Losing Your Best Ever At A Position

Every year at about this time, teams all over baseball prepare for free agency with the understanding that they could lose some of their players. But something feels different this year: the choices seem to be more seismic for the teams.

When I took a closer look at the free agent list, something jumped out at me. Jimmy Rollins. Albert Pujols. Jose Reyes. All of these players had played with only one team. And more to the point: each of them represents the best their teams have ever had at their respective positions.

Take Rollins, for example. Since making his debut in 2000, Rollins has accumulated 34 wins above replacement as the Philadelphia shortstop. That's twice what anyone else has put up for the Phillies, with Larry Bowa's 17.1 from 1970-1981 and Granny Hammer's 16.1 from 1944-1959 the distant second and third place showings. Dave Bancroft posted a 13.5 WAR over just 681 games, a fraction of Rollins' 1636, but that happened way back in 1915-1920. Many fans have forgotten about Bancroft by now, or else lost their 'Bankcroft' memories in the crash of 1929.

So while it is easy to understand Philadelphia's reluctance to give the soon-to-be 33-year-old Rollins the five years he seeks on his new contract, Phillies fans might have an inflated opinion of Rollins' work, with a franchise whose eighth-most valuable shortstop ever is Dickie Thon (3.9 WAR), and whose tenth-best is Luis Aguayo (3.2 WAR).

The man ultimately making the decision? The son of Ruben Amaro Sr., who sits eleventh on the Phillies' list of top shortstops.

The problem is similar in New York, where Jose Reyes and his 29.1 career WAR loom even larger over the shortstops in New York Mets history. Only Bud Harrelson's 14.8 WAR reaches double figures among non-Reyes Met shortstops, and Harrelson's final season with New York — 1977 — came six years before Reyes was born. Third place belongs to Kevin Elster, with a career WAR of just 4.6. Reyes' 2011 alone was worth 5.8 WAR, meaning his 2011 was more valuable than the entire shortstop careers of all but two Mets — and Reyes himself is one of the two.

Albert Pujols casts a similar shadow over all other first basemen in St. Louis Cardinals history. He has a career WAR of 89, all with the Cardinals. Among St. Louis first basemen, Hall of Famer Johnny Mize is second, with a distant 37.8. In Mize's defense, he was traded to the Giants four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and still put up a career WAR of 70.2 despite missing three full seasons serving in World War II.

Keith Hernandez checks in at 35.1 WAR as a Cardinal, good for third place. Jim Bottomley, another Hall of Famer, is fourth at 32.9. And even icons like Mark McGwire (eighth, 19.8 WAR) and Jack Clark (ninth, 11.4 WAR) don't approach Pujols. Is it any surprise that Cardinals fans can't imagine life without him?

By contrast, Milwaukee fans love Prince Fielder -– but they seemed to have made their peace with Fielder's likely departure. Could Cecil Cooper be responsible? Cooper posted a 29.3 WAR over 11 seasons from 1977-1987, besting Fielder's 20.8 WAR over seven seasons from 2005-2011. Perhaps to Milwaukee fans, finding a slugging first baseman doesn't seem like such an impossible task.

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1 Comment on "Losing Your Best Ever At A Position"

3 years 11 months ago

Technically, Pujols didn’t spend the majority of his playing time at 1B until his 4th season in 2004, although that’s still enough time at 1B to easily beat Mize.