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Greatest Left Fielders

 

by Aman Verjee

 

1. Ted Williams

2. Barry Bonds

3. Stan Musial

4. Rickey Henderson

5. Carl Yastrzemski

 

Honorable Mention: Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ed Delahanty, Jim Rice, Al Simmons

Best Defensively: Jackson, Bonds, Yaz

 

     Let's face it - this is a hitter's position.  You can hide someone here and he will do minimal damage to your team.  A weak hitter with a great glove will never play left.  In fact, the list of great defensive players who have patrolled left is pretty short - multiple Gold Glover Barry Bonds is a capable but unspectacular fielder, and Yaz had the special challenges of the Green Monster to help him earn his stripes.

     Only one guy could have been a great center fielder: Shoeless Joe Jackson.  Few fielders have been better than Jackson - it was said he could throw a baseball 350 feet with speed and accuracy.  In 1917, at the Tim Murane charity event and All-Star game in Boston, Jackson participated in a pre-game throwing and fielding contest and launched a winning throw of 396 feet, eight inches (the next best throw was a tie - Duffy Lewis of the Red Sox and Clarence "Tilly" Walker of the Philadelphia Athletics reached 384 feet, six inches.

     Anyway, it's no surprise that a number of the greatest hitters have been left fielders:

 

1. Ted Williams

Batting Titles: 6 (12 top five AL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 9 (13 top five AL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 12 (12 top five AL finishes)

 

Click here Hall of Fame biography

 

     Everybody knows that Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 and thus was the last major leaguer to reach the .400 mark.  But that single number doesn't do justice to Teddy Ballgame - the two most important statistics for any hitter are slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and while Williams won six "batting titles," he led the American League in slugging percentage 8 times and on-base percentage eleven times.  Amazingly, Williams could have been much, much better - he missed three full seasons to WWII (1943-1945), and considering that he won baseball's coveted Triple Crown 1942 and in 1947 (and in 1949 he missed a third Triple Crown by a single base hit), those were peak years of performance.  (Incidentally, the last man to win the Triple Crown was Yaz in 1967; besides Williams, only Rogers Hornsby has done it twice).  Williams also missed almost two full seasons when he was recalled into the Marines, for whom he flew combat missions in Korea.

     Williams' .344 batting average ranks sixth on the all-time list, but his .634 slugging percentage is second (behind Babe Ruth), and his .483 on-base percentage is first (ahead of Ruth's .474).  His 521 home runs is impressive, given all the walks he took; if you add in 5 seasons of additional production, he might have challenged Babe Ruth's all-time mark.

     In 1957, at the age of 39, Williams recorded one of the greatest seasons ever for an older player - a .388 batting average, a whopping .526 on-base average and a .731 slugging percentage.  That year, Williams and Mantle (.512) were 100 points ahead of the nearest competition for on-base average; the league on-base average that season was .326, comparable to the number for the 1990s - that makes it all the more remarkable that no one has even approached a .500 on-base average since 1957.

 

2. Barry Bonds

 

Batting Titles: 1 (3 top five NL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 5 (11 top five NL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 6 (11 top five NL finishes)

 

     An awesome blend of power and speed, Bonds is the only five-time winner of the MVP award - in fact, he is also the only one to win it four times.  He finished a close second to Terry Pendleton in 1991 (274 to 259), and he finished a tight second again in 2000.

    The fact that he has led the National  League in slugging percentage 5 times and on-base average 6 times is testament to his offensive performance - never suffering through an off-season, he finished in the top five in the NL in OBA 9 times during the 1990s and in the top five in slugging 8 times.  Of course, his 2000 and 2001 seasons stand as the most dominant since Babe Ruth in 1920-1921. 

     Regardless of his accomplishments, Bonds was rarely given his full due prior to breaking the home run record in 2000.  For instance, he was snubbed from the All-Century team, getting a third of the votes that Ken Griffey, Jr., got, even though Bonds is clearly the superior player.  Part of it was his poor play in the postseason. Bonds has a .196 batting average in the playoffs and has never reached the World Series. On the other hand, Willie Mays hit .239 in the World Series with no home runs and six RBI, and it didn't hurt his reputation much.  Playing in Pittsburgh, which is not a media capital and where Roberto Clemente failed to get his due for many years, didn't help.  Neither did moving to San Francisco, where many of his performances don't make the East Coast newspapers or the early SportsCenter.

 

     But the major reason is probably his attitude: the Sports Illustrated cover, entitled "I'm Barry Bonds and You're Not," still colors perceptions of him held by many fans.  He is often surly with the media, and he is remembered by many fans for asking for a reduction in his child support payments during the strike.  Of course, Joe DiMaggio wasn't exactly friendly with the media either, yet his aloofness was attributed to his "class" and intense "desire for privacy."  Bonds is portrayed simply as a jerk.

     Well, whatever his personal shortcomings, this doesn't change the fact that he is one of the greatest players in history.  Aside from his hitting, let's not forget about his other tools - he runs the bases with speed and intelligence, and has accumulated over 500 over his career; he has swiped 28 or more a whopping 13 times.  His near 75% success rate means that he is consistently one the game's top two or three base thieves.  And his defense - well, let's just say 8 Gold Gloves.  The truth is, he has decent range and a strong, accurate arm - though his putouts and assists have done little more than keep pace with the league average in recent years, he has sure hands and commits few errors (in 2000, he committed just three errors for the fourth season).

     When you add his contributions on the basepaths to his unparalleled hitting, it's no wonder that he has led the NL in runs created 9 times 1990-1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, and 2000-2001.  According to Total Baseball, he has led the league in Total Player Rating (the "MVP" of statistics) a whopping 9 times - Hank Aaron did that 3 times, Stan Musial did it 4 times, Ted Williams 7 times and Willie Mays did it 9 times.  Ken Griffey, Jr., has yet to do it once.  'Nuff said?

 

 

3. Stan Musial

 

Batting Titles: 7 (17 top five NL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 6 (12 top five NL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 6 (16 top five NL finishes)

 

Click here Hall of Fame biography

 

     In the post-war years, discussion as to who was the game's best hitter revolved around two names: Ted Williams and Stan Musial.  In the 1960s, there was equal support for both; in a poll of 260 writers, broadcasters, owners, players and umpires, Musial was voted the best player of 1946 to 1955.

     Somehow, Musial's star seems to have faded, while Williams' has risen - perhaps that's due to the passage of time giving Williams' accomplishments more weight, or perhaps it's simply a matter of Williams' on-field petulance and Musial's gentlemanly demeanor fading into the past.  Perhaps Musial had to be seen to be fully appreciated.  At any rate, Stan the Man was a perennial All-Star, with 22 seasons in the bigs and 21 straight selections.  In 1943, his second full season, Musial won the MVP award; he would eventually win three MVP awards (1943, '46, and '48) in the space of six seasons (one of which he spent in the military), and then runnered up in 1949, '50 and '51, making for an MVP run that was unmatched in the game's history until Barry Bonds came along in the 1990s.

     Oh, and he also finished a close second in 1957, just behind Hank Aaron, a year in which he won his seventh batting title, at the age of 36.  Five years later in 1961, as a grandfather, he mauled expansion pitching for a .330 average and retired with a .331 lifetime mark.

     Musial is one of a handful of men (Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Barry Bonds, Roy Campanella, Jimmie Foxx and Mike Schmidt are the others) AND he finished second four times.  When he retired, he had the major league record for total bases, and extra-base hits (he is now second, having been surpassed by Aaron in both categories), and the National League record for runs batted in, total hits, runs scored, home runs, and consecutive games played.

     From a cramped stance that seemed made to hit singles, he managed tro hit 475 home runs, but also won 7 batting titles.  His ability to run shows up not in his stolen bases, but in his triples - he legged out 177 in his career - a category in which he led the National League five times.  He could bunt, move a runner over, hit a homer or steal a base, hit to all fields and foul off pitches at will (he struck out just once every 16 at-bats).

 

4. Rickey Henderson

 

     Running or walking, Henderson was one of the most lethal offensive threats in the game's history.  It's hard to imagine a more idea lead-off man.  A leadoff hitter is supposed to (1) get on base and (2) score runs once he gets there.  Hendu's .406 career on-base percentage ranks 37th on the all-time list (and No. 7 among currently active players) and he is now first in all-time walks.  He had wheels on the basepaths, too - his 1,374 bases (and counting) is 41% more than the No. 2 man (Lou Brock) on the all-time list.  With 2,084 runs scored, Henderson is sixth on the all-time list.  His 284 home runs is far and away the highest total for a leadoff hitter, giving him a dimension that others lacked.

     The speedy switch-hitter set the AL season steal record with 100 in 1980, his second major-league season.  After leading the AL in hits in strike-shortened 1981, the "Man of Steal" broke Lou Brock's single season steal record by swiping 130 bases in 1982.  Although he was never a great outfielder, he did win a Gold Glove in 1981, and he had the range to play a  decent enough center field in Yankee Stadium in 1985 and 1986 though he would later return to left, his preferred position).  Interestingly, Total Baseball ranks him as one of the most successful left fielders of all time - in fact, he has more career fielding runs than any left fielder ever.  This is probably the result of relatively high range factor scores from 1980 to 1987, when he was relatively speedy and played in spacious outfields in Oakland-Alameda county Coliseum and New York Yankee Stadium.  Personally, I think this is a case of the statistics being misleading - Hendu was a capable outfielder who committed an average number of errors with good range for most of his career, but he had a terrible throwing arm, and I would put him way behind Bonds and Yaz in the defense department. 

     Although teammate Don Mattingly won the AL MVP Award in 1985, Henderson was arguably even more valuable; the sum of his OBA and SLG was virtually identical, and he added 80 stolen bases to compile the highest Total Player Rating of the year and scoring on 56 of Mattingly's 145 RBI.  He finished a distant third in the MVP voting, however, behind Mattingly and Brett.  Henderson had had another great year in 1980, as a second year player, but Brett's .390 average stole the show and he finished a distant 10th in the voting, which was an injustice; in 1981 he finished a close second to rollie Fingers.  In 1989, back with the A's, his post-season was awesome - in 9 games overall, he hit .441, scored 12 times, and stole 11 bases.  He left no doubt about the MVP Award in 1990, putting together one of the finest seasons in baseball history: his league-leading .441 OBA topped the league average by 11 points, and his .577 SLG was second in the AL, behind Cecil Fielder.  His 119 runs scored led the league for the fifth time, and his career-high 28 HR, .325 AVG and his 65 steals in just 75 attempts added tremendously to his versatility and value.

     As outrageously talented as he is, Henderson has been plagued by personality issues.  He became notorious for his snatch catch on easy fly balls, swatting his glove from over his head to his side; it earned him his nickname Style Dog.  During the emotional sixth game of the NLCS, which New York ultimately lost to the Braves, it was rumored that Henderson wiled away the last innings in the locker room, playing cards with Bobby Bonilla.  New York released him the following May.  Although the Seattle Mariners quickly became the seventh team to pick up the stolen base king, and Henderson once again went to the postseason, he earned a reputation for "dogging it" on the basepaths and in the outfield, and the M's passed on re-signing him.  He entered the 2001 season without a contract, although he found a home in the minor leagues with the Padres.

 

5. Carl Yastrzemski

 

Batting Titles: 3 (5 top five AL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 3 (4 top five AL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 5 (7 top five AL finishes)

 

Click here Hall of Fame biography

 

     Although he won three batting titles and missed a fourth by a single base hit, played in 18 All-Star games, and was acknowledged as the finest defensive left fielder of his time (he led the league in throwing assists 7 times), Yastrzemski will be primarily remembered by Red Sox rooters for his 1967 season, the year of The Impossible Dream.  The Red Sox hadn't had a pennant-winning season in 21 years, and as a four-team race developed late in 1967, Yastrzemski almost single-handledly carried the club during the last month.  In the final 12 games, he went 23-44 (.523), added 5 home runs, 14 runs and 16 RBI to win the Triple Crown, by hitting .326 with 44 HR and 121 RBI.  He also led the AL in hits (189), runs (112), total bases (360), and slugging average (.622).

     Three teams would finish within a game of one another, and on the final weekend the Red Sox needed to win the last two games against the Twins to avoid a three-way tie with them and Detroit.  Yastrzemski went 7-for-8 with five RBI, including a three-run homer in the first game, and made a great throw to kill Bob Allison at second on what looked like a sure double to snuff out a Twin rally.

     Perenially a great clutch player, he hit .455 in the 1975 LCS and .310 in that year's famous World Series, when the Red Sox took the superior Reds to 7 games, and he hit a home run off the nearly-unbeatable Ron Guidry in the 1978 playoff game.  He went 4-for-4 with two walks in the 1970 All-Star Game.

     In 1968, the "Year of the Pitcher," his .301 batting average was the lowest ever to lead the league, though relative to the league average it is as impressive as Bill Terry's .401 in 1930. 

 


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