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Rickey Henderson ranked 23rd-best MLB player on ESPN Top 100 list

Seems low

Oakland Athletics

Last week, ESPN released a list of the Top 100 MLB players of all time. Sounds like the perfect thing to argue about during a lockout.

Several Oakland A’s legends made the cut, including five Hall of Famers who were longtime greats for the franchise.

  • 23. Rickey Henderson
  • 40. Jimmie Foxx
  • 54. Lefty Grove
  • 55. Reggie Jackson
  • 82. Eddie Collins

Foxx, Grove, and Collins were stars for the Philadelphia A’s, winning multiple rings with the team. Jackson was one of the leaders of the 1970s championship dynasty in Oakland, and of course Rickey won a World Series here in 1989. Each of them also spent some time with other clubs in addition to their historic work with the Athletics.

On top of that group, another nine names on the list played for the A’s during their careers.

  • 4. Ty Cobb
  • 36. Tris Speaker
  • 37. Joe Morgan
  • 41. Satchell Paige
  • 48. Nap Lajoie
  • 49. Frank Thomas
  • 73. Willie McCovey
  • 81. Mike Piazza
  • 89. Shoeless Joe Jackson

Note: Cap Anson (No. 76) played for a team called the Philadelphia Athletic (singular not plural) in the 1870s, but it was an entirely different franchise in a different league, both of which are now defunct.

Lajoie starred for the very first A’s team in 1901, but spent most of his HOF career in Cleveland. Shoeless Joe made his MLB debut with the A’s in 1908 before playing most of his career elsewhere. Cobb and Speaker each made their fame with other clubs but came to Philadelphia at age 40 to finish out their careers in the late-1920s.

Paige pitched one game for the Kansas City A’s, in 1965 shortly after his 59th birthday, and while it was a publicity stunt he did toss three scoreless innings. McCovey and Morgan each came to Oakland for a quick late-career cameo in the 70s/80s, and so did Thomas and Piazza in the 2000s, with Thomas enjoying a particularly memorable stint that almost earned him an MVP.

***

Now let’s argue! Did anybody important miss the cut? Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley, maybe Pete Kozma?

Or perhaps a more engaging topic is the placement of Rickey. At first glance, No. 23 feels a bit low.

To begin, this list includes both hitters and pitchers, and it’s tough to directly compare those two groups. Six of the players above Rickey are pitchers, and they all have pretty good cases: Walter Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Cy Young, Tom Seaver. Here are the 16 position players above him:

  • Babe Ruth
  • Willie Mays
  • Hank Aaron
  • Ty Cobb
  • Ted Williams
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Barry Bonds
  • Stan Musial
  • Honus Wagner
  • Ken Griffey Jr
  • Mike Trout
  • Joe DiMaggio
  • Mike Schmidt
  • Frank Robinson
  • Rogers Hornsby

How many of those names would you rank above Rickey? If you go by pure stats, then 10 of them are ahead of him in both versions of WAR (Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Cobb, Williams, Gehrig, Bonds, Musial, Wagner, Hornsby), while two more outflank him in just fWAR but not bWAR (Mantle and Schmidt). That means Griffey, Trout, DiMaggio, and Robinson all got bumps beyond their WAR totals, while Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, and Alex Rodriguez were knocked down despite beating Rickey on both WAR scales.

In a subjective debate like this there can’t ever be a truly correct answer, and I’ll bet that Athletics Nation could come up with a legitimate argument for why Rickey should be at the very top of this list. But for now let’s stay reasonable and at least see if we can talk him up a few spots.

I won’t bother arguing against any of the 10 names who beat Rickey in the stats. Most of them have more awards and rings too. Mantle and Schmidt are also close enough cases that the tiebreaker probably just comes down to which one you personally like better.

How about Griffey, Trout, DiMaggio, and Robinson?

Trout is an easy call. Obviously he is being given theoretical credit for what he might still do in the future, and that’s a completely reasonable projection, but I’m wary of it for lists like this. History is littered with things that didn’t continue going the way everybody thought they obviously would, and he’s already begun missing significant time to injuries. Trout has produced slightly more than Rickey had through the same age, which is incredible, and definitely enough to be on the Top 100 list already, but the job isn’t done yet. Stay healthy and go get 50 more WAR and maybe a ring and then he’ll have earned his spot above Rickey.

Griffey might be even easier. He’s like if Trout doesn’t stay healthy in his 30s. He’s getting theoretical credit for something that in fact didn’t go on to happen. ESPN’s writeup essentially gives him extra cool points, which are totally deserved and I understand the feeling, but I reject the logic. Anyway, it’s not like Rickey wasn’t also cool. The writeup claims that 90s kids will agree with the Griffey pick, but I was a 90s kid, and sure I wore my hat backward like Junior sometimes, but I also wore neon-colored batting gloves like Rickey when I actually played baseball.

Robinson is a tougher case. Rickey’s WAR advantage is so small as to effectively be a tie, and they both have historic stat totals, so it’s more a question of two different types of player — do you like a slugger with some speed, or a speedster with some power? Both had corner defense just good enough to win exactly one Gold Glove in two decades. Both won a pair of rings and a postseason MVP award en route to one of them. Robinson had the edge in regular season MVPs, but at a time when the league was smaller so there was less competition. My tiebreaker might be that Rickey was the best leadoff hitter ever whereas Robinson was not the best slugger ever, but only because I want a reason for Rickey to get the nod.

DiMaggio is apples and oranges to almost the same extent as a pitcher. His statistical case is hurt not by injury but by losing three prime years to military service, and that’s enough to explain the WAR gap between him and Rickey. DiMaggio also brings a ridiculous nine rings, which are nearly impossible to put a precise value on. That kind of success can’t be ignored, but it came in an era before the playoffs existed, when you just needed to win your eight-team league in the regular season and you were automatically in the World Series. And it came before free agency made sustained team success more difficult; from another perspective, DiMaggio won rings on only one team, while Rickey did it with two different clubs.

If we leave out the what-ifs for Trout and Griffey, and choose the other side of the coin-flip for Robinson and DiMaggio, then Rickey at least goes into the Top 20.

As far as the pitchers, you might make a case for Rickey over somebody, but the tougher sell would be that there are only six pitchers in the Top 25 as it is so maybe they’re already being undervalued without moving one down even further. And the real answer is that it’s a fool’s errand to try comparing hitters and pitchers like this.

What do you think, Athletics Nation? Where should Rickey rank on a list like this, and which of the players on ESPN’s list should actually place below him?

Poll

Which one do you agree goes in the Top 20 above Rickey?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    Joe DiMaggio
    (66 votes)
  • 7%
    Ken Griffey Jr
    (19 votes)
  • 4%
    Frank Robinson
    (11 votes)
  • 7%
    Mike Trout
    (18 votes)
  • 53%
    None! Put Rickey in the Top 20
    (130 votes)
244 votes total Vote Now