Which active MLB players have the best chance to be the BEST PLAYER at their position when they retire?

Posted: 08/21/2012 by levcohen in Baseball

I’m going to take another little break from the NBA offseason to give my thoughts on which players in the MLB have a chance to become the elite player at his position when he retires. (all my opinion)

OBP= on base %
SLG= slugging %
HR= home runs
RBI= runs batted in
R= runs scored
SB= stolen bases
2B= doubles
3B= triples
BB= walk
K= strikeout
WAR= Wins above replacement level (full explanation here)


Best player at 1B of all time: Lou Gehrig
Challenger: Albert Pujols, 32 years old

Lou Gehrig career stats through age 31: .344 average, .444 OBP, .643 SLG, 1.087 OPS, 348 HR, 1450 RBI, 1341 R, 81 SB, 402 2B, 131 3B, 1007 BB, 581 K, 79.8 WAR

Albert Pujols career stats through age 31: .328 average, .420 OBP, .617 SLG, 1.037 OPS, 445 HR, 1329 RBI, 1291 R, 84 SB, 455 2B, 15 3B, 975 BB, 704 K, 83.9 WAR

Gehrig has an advantage here in almost all of the categories. There are a few big exceptions and things to note here. Through age 31, Gehrig had played 12 seasons and Pujols 11. Pujols has an edge of 100 (and if you factor in the extra year, around 14) homers, a bigger margin than Gehrig’s lead in any category with the exception of triples. With the extra year, Pujols would tie up RBI and take the lead in runs. Gehrig had better plate discipline, but there are many more strikeout pitchers now. I bolded the WAR category because I believe that it is the most important stat here. It takes account of everything a player does (including defense) and gives an estimate of how many wins the player has earned for his team. If you take the extra year into account, Pujols has a huge lead in WAR (more than 10). So I believe that Pujols has the edge through 31.

Lou Gehrig career stats: .340 average, .447 OBP, .632 SLG, 1.079 OPS, 493 HR, 1995 RBI, 1888 R, 102 SB, 1508 BB, 534 2B, 163 3B, 790 K, 108.5 WAR

Before the sad end to his career (and life), Gehrig played 5 seasons past his age 31 season. In that time, there was little (if any) decline until his ALS started affecting his playing. He accumulated a 29 WAR in those 5 years, which is an average of a little less than 6. For a guys who is 32-36, that’s very good.

I don’t think Pujols will continue at his current pace, but I think he should play 8 more years, so his career totals might look like this (guessing): .315 average, .414  OBP, .598 SLG, 1.012 OPS, 694 HR, 2000 RBI, 2000 R, 100 SB, 610 2B, 24 3B, 1450 BB, 1450 K, 123.4 WAR

Pujols will have ended up with two more seasons, but stats are stats. He would be considered the better overall player. He would presumably be in the top 7 overall in HR, and would just be considered one of the best players of all time.


Best player at SS of all time: Honus Wagner
Challenger: Derek Jeter, 37 years old

Wagner stats through 37 (15 yrs): .343 average, .407 OBP, .493 SLG, .900 OPS, 83 HR, 1384 RBI, 1409 R, 615 SB, 521 2B, 192 3B, 730 BB, 491 K, 104.7 WAR

Jeter stats through 37 (17 yrs): .313 average, .383 OBP, .449 SLG, .831 OPS, 240 HR, 1196 RBI, 1769 R, 339 SB, 492 2B, 65 3B, 994 BB, 1653 K, 67.2 WAR

These two players are very different. Wagner has a clear edge in most categories, but Jeter crushes in HR, R, and walks. The biggest wins are by Wagner in K’s, WAR and SB, and Jeter in HR and R. With all that being said, Wagner has a clear overall stats edge through age 37, especially since he had played two fewer years.

Wagner’s career stats: .328 average, .391 OBP, .467 SLG, .858 OPS, 101 HR, 1733 RBI, 1739 R, 723 SB, 643 2B, 252 3B, 963 BB, 723 K, 126.1 WAR

Wagner clearly had a case of a star-staying-around-too-long. Between ages 38 and 43, his average went down 15 points, and his OPS nearly 50 points. He had only a 22 WAR (less than 4 a year) in that time. That is the only reason that this is even a question. If Jeter has a great last 3-5 years and keeps his stats up, he could have a shot.
Another important thing is that Jeter will end this year with about 3300 hits. If he plays 5 more years and gets 700 more hits, he will be in the exclusive 4,000 hit club. Only Ty Cobb and Pete Rose have hit 4000. Also, Jeter is on pace for more than 200 hits this season. If he can do that EACH YEAR for the next 5 years, he’d break the hits record. That is highly unlikely, but possible, and would push him above Wagner.Also, reaching the 300 homer mark would be big for a SS.

What Jeter’s stats will be at the end of his career: .310 average, .372 OBP, .434 SLG, .816 OPS, 300 HR,  1542 RBI, 2200 R, 363 SB, 612 2B, 71 3B, 1190 BB, 2300 K, 87.4 WAR

Got to give the edge to Wagner here. Jeter finished only as high as 3rd on the MVP voting, which isn’t good enough.


Best of all time: Mike Schmidt
Challenger: Alex Rodriguez

Schmidt stats thru 35 (14 yrs).. 266 average, .383 OBP, .535 SLG, .922 OPS, 458 HR, 1273 RBI, 1250 R, 168 SB, 323 2B, 56 3B, 1265 BB, 1660 K, 90.2 WAR

Rodriguez stats thru 35 (18 yrs).. .302 average, .386 OBP, .567 SLG, .957 OPS, 629 HR, 1893 RBI, 1824 R, 305 SB, 495 2B, 29 3B, 1166 BB, 1916 K, 109.4 WAR

This isn’t even close. A-Rod demolishes Schmidt in nearly every category. By just looking at these stats, you can confirm that A-Rod is an easy winner in this debate. Except for one thing. A-ROID admitted to taking steroids. That’s a big negative. Big enough, almost, to close this debate altogether and give Schmidt the edge. But I’m not quite ready to say that. Here’s why: Rodriguez has only admitted to taking steroids for one season (hard to believe), and even without that he still has a huge edge on Schmidt. I’m not going to show Schmidt’s full stat line and predict A-Rod’s, because you get the point. A-Rod is superior stat-wise. He is likely to break the home run record. His stats rival the best in history. So unless more proof comes out about Rodriguez and steroids (likely), I’m willing to give him the edge.

2B (Rogers Hornsby), C (Johnny Bench), OF (Babe Ruth, Willy Mays, Ty Cobb), DH (Ted Williams), SP (Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander)  all seem pretty secure.


Best of all time: Trevor Hoffman
Challenger: Mariano Rivera

This one isn’t even close. Rivera is by far the best closer in history, and if he players another year or two he’ll only cement that. Check out the career stats head to head (via baseball reference):

                    WAR  W   L    ERA    G    GF  CG SHO  SV   IP     H    R   ER   HR  BB   SO  
 Mariano Rivera      52.7  76  58  2.21 1051  892   0   0 608 1219.7  940  324  300  65  277 1119 
 Trevor Hoffman      27.0  61  75  2.87 1035  856   0   0 601 1089.3  846  378  347 100  307 1133

Rivera has nearly double the career WAR of Hoffman. Impressive. He also is the best playoff closer in history.

Rodriguez (if no more news about steroids come out) and Rivera are clearly the best players at their position in MLB history. Pujols has about a 50-60% chance of becoming the best 1B, and Jeter has a 20-30% chance of becoming the best SS in history (all depends on how many hits he gets)


3 of the 4 guys on this list are Yankees.

  1. philabundant says:

    Schmitty has it over A-Rod in fielding, but I’m not sure enough to make a difference.

  2. D says:

    SP (Ty Cobb) – edit that one.

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