In Part 1 of this one day extravaganza of baseball talk I talked about the 61 best Blue Jays of all time… who didn’t make the top 60. Let’s do the top sixty now.
As I mentioned in the last post, the rankings from #121 to to #60 are not necessarily in the best-organized order. They are generally correct; certainly #121 was not the player #63 was, but really I wasn’t concerned about being all that careful.
From this point on I put a bit more thought into it. and I REALLY chewed on the top 20, especially the top 10, so the higher up we go, the more I’ll explain the relative rankings. Let’s have fun…
- John McDonald, Shortstop, 2005-2011
Crap! I have two number 60s? What the hell, how did that happen?
Oh well, you get another bonus player.
Everyone cheered for Johnny Mac; he was about four feet tall and couldn’t hit water falling out of a boat, but he gave it 100 percent and was a legitimately sensational fielder. Everyone loves an underdog. The guy was never a regular player and yet people bought his jersey.
- Ed Sprague, Third Baseman, 1991-1998
Sprague and his wife both have Olympic gold medals, he for baseball, her for synchronized swimming.
Sprague was a bad defensive third baseman, so much so that on the Internet he became knows as “E5”, a play on his initials and the fact that E-5 is baseball scoring shorthand for “Error by the third baseman.”
Sprague did hit some homers. In 1992, of course, he hit the home run that won Game 2 of the World Series.
People remembering famous Blue Jay dingers always overlook the Sprague home run, but that home run absolutely changed the World Series. It was only Game 2 of a series that went six games but it was THE hit of the Series. The Jays had lost Game 1, and they were three outs from losing Game 2. Derek Bell pinch hit and walked, and then Sprague pinch hit, and the Braves’ relief ace, Jeff Reardon, perhaps afraid of walking another batter, threw an absolute pumpkin of a fastball right down the middle and Sprague crushed it and all of a sudden the Blue Jays were winning. It completely reversed the flow of the Series, and they won that game, then the next two games and ended up winning it all.
- Tony Batista, Infielder, 1999-2001
You have to see Tony Batista hit to believe it:
Despite this seemingly impossible hitting approach and not being very big, Batista had enormous power; he hit 41 homers for the Jays one season. He was also a pretty good infielder. His weakness was that he didn’t do a lot else as a hitter except hit a home run now and then, but he was bizarrely fun to watch.
Tony Batista would be the greatest player of all time if I could have afforded to go to every home game. I attended a dozen games when he was with the Jays and he hit seven or eight home runs in those games. I’m inspirational.
- Frank Catalanotto, Utility Player, 2003 to 2005, I think
Catalanotto was not a particularly athletic guy, but he knew how to hit. No pitcher ever had Frank fooled, and he always hit pretty well. He wasted his whole career on bad teams, which makes me feel sorry for him, but then I looked it up and his baseball career paid him $22,000,000 so I feel less sorry now.
- Eric Hinske, Infielder, 2002-2006
Eric had a spectacular rookie season in 2002; he won the Rookie of the Year Award and he deserved to. That was the last really good year he ever had. He was kind of heavy. I called him “Krispy Kreme,” like I have any goddamn right to say anything.
There have been quite a lot of guys like Hinske who won Rookie of the Year Awards and did little else the rest of their career; some didn’t last five years. Typically such players were kind of old for rookies, like 25-27, and so they were really just having their career year in that season. Looking at the list of award winners, though, to be honest they’ve actually done a better job identifying future greats than I had remembered; sure, some didn’t work out, but far more than half had long, impressive careers.
In the book “Moneyball,” which by the way is better than the movie and not exactly about baseball, the protagonist, Billy Beane, engineers a draft in which the A’s bypass athletic players and draft guys who hit well in college but aren’t great athletes. Beane and his minions had noticed, correctly, that teams liked to draft athletic young men who couldn’t hit in the hopes that they could be taught to hit, and that this strategy worked basically never.
None of those draft picks worked out except the one athletic guy, Nick Swisher. In retrospect, the idea of drafting unathletic young men was just mind-bogglingly stupid. It’s an understandable reaction to years of making the opposite mistake of drafting people who look like athletes but aren’t really baseball players, but it’s transparently imbecilic, because almost all truly first rate position players are good athletes. There are some exceptions, but even the exceptions never turn into GREAT players. Unathletic players like Eric Hinske tend to burn out early. You need to find the athletes who can also hit… which is hard, but if it was easy what would the point be?
- Russell Martin, Catcher, 2015-2017
One of the greatest Canadian baseball players of all time; I’d say fourth, behind Fergie Jenkins, Larry Walker, and Joey Votto, and just ahead of John Hiller. Martin has played in the major leagues for 11 years and been in the playoffs in nine of them, with four different teams.
To clarify, I’m rating players based on what they did WITH THE BLUE JAYS. I actually mulled this a bit; how do you rate Blue Jays?
I mean, if you just said “who is the greatest player to ever play for the Blue Jays” the answer is Roger Clemens, and it’s not a close call. Second would be Rickey Henderson, also not a close call. But Clemens only played in Toronto for two years, Rickey two months; the bulk of their accomplishments were elsewhere. So that is not really relevant to the spirit of this enterprise.
If Martin had played all his career in Toronto he’d be one of the top ten Blue Jays ever, but he didn’t. He will move quite a lot of steps up this ladder with even one or two more good years.
As is standard for Canadian players, it is often noted that Martin played hockey as a youth. As the risk of pointing out the obvious, it would be kind of weird if a Canadian baseball player or note didn’t play hockey. Almost all great baseball players were highly skilled in other sports; many were drafted into other pro sports. It is just to be expected that an usually athletically talented boy will play many sports well, and it’s true of other sports too; Wayne Gretzky was an elite amateur baseball player, Michael Jordan is a scratch golfer, and Usain Bolt was a terrific soccer player. So of course a Canadian kid who’s athletic enough to play baseball would probably have been good at hockey.
- Manny Lee, Shortstop, 1985-1992
A prototypical good field / no hit shortstop. He had his best season in 1992 when the Jays finally won a World Series and then they dumped him. About halfway through his career he decided he did not like being called “Manny,” and insisted on being called by his full name, “Manuel,” which of course means his full name sounded like “Manually,” which meant his nickname immediately become “Automatic Lee.”
- Troy Glaus, Third Baseman, 2006-2007
A huge man who hit many home runs and was, despite his size, a pretty nimble defensive player; he won the 2002 World Series MVP award with the Angels. He had two pretty good years with Toronto. Given that those years meant nothing I may have him ranked too high.
- Brett Lawrie, Third Baseman, 2011-2014
A few years back Bill James, the great baseball genius, theorized that you could classify “baseball intelligence” though some statistical observations, which if I recall were:
- Basestealing success relative to speed
- Error rate
- Growth relative to the league, as opposed to the league learning how to beat you
- Strike zone judgment
- Adaptability to new positions
- Propensity to suffer random injuries
It’s worth noting that this had little to do with a person’s actual intelligence. James himself noted that by these measures, Alfredo Griffin played the stupidest baseball a man has ever played, but Griffin is in fact a man of notable intelligence; Joe Morgan, who to hear him speak has some kind of brain damage, played baseball as intelligently as anyone.
Anyway, Brett Lawrie might have been the dumbest Blue Jay of all time not including Alfredo. When he came up in 2011 he was spectacularly good. From that point on he got worse, year after year, at literally everything, but especially the things in that list. He never learned anything. Lawrie was a Monster Energy powered, Ed Hardy shirt wearing, tattoo-covered surfer bro all the way who played baseball in a red mist of anger, YOLO and discarded Red Bull cans, and never grasped the fact that baseball cannot be overpowered. So the league caught up to him. It’s a shame because man, he was good for awhile. He’s only 28 now but wasn’t even offered a job in 2017 and might be done.
The Blue Jays packaged Lawrie up with three other young players in a trade for Josh Donaldson, which looks damn smart now.
Honestly Lawrie is way too high on this list, but I’m not that worked up about who’s #52. He should be more like 70th, but I’m too lazy to reformat this. I apologize to all the players in positions 69 through 53.
My methodology, such as it was, when I started this was just listing the top 40 players or so in Blue Jays history by career WAR, and the adjusting based on how much I did or didn’t believe how they were ranked. After that I just plugged names in as I found them and moved them up or down. Beyond career WAR I asked a few questions:
- Do I really believe the number, or is there some reason to believe it’s too high or too low?
- What was the player’s PEAK value, as opposed too just his overall value?
- Did this player contribute to championships?
- Adam Lind, Designated Hitter, 2006-2014
A pure hitter who had some good years. Adam was a nice, quiet guy who met his wife in Toronto and seemed disappointed to be traded away.
Lind played about 250 games in left field at the start of his career and made exactly one error, an astoundingly low number. I believe he has the best fielding percentage in the history of baseball for a player who played that many games in the outfield. In spite of that he was an awful outfielder. Confused? Let me explain.
In the major leagues, almost all plays are made. Major league fielders make so few errors than errors are hardly a factor anymore. A good outfielder will make 4 errors, and a bad one will make 9. No one goes and make 50 errors anymore. The difference of 5 errors or whatever isn’t all that important.
What matters far more is RANGE. A particularly skilled outfielder will be fast, and have a very quick reaction time, and will be able to judge where the ball is going to land and so will take a direct route to the ball’s landing place. The difference between an outfielder with excellent range, like Kevin Pillar, and a slow outfielder, like Adam Lind, could be 50 fly balls or more than Pillar catches but Lind does not. Those fly balls don’t count as errors on Lind, they count as hits; you can’t make an error on a ball you can’t even get to. Pillar could make TEN more errors, and so have a much worse fielding percentage than Lind, but his team is still obviously far better off for the extra 40 fly balls he caught that Lind would not have.
- Dave Winfield, Designated Hitter, 1992
The rare one year player on the list. Winfield joined the team at the age of 40 because Toronto had a great team and Winfield was frantic to win a World Series; despite his age the Blue Jays had no DH so figured he couldn’t be a bad gamble. Winfield had only ever appeared in one World Series before, in 1981 with the Yankees, and he went 1 for 22 and the Yankees lost, and he was blamed for it. He desperately wanted to erase that. He had a terrific season, way better than anyone expected, and was a huge part of the Blue Jays finally winning a World Series. He drove in the Series-winning runs in the eleventh inning of Game 6.
The 1992 and 1993 World Series wins are kind of remembered collectively, but they were very different series, and one of the major differences is that in my honest opinion the Blue Jays were kind of lucky to win it in 1992. Atlanta actually outscored Toronto 20-17 in the Series but the breaks all went Toronto’s way and Bobby Cox, Atlanta’s manager, kind of bungled Game Three. Three of the Blue Jays’ four wins were not won until their last at bats. I was honestly relieved they won. By comparison, in 1993, Toronto looked a million times better than Philadelphia, and the Phillies did very well to not get swept.
I guess that isn’t surprising, really; Atlanta was a great, great team that made the playoff every year and won a World Series a few years after the Blue Jays beat them. The Phillies were one of the flukiest pennant winners ever; prior to 1993 they hadn’t had a winning season in years, and they would not have another losing season for years more afterwards.
Oh, Dave Winfield. Winfield was an enormous man, 6’6″ and muscular, which is approaching the limit of how tall you can be and be a good hitter; Aaron Judge is about the limit. Winfield was a sensational athlete who was drafted not only by the big leagues but by the NFL and NBA as well. I guess he made the right choice in choosing baseball, because he’s in the Hall of Fame now, deservedly.
In May of 1985, I think, Winfield was playing in Toronto when he was with the Yankees, and he threw a ball in warmups that hit and killed a seagull. Exhibition Stadium was absolutely full of seagulls and seagull shit; sometimes a flock of them would land on the field in the middle of a game and the umpire would have to call time, and the outfielder would have to run around yelling and waving his arms to scare them off. It was just a horrible stadium. So it wasn’t a huge surprise Winfield might hit a seagull – but the cops arrested him for it.
They let him go, but when asked about it, Yankees manager Billy Martin said “Of course he didn’t hit it on purpose. Winfield hasn’t hit the cutoff man all year.”
- Damaso Garcia, Second Base, 1980-1986
Sort of like a good Alfredo Griffin; he didn’t walk much, but he could hit more than Alfredo. He was fast but, unlike Alfredo, was a smart baserunner. He was not as good a fielder.
At some point during the 1986 season Damaso literally set fire to his own uniform. He said it was to break a slump. Maybe he should have burned his bats.
- Reed Johnson, Outfielder, 2003-2007
A short, plug-shaped man who did not get a chance in the majors until he was 26 and even then was basically a fill in, but he made the most of it and had some really good seasons.
Johnson was a good all around player but his biggest skill was in getting hit by pitches. He was hit 21 times one year and 20 another, two of the highest totals in team history. Of all Blue Jays only Carlos Delgado has more career hit by pitches, and Delgado played three times as many games. Reed would stand really close to the plate and was, shall we say, not as fast as he could have been in avoiding a pitch if it was going to hit him somewhere he wouldn’t be seriously hurt. Hey, whatever works. He looked like a tough guy. I sure wouldn’t want to be hit by a 94-MPH fastball, but I am a coward.
- Otto Velez, Outfielder, 1977-1982
An original Blue Jay and one of the team’s few power threats in those days, so he inevitably became known as Otto “The Swatto” Velez. He was the first Blue Jay to hit three home runs in one game, if I am not mistaken.
- Alex Gonzalez, Shortstop, 1994-2001
The Blue Jays have actually had two Alex Gonzalezes, both shortstops, but the other one only played a half a season in Toronto; this is the one who played many seasons.
There used to be like three or four guys named Dave Henderson or Steve Henderson back in the 80s, and for awhile there were two Pedro Martinezes. I think baseball players with really boring names like that (including anyone named “Lee”) should by rule have to have amusing nicknames, like Pork Chop or Tomato Head or Sizzly. Conversely, players with wonderful names, like Dalton Pompey, Roughed Odor, or Al Albuquerque, should be paid $250,000 annual bonuses. Anyone on their team named Lee has to kick in some of that money. Urban Shocker should have gotten a piece of the franchise.
Nobody has a good nickname anymore. Billy Butler is called “Country Breakfast,” which is good, but I can’t think of many other good ones. Back in the ‘80s Jeffrey Leonard was called “Ol’ Penitentiary Face.” Isn’t that great?
Alex Gonzalez was the most consistent mediocre hitter I’ve ever seen. He put up the same crappy numbers every year. He was never quite good, but he always maintained a consistent level of mediocrity, hitting a home run every couple of weeks and batting about .245, over and over. He stood really far from the plate and could not hit a well thrown fastball on the outside edge, and he didn’t seem to care to get any better. He was a good fielder, so he had his uses.
- R.A. Dickey, Pitcher, 2013-2016
A scuffling pitcher most of his career, Dickey tried a knuckleball later on and, to the amazement of everyone, won 20 games and a Cy Young Award in 2012. The Blue Jays then traded a bunch of Grade A prospects to the Mets to get him.
This was, obviously, a terrible decision. R.A. Dickey is quite a nice man, and he had his moments with Toronto, but the chances a 38-year-old guy with one good year was going to be worth all those prospects were pretty slim. It was a very stupid, unnecessary trade, didn’t help the Blue Jays win anything, and now Dickey is gone and the Mets are still reaping the rewards of the trade.
- Marco Scutaro, Shortstop, 2008-2009
I probably have him ranked a little too high, but man, he was a good player. Scutaro had been in Oakland for years and was okay; Toronto got him and he was great for two seasons. Then they let him go and he was never all that good again. Their timing was perfect.
- Willie Upshaw, First Baseman, 1978-1987
The first Blue Jay to ever drive in 100 runs in a season, in 1983. His cousins Gene and Marvin Upshaw both played in the NFL.
What do you think is the peak age for a baseball player? Like, what is the age at which a baseball player hits his prime? Most people say 30, but in fact the answer is 27, and the GREAT majority of major league players are out of baseball by age 30 or very close to it. Willie at 26 was a hell of a player, but by 31 he was done (well, he went to Japan for a few years.)
If these facts seems surprising, it’s simply observation bias. Truly great players do last well into their 30s. The most famous baseball players of all time are, by definition, players with very long and illustrious careers, guys like Derek Jeter. You remember names like Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Greg Maddux because they ARE unusual, they do stand out. But they’re great and famous because it’s unusual to be that good for that long. Baseball careers peak early and end quickly, for the most part.
- Gregg Zaun, Catcher, 2004-2008
In the middle of my writing this article, Zaun was fired from his job at Sportsnet for sexual improprieties, which reinforced what I was going to write anyway, that he was a pretty good ballplayer but also a big asshole.
- Marco Estrada, Pitcher, 2015-2017
One of the softest-throwing pitchers in baseball, but combines an 87-mile-an-hour fastball with a changeup that only goes about 68 miles an hour and yet is thrown with exactly the same arm movement. When he’s on, guys will swing at that changeup and miss it by two feet. Has pitched reasonably well these past three years, and has been brilliant in the playoffs. Not at lot was expected of him, and he’s done better than anyone dreamed.
- Jose Cruz Jr., Outfielder, 1997-2002
Cruz’s father was a hell of an outfielder himself, hence the “Jr.”
Jose Cruz was an immensely strong, fast player who never quite put it all together, and so he was frustrating. He and Shawn Green are the only Blue Jays to have hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season. But he never put up a decent batting average, struck out a lot, and seemed to change his approach at the plate constantly.
At the time it was whispered that Cruz as lazy, or had a bad attitude. I’m always skeptical of such things absent solid evidence; I think teams just like to blame failure on the moral shortcomings of the players rather than maybe admit they did a shitty job developing the player, or just overestimated how inherently talented the guy was. The Blue Jays kept moving him around the outfield, and early on would bench him unexpectedly. Maybe if they’d left him at one position and given him a shot earlier than they did he would have been more than he was. He was a good player all the same.
- Mike Timlin, Pitcher, 1991-1997
Timlin had a great rookie season and was a bit up and down for the Jays after that. A pretty straightforward fastball-and-slider guy. Timlin got the last out of the 1992 World Series; with the tying run on third, he came in to pitch to Otis Nixon, threw Nixon a sizzling fastball, and Nixon appeared to decide he couldn’t hit something that fast. On the following pitch Nixon tried to surprise the Jays with a bunt hit, but Timlin saw it coming; he got to the ball quickly and threw it to first to get Nixon out, and the celebration began.
After the game, Joe Carter, who was playing first, gave Timlin the game ball. I would assume he still has it.
After his Jays career Timlin stuck around for years, and he ended up pitching in 1,058 games, the eighth most in baseball history.
- Doyle Alexander, Pitcher, 1983-1986
Doyle Alexander, who rocked a great stache…
… is the only player I can think of who was instrumental in both the Jays winning a pennant race and in beating them in a pennant race.
Alexander, a veteran who’d been around for eons and played for four or five different teams before joining the Jays, had two huge years in 1984 and 1985, winning 17 games each year. In 1985 the Blue Jays beat the Yankees in a thrilling pennant race for their first playoff spot, and it was Doyle Alexander who shut the Yanks down on the next to last day of the season to win it.
After a bad start in 1986 Doyle was sent to Atlanta, which at the time was kind of like baseball’s Hell. He was rescued in August of 1987 by the Detroit Tigers, who were in a tight pennant race with the Blue Jays. Alexander was not a Hall of Famer or anything, just a pretty good pitcher who lasted a long time, but he may have had the greatest stretch run of any pitcher in my lifetime; he started 11 games, and the Tigers won every one of them, including five games in which he allowed no runs at all and a critical win over Toronto in which he pitched into the 11th inning.
- Mark Eichhorn, Pitcher, 1982, 1986-1988, and 1992-1993
Eichhorn’s official rookie year was 1986 and it was the best rookie season a Blue Jay has ever had. He was ludicrously great, pitching 157 innings out of the bullpen and just laying waste to the league. He was a sidearmer who threw this crazy slider that started behind a right handed batter’s back and would zip a foot out of the strike zone on the other side of the plate. Righthanded batters were completely at his mercy. He was robbed of the Rookie of the Year Award.
He was also badly overused, and by 1988 his arm started to give out. He spent a few years with the Angels, starting throwing overhand again, got some arm strength back and returned to the Blue Jays and helped them win their two World Series titles.
- Kevin Pillar, Outfielder, 2013-2017
Not the best hitter in the major leagues, but they don’t call him “Superman” for nothing. Wins a lot of games with his glove.
The Blue Jays have had a lot of good defensive center fielders. It’s funny, really, how talent arranges itself. The Jays have almost always had a really good fielder in center, but have never really had a great defensive catcher. They have had several very fine right fielders but have usually struggled at second base. You would assume in a game played by millions and millions of people things would even out over time but even at a league level they do not. There are WAY more great pitchers now than there were in the early 1980s. Baseball has been a major professional sport since 1880 but almost every one of the best third basemen of all time played after 1960. It’s weird.
- Marcus Stroman, Pitcher, 2014-2017
Stroman is not yet 27 and is coming off a terrific year, so if he stays healthy he could move way up in the rankings.
Marcus is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Blue Jays of all time. He is just 5’8”, which is incredibly short for a pitcher – being short is a legitimate disadvantage to a pitcher – and everyone loves an underdog. Stroman owns that; he trademarked the phrase “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart” and calls himself “The Stro Show.” In fact, he is officially listed as being 5’9” but has publicly said “that’s wrong, I’m not that tall.” He’s intelligent, funny, outspoken, wears his emotions on his sleeve, works hard, and generally acts as if playing for the Toronto Blue Jays is the luckiest thing that ever happened to a person. In 2015 he suffered a serious injury in spring training and was fully expected to miss the entire year; he worked so hard at rehab that he was back in September and pitched brilliantly down the stretch and in the playoffs. As long as he stays healthy he will continue to rack up good years, and a sign of whether the Jays are genuinely interested in winning or not will be if they sign him to a long term contract before he becomes a free agent in 2020. You should follow him on Twitter.
Stroman hit a home run in 2016; he is one of only two Blue Jay pitchers to do that, the other being a long forgotten guy named Mark Hendrickson. Hendrickson also played in the NBA, so he would be a hell of a story himself, but he wasn’t with the team long enough to make this list.
- Paul Quantrill, Pitcher, 1996-2001
Quantrill was a failed starter in Boston and Philadelphia; the Blue Jays made him a reliever, and he was, to my surprise, really, really good at it.
Born in London, Ontario; the best Canadian player in team history, unless Russell Martin has one or two more good years.
- Orlando Hudson, Second Base, 2002-2005
I wrote about him in my Hall of Fame post. He was a happy, likable player, a wonderful defensive second baseman, and I was disappointed when they traded him.
- David Wells, Pitcher, 1987-1992 and 1999-2000
A big guy, nicknamed “Boomer,” Wells was weirdly mismanaged by the Blue Jays his first time around. He emerged as a very good starting pitcher in 1990-1991, so in 1992 the Jays demoted him to the bullpen, which is a bizarre thing to do; it’s like having a $20 bill and treating it like a $5 bill. Turning a good starting pitcher into a back-of-the-bullpen tenth man is just dumb. Then after the 1992 season they simply released him, as if he had no value. I would assume Cito Gaston had taken a hate to him. Cito did that.
Wells went on to be a very successful starter, and was a big part of the 1998 Yankees, who might have been the greatest team of all time. He was then traded back to Toronto and had two more good years there; he won 20 games in 2000.
- Shawn Green, Outfielder, 1993-1999
Cito Gaston for some reason never liked Shawn Green, and did not like playing him, even when it was sadly apparent the Jays had no better outfielders. He kept benching Green for horribly inferior, older players long after it was obvious Green should have been out there every day. The failure to make more of Shawn Green’s career was Gaston’s greatest failure, and was an early warning sign that Gaston was not the baseball genius people thought he was.
Gaston did not like players who were different from him. Green was quiet and reserved and private, and so Gaston didn’t understand him and didn’t want to play him; he treated John Olerud the same way, for the same reasons.
Green overcame the team’s reluctance to play him and became a hell of a player, upon which he was traded to the Dodgers for Raul Mondesi, an insanely stupid trade.
Green was my Grandma’s favourite Blue Jay. One year for her birthday, I sent away to the Jays for a signed picture of Shawn Green, which they sent me with Shawn’s signature reading “To Mary, Best Wishes! Shawn Green.” I put the picture up in the living room for them, and she looked up at it happily, and there was a pause, and my grandfather said “Well, I guess Mother’s spending a lot more time in the living room than she used to.”
- Rance Mulliniks, Third Baseman, 1982-1992
Rance Mulliniks absolutely did not look like a professional athlete. He looked like an accountant. He actually was a good athlete – he had a terrific throwing arm – he just didn’t look like it.
Mulliniks was drafted by the Angels as a shortstop, and bounced around with them and the Royals for a few years as they were both disappointed that he could not actually play shortstop or hit left handed pitchers. The Blue Jays, who in those days were smarter than those teams, observed that while he could not do those things, he COULD play third base and hit righthanded pitchers, so they got him and let him do those things for years, and he did those things well.
Mulliniks shared third base for many years with Garth Iorg in a platoon arrangement; in baseball a “platoon” is when two players, one a righthanded batter and one lefthanded, share a position, with the righthander playing against lefthanded pitchers and vice versa. Mulliniks and Iorg, or “Gance Mulliniorg” as they were called, were maybe the best platoon combination in the history of baseball.
Although Rance was not very fast he did hit one inside the park home run and I am overjoyed to report that I saw it in person. He hit a short fly ball to left field, which was being manned by Rangers right field Kevin Reimer, a nice Canadian boy who was also the worst outfielder I have ever seen. Poor Kevin was just infamously terrible; he would freeze in terror when he realized a fly ball was hit towards him, and then take a lurching step in a random direction, and only then begin to run to where he thought the ball would be, and if my some miracle he got there it would often bounce off his glove. Anyway, he started in to catch the call, thought maybe he should get it on a bounce, reversed his decision three more times, and finally “dove” at the ball, and by diving I mean he kind of fell at it. He missed it completely, it skipped by him, and it took him a good 20 seconds to run back and get the ball, and Rance needed every one of those seconds. The crowd was on its feet cheering like the Blue Jays had won the Second World War. It was wonderful.
- Kelly Gruber, Third Baseman, 1984-1992
Gruber started taking over third base from Gance Mulliniorg in 1987-1988 and became a minor star, finishing fourth in MVP voting in 1990. Gruber was a fan favourite, handsome and mulleted in the fashion of the times, but injuries ate his career very quickly.
Gruber at one point in the playoffs went hitless in 22 straight at bats, which at the time was a record and may still be; he broke the streak with a hugely important home run in Game 4 of the 1992 World Series.
My favourite Gruber moment though was at the old Exhibition Stadium, which was an absolutely disgraceful place for a professional baseball team to play, one of the many reasons being its horrible weather. One night fog rolled in and for some reason the umpires didn’t delay the game. Kelly hit a high popup to center field, not very deep, but Detroit’s outfielders couldn’t see it and it landed and bounced merrily towards the fence; Gruber could have circled the bases twice. I couldn’t find a video of it, but it’s not like you could have seen anything anyway.
- Aaron Hill, Second Base, 2005-2011
Aaron Hill was a good defensive second baseman with some power, but he’s a bit high on this list.
The WAR catch all statistic is generally pretty good; I would agree that Hill was a way better player than Tony Batista but not nearly as good as Jesse Barfield. However, it’s not perfect, and placing Hill above Kelly Gruber doesn’t seem correct to me. So anyway, I am not super confident in Hill’s being above Kelly Gruber, or for that matter Rance Mulliniks or a few other guys. He was a good player and all.
- Shannon Stewart, Outfielder, 1995-2003 and 2008
A very good contact hitter and successful leadoff man for the Jays for years. One of only five men to ever steal 50 bases in a season for the Blue Jays, but his speed departed him in his late 20s.
In 2003 Stewart was traded to Minnesota. He had a really good first couple of weeks there, and some sportswriter announced that for those two good weeks he should be named American League MVP. It was a ridiculous idea but it caught on, and he actually got four first place votes. Those four guys should have had their voting rights taken away.
- Duane Ward, Pitcher, 1986-1993 and 1995
Ward started pitching full time out of the bullpen in 1988, and he was pretty good. He got better every year, finally peaking in 1993 when Tom Henke left and he became the team’s relief ace and he was totally dominating. Ward was a pitcher of no subtlety; he threw the bard harder than hell and challenged people to try to hit it and they usually couldn’t.
That was it. He got tendonitis in his arm, missed the entire following year, pitched 4 games in 1995 and couldn’t get anyone out, and his career was over just like that at the age of 31. He works for The Fan 590 now, and it makes me happy he’s still in baseball.
- Alex Rios, Outfielder, 2004-2009
A huge, strong, fast right fielder who was a good all around hitter and an excellent fielder. I am surprised he ranks this high but it’s hard to argue against it; he had a lot of good years with the Jays.
Rios, a first round draft pick, was constantly compared to higher expectations; he had the kind of size, skill and style you could dream on, and everyone kind of hoped he was going to be a Hall of Famer. He never got that good and so I think people, including maybe me, were more disappointed in him than was merited. Looking back now, it’s hard to remember what our problem was with him.
- Paul Molitor, Designated Hitter, 1993-1995
Brought on board to replace Dave Winfield. Molitor’s short career with the Jays does not merit him being high on the list, but his incredible 1993 season, in which he beat up the league all year and then was the World Series MVP, puts him up a lot of spots.
Prior to joining Toronto, Molitor played for the Brewers for 15 years, often brilliantly; they called him “The Ignitor” because he got rallies started. But he could never stay healthy; from 1978 to 1987 he only had two years that were not significantly shortened by injury. Finally the Brewers took him out of the field and made him a full time designated hitter and boom, his injury problems went away, and he played full time for another eleven years.
Molitor had 3,319 career hits, the tenth most in baseball history. Had it not been for the injury problems – well, I don’t think he would have gotten to 4,000, but 3,800 would be possible, which would have placed him fourth all time. Oh well.
Molitor is now manager of the Minnesota Twins; he was named American League Manager of the Year in 2017, as the Twins became the first team to ever make the playoffs after losing 100 games the year before.
- Roger Clemens, Pitcher, 1997-1998
Arguably the greatest pitcher who ever lived. Clemens is the extreme case of comparing career worth versus peak; he only played two years in Toronto but was the best pitcher in the major leagues both years. His 1997 season was the best a Blue Jays pitcher has ever had. The team around him wasn’t going anywhere, though, so he asked to be traded and they accommodated him.
Clemens had starred with Boston for years before signing with Toronto, and according to the talk at the time, Boston felt he was washed up. If they actually thought that, they were insane. In 1996, his last year with Boston, Clemens led the league in strikeouts, gave up fewer hits than innings pitched, and was one of the best pitchers in the American League.
What might deceive you if you don’t know a lot about baseball is that his won-loss record in 1996 was 10-13. Pitchers have long been judged by win-loss, but remember; the pitcher’s team has more to do with the pitcher’s record than the pitcher himself does. You can pitch very well but lose games because your team scores no runs, or plays shitty defense. Boston didn’t score when Clemens was pitching and they were the worst-fielding team in the league; that is the only reason he went 10-13, and the Blue Jays made a very wise move in acquiring him, which was unusual for them because this was a time in the team’s history when they did things more or less randomly.
- Fred McGriff, First Baseman, 1986-1990
In the mid 80’s the Blue Jays came up with two first basemen, Fred McGriff and Cecil Fielder. They were total opposites. McGriff was tall, thin, and graceful, a lefthanded batter with a beautiful, fluid swing; Fielder was a rotund man, practically bursting through his own pants, righthanded and pudgy with a violent swing that looked like the baseball had insulted his mother. They were both slow, but McGriff was slow because he was just slow; Fielder was slow because he was super fat. The Blue Jays elected to keep McGriff, and it was the right decision; he was the better player.
One of three Blue Jays to win a home run title, McGriff was traded away young in the huge deal that brought Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar to Toronto, but while he was with Toronto he was an outstanding hitter.
McGriff hit the first home run ever hit at the SkyDome, but my first memory of him was when he hit this home run as a rookie, in Yankee Stadium;
I mean, that’s one hell of a home run.
- Joe Carter, Outfielder, 1991-1997
Carter, of course, hit the most famous home run in team history.
That was the second, and last, time a World Series ended on a homer, the only other one being Bill Mazeroski in 1960.
A number of other types of playoff series have ended on home runs, and it’s surprising to me how many were hit by otherwise obscure players. Certainly many of the homer-swatters were notable player, like Joe, David Ortiz, and Maggio Ordonez, but no one is gonna put Chris Burke or Todd Pratt in the Hall of Fame.
In truth, while Joe’s first three years with Toronto were pretty good, in the next four he might have been the worst overall player in baseball. Joe drove in a lot of runs but he did it by swinging at everything and having a lot of guys on base in front of him, so his 100 RBI a year came at the cost of a huge, huge number of outs, and he was rarely on base to continue the inning. Statistically you could argue he’s not in the team’s top 40 players, but I’m giving him a lot of credit for being a big part of the Jays’ championship run and the fact that he’s just a nice guy who remains close with Toronto. He is higher on almost all other lists of great Blue Jays. All the other lists are wrong.
- Ernie Whitt, Catcher, 1977-1989
A good all around catcher, the best Toronto has ever had. Whitt hit 10-19 home runs every year but when he hit one you wondered how he didn’t hit 60 a year; he had this huge first step and went down on his back knee, like Reggie Jackson, and when he really hit one he could hit it 500 feet. Whitt hit three home runs in the Jays’ ten-homer game in 1987 – the only time a team has hit ten homers in a game – and also hit a grand slam that brought the Blue Jays back from a 10-0 deficit in a 1989 game against Boston, the only time the Blue Jays have ever done that.
Whitt has been the manager of Canada’s national baseball team at every major tournament for as long as I can remember. Whitt, mind you, is not Canadian, but I guess they needed someone to do it and he must be impressing them. Anyway, he’s from Detroit, which is close enough.
- Juan Guzman, Pitcher, 1991-1998
Juan could never quite stay healthy, which, really, is the story of so many pitchers I can’t begin to count them. When he was on, though, he could really pitch. He won five playoff games for Toronto, which remains the team record.
Guzman pitched really slowly. I don’t mean his pitches were slow, he had a good fastball. I mean he took forever between pitches, and the worse he was pitching the slower he got. He’d shuffle around, look at the ball, meander up the mound, and then when he looked in for the sign he’d mull it over as if he was being asked to decipher an alien language like in “Arrival,” as opposed to just being told to throw a curveball. He’d then think about the pitch for awhile, tackling deep questions in his mind; “Sure, he wants me to throw a curveball. But what does a curveball mean?” Then he would sloooooowly get into the set position, and pause for what was about three seconds but felt like an hour before finally commencing his delivery. If he was pitching to a slow batter, like Derek Jeter, the at bat could take five minutes. It was horrible.
- Tom Henke, Pitcher, 1985-1992
We’re now getting to the point in this list where I’m actually agonizing over the rankings. I wasn’t really all that worried as to whether Paul Quantrill should be ahead or behind Ed Sprague, but it seems to matter to me at the top of the list.
Easily the best relief pitcher in team history, inning for inning Tom Henke was the best Blue Jay pitcher ever except for Roger Clemens; his ERA was way, way under the league average. The problem in comparing Henke to other pitchers is that being a closer, he just didn’t pitch that much. Henke in his whole career with Toronto pitched 563 innings, which is less than a good starting pitcher will throw in three years. So I think this ranking is fair; he’s below most of the team’s great players but above the mass of good players.
Henke was extremely instrumental in Toronto winning their first division title in 1985, and he pitched very well in the playoffs, so I may have him ranked too low. I’m not sure.
Henke was called “The Terminator,” a nickname also applied to long time relief ace Jeff Reardon. They should have had to fight about it.
- Josh Donaldson, Third Baseman, 2015-2017
Has only been with the team for three years but has been the best third baseman in baseball for those three years, and of course helped the team finally make a few playoffs.
Donaldson did not become a regular player until he was 26; that late start will probably cost him a shot at the Hall of Fame. Apparently, he started as a catcher and just wasn’t very good at it, and only later completely transitioned to being a third baseman, which he is amazing at. If he has another three years like the first three he had in Toronto – we can only be so lucky – he’ll be in the top five Blue Jays of all time.
One thing that has changed quite a lot about baseball is the athleticism of the players. Baseball players have always been athletic, but they are visibly, obviously more so now than they were, say, 30 years ago, and absurdly ahead of where they were 60 years ago. Josh Donaldson is a big, strong man who runs very fast, but he is relatively normal in today’s major leagues. Forty years ago he would have been a legend by MLB standards. Back then the best athletes in baseball would have been Dave Parker and Mike Schmidt. But neither man was any more impressive than Josh Donaldson, and I can think of twenty, thirty, maybe fifty guys like Donaldson nowadays. Mickey Mantle was an absolute legend in his day (the 1950s) – if you asked 100 fans who the best athlete in baseball was, 100 would have told you “Mickey Mantle.” But today, if a guy looked like Mickey Mantle, he would look totally normal by MLB standards.
Why is that? Well, obviously, it’s because baseball players train more – there is way, way more emphasis on training now. When I was a kid, professional ballplayers did not lift weights. They were literally told not to. Spring training was invented to help ballplayers lose some weight and get back in shape before the season started, way back in the day. Now, if you showed up to spring training overweight, someone would take you aside and have a serious meeting with you as regarding your intentions of being a professional baseball player. If you were a veteran with a guaranteed contract they’d hire you a counselor. Of course, modern sports medicine and nutrition makes it easier to systemically do all this.
Well, okay, you’re saying, but Rick old buddy old pal, the idea that being in shape helps you isn’t a new one. So why is it different now? And the answer is really obvious; Money.
The single biggest change in baseball is simply that it’s astoundingly more lucrative than it used to be. Major League Baseball, 80 years ago, was a small business, relatively speaking. In 1970, it was bigger, but not that big. In 1993, the year before the strike, it was bigger still, but since then it has gotten FIVE TIMES bigger. I kid you not. In 1993 league revenues were about $2 billion measured in today’s dollars. Now it’s over $10 billion.
As a result, players make more money. The top baseball players have always done very well; the aforementioned Mr. Mantle made a salary of $100,000 a year, which today would be about $700,000, and that’s a lot of dough. But most didn’t make that much; playing baseball was a good job, but a good career in other fields was just as lucrative, and much more stable and reliable.
Today, being a professional baseball player is just as risky; you are still unlikely to make it big, and minor leaguers are paid peanuts. But the upside is a lifetime free from material wants. Simply making it to the major leagues for a year can pay off all your debts. Getting to three years of service means you can pay off all your debts and buy a house and two cars, and a multi-year contract is Scrooge McDuck. One multi year contract and you never have to work again. Josh Donaldson will make $18 million (US) next year; he is way beyond a normal person’s concept of personal financial risk.
It is therefore perfectly rational that ballplayers train harder. Before, they were competing for reasonably well-paying jobs; now they’re competing with each other for winning lottery tickets. How much harder would you work if, by doing so for a number of years, you would be rewarded for a $50 million contract?
According to Baseball Reference, Donaldson has had the best AND the fifth-best seasons a Blue Jay hitter has ever had:
- Josh Donaldson, 2015, 8.8 WAR
- Jose Bautista, 2011, 8.1 WAR
- John Olerud, 1993, 7.7 WAR
- Jesse Barfield, 1986, 7.6 WAR
- Josh Donaldson, 2016, 7.5 WAR
Give it up for guys whose name start with J, huh?
- Devon White, Center Field, 1991-1995
Devon’s actual last name is “Whyte,” but at some point in his family’s history it got written down “White” and I guess they thought it was too much trouble to ask everyone to fix it. Although he has changed his name to the correct original spelling, he still spells it White when signing autographs for fans, and he’s “White” in the registry, so I’ll spell it like that.
White was the best defensive outfielder in Blue Jays history, by a mile; he was, basically, as good an outfielder as it is possible for a human being to be. His play was flawless; he was always positioned, had incredibly fast reactions, could run like the wind and always took a perfectly straight line to the precise point the ball was going to arrive. He rarely dove for a ball simply because he rarely needed to. If you hit a ball to center field, Devon White would be waiting there to catch it. Like this:
That was the most famous play he ever made, because it was in the World Series, but honestly he probably made 100, maybe 150 plays in his Blue Jays career just as remarkable. He coaches for the Jays in Triple-A now, so I expect their young outfielders to know what they’re doing because they have the right guy to get advice from.
Great defensive players are often underrated. Hitting is very easy to measure; if a guy belts 35 home runs, that’s the statistic everyone talks about. The true value of a player’s combined offensive contribution was pretty well nailed down by sabermetrics (the scientific study of baseball) in the 1980s. Fielding is much harder to measure, because fielding statistics, especially prior to about 15-20 years ago, were simply not very descriptive and are prone to enormous illusions of context. In truth, players like Devon White were always appreciated for their defensive skills but in the cases of the true greats might not have been appreciated enough; a center fielder of Devon’s calibre, or a shortstop like Ozzie Smith, could well be making a fielding contribution worth the equivalent of winning a home run title. That is to say that Devon White was as good a player as an average defensive center fielder who had Devon White’s hitting stats except that instead of hitting about 15 home runs a year, he hit 40. Devon White was a WAY better player than Joe Carter, I’ll tell you that.
- George Bell, Outfielder, 1981-1990
Bell was acquired from the Phillies prior to the 1981 season in something called the Rule V Draft. Basically, in order to prevent teams from hoarding too many players in the minor leagues, a team is allowed to designated 40 players that cannot be taken from them. Anyone not on that list, and who has been with their team for more than a few years, can simply be taken away by another team in the Rule V draft for $50,000. The Phillies did not feel Bell was worth protecting, so the Blue Jays took him. This might explain why in the 1980s the Phillies fell apart and the Blue Jays became a dominant team.
Bell of course famously won the MVP Award in 1987, despite the fact the Blue Jays choked the division away to Detroit and their best player, Alan Trammell, really should have won the award. According to fairly reliable accounts, many of the voters mailed their ballots in before the season ended – thereby making their decisions prior to the Blue Jays, with Bell playing terribly, losing seven games in a row and choking it all away. How stupid do you have to be to not just wait until the end of the season?
Anyway, George was a good hitter, but he was only REALLY good for two years, and he wasn’t the best outfielder you’ve ever seen, so despite the MVP Award I would rank him behind his fellow “Killer B’s” outfielders, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby.
After he won the 1987 MVP Award, the Blue Jays decided to take away his left field job and make him the DH, giving the outfield spot to a young man named Sil Campusano. Bell was furious, and it caused a huge rift between him, the media, and manager Jimy Williams, who in fairness was a jackass himself, and it was just generally a stupid, pointless distraction. Bell wasn’t a great outfielder, as I said, but he wasn’t THAT bad, and so why the Blue Jays felt the need to make this move and insult the pride of a sensitive man, I really do not understand. They weren’t doing Sil Campusano any favors, either; he was just 22, and wasn’t ready for the big leagues. Campusano’s career was ruined, the 1988 season was disappointing, and no one came out of the stupid fight looking good.
- John Olerud, First Baseman, 1989-1996
John Olerud never played minor league baseball; he went straight from university to the Blue Jays. That is an extremely rare event, happens no more than once every five years or so. If you remember John Olerud you probably recall that he wore a helmet in the field; he had a brain aneurysm when he was a teenager, and so wore a helmet at all times, just in case.
Olerud won the American League batting title in 1993, the only Blue Jay to ever do that, and he probably should have won the MVP Award but didn’t. After that, Cito Gaston and his coaching staff, for reasons I didn’t understand now and never will, started losing their interest in him, benching him from time to time and fiddling with his swing a lot; Toronto Star baseball writer Richard Griffin, one of the dumbest and most mean spirited assholes you could imagine, was their public mouthpiece, ripping into Olerud’s alleged lack of work ethic, or character, or whatever; Griffin never made a lot of sense.
Finally, after the 1996 season, they traded Olerud to the Mets for a pitcher named Robert Person, who you have never heard of and there’s a reason for that. Free of the mismanagement of the Blue Jays, Olerud promptly because a star again and had many fine seasons with the Mets and Mariners.
One of the curiosities of recent baseball history is the collapse of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1990s. Until their second World Series win the Blue Jays were the model team for all of baseball; starting with nothing in 1977, they built a mighty franchise in a shiny new stadium that won year after year and was the league’s juggernaut in every way. And then after 1993 they just went completely to shit for two decades, never making the playoffs, wasting talent, driving fans away. They even managed to screw up the uniforms, and I am being completely serious when I say the 2011 decision to go back to classic uniforms has probably made them thirty million dollars in increased fan support. In part, a lot of this was due to ownership changes; they came under the ownership of a Belgian company, which had about as much interest in baseball as Belgians usually do, and the architect of the team, Pat Gillick, moved on and was replaced by Gord Ash, who was a nice man but who made a lot of silly mistakes, and let Cito Gaston made a lot of stupid and mean-spirited errors. The team seemed to treat talent like it was free, and wasted or gave away a lot of good players while giving playing time to visibly inferior players, and there wasn’t any sort of clear plan as to whether they were going to try to win now or rebuild for later. They did not even seem to know who they wanted to be on the team the following year. The transformation of the team from the crown jewel of the American League to a team that for twenty years was almost irrelevant and might as well not even have existed was astoundingly fast, and took Blue Jay fans by surprise.
I guess my point here is that in professional sports what divides the successful teams from the unsuccessful ones can change really, really quickly. If you’re a fan of the NFL it seems like the New England Patriots are going to win every year, while the Cleveland Browns are doomed to an eternity of unrelenting misery. But all that could change in two years. I’m not saying those specific team will change, but I guarantee you in the next five years some perennial shitshow of a franchise is going to suddenly be a powerhouse, and some long term winner is going to fall into the abyss.
- Edwin Encarnacion, Designated Hitter, 2008-2016
Edwin started with the Cincinnati Reds, who insisted he was a third baseman. Edwin did not so much play third base as he fought it. He was just dreadful at it, and his defensive woes affected his hitting, as such things often do to many players.
The Blue Jays got him and tried him at third base for awhile but gave up and said “what if he we just asked him to hit” and stuck him at DH and kaboom, he was once of the best hitters in baseball for years. He hit a lot of home runs but generally did not strike out a lot; one year he walked 82 times and only struck out 62, which in modern baseball is an amazing ratio for a power hitter. Whatever his limitations as a fielder, Encarnacion was a dedicated, hard working student of the art of hitting. If the Reds had clued into that and just made him a first baseman back in 2006, he’d probably still be there and history would be different.
You may remember this:
When Edwin hit that home run, Baltimore’s best relief pitcher, Zach Britton, was sitting in the bullpen. The Orioles’ manager, Buck Showalter, never brought him in. It was the weirdest, dumbest decision I’ve ever seen; it’s a do or die game, bottom of the 11th, the winning run is on third base and there’s only one out, the American League RBI champion is at bat, and the pitcher is visibly struggling. Actually, Edwin doesn’t even need a hit there; he just needs to hit a fly ball of average depth, since the runner would tag and score from third. You desperately need a strikeout or a ground ball. Desperately. If there was EVER a time to call upon your best reliever, that’s it, right? I mean, there cannot possibly be a more important moment. That was literally the single most important out the Baltimore Orioles had to get in the entire 2016 season, and Buck Showalter left his relief ace in the bullpen and the ball landed in Mozambique. I was delighted as a Blue Jays fan, but absolutely baffled as a baseball fan. What was he thinking?
- Jim Clancy, Pitcher, 1977-1987
An original Blue Jay and now largely forgotten, but a workhorse pitcher for a long time. Clancy had several really good years when the Blue Jays weren’t very good yet and didn’t score many runs for him.
In 1982, Clancy went 16-14. That year they gave the Cy Young Award to Pete Vuckovich, who went 18-6 for the Brewers. The reason Vuckovich had a better record has nothing to do with his skill; in fact, Clancy pitched MUCH better. It’s simply that Vuckovich pitched for a team that scored an incredible number of runs, while Clancy pitched for a team that was very weak with the stick. If Clancy had pitched for the Brewers he would have won 20 games, and if Vuckovich had pitched for the Blue Jays he would have had a losing record.
- Lloyd Moseby, Center Field, 1980-1989
Moseby was the center fielder in the “Killer B’s” outfield of Bell, Moseby (it ends with “b,” get it?) and Barfield, which from 1983 to 1987 was as good a three-man outfield as any team has ever had for five straight years. He was nicknamed “Shaker” for his ability to shake defenders on the basketball court.
Moseby came up very young, since the Blue Jays were an expansion team with few better options, and after struggling for a few years he had exceptional years in 1983 and 1984. He did everything well and he was only 24. Bill James wrote of him, “Moseby will win an MVP Award in the next five years if he stays healthy.”
He didn’t, and didn’t. Lloyd started to have knee problems, a common issue with baseball players asked to play a lot of games on artificial turf, which in those days was little more than a thin carpet atop concrete. He slowly declined until his didn’t have anything left.
Lloyd Moseby was done in the majors at the age of 31. It’s a cruel sport. He still works for the Blue Jays today in some sort of PR capacity.
- Pat Hentgen, Pitcher, 1991-1999
The first Blue Jays pitcher to win the Cy Young Award, in 1996; he had a monster year. Hentgen led the league in innings pitched that year and the next, and after that he lost a lot of his effectiveness, but when he was on he was a hell of a pitcher.
Like a lot of ballplayers, Hentgen still works for the Blue Jays in some sort of coaching capacity. I wonder how many players stay on in baseball and how many say “the hell with this”?
Honestly I don’t know a hell of a lot about Pat Hentgen as a person and there was nothing remarkable or unusual about him as a pitcher, so I’ll use this opportunity to tell a story about a guy named Doug Glanville, who was never a Blue Jay but is one of my favourite players.
Glanville had quite a few good years for the Phillies. He was an outstanding center fielder and a decent enough hitter, and as it happens a bit of an intellectual geek; Glanville got an engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school (such schools do not award athletic scholarships, so you have to be smart just to get in.) In fact I believe he’s one of only four or five Penn alumni to ever play in the big leagues. This is important background.
Anyway, Doug was not a notable home run hitter, but on May he belted two homers off the great Curt Schilling, then of the Arizona Diamondbacks but a former teammate of Glanville’s on the Phillies. This was an achievement previously only matched by a handful of true home run greats.
After the game he was asked by amazed reporters how it was he had lit up Schilling twice. Perhaps they expected him to say he knew something about Schilling’s approach from his days with the Phillies, but that is not what he told them.
Glanville calmly explained that years ago, he and Schilling had been playing “EverQuest” together, hunting Aviaks in the Butcherblock Mountains. (About a level 6-8 area, as I recall.) Glanville’s dwarf paladin, Bingbong, was tragically slain, and according to Glanville it was Schilling’s fault, who had pulled a massive train of Aviaks to their area and ran away like a coward while poor Bingbong was massacred.
Glanville went on to say, and I swear these are his exact words, “I swore revenge on the soul of Bingbong.” He then went on to say, again his exact words:
“Not enough attention is paid to the off-the-field motivators that create nasty on-field grudges. I believe video atrocities top the list. Curt Schilling assassinated my lovable Dwarf Paladin in EverQuest, happily smiling as his character stood in the safety of the town guards. That can create serious internal friction. I believe we need to analyze some of the video atrocities committed on PlayStation 2 or Dreamcasts, or even the Commodore 64, if we need to go back that far. Teammates play each other all the time on these platforms in baseball simulations, football and other head-to-head games. This creates all kinds of bad blood when the winner is not as gracious as he could be. I’m of the theory that this could be a key explanation as to why some players have tremendous success against certain other players. Like Todd Helton against Bobby Jones. Or Mike Redmond against Tom Glavine. Maybe Glavine beat Redmond in Madden Football, 73-0, and poured Gatorade over himself after the victory. Maybe when Bobby Jones was losing to Helton in NBA Live, he ‘accidentally’ knocked the cord out of the wall, claiming it was a ‘power-surge problem.’ We don’t know these things, do we?
Bingbong was set up, led to an untimely death in the prime of his life for no other reason than pure malice. Things like that do not go unavenged. Sometimes it spills out onto the field of play”
This guy should be elected President.
- Vernon Wells, Outfielder, 1999-2010
Wells holds a lot of Blue Jays career records. If he played during the team’s good times maybe he’d rank higher. At his peak he wasn’t as good a player as either Lloyd Moseby or Devon White, but he’s got them beat on volume. I am not absolutely certain he should be this high, but oh well.
The Blue Jays signed Vernon to a gigantic contract in 2007 and within a few years it became apparent the contract was a horrible error; he was declining rapidly. This is very common in baseball; players are very often paid for the things they have done, not the things they are going to do, and one team reaps the rewards of the player’s youth while another pays the player for their lesser veteran years. You might wonder why teams would be dumb enough to do this, but baseball free agency is prone to the Greater Fool Theory, an economic rule that states that the winner of an auction is usually an idiot. If Smith is a free agent, he will almost always sign with the team offering the most money. But if you think about it, the team offering the most money is, almost by definition, probably wrong. Suppose Smith is desired by seven teams, and their opinions of Smith’s value are:
Texas – $140 million
St. Louis – $105 million
Houston – $100 million
Toronto – $100 million
Baltimore – $90 million
San Francisco – $85 million
Cincinnati – $85 million
It is plainly obvious here that the rough market price for a player of Smith’s ability is maybe $100 million, and that’s not even considering the fact that 23 teams AREN’T interested in him. But Smith will, of course, sign with Texas. Auctions work like that; whomever wins an auction is, almost by definition, paying more than the true market price. Consequently, most multi-year free agent contracts involved the player being overpaid.
Anyway, in a miraculous twist, in 2011 the Angels offered to take Wells in trade, and they didn’t even ask the Blue Jays to give them any money to take him. They even gave Toronto a few good players. It was materially the same as if the Angels had just called the Jays up and send “Would you like ninety million dollars? We’ll send you a check.” It was a Christmas miracle. It was the greatest heist in Blue Jays history and goes a long way towards explaining why the Angels, despite having the greatest player in baseball in Mike Trout, are otherwise usually a dumpster fire of a team.
- Jesse Barfield, Right Field, 1981-1989
An awesomely strong man, the first Blue Jay to win a home run title, in 1986. His 40 homers held up as the team record for exactly one year; George Bell hit 47 the next season. (THAT record held for 23 years.) Barfield was an excellent player in his prime but like his outfield buddies, he declined rapidly and was done at the age of 32. It was sad to see him traded away but if the Blue Jays had waited another year no one would have taken him.
Jesse Barfield had the best arm I’ve ever seen on an outfielder. I’ve seen some pretty great outfield arms, like Bo Jackson or Glenn Wilson or Dwight Evans, but Barfield was superhuman. He’d throw from the warning track and hit the catcher right in the glove. Runners were sometimes thrown out by twenty feet and would get up and look around as if they were thinking “What just happened?”
Everyone knew Barfield had an amazing arm, so you’d think they would stop running on him and he wouldn’t get to throw anyone one, but his arm just kept getting better and he’d throw out 20 guys every year. There haven’t been five men in the history of baseball better at outfield throwing.
- Roberto Alomar, Second Base, 1991-1995
Every other Blue Jay fan, if they did this exercise, would have Alomar in the top three or four, if not #1. Actually, I bumped him up like 10 slots. Sportsnet did a big thing on the greatest Blue Jays, and Alomar was #1. I just cannot rationally justify agreeing with that.
According to Baseball Reference, Alomar’s Blue Jays career clocks in at 22 WAR, which is not even in the Blue Jays top ten or even close to it. If this surprises you, remember
- Robbie only played in Toronto for five years, which isn’t that long
- WAR thinks he was a crappy fielder
- He wasn’t that great in 1994 and 1995
I moved him up a LOT of spots because I think he was a better fielder than WAR does, and the fact is he was the best overall player on a two-time World Series champion, played brilliantly in the playoffs, and is the only person ever elected to the Hall of Fame as a Blue Jay. That counts for a lot. Alomar in his prime was a delight to watch, just a pure baseball player. But I cannot put him at #1.
Alomar’s father and brother were both Major Leaguers. One of the best indicators of whether or not a young man will pan out as a prospect is if his father was a professional baseball player. The correlation is truly amazing; if you have two players, same age, same physical type, same statistics at the same level of minor league ball, and one of them had a Dad in the big leagues and the other did not, the one with a major league baseball father is something like five times likelier to have a big league career.
- Jimmy Key, Pitcher, 1984-1992
The best indicator of a pitcher’s future success is his strikeout rate. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s the one statistic you want to know about a starting pitcher; how many men does he strike out? Nine men per nine innings? You want that guy. Three men per nine innings? He’s doomed; get rid of him.
I know announcers will talk about how pitchers should “pitch to contact” and stuff. It’s bullshit. Pitchers who strike out many men last a long time. If you don’t believe me, look up the career records of the best pitchers of all time. Seaver, Clemens, Walter Johnson, Carlton, Gibson, all of them were strikeout masters. Who was the best Negro League pitcher? Satchel Paige, a great master of the strikeout. The least strikey-outy guy was Greg Maddux, among the true greats, and he got about seven men per nine innings, way above the average.
A pitcher basically controls three things; how many men he strikes out, how many men he walks, and to some extent how many home runs he gives up.
During his Blue Jays career Jimmy Key struck out 5 men per nine innings. That is basically the lowest total a starting pitcher can possibly have and be successful for a long period of time; it is right on the edge of the point where you will just get the shit pounded out of you no matter what else you do. To strike out that low a number of hitters you’d better do those other two things REALLY well, and Key did them. He was the best control pitcher of his time, hardly ever walking anyone, and he kept the ball down, pitch after pitch, so it was hard to homer off him. He lived on that edge for fifteen years, and he pulled it off.
In my opinion Key, not Pat Borders, should have been MVP of the 1992 World Series.
- Carlos Delgado, First Base, 1993-2004
Delgado is the Blue Jays career record holder in most categories; home runs, RBIs, walks, runs scored, and a number of others. He was a truly first class hitter for a long time, and it’s kind of a shame the Blue Jays were never a good team when he was good. He deserved to play in a World Series.
Delgado, of course, is the only Blue Jay, and one of only 17 men ever, to hit four home runs in one game. An interesting trivia note is that in that game he only batted four times. He is in fact the only player in Major League history to play an entire nine-inning game and hit a home run every time he came to bat.
Delgado was a catcher in the minor leagues; he was moved to first base, and in retrospect I cannot imagine why anyone ever thought he could be a catcher. He was a huge, hulking man and it took him awhile to get good at playing first base, a much easier position. In addition to the fact he would have been a disastrously bad catcher, why would you want to wear out a hitter of that calibre by making him catch?
- Tony Fernandez, Shortstop/Third Base, 1983-1990, 1993, 1998-1999, 2001
Tony had four stints in Toronto. He came up in 1983 and succeeded Alfredo Griffin as shortstop, and what a shortstop he was. He was just marvelous. He had the range of an ICBM and a terrific arm and made wonderful plays all the time, and he had hitting skills too. In 1990 he was in the blockbuster Robbie Alomar trade. Sucked to see him go, but the team needed changes.
In 1993 he came back, acquired midseason because they’d kind of forgotten they needed a shortstop, and he helped the Blue Jays win the World Series. He drove in nine runs in the World Series, in fact, a record for a shortstop.
In 1998-1999 he came back, now too old and slow to play shortstop, but as good a hitter as ever, and he played great.
In 2001 they brought him back to finish his career in Toronto and even though it was mostly just to be nice he hit really well then too.
He was a fantastic player.
- Roy Halladay, Pitcher, 1998-2009
In a few years, when he becomes eligible, Halladay will be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Pitchers are weirdly underrepresented in the Hall of Fame. As of right now there are, if I’m counting right, 231 people who are in the Hall of Fame primarily for their excellence as Major Laague players (as opposed to as managers, umps, executives, etc.) Of those, only 30 percent are pitchers. At a glance the ratio for Negro League players is basically the same.
That seems… weird to me. Baseball isn’t half pitching, because hitting is one side of the game and pitching/fielding is the other… but it has to be 40% pitching, right? Maybe a bit more.
Or maybe not.
Let’s use Wins Above Replacement again; how good are pitchers versus hitters? The answer is that it’s surprisingly unbalanced, no matter where you set your standard of excellence.
If you limit yourself to players with 100 WAR, which is basically the level at which a player is an immortal great, there are 20 hitters and 9 pitchers.
75 WAR – at which almost everyone ends up in he Hall of Fame sooner or later – you have 48 hitters, 27 pitchers,
60 WAR – a better than even chance of being in the Hall – 120 hitters, 60 pitchers.
50 WAR – a hell of a career but usually not in the Hall – 199 hitters, 105 pitchers.
I just learned this in the last week and I have to admit it quite changed my mind on some players. According to WAR, David Cone (he’s in Part 1) who I thought was a marginal Hall of Fame candidate is, in fact, the 51st best pitcher who ever lived; given that they’ve been playing pro baseball for 150 years that strikes me as being a hell of an accomplishment. The 51st best HITTER of all time was Reggie Jackson and he was a no brainer selection.
Of course, it is possible that the WAR numbers are correct in basically saying that pitchers are way less valuable than hitters. While I am open to objective evidence, I just can’t entirely buy this line of reasoning. As I’ve mentioned 15-20 times in this list, pitching is ruinous to a person’s physical health to an extent hitting and fielding is not. It is just the nature of the sport that pitchers cannot last a long time, but you still need them to win baseball games. At every moment a baseball game is being played, the pitcher is the most important person on the field. Any arbitrary standard for excellence will be unfair to the fundamental nature of pitching.
This little exercise kind of opened my eyes to the fact that in my personal thoughts about the Hall of Fame I have probably been wildly underrating a lot of pitchers, including some on this list, like David Cone, Jimmy Key, and Dave Stieb. I used to think Cone and Stieb were marginal choices and Key a definite no. I now think Cone and Stieb really should be in the Hall of Fame, and Key is a marginal choice.
- Jose Bautista, Right Field, 2008-2017
When I’m feeling down, I watch this video. It never fails to cheer me up.
As I mentioned a few players ago, Carlos Delgado holds most Blue Jay offensive records. So why is Bautista ranked higher?
- Carlos Delgado played during a time when offensive levels were at historic highs, so the runs he created were proportionately less important. Delgado’s 2000 season, when he batted .344 with 99 extra base hits and a .470 on base percentage, looks superficially better than Jose’s 2011 season, when he hit .302 with a bit less power and on base percentage – but Bautista’s performance was slightly more valuable. In 2000 the average American League team scored 857 runs; in 2011, 723 runs. The value of runs is contextual.
- In all honesty I don’t think Jose was a great defensive player, but he was an okay outfielder. Carlos Delgado was a mediocre first baseman, a less valuable defensive position.
- Jose got his team into the playoffs, and Carlos didn’t.
Okay, so why is he ahead of Roy Halladay?
Putting Jose ahead of Carlos Delgado was an easy call. Putting him ahead of Roy Halladay was much harder. The stats say Halladay was better. Halladay was certainly a way greater player than Carlos Delgado, and ticks a few boxes Delgado does not. It comes down, though, to two things.
The first is that Jose Bautista contributed to championships. Halladay did not. I realize it’s not fair to Roy that he was the best pitcher on a mediocre team, but it is what it is.
The second is that this list is about greatness. Jose Bautista was a more important player to the Blue Jays, in terms of the course of their history, than Roy Halladay was. As great as Roy was, Jose Bautista was the leading edge of a movement that restored relevance to the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
I’ve alluded to this earlier in this list, but the Blue Jays have had four movements, if you will, in team history; the short expansion blues from 1977 to 1982 or so, the run of good to great teams that culminated in the 1992-1993 World Series wins, the abrupt horror of terrible baseball that started in 1994 and dragged to 2014, and then the sudden re-emergence of the team in the last few years. The team’s re-emergence really started before the playoff run of 2015, and Jose Bautista was a huge reason why. The 54-homer season in 2010 was the most exciting thing to happen in baseball in Toronto in years, and Bautista became the team’s perennial All-Star and de facto face of the franchise. He was the central figure in the team’s revitalization and his transformation into excellence is one of the reasons the team was able to make the moves it did, for better or worse, that led to the 2015 miracle. I would go so far as to say that the bat flip homer was as important to the success of the team as Joe Carter’s World Series winner. That sounds crazy, maybe, but think about it; the ALDS home run restored pride and a sense of victory to a team that had none of that for over two decades. Carter’s home run won the team’s second straight World Series; they were already a champion, in the process of beating the crap out of a team that was lucky to be in the World Series at all.
Sadly, Roy was just the best of a lot of really good players who went through Toronto from 1994 to 2014 but won nothing. The only time Roy had an impact on a pennant race was, unfortunately, a negative one; his horrific 2000 was one of the reasons the Blue Jays missed winning a weak division. Roy Halladay was an immensely great pitcher but when he did win, it was as a Phillie. Bautista won as a Blue Jay, and that’s why he’s ahead. If you disagree, I can see your point, though.
- Dave Stieb, Pitcher, 1979-1992, 1998
In my opinion Dave Stieb is CLEARLY the best Blue Jay of all time. I don’t think it’s a close call.
Stieb was Toronto’s first real star, a perennial All-Star and a legitimate top tier player. He was an absolute bear of a pitcher, intense and angry all the time, and would jump off the mound in triumph if he ended the inning with a big strikeout. He threw hard but got most outs with his slider, which was just ludicrously difficult to hit and appeared to defy the laws of physics. I’ve never seen a slider like it. It did not so much curve as it appeared to strike an invisible object on the way to the plate and deflect twenty degrees to the left. Stieb would cheerfully throw terrifying fastballs inside to intimidate hitters – if a guy got hit now and then, oh well, Dave didn’t mind – which would set up the slider outside as an unhittable pitch.
Stieb’s career WAR with Toronto is 57, which is far above Halladay, Bautista and Fernandez, who are all around 38-48. (Roy Halladay had a more impressive career because he had some awesome years in Philadelphia.) If this surprises anyone, it should not. Stieb was a truly great pitcher for a long time.
In 1982, Stieb finished fourth in Cy Young Award voting. He absolutely should have won the award; he was the best pitcher in the league, by far, and I say with complete honesty and a lot of evidence to support me that that was one of the worst shaftings in the history of major baseball award voting. But his team couldn’t score, so he went 17-14 where a mortal would have gone like 9-22. Today the voters are more savvy, and would have given him the trophy, but they weren’t in 1982. (He did get five first place votes, so some guys knew what they were doing.)
In 1983, Stieb was the best pitcher in the league, but he got no votes at all. I guess they kind of forgot about him.
In 1984, Stieb was the best pitcher in the league. They gave the Cy Young to Willie Hernandez for some reason.
How many pitchers are the best pitcher in the league three years running? It’s a very rare occurrence, actually. He is the only Blue Jay to be able to claim something like that. (In 1985, he dropped all the way to being the second best pitcher in the league, and just barely at that.) Stieb was a truly dominant pitcher; he was as dominant as Roy Halladay, actually. And he was dominant for longer, having more good seasons, and helped the Blue Jays win championships.
To place any player above Stieb requires mental gymnastics I just can’t comprehend. You cannot logically put Halladay over Stieb; they were both starting pitchers, and Stieb was objectively better with the Blue Jays. Unless Halladay’s winning the Cy Young Award (as opposed to Stieb deserving to win one, but not winning it) is worth 15 WAR – the equivalent of three All-Star seasons – AND you give Stieb no credit for helping Toronto win things, that argument makes no sense.
Alomar over Stieb requires you find 35 WAR in intangibles to make up the differences. I mean, 35 WAR is a decent career. I loved Robbie Alomar too, but that is nuts. I can make a case Alomar should jump over a lot of guys on the list, and I did, but not that much. Robbie Alomar was with Toronto for five years total. Dave Stieb made the All-Star Game for Toronto in seven different seasons.
Stieb was the best Blue Jay ever.