A Timeline of the Best Players Ever: Now with Pitchers

Last week, I posted a visual timeline of the best position players in the history of the game. Wins Above MVP Level (WAM) is the metric I used. I must say, I was quite proud of that graph. It was pretty… there were no blatant surprises in the data… the timeline couldn't have covered the history of Major League Baseball any better. It was fun.

Of course, as anticipated, in the comments the brilliant and surprisingly attractive readership asked to see what the pitchers would look like. I said "Ah ha! That comes next week!" So, before I turn this post into 2,000 words (meaning a picture, plus 1,000 actual words... get it?), let's show the pretty picture.

The original graph featured 20 players. Seven pitchers had more career WAM than the 20th-ranked position player. Instead of producing a new graph with 27 players on it, I added the next three players in WAM to make a nice round 30 (two hitters—Eddie Mathews and Wade Boggs—and an eighth pitcher). Here's the new graph with everyone shown together:

Wam-combined_medium

Click to make it bigger or read on for an explanation of the troubles I had with pitchers.

Perhaps you're saying "That's swell, but I wish I could see what the graph would look like with just the pitchers." I've got you covered:

Wam-p_medium

A few notes of… note:

  • WAM for pitchers simply isn't as reliable as it is for hitters. For example, offensive roles have largely stayed the same over the course of history. There are nine hitters. They bat in order. With the exception of the shift from 154 to 162 games, playing time has more or less been consistent.
  • Then there are pitchers. In 1884, single-season WAR (and therefore WAM) record-holder Charlie Radbourn pitched 678.2 innings. The top 104 seasons on the single-season innings pitched list occurred in the 1800s. Modern pitchers simply cannot be compared to their 1800s counterparts. For that reason, I constrained this graph to 1901-present.
  • Then there's the Wilbur Wood problem. Was Wilbur Wood one of the greatest pitchers of the 20th century? WAM thinks so. Wood's career WAR is 45.0, but from 1971 to 1975 he produced 36.0 of that (and all of his 9.4 WAM). He did this not just through excellent pitching (he had a 120 ERA+ over that stretch) but by throwing more innings than everyone else. In a way, he got on this list for the very same reason I slashed all pre-1901 pitchers from qualifying (though not the extent). The Wilbur Wood problem is also the reason I removed the "A Timeline of the Best Players Ever" title from the pitcher graph. I just didn't feel it was true (or as true as it was in the position player graph).
  • Lastly, three pitchers here actually started their careers before 1901, so they're not getting full credit for their careers. I redid the chart to give these guys credit for all their work:

Wam-p2_medium

There's the Cy Young they named an award after!

The astute reader will notice that Kid Nichols appears in the very first graph, but not the others. That is because the vast majority of his value came in the 19th century. However, he's a bit "more modern" than guys like Radbourne. In this old post about career Pitching WAM leaders, I counted just pitchers who had at least one 6+ WAR season after 1900. So, I used the same rules here.

So, let's talk about the pitching graph a little:

  • It's certainly not as neat as the hitters. There's a half-dozen big guns before 1920. Then there were seven active between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s—Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Wilber Wood, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, and Tom Seaver. Not many are going to argue with that group of pitchers, besides Wood. I'm sure Niekro has his detractors, but gosh Rally's WAR loves him.
  • Young, Johnson, and Clemens certainly stand out. So does Koufax, which is one nice thing about using WAM over raw WAR. I'm looking for that dominance here and Koufax had it. Gibson, too.
  • I'll be honest—I expected Pedro to stand out a bit more. I wonder how he'd look if this graph was just 1970 to present.
  • For a good hunk of their careers, Lefty Grove and Bob Feller had no peers (except for their short overlap).

I don't know about you, but I really like these timelines. They are pretty flexible, too… You could use WAR or WAM. You could do best hitters, best pitchers, a certain position, a certain franchise... really anything. I find it handy for Hall of Fame discussions, where you can see if a certain player was better than everyone else at the time he played. In this graph showing catchers, I've got a feeling that five of the catchers I think are deserving of Hall of Fame consideration are hurt because their careers all overlapped. Wally Schang, on the other hand, looks like he was the best active catcher for a short time and rarely any worse than second.

So, what would you like to see? We've got the easy one—best players ever!—out of the way. I'm curious to see what else we can come up with.

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