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Incentives, Salary and Steroid use in Baseball

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Hit home runs, make lots of money. Repeat. Photo unknown via deadspin.com

A viewing of the HBO special “Freakonomics,” which turns chapters of the popular book into little mini vignettes, along with a conversation with my father prompted me to investigate the aspects of human behavior with regard to incentives when considering the rise of Steroid use by major league baseball players in the late 1990s.  One of the overriding themes in Freakonomics is that any aspect of human behavior can be predicted by analyzing the incentives facing those persons when making a choice.

So the question here is, were the growing incentives to players in terms of rising baseball salaries directly tied to the growing use of Steroids in the mid 1990s?

Steroids had been around for many years prior to appearing en-masse in Baseball.  The most infamous use came from the East German Olympic teams during the late 70s and early 80s, who systematically doped their own athletes (mostly without the athlete’s knowledge) from 1971 until 1990.  But seemingly only after the 1988 Seoul Olympics saw sprinter Ben Johnson test positive for one steroid and admitted the use of a host of other Steroids, Testosterone and HGH substances did the “Steroid Era” in baseball start.  In fact, 1988 is also acknowledged as the beginning of the era in the Mitchell Report (per Section D of the Summary, pg SR-14).  However, I’d argue that the mainstream usage of Steroids didn’t occur for a few years after (see the rise of 45+ homer seasons below).

Here’s a chart of Mean and Median US household income from 1974-2010, with the Minimum and Maximum MLB salaries, the Average MLB salary, that MLB salary listed as a multiple of the US mean income, and the number of 45+ home run seasons seen per year:

Year Median Income: Current Dollars Mean Income: current dollars Minimum MLB Salary Maximum MLB Salary Average MLB Salary Avg MLB salary as multiple of Mean US income # of 45+ Homer Seasons
2012 $480,000 $32,000,000
2011 $414,000 $32,000,000 $3,305,393 0
2010 $49,445 $67,530 $400,000 $33,000,000 $3,297,828 49 1
2009 $49,777 $67,976 $400,000 $33,000,000 $3,240,206 48 3
2008 $50,303 $68,424 $390,000 $28,000,000 $3,154,845 46 1
2007 $50,233 $67,609 $380,000 $23,428,571 $2,944,556 44 4
2006 $48,201 $66,570 $327,000 $21,680,727 $2,866,000 43 5
2005 $46,326 $63,344 $316,000 $26,000,000 $2,632,655 42 5
2004 $44,334 $60,466 $300,000 $22,500,000 $2,486,000 41 4
2003 $43,318 $59,067 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,555,000 43 4
2002 $42,409 $57,852 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,383,000 41 4
2001 $42,228 $58,208 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,264,000 39 9
2000 $41,990 $57,135 $200,000 $15,714,286 $1,987,000 35 4
1999 $40,696 $54,737 $200,000 $11,494,794 $1,726,000 32 6
1998 $38,885 $51,855 $200,000 $14,936,667 $1,378,000 27 9
1997 $37,005 $49,692 $200,000 $10,000,000 $1,314,000 26 3
1996 $35,492 $47,123 $200,000 $9,237,500 $1,101,000 23 6
1995 $34,076 $44,938 $109,000 $9,237,500 $1,094,000 24 1
1994 $32,264 $43,133 $100,000 $6,300,000 $1,154,000 27 0
1993 $31,241 $41,428 $100,000 $6,200,000 $1,062,000 26 3
1992 $30,636 $38,840 $100,000 $6,100,000 $1,012,000 26 0
1991 $30,126 $37,922 $100,000 $3,800,000 $845,383 22 0
1990 $29,943 $37,403 $100,000 $3,200,000 $589,483 16 1
1989 $28,906 $36,520 $60,000 $2,766,667 $489,539 13 1
1988 $27,225 $34,017 $60,000 $2,340,000 $430,688 13 0
1987 $26,061 $32,410 $60,000 $2,127,333 $402,579 12 3
1986 $24,897 $30,759 $60,000 $2,800,000 $410,517 13 0
1985 $23,618 $29,066 $60,000 $2,130,300 $368,998 13 0
1984 $22,415 $27,464 $30,000 $2,500,000 $325,900 12 0
1983 $20,885 $25,401 $30,000 $2,500,000 $289,000 11 0
1982 $20,171 $24,309 $30,000 $2,500,000 $245,000 10 0
1981 $19,074 $22,787 $30,000 $2,500,000 $195,500 9 0
1980 $17,710 $21,063 $30,000 $2,500,000 $146,500 7 1
1979 $16,461 $19,554 $16,000 $1,170,000 $121,900 6 3
1978 $15,064 $17,730 $16,000 $700,000 $97,800 6 1
1977 $13,572 $16,100 $16,000 $700,000 $74,000 5 1
1976 $12,686 $14,922 $16,000 $700,000 $52,300 4 0
1975 $11,800 $13,779 $16,000 $670,000 $44,676 3 0
1974 $250,000 $40,839 0

There’s several landmark seasons of note in terms of escalating Salaries through this list.  By year:

  • 1975 saw Catfish Hunter become the first “true” Free Agent subject to bidding wars among teams, and signed a 5yr/$3.35M deal with the Yankees that resulted in his league-leading salary to nearly triple the league leading salary from 1974.
  • 1979 saw Nolan Ryan become the first $1million/year player.
  • In 1982 George Foster became the first $2M/year player.
  • By 1989, Kirby Puckett became baseball’s first $3M/year player.
  • In 1992, Barry Bonds hit free agency on the heels of MVP seasons in Pittsburgh and more than doubled the previous high annual salary.
  • By 1996, salaries were rising quickly; Albert Belle signs a $10M/year contract.
  • 2001 saw Alex Rodriguez‘s infamous Texas contract kick in, paying him $22M/year, nearly $7M more per year than the next closest player (Kevin Brown, who signed baseball’s first 9-figure contract).
  • Rodriguez opted out of that same contract and re-negotiated the terms even higher with the Yankees, eclipsing the $30M/year mark by 2009.

Meanwhile, take note of the red-colored years of 1996 to 2001, the core of the Steroid Era.  1996 saw no less than Six players eclipse the 45 home run barrier, including Brady Anderson in a complete aberration year for the lead-off hitter (he hit 50 homers in 1996 but averaged just 19 per 162 game segment and never hit more than 24).  Suddenly in 1998 no less than Nine players eclipsed the mark, lead by the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home-run hitting competition that transfixed the nation and “saved” baseball.  Too bad we now know what America didn’t know then; that both players were using Performance Enhancing drugs to beef up, help power out baseballs and take advantage of a slew of new ballparks that opened in the era that featured cozier dimensions and more offense.

By 2002, enough pressure from the front office towards the player’s union had taken place to start testing, leading to the infamous “anonymous survey” done of players in 2003 that resulted in “between 5-7%” of players testing positive, leading to mandatory testing in 2004.  By 2008 we were back down to homer levels not seen since the early 1990s, and baseball didn’t see a single player hit the 45 homer barrier in 2011.  But historically the damage has been done; the home run leader boards from the time period in question lists like a Who’s Who of steroid accusations, and a generation of middle-aged baseball writers who grew up idolizing the home run leaders of yesteryear now seems set to penalize these players for their drug usage (proven or otherwise, as with the Jeff Bagwell Hall of Fame case).

But, everything I just wrote is known narrative.  Lets talk about the explosion of baseball salaries as compared to the common man.  In 1975 the average MLB salary of $44k was a little more than 3-times the mean US household income, having risen only gradually over the years thanks to the Reserve clause and a non-existent players union.  It was a boon for owners, who kept salaries down and profits high.  But the low salaries also meant that most baseball players were considered “within reach” of the every-man in America.  Players weren’t paid such ridiculously high salaries that they essentially live in a different world from the fans (as is the case today with most professional athletes in this country): these players were considered “just like us” to a certain extent, and frequently had off-season jobs, working along side the same people who paid a few bucks for a bleacher seat to cheer them on.  “America’s Pastime” largely earned that title from being the only sport in town for most of the century, but was also helped along by the “within reach” argument.

By 1980, with the country in a severe recession and gas lines around the block, Joe Public slightly increased his average pay.  However, Baseball players, thanks to the breaking of the reserve clause and the rise of Free agency were seeing a boom in salary hikes.  By 1980, the average MLB wage was 9 times the median income in the country and a few ballplayers were making $1M/year.   This ratio of US income to MLB income grew slightly over the next decade; ten years on in 1990 the average MLB wage was just 16x the US income.  But changes were about to come.  In 1996 the MLB salary multiple was 23-times the US mean, but by 2001 it was nearly 40-times the US mean salary.  The average MLB salary more than doubled inside of these 5 years.  This change coincided exactly with the beginnings of the Steroid era and also mirror the 6 year stretch where the game saw its historical rise in home runs.

So the question is: is this coincidence?  Was the rise in steroid use driven by player’s desires to maximize their earning potential or was it vice-versa (i.e., players discovered steroids could escalate performance, started using and producing and that lead to the quick rise in payroll?)  Or was this all more attributable to weaker pitching driven by expansion and  smaller ball-parks?

I think you can make the case that home run hitters were highly compensated and were commercially the “heros” of the game (remember the “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” commercials?), and other players figured out that Steroids helped pack on muscle mass and enabled themselves to hit the ball further and faster (to say nothing of the fact that steroids enabled players to come back from injury faster and to stay stronger through the season by virtue of added muscle mass), and rode the trend.  Hit 40-45 home runs one year, sign a contract extension the next.  Suddenly the game found itself full of juiced up, highly compensated sluggers with a massive ethical problem.

What do you think?

Sources used:

Year Median Income: Current Dollars Mean Income: current dollars Minimum MLB Salary Maximum MLB Salary Average MLB Salary Avg MLB salary as multiple of Mean US income # of 45+ Homer Seasons
2012 $480,000 $32,000,000
2011 $414,000 $32,000,000 $3,305,393 0
2010 $49,445 $67,530 $400,000 $33,000,000 $3,297,828 49 1
2009 $49,777 $67,976 $400,000 $33,000,000 $3,240,206 48 3
2008 $50,303 $68,424 $390,000 $28,000,000 $3,154,845 46 1
2007 $50,233 $67,609 $380,000 $23,428,571 $2,944,556 44 4
2006 $48,201 $66,570 $327,000 $21,680,727 $2,866,000 43 5
2005 $46,326 $63,344 $316,000 $2,600,000 $2,632,655 42 5
2004 $44,334 $60,466 $300,000 $22,500,000 $2,486,000 41 4
2003 $43,318 $59,067 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,555,000 43 4
2002 $42,409 $57,852 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,383,000 41 4
2001 $42,228 $58,208 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,264,000 39 9
2000 $41,990 $57,135 $200,000 $15,714,286 $1,987,000 35 4
1999 $40,696 $54,737 $200,000 $11,494,794 $1,726,000 32 6
1998 $38,885 $51,855 $200,000 $14,936,667 $1,378,000 27 9
1997 $37,005 $49,692 $200,000 $10,000,000 $1,314,000 26 3
1996 $35,492 $47,123 $200,000 $9,237,500 $1,101,000 23 6
1995 $34,076 $44,938 $109,000 $9,237,500 $1,094,000 24 1
1994 $32,264 $43,133 $100,000 $6,300,000 $1,154,000 27 0
1993 $31,241 $41,428 $100,000 $6,200,000 $1,062,000 26 3
1992 $30,636 $38,840 $100,000 $6,100,000 $1,012,000 26 0
1991 $30,126 $37,922 $100,000 $3,800,000 $845,383 22 0
1990 $29,943 $37,403 $100,000 $3,200,000 $589,483 16 1
1989 $28,906 $36,520 $60,000 $2,766,667 $489,539 13 1
1988 $27,225 $34,017 $60,000 $2,340,000 $430,688 13 0
1987 $26,061 $32,410 $60,000 $2,127,333 $402,579 12 3
1986 $24,897 $30,759 $60,000 $2,800,000 $410,517 13 0
1985 $23,618 $29,066 $60,000 $2,130,300 $368,998 13 0
1984 $22,415 $27,464 $30,000 $2,500,000 $325,900 12 0
1983 $20,885 $25,401 $30,000 $2,500,000 $289,000 11 0
1982 $20,171 $24,309 $30,000 $2,500,000 $245,000 10 0
1981 $19,074 $22,787 $30,000 $2,500,000 $195,500 9 0
1980 $17,710 $21,063 $30,000 $2,500,000 $146,500 7 1
1979 $16,461 $19,554 $16,000 $1,170,000 $121,900 6 3
1978 $15,064 $17,730 $16,000 $700,000 $97,800 6 1
1977 $13,572 $16,100 $16,000 $700,000 $74,000 5 1
1976 $12,686 $14,922 $16,000 $700,000 $52,300 4 0
1975 $11,800 $13,779 $16,000 $670,000 $44,676 3 0
1974 $250,000 $40,839 0

Ask Boswell 1/9/12 edition

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Tired of Prince Fielder rumors yet? Photo: AP/Morry Gash

Here’s Tom Boswell‘s weekly Monday chat on 11/28/11.  Of the baseball questions he took, here’s how I’d have answered them.  With the Wizard’s 0-8 start there’s a lot of kvetching about NBA.

As always, questions are edited for clarity and I write my own answer prior to reading his.

Q: What is your “take” on Ross Detwiler and could he become a better pitcher than Gio Gonzalez?

A: My “take” on Ross Detwiler is that he’s too frail to stay healthy long enough to be counted on for heavy-duty innings, and that he throws too much across his body to get his breaking stuff to work properly.  Now, throwing across your body isn’t a bad thing (see Johnson, Randy) but Detwiler’s never been consistent long enough to be anything more than an emergency/late season starter for this team.  Can he be better than Gio Gonzalez?  Not really; Gonzalez is only a year older but has 60 more MLB starts, an all-star appearance and the talent to win 20 games in the AL.  If Detwiler was really that promising … we wouldn’t have acquired Gonzalez in the first place.  Boswell says the team likes Detwiler, but Johnson likes a lefty heavy rotation in this division.  But the team already has 5 starters signed to major league contracts, so I can’t see how Detwiler wins anything more than a bullpen spot.

Q: Is Prince Fielder really coming here?  Why is there so little market for him?

A: I’ll answer the 2nd part first; there’s so little market for Prince Fielder for several reasons.

  1. If you look at the top payroll clubs, basically every team either has a long-term 1B commitment (names like Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau, and Miguel Cabrera) or is dealing with topped-out payroll or financial issues (Mets, Giants, Dodgers) that are preventing them from purchasing a big-money star.  So lots of your usual suspects are out.  He’s left trying to convince mostly 2nd-tier payroll clubs to spend like first tier clubs.
  2. His agent Scott Boras is generally the “lets wait and try to build a crescendo of rumors” type of agent.  It has clearly worked in the past … but it doesn’t seem to be working now.  I think Boras’ strategy has run its course to a certain extent and teams are wary of the “mystery team” in on these major players.
  3. Fielder isn’t exactly an adonis of a physical specimen.  He’s got a bad body, hasn’t really shown that he can control his weight, and has a pretty good barometer of his future physical condition in the form of his MLB playing father Cecil Fielder.  Prince may be young and may clearly be a top5 hitter in the league, but teams are not going to want to put up 8  year commitments for a player who may be washed up by the time he’s 34.  To make matters worse, Prince is a below-average first baseman AND only a handful of teams have available money and available DH spots.

Frankly, I think Prince needs to sign a shorter term deal with high AAV, get a team like the Nats to commit and then re-hit the FA market at age 30-31 when he’ll still have value.

Now, is he coming to the Nats?  If I was Mike Rizzo i’d sign him in a heartbeat for 3yrs/$75M.  I’d balk at an 8-year deal.  But, the rumors persist and have been swirling for more than 2 weeks.  So where there’s heat, there’s likely fire.  Boswell says that the key date is Jan 18th, the day that the Rangers either sign or cut bait on Yu Darvish.  If the Rangers suddenly have $120M that they didn’t think they’d have yesterday, they will sign Fielder.

Q: Baseball is set to announce their HOf inductees for 2012 today. Anyone you feel strongly about that should get in? What are your thoughts on Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly?

A: (note that I’m writing this BEFORE the 3pm announcement, so by the time you read this we’ll know who got in and who didn’t)

Who I believe WILL get elected: Barry Larkin

Who I believe SHOULD be in the Hall: Jeff Bagwell, Jack Morris, Barry Larkin, Tim Raines, Mark McGwire, Edgar Martinez.

What do I think about Murphy and Mattingly?  Both suffer from more or less the same issue: they were both great players for very short amounts of time.  Murphy was a better player all in all than we remembered and for four seasons (82-86) was probably THE best player in the game.  Mattingly retired at 33 and was solid but had the same 4-year excellence followed by less flashy seasons.  They’re good players who weren’t transcendent enough to get their own plaques in Cooperstown.  Boswell mostly agrees with the above.

Q: What do you think of this scenario: Fielder signs elsewhere, LaRoche starts out hot, we flip him to Tampa for Upton as Harper takes over in RF and Morse moves to 1B.

A: Sounds great.  Except that this scenario really only serves the perfect world desires of the Nationals.  In reality LaRoche is a slow starter and we may really hear the boo-birds early.  Morse was great in 2011 but most predict a sliding back.  Harper probably needs some MLB adjustment time.  We’ll see what happens.  Boswell likes this scenario. Sure, who wouldn’t?  But it does sound a bit too convenient.

Q: Is there ANY chance Boras goes for something like 3yrs/$75mil for Prince?

A: Yeah, I think there is a chance, as described above.  He’ll push for longer though until the last possible minute, so this won’t play out for a while and we’ll continue to hear rumors for weeks.  Boswell says it’ll “never happen.”  And lays out a doomsday payroll scenario for the team.  Which I don’t entirely buy; we’ve been at $60-65M in payroll for 6 years … despite being in a very wealthy market.  At some point, this team will be good, will draw fans to the park and will increase revenues.  And the payroll should rise to reflect that.

Q: Where are the Nats finding the (approximately) 60 runs they’ll need to add (assuming pitching stays constant) in order to go from 80 to 90 wins?

A: A good question.  Some from Zimmerman, some from LaRoche, some from natural improvements from Desmond, Espinosa, and Ramos, and some from a rebound year from Werth.  That’s a LOT of assumpions.  Fielder would *really* help in the run creation department (he created 35 more runs than Morse last year … that’d be 5-6 wins all by himself).  Boswell echos much of the above.

Q: Where do you (as an assumed HoFame voter) draw the line between admitted and suspected when it comes to steroids and the HOF?

A: If it were me, I’d go based on existing evidence.  That’s all you can do.  And the Mitchell Report is not really “evidence,” but more heresay and he said-she said.  So Palmeiro and McGwire have some warts.  Bagwell does not and it is generally unfair to lump him into the steroid-poster boy club.  Boswell agrees with the above … too bad he doesn’t have a vote to defend year after year.

Q: Given what we  now know about the Steroid era, is there any reason to suspect Cal Ripken of using?

A: (The allegation also being that Ripken was friends with Brady Anderson, whose 50 homer season seems awfully suspicious in hind-sight).  Nobody’s ever said a word about Ripken and PEDs.  You have to think he was well aware of his legacy the closer he got to 2130 games.  I’d be shocked if he was shown to be a user.  Him and Derek Jeter would be probably the two most shocking PED revelations in the history of the game, if they turned out to be true.  Boswell doesn’t think Ripken profiled to a typical user.

Q: Why isn’t there more narrative about how the Werth contract is really killing this team, when considering the future payroll implications of having Werth, Zimmerman and Fielder potentially signed to long term, $20M+ AAV contracts?

A: I’m sure it is internally.  It certainly is everywhere else in the blogosphere.  The Werth contract is pretty indefensible, certainly was at the time it was signed and is even more so now.  I just hope the guy has a bounce back season and really contributes.

Q: How does the TV money rise so much in the MASN deal?  Aren’t viewer numbers abhorrent?

A: Good question.  I don’t know.  Boswell has the answer; the contract is tied not to revenues or ad money, but to comparable RSN sizes in other markets.  And right now Houston and Dallas (our two closest sized cities) get 2-3 TIMES the money out of their RSNs.  I cackle at watching Angelos have to write checks to the Nats, but really wish they’d cancel the contract altogether.  I hate the fact that we’re enriching Angelos day after day.

Q: Why do the HoFame voters suddenly agree to induct a player?  If he’s good enough on the first ballot, he should be good enough on any ballot.

A: Because there’s a cache to being a “First Ballot Hall of Famer” and LOTS of voters exclude guys on the first vote as a result.  There’s never been a unanimous selection, and there never will be.  But there’s plenty of guys who were very good players who got in on #2 or #3 ballot.  Guys like Blyleven and Rice who languish for a decade on the ballot are rare.  Boswell agrees.

Q: Is Toronto a more likely landing spot for Fielder, since they were all-in for Darvish and lost out?

A: Makes sense frankly.  They could be sensing weakness in the Boston and Yankees lack of activity this off-season … Boswell says it makes sense but makes a good point; does Fielder want to commit to Toronto, knowing they’ll get outspent year after year by Boston and New York?  Does he commit to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the divisions split?  Would you?

Q: How similar is Harper’s call-up situation to Mickey Mantle’s situation?

A: Not very.  Completely different baseball climates.  Harper has his millions already, and there’s very specific service time implications.  Mantle played under the reserve clause, there was no service time issues, no arbitration, no free agency.  So the Yankees could do whatever they wanted with him year after year.  Boswell doesn’t really comment.

Q: Does Fielder make sense if the Nats are planning on building a cost-controlled dynasty?  The 1998 yankees didn’t have any 30-homer players, let alone a big bopper at $25M/year.

A: Fair.  Lots of Nats bloggers keep coming back to the payroll implications of Werth, extending Zimmerman and buying Fielder.  And they’re fair.  That doesn’t even talk about what to do with other big-time stars we have to deal with potentially.  But i’ll respond by saying this; we don’t KNOW what the owner’s payroll limits are.  All we have to go by is the past payroll figures.  What if this team is just biding its time before blowing out payroll to $120M?  Boswell says this is well put and signs off.




The best “5-tool” player of all time? (updated)

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http://www.baseballamerica.com/online/majors/news/2011/2612208.html

http://www.baseballamerica.com/online/majors/best-tools/2011/2612185.html

The 400 homer/10 gold glove club question (see post on August 10th 2010 here) spurred a different question into my mind.  Who is baseball’s greatest 5-tool player?  For those of you who don’t know what the 5 tools are:

  • Speed; indicated by stolen bases statistically.
  • Fielding/Defense: indicated by gold gloves somewhat, even though the Gold Glove voting process is known to be bad.
  • Arm: no real statistical measure, just rumors and observations.
  • Hitting for average: career batting average
  • Hitting for power: career homers

My dad and I were talking about this same question and he says the answer is Willie Mays.  And I have a hard time disagreeing with him.   He was fast (338 career SBs), he was a fantastic center fielder (12 straight gold gloves), he was known to have a cannon for an arm, he hit a career .302 with 3283 hits and belted 660 homers.

Who else might be in the conversation?  Lets take a look at some of the candidates:

  • Barry Bonds: Career batting .298, 762 homers, 2935 hits and 514 steals.  8 gold gloves, ending a streak suddenly in 1999.  Which is also probably when he started juicing (his homers per season jumped from 34 to 49 to 73 in 1999-2001).   The only thing Mays had on Bonds was his arm.  Bonds always played left field, where you can “hide” poorer outfielders who don’t necessarily need the range of a center fielder or the cannon arm of a right fielder (to prevent first to third base runners).  But Bonds had significantly more steals and homers (whether or not you discount them).
  • Ken Griffey Jr.: Definitely up there in the argument.  Clearly he was fantastic defensively (10 straight gold gloves) and had a great arm.  Great power (630 career homers).  Only 184 career steals and a lifetime .284 BA with 2781 hits dings him in comparison to Mays.

Here’s some names that have multiple of the tools, but are missing one or two key ones:

  • Babe Ruth: Great power and average combo, he obviously had a good arm starting as a pitcher, but he had zero speed and ate himself so large that he could barely play the outfield.
  • Ted Williams is always an interesting test case for the What could have been? question.  He hit .344 with 521 homers and a really good argument that had he not lost 3 full seasons in his absolute prime to WWII (plus most of two others to Korea in his mid 30s) that he’d be closer to 700 homers for his career.  But he was known to be a defensive liability and had only 24 sbs for his career.
  • Mickey Mantle: famously said that “if 40/40 was so impressive, i’d have done it every year.”  And its hard not to doubt him.  Playing in a time when there wasn’t much of a need for him to steal bases, he still ended up with 153 on the career and routinely had 15-20 each season.  He retired with 500+ homers, a career ba of .298, a legendary reputation for roaming centerfield in Yankee stadium and an even more legendary reputation for drinking himself out of baseball prematurely at the age of 36.
  • Joe DiMaggio: one of the best pure hitters of the 20th century.  Career .325 BA, 361 homers.  Lost 3 years in his absolute prime to the WWII and retired incredibly early at 36.  Played a great centerfield (his time predates gold gloves).  but very very few stolen bases.
  • Stan Musial: one of the “lost players” of the 20th century, in that it is easy to forget his name when talking of the all time greats.  3600 career hits, 475 homers, career .331 BA.  Great hitter.  Played center field for 20-some years for St. Louis.  But as with DiMaggio, very few SBs.
  • Bobby Bonds: nearly a 40/40 man one year but strikeout rate is so excessive.

How about some more modern players?

  • Paul Molitor another guy to think about.  504 career SBs, .306 BA, only 234 homers but not much on the defensive side, having been mostly a DH for the last half of his career.
  • Alfonso Soriano: his 40/40 season was legendary (there was preliminary talk of him doing a 50/50 season, which hasn’t even been approached), and he’s currently got 309 career homers and 271 career SBs.  A scatter brained hitter though,  defense so bad that he’s barely holding on in left field, and zero arm.
  • Jose Canseco: another 40/40 guy.  462 career homers and 200 career Sbs.  .266  hitter though.  Good arm in right but never a good fielder (remember the infamous ball bouncing off his head over the fence for a homer?).
  • Vladimir Guerrero: another near 40/40 guy.
  • Carlos Beltran: injuries have just killed him; a former speed/power hitter and one of the first mega contract guys.
  • Brady Anderson: most people regard his 50 homer season either a fluke or (more likely) the result of early PEDs.  But the fact remains that only he and Barry Bonds have ever put up seasons which had both 50 homers and 50 sbs.
  • Craig Biggio: 414 sbs, 291 homers, .281 career BA, 4 gold gloves at 2nd base.   2nd baseman though, presumably b/c he never had the arm for Short.
  • Rickey Henderson: obviously fast as the career leader in SBs.  .279 career BA.  He twice hit 28 homers while leading the league in SBs.  One gold glove and two silver sluggers, and a liability as a left fielder.  Maybe not.

here’s a couple “what if” guys, as in what if they hadn’t been injured or otherwise sullied their careers:

  • Bo Jackson: A hip injury picked up while playing his hobby football ended his career basically at the age of 28.  But he was electric.  Who can forget his legendary all star homer, a bomb to dead center that went 448 feet.  Bo never won a gold glove but he played a premium defensive position in Center and certainly had the arm to play right.  He just missed a series of 30/30 seasons, maxing out with 32 homers and 27 steals).  He did not hit for average though, not at all.  Best full season BA was a paltry .272.
  • Josh Hamilton: After well documented troubles with drugs and the law, this former 1-1 draft pick currently is leading the Majors in batting average (.356), has 26 homers, and plays a very very good center field.  He could hit 96 on the gun in high school.  His failing is SBs; only a handful on the year.  But in a league that so often chews up and spits out flash in the pan players, it is refreshing to see Hamilton succeed.  Visual Baseball though discounts both his speed and his range.
  • Daryl Strawberry: had a 39 homer, 36 sb year.
  • Eric Davis: career year in 1987, hitting 37 homers and stealing 50 sbs.

In January 2010, Visual Baseball introduced some really neat visualizations that graphically show each player’s strengths and weaknesses.  I’d love to see a tool that allows people to plug in individual players, but in their analysis two 2010 players popped up as being very close to the perfect 5-tool player:

  • Ben Zobrist: based on his 2009 stats he hit for average (.297) and power (27 homers).  He had 17 steals.  He showed pretty amazing flexibility by playing every outfield position besides pitcher and catcher at some point.  Unfortunately, he’s take a pretty significant step backwards in 2010, sligging nearly 200 points less.  Odd.
  • Carl Crawford: He’s already lead the league 4 times in SBs and has been hitting an average of 13-15 homers a season.  Not nearly Mays-esque stancards but very solid.  .305 Batting average with healthy slugging percentages.  Left fielder though, but his Visual Baseball graph shows significant range and arm.

And finally, something to think about:

  • Alex Rodriguez: 600 career homers, .303 career BA.  300 career steals, a couple of Gold Gloves, and a pretty good arm while playing short.  Posted probably the best ever 40/40 season in 1998 (42 homers, 46 sbs).  Too bad he had to go and juice it up so that his career is forever sullied.

In the end, I’d have to still put Mays, with a shameful shrug of the shoulders when considering both Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.

My dad and I were talking about this same question and he says the answer is Willie Mays.  And I have a hard time