It's Canada Day up here in 'Merica's hat and that got me thinking, who are the best Canadian-born baseball players at each position? Before we dive in, let me define the exercise.
First, the player must have been born in Canada, at least according to Baseball-Reference. Second, they must have played in a league which feeds into the B-R batter/pitcher season finder. I've loosely used fWAR as my guide but have deviated from that at times based on my own personal preferences. In some cases, I've included a player at a position at which they've spent less than 50% of their time. Finally, NO DH! That's an American [League] thing. Got it? Great! So turn off CBC, crack a Molson Export, and ready yourself to discuss my choices deferentially in the comments!
Catcher: Russell Martin (East York, ON)
East York is just a fancy way of saying Toronto, so Russell Martin came home this offseason when he inked a 5-year, $82 million deal with the Blue Jays. But Martin isn’t just the best Canadian-born catcher; he’s one of the best born anywhere.
His 32.2 career fWAR nestles him snugly between Brian McCann (32.6) and Yadier Molina (31.0) for third among active backstops. Martin has been well above average on both sides of the ball and remains fleet of foot even in his 30s.
Welcome home, Russell! Unless, of course, you consider that to be Montreal, where you spent your formative years.
First Base: Joey Votto (Toronto, ON)
When Joey Votto’s career comes to an end, he just may be considered the best Canadian-born position player of all time.
Also hailing from Toronto, the first baseman’s somewhat unconventional approach at the plate has been much maligned by baseball traditionalists, and even one of his teammates. Just how good is Votto? Well his career fWAR (36.9) ties him with Adrien Gonzalez despite playing only two-thirds the number of games. Take that, USA!
Second Base: Brett Lawrie (Langley, BC)
Brett Lawrie has primarily played third base, but Canada is low on middle infielders so I’ve shifted him to second, where he’s played 254 innings. After dominating in his first season with the Jays, perhaps the pressure of playing in his home country stifled his play. In the end, you could argue that no one has done more for Canadian baseball than Lawrie, just by the virtue of being the biggest chip in the deal that brought MVP-candidate Josh Donaldson to the Province’s capitol. No, not the nation’s Capitol, that would be Ottawa. Former home of Lenny the Lynx, may he rest in peace.
Shortstop: Arthur Irwin (Toronto, ON)
Did I mention Canada is short on middle infielders? Irwin débuted in 1880 with the Worcester Ruby Legs and went by the nickname(s) Doc or Sandy. He sported a 15.1 career bWAR over his 13 year tenure in the majors that spanned from 1880 to 1894 and he had heck of a mustache. Irwin would die at sea in 1921.
Third base: Corey Koskie (Anola, MB)
Anola sounds like a vestigial organ, or maybe some kind of superfruit. The town is also the home to Al Simmons, who won a Juno in 1995 for the children’s album Celery Stalks, which was an ode to vaudeville. I always preferred Something’s Fishy at Camp Wiganishie, but what do I know? I'm just a baseball writer. Oh, a Juno award is like a Grammy, but just for Canadians.
Koskie -- who spent most of his 9 year career with the Twins -- leads all Canadian third basemen in career fWAR (26.7). He's probably best remembered for his outstanding 2001 season when he hit 26 bombs and eschewed the polite Canadian stereotype by stealing 27 bases.
Left Field: Jason Bay (Trail, BC)
Yes, there is a Canadian city named Trail. This surprises you? The Greater Trail Area is known as the Home of Champions, in recognition of those who reside in the area and have excelled in their chosen field of endeavour. Yes, I spelled that correctly. I battle my Canadian spell check for every article I write.
Of course, Jason Bay's excellence has been recognized as such by his home town. Bay was one of the best left fielders in the game while playing with Pittsburgh and Boston between 2004 and 2009, averaging 30 HR/year between 2004 and 2009.
On the strength of that performance, Omar Minaya signed Bay to a 4-year,$66 million deal. Things didn't go so hot for Bay in New York, and he and the Mets agreed to terminate the contract a year early. Bay finished his career as close to home as possible, in Seattle where he continued to struggle, lasting just 68 games before his release.
Center Field: Michael Saunders (Victoria, BC)
Another position where Canada hasn't produced much talent. Saunders, has played a just under 50% of his 4,300 career innings at Center but, hey, it's either him or Dalton Pompey! Center is another word we spell differently up here (i.e., the Roger's Centre). But baseball is America's pastime, so it's the least I can do to spell the positions your way. You should probably return the favour and spell it our way for hockey. Anyways, Saunders is OK, when he's not tearing his knee up on in-ground sprinkler systems.
Right Field: Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC)
Maple Ridge sounds like a treat that you get during a school trip visit to the sugarbush, amirite, Vermont? It's also the town that produced Larry Walker, would be NHL star. Lucky for us baseball fans, Walker turned to baseball full time after being failing to make his local junior teams as a goaltender. Lucky for him, too, as he would go on to earn $110 million dollars playing baseball while posting the highest fWAR (68.7) of any Canadian position player.
Walker broke in with the Expos (oh hey, Jonah) where he established himself as a star almost immediately. However, he really took off nicely once he reached Colorado, particularly in the pre-humidor days. A perennial MVP candidate, Walker would seal the deal in 1997 on the strength of his league leading 49 home runs, which he paired with 33 stolen bases. Walker absolutely mashed in Colorado, challenging for the mythical .400 AVG multiple times.
Starting Pitcher: Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, ON)
I wanted to put Rich Harden here. When I think about him, I picture McNulty's wake, but with Harden up on the pool table and I'm signing "The Body of a Canadian". But there's no denying Fergie Jenkins. He has the most fWAR (80.1) of any Canadian baseball player an it isn't even close. Jenkins was from a different era but his tenure with the Cubs (1967-1973) was as remarkable as any. He averaged 301 innings and 6.7 fWAR per season in Chicago and finished in the top 3 of NL CY Young voting 4 times, winning the award in 1971.
Relief Pitcher: Éric Gagné (Montreal, QC)
Gagné translates from French to "wins", which is exactly what the Dodgers did when they handed Eric the ball in save situations, particularly in the between August 2002 and July 2004 when he saved a record 84 straight games. Gagné also captured the NL Cy Young Award in 2003, an exceedingly rare feat for a reliever. So he dropped a little HGH, it was the early 2000s, who didn't? Maybe that keeps you out of Cooperstown, but not off my list!
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