braves, and had his number retired in ’65.  While Clemente only led the league a few times in any category, Spahn’s career is littered with numbers that led the league – wins 8 times, ERA 3 times, shutouts 4 times, K’s 4 times, WHIP 4 times.  Spahn also won a Cy Young in ’57, and finished in 2nd 3 other times, and 3rd once.  In fact, Spahn has as many top-5 finishes in MVP voting as Clemente did (4), and he was a pitcher! And, if you want to talk about a career being cut short, how about Spahn missing 3 full seasons – not at the end of his career, but at the beginning – due to his enlisting in the Army during World War II.  Despite missing those years, Spahn still has more wins than any other left-handed pitcher (363 – 6th all-time), and could very well have finished his career 2nd all-time, behind only Cy Young himself, had he not missed those 3 years.  14 All-Star games, 3 pennants, and 1 World Series championship round out the resume of this spectacular pitcher.

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