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Yankee Preview Thursday: Alex Rodriguez
2004-02-26 07:50
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.


Top Billin

By Cliff Corcoran

When my gracious host, Alex Belth, first asked me to contribute a guest column to his spring training preview, he assigned me a profile of then Yankee second baseman Alfonso Soriano. I cranked out about 3,000 words and was in the home stretch when, on the day after Valentine’s Day, Soriano was shipped to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Alex Rodriguez. Despite having spent the preceding week vigorously gathering evidence with which to defend the then 26-year-old Soriano against his critics, I was no less delighted at the news of the trade. The Yankees had just picked up the best all-around player in the majors and a man who is challenging for the title of the best shortstop in the history of the game. Well, that was my initial reaction.

As the trade sank in, official word came down that Rodriguez would be moving to third base, and I began to picture Miguel Cairo as the Yankees starting second baseman, I began to think about A-Rod’s place in history a bit more deeply, as well as his ranking among the best active players in the game. The three primary questions I had were:

1) How exactly does Rodriguez measure up against the greatest shortstops in history, and how would this status change should his move to third be permanent?

2) If his move to third base is permanent, how would A-Rod measure up against the game’s greatest third basemen, should he continue to produce at his established levels with the typical decline of a player of his skill level?

3) Where exactly does Alex Rodriguez rank among the top hitters in the game today, and when speed and defense are taken into account, how much further would he move up the list of the games greatest players?

So let’s try to answer these questions.

First let’s take a look at how Rodriguez measures up against the game’s greatest shortstops. It’s widely acknowledged that if A-Rod has any competition for the title of the greatest shortstop ever, that competition comes in the form of one John Peter “Honus” Wagner. As Wagner played the entirety of his career in the dead-ball era (he retired in 1917 at age 43) the comparison between the two men is almost impossible to make based on counting stats alone. Even traditional rate stats fail us, as a large part of Rodriguez’s value is derived from his slugging, which by definition is difficult to compare to that of a player from the dead-ball era. As a result we’re forced to turn to some slightly more advanced metrics. Namely OPS+ (adjusted on-base percentage plus slugging, which adjusts for park factors and is expressed in comparison to a league average of 100) from Baseball-Reference.com, and four stats from Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia: RCAA (runs created against average, the difference between the runs created totals for the given player and a league average player based on outs), RCAP (runs created against position, same deal but measured only against players at the same defensive position), OWP (offensive winning percentage, the projected winning percentage of a team composed of a league average defense and pitching staff and an offense comprised of clones of the given player) and RC/G (runs created per game, simply the number of runs scored per game by an offense consisting solely of clones of the given player—note that this is not an adjusted stat).

As Rodriguez has played in less than half as many games in his career as Wagner, let’s first take a look at the non-cumulative measures: ):

HonusA-Rod
OPS+ 150144
OWP .749.688
RC/G 8.228.23
league4.625.21

Wagner takes a convincing lead here. When you remember that we’re including Honus’s entire career, including his final four significantly sub-par seasons, you’ve got to think that Honus has this one pretty easy. Indeed, adding in defense only helps the Flying Dutchman. Rodriguez may have a pair of Gold Gloves, but Wagner was known as a spectacular fielder. Indeed, using Clay Davenport’s Rate2 fielding stat (which also adjusts for league and era and is expressed against a norm of 100), Wagner comes in with a career average of 105, admittedly not quite up to his reputation, against A-Rod’s 103 (curiously, Rodriguez’s Rate2 has risen and fallen in perfect synch with his offensive production in every one of his ten seasons).

Shifting our focus to the basepaths, A-Rod has swiped 177 bases in his career and has a 40/40 season under his belt, but Wagner stole 723 career bases, good for tenth on the all-time list, and averaged 42 steals per 162 games played. Looks like Wagner steals this one, but compare each players totals against the league average and you find out that Wagner stole 177 percent as many bases as a league average player (regardless of position), while Rodriguez has stolen almost exactly twice the league average. Still, even the most hardened number cruncher has to be impressed by 723 career steals. That, combined with the fact that Rodriguez’s steal rate is bound to slow as he ages, makes this a wash at best for A-Rod.

Just to be fair, let’s take a look at peak value. Four our purposes, let’s define “peak” as a player’s best four consecutive seasons. For A-Rod that means his most recent four seasons, 2000-2003 (ages 24-27). For Wagner it’s 1905-1908 (ages 31-34).

Since we’re comparing similar service time, let’s put the counting stats back in there. We’ll also include the number of outs used by each player and the league average RC/G during each four-year period:

HonusA-Rod
RCAA339256
RCAP349270
Outs14331774
OWP.843.731
RC/G10.419.19
league4.235.11

Baseball-Reference doesn’t let you isolate portions of a hitter’s career, but A-Rod’s OPS+s for this period are 167, 164, 152, 148 (not a great trend for Yankee fans, by the way, as it indicates that Rodriguez has indeed peaked), while Wagner’s are 174, 168, 187 and 205. No contest.

So Honus Wagner still has a very firm grip on the title of Greatest Shortstop Ever. Can we at least say that Rodriguez is the runner up?

After using our adjusted metrics to try to pin down the greatest 15 single seasons and 15 highest career values by a shortstop, Rodriguez’s only serious competition for second best shortstop appears to be Arky Vaughan. Vaughan’s 1935 season is locked in an epic battle with Wagner’s 1908 season for the greatest ever by a shortstop, and he is the only shortstop other than Wagner and Rodriguez to rank in the top five in career RCAA, RCAP, OWP and RC/G by a shortstop.

Let’s go back to our career rate stats for Alex and Arky:

ArkyA-Rod
OPS+ 136144
OWP.692.688
RC/G7.618.23
league4.855.21

Man, that’s close. Both players created almost exactly 157 percent of their league’s average runs per game, while Arky has the OWP lead and A-Rod has the OPS+ lead.

Before we dig deeper into the hitting stats, let’s expand our view. Vaughan stole 118 bases over his 14-year career, 184 percent of the league average, but 59 fewer than A-Rod has already swiped in ten seasons. As for his glove work, Vaughan beats A-Rod by the same margin as Wagner, 105 to 103. I’ll call that a wash.

Rodriguez and Vaughan match up nicely because, while Wagner got off to a late start and was one of the best 30-something players in the history of the game, both Arky and A-Rod were sensations in their 20s. Vaughn hit the ground running with a .318/.375/.412 season in 497 at-bats at age 20. Rodriguez was an unimpressive part-timer at age 18 and 19 before delivering a monster season as the Mariner’s starting shortstop at age 20 (.358/.414/.631 in 601 ABs). Even better for our study of the 28-year-old Rodriguez, Vaughan’s career also started early and pretty much came to an end once he turned 30. A sensation with the 1930s Pittsburgh Pirates of Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, Vaughan was traded to Brooklyn in December 1941, just months before turning 30. After two solid, but below standard seasons for the Dodgers, Vaughan disappeared from baseball for three seasons after a fight with manager Leo Durocher. He returned to the Dodgers as a backup outfielder and third baseman for two seasons after Durocher was replaced in 1947, playing a total of 129 games and retiring after the 1948 season.

With that in mind, let’s compare A-Rod’s eight full seasons (age 20-27) to Vaughan’s first eight seasons (same ages):

ArkyA-Rod
RCAA347413
RCAP456480
Outs30103520
OWP.718.699
RC/G8.368.46
league4.995.21

Things are starting to lean toward Vaughan here, but it’s still pretty close. Let’s see what happens when we boil this down to four seasons like we did against Wagner. We’ll use the same four seasons for A-Rod (2000-2003, ages 24-27) against Vaughan’s peak of 1933-36 (ages 21-24):

ArkyA-Rod
RCAA266256
RCAP297270
Outs15101774
OWP.770.731
RC/G9.809.19
league5.005.11

That breaks the tie. Vaughan takes a clear-cut lead when you consider that he spent four more productive seasons as shortstop (well, one was essentially league average) during his career than A-Rod has thus far. The OPS+ numbers for each players four peak seasons give a lift to A-Rod (146, 149, 190, 148 for Vaughan, 167, 164, 152, 148 for A-Rod), but if A-Rod’s move to third is indeed permanent, I’d have to list him third on the all-time shortstop list behind Arky Vaughan and well behind his Pirates predecessor Honus Wagner. Besides, “Honus” (a.k.a. “The Flying Dutchman”) and “Arky” (given name Joseph Floyd) beat “A-Rod” hands down in the nickname category. That’s gotta count for something.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t think Alex is in much danger of being surpassed by his contemporaries. Among active shortstops, Nomar Garciaparra represents the biggest threat to Rodriguez’s historic status, but Garciaparra is two years older than A-Rod, thus already on the wrong side of 30, and has two fewer full seasons under his belt. Nomar was essentially A-Rod’s equal up through the 2000 season, but a wrist injury wiped out all but 21 games of his 2001 campaign and in his two full seasons since returning it has become clear that Garciaparra is not the hitter he was before. For anyone needing evidence this chart should suffice (since we’re comparing players in the same league and era I’ve thrown the traditional rate stats back in there):

A-Rod ’96-00Nomar ’96-00Nomar ’02-03
OWP.686.684.623
AVG.315.333.305
OBP.381.382.349
SLG.575.573.526
OPS.956.956.875
RC/G8.138.306.65
league5.345.304.97

Meanwhile, Derek Jeter’s defensive struggles (career Rate2 of 89) suggest that, while he might put up career numbers to challenge A-Rod’s brief but more brilliant stay at short, they most likely won’t all come as a shortstop. Even if Rodriguez sticks at third, Jeter will most likely have to move into the outfield some time in the next five years if not sooner. If the two switch positions the discussion becomes moot as A-Rod will only add to his accomplishments at short.

Q: How exactly does Rodriguez measure up against the greatest shortstops in history, and how would this status change should his move to third be permanent?

A: Rodriguez ranks third behind Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan, where he’ll stay if the move to third is permanent. Should he remain at shortstop, or return to shortstop while still a productive offensive player, he stands a very good chance of passing Vaughan, but no chance of catching Wagner.

Here are my projected Greatest Shortstop Ever rankings . . .

. . . if Rodriguez becomes the Yankees permanent shortstop:

1. Honus Wagner
2. Alex Rodriguez
3. Arky Vaughan
4. Nomar Garciaparra
5. Ernie Banks
6. Derek Jeter

. . . if Rodriguez becomes the Yankees permanent third baseman:

1. Honus Wagner
2. Arky Vaughan
3. Alex Rodriguez
4. Derek Jeter or Nomar Garciaparra (too close to call)

Considering his rate of production and the fact that he’s still just 28, it stands to reason that, should Alex Rodriguez spend the remainder of his career at third base, he’ll finish his career among the elite third basemen of all time. It’s all conjecture, but I thought it would be fun to try to figure out where he might rank should his move to third be permanent.

Alex Rodriguez’s combination of skill level, work ethic and general health (in terms of injury avoidance and overall fitness) suggest that he is the sort of player who can be expected to continue to produce in his 30s and remain active into his early 40s. The upcoming season will be his age-28 season. Assuming he plays through his age-40 season like his idol and fellow shortstop-turned-third-baseman Cal Ripken, that means he has thirteen seasons ahead of him and ten behind. Assuming typical bell-curve of production and placing the peak on this offseason (Rodriguez seems to have actually peaked in 2000 at age 24 but his decline since then as been so gradual that I think we can allow this), I believe it’s fair to expect him to be able to essentially replicate his previous ten seasons—which include a gradual start (.609 OPS in 65 games over his first two seasons) that should mirror his eventual decline phase—over the next thirteen. I’m also going to assume that Rodriguez, an above average shortstop (career Rate2 of 103), will become a slightly above average third baseman. Cal Ripken (career Rate2 of 106 at shortstop and 104 at third base) again sets a solid precedent for this assumption. What these assumptions allow me to do is to use his current career stats (rate stats taken with a grain of salt) to compare him to the Greatest Third Basemen of All-Time.

Who exactly are the Greatest Third Basemen of All-Time? Well after pouring over it for a couple of days I’ve come up with a list that looks something like this:

1. Mike Schmidt
2. Eddie Mathews
3. Wade Boggs
4. George Brett
5. Frank “Home Run” Baker
6. Ron Santo
7. Stan Hack

Rodriguez would have had a battle on his hands to break into the top four of this list had he spent his entire career at third base. Switching position mid-stream, Schmidt, Mathews, Boggs and Brett are completely out of his reach. At the same time, should A-Rod prove our assumptions correct about his production over the next thirteen seasons at the hot corner, he would easily outpace all of the players I’ve ranked below Stan Hack.

As for Hack, Santo and Baker (sounds like a gag law firm), these three are pretty well clustered together. Without any real statistics to work from on A-Rod’s part, I’m willing to say that he’s likely to rank just about anywhere among them should he fulfill our predictions about the second half of his career. To pass Baker, Rodriguez would have to maintain his current level of play through most of his 30s in order to counter his eventual decline. He’s got a bit more leeway with Santo and Hack. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that Rodriguez would finish seventh, just behind Santo.

While we’re on the topic of all-time third basemen, I think it’s relevant to point out that while Ernie Banks and Robin Yount—both of whom Rodriguez already out-ranks based on their shortstop seasons alone—are by far the most famous part-time shortstops, third base has been the long-term home of a number of transient stars who played more games at other positions. The most notable of these, along with their primary positions and games played at third, are: DH Paul Molitor – 791 games, 1B Harmon Killebrew – also 791 games, SS Cal Ripken – 675 games, OF/1B Pete Rose – 634 games, DH Edgar Martinez – 563 games, and C/1B Joe Torre – 515 games. Chipper Jones seemed to be destined to rank in the top-ten at the position at age 29, but, after 1008 games of horrendous defense at the hot corner (career Rate2 of 86), the Braves moved him to left field in 2002. Meanwhile, some of the position’s most productive hitters have had very brief careers, for example Al Rosen - 1044 games, and nineteenth-century stars Denny Lyons – 1121 games, John McGraw – 1099 games, and Bill Joyce - 904 games. Meanwhile, one of the best seasons ever by a third baseman was Hall of Famer Mel Ott’s 1938 campaign (.311/.442/.583, 118 walks against just 47 strikeouts). Ott played 256 career games at third and 2167 in right field. 1938 was his only season as a full-time third baseman.

In other words, the history of third basemen is littered with notable players who have spent less time at the hot corner than Rodriguez will should his position switch become permanent. I think it’s safe to say that A-Rod would out-rank all of these short-termers and part-timers based on their third-base seasons alone.

As for contemporary third basemen who might challenge A-Rod’s ranking, it’s still too early to tell where Eric Chavez’s career will go. The same is true for Troy Glaus—though based on current trends I’d say Chavez has a much better chance of crashing our top seven. Scott Rolen, on the other hand, has made considerable progress toward inclusion on our list. Just three month’s Rodriguez’s senior, Rolen’s 2003 season was his best yet. Should Rolen stay healthy and productive through his 30s he has a very good chance to crack into Hack, Santo and Baker territory. Although he’s most likely peaking right now, should Rolen’s 30s prove more productive than his 20s, he could easily pass Baker to become the fifth best third baseman of all time. While Rodriguez, clearly the best active shortstop in baseball, would instantly surpass Rolen to become the best active third baseman in baseball should he move to third base—although Rolen’s defense makes it closer than you might think—it is quite conceivable that the two players could converge over the next decade with Rolen maintaining his lead on the all-time third basemen list based on his stronger career value at the position.

Q: If his move to third base is permanent, how would A-Rod measure up against the game’s greatest third basemen, should he continue to produce at his established levels with the typical decline of a player of his skill level?

A: A-Rod would rank no higher than fifth on the list of all-time third basemen. Given our assumptions I envision something along these lines:

1. Mike Schmidt
2. Eddie Matthews
3. Wade Boggs
4. George Brett
5. Scott Rolen
6. Frank Baker
7. Ron Santo
8. Alex Rodriguez
9. Stan Hack

All of this proves two things. First of all, those claiming that Alex Rodriguez is anything close to the greatest shortstop of all time are flat wrong. Honus Wagner’s got him beat by a long shot. What’s more, those decrying his move to third as a crime against history, depriving Rodriguez of a chance to pass Wanger, are again wrong. Alex has no chance of catching the Flying Dutchman. The move may strand him behind Arky Vaughan, but it could also enhance his historic status as he will have the chance to rank among the ten greatest players at two skill positions. Rather, it’s Derek Jeter who stands to lose the most in the eyes of history by moving to third base. Where as Alex would lose just one spot on the all-time best shortstops list and likely crack into the list of the top-ten all-time best third basemen, Derek would drop out of the top-five all-time best shortstops and could get shutout of the all-time third basemen’s top-ten altogether.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that three of the nine players listed above, Baker, Boggs and now Rodriguez, came to the Yankees while still productive, but after their peaks. Baker, a World’s Champion with the Philadelphia Athletics, played along side Babe Ruth in the Yankees’ first two World Series, losing both. Boggs, a member of the cursed 1986 Red Sox, won his only World Series with the Yankees in 1996.

Having evaluated Alex Rodriguez’s place in history, let’s take a look at his place in the game today.

Alex Rodriguez is routinely described as “The Best Player in Baseball” because of his fully rounded game which combines power, average, patience, speed and above average defense on the far right side of the defensive spectrum (1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C). Assuming that “player” here means “non-pitcher,” let’s evaluate this statement by first taking a look at a list of the best hitters in the discussion and then adding speed and defense to the game to see how it effects our hierarchy.

Since we’re concerned with finding the best player in the game right now, I’m going to look only at the last three seasons, 2001, 2002 and 2003. This works nicely because it corrects against fluke seasons by adding in two others. It also coincides neatly with A-Rod’s three seasons in Texas, Barry Bonds’ three seasons as the modern day Babe Ruth, and Albert Pujols’ entire major league career.

Looking at the top fifteen finishers in OWP (minimum 1200 plate appearances) and RCAA over these three seasons we get a list of fourteen players. They are, in alphabetical order: Lance Berkman, Barry Bonds, Carlos Delgado, Jim Edmonds, Jason Giambi, Brian Giles, Todd Helton, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, and Jim Thome.

One name that’s notably absent from that list is Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero ranks thirteenth in the majors in OPS over the past three seasons, but failed to crack the top 20 in OWP or RCAA. Certainly the time he missed in 2003 with a bad back hurt his runs created numbers, but his OPS+ in 2001 was also lower than any of A-Rod’s OPS+ totals during this three year span. Could it be that Vlad has gone from being the most underrated player in baseball to the most overrated? That’s probably overstating things, but a quick look at his Rate2 numbers show that Vlad is a below average right fielder for his career with a Rate2 of 97. The fact that A-Rod has put up better offensive numbers than Guerrero over the past three seasons, plays better defense much further to the right of the defensive spectrum, and is also a base-stealing threat makes Guerrero irrelevant to this discussion. A-Rod, who is just one year older than Guerrero, is clearly the better all-around player.

Back to our list of fourteen.

The top spot is easy. Barry Bonds, whom I identified as the third best hitter in the history of the game on the BRB last week, has had his three best seasons over the past three years, including the top two OPS+ totals in the history of the sport in 2001 and 2002. His 2003 campaign saw him fall off to the ninth best OPS+ total of all time. No contest.

Next up, let’s take a look at the five players who have posted single-season OPS+ totals of 190 or more during one of the last three years. They are: Jason Giambi, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome. Giambi, Ramirez and Thome are all about the same age (32/33), Sosa is 35, Pujols is supposedly a decade younger (24). Sosa’s numbers have dropped considerably in each of the last two years. That, combined with his age and the fact that he has the lowest OBP and RC/G as compared to the league of this group, puts him at the bottom of the bunch and tentative sixth on our list.

Giambi has also seen a general decline across this three year period, but his drop has not been as precipitous as Sosa’s. What’s more, he has the highest OBP, RC/G as compared to the league, OWP and RCAA of this group. Still, with the drop in his numbers and his offseason knee surgery, I’m hesitant to hand him second place outright. Pujols is the youngest in the group and had by far the best season among our thirteen hitters not named Barry Bonds in 2003. He also has the lowest OBP, OWP, RCAA and RC/G as compared to the league of any of the players in this group of five not named Sammy Sosa. Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, meanwhile are deadlocked:

MannyThome
AVG.325.286
OBP.426.414
SLG.611.621
GPA.344.342
OWP.768.773
RCAA191207
RC/G9.799.76
league5.005.05
Park101.3399.33

Their OPS+s over this span are 162, 190 and 160 for Ramirez, 169, 191, 151 for Thome. For me the tie is broken by Thome’s superior secondary rate stats: .335 isolated slugging (slugging minus batting average), .549 secondary average (total bases minus hits, plus walks and net stolen bases, all divided by at-bats) and .674 bases per plate appearance to .286/.450/.644 for Ramirez. Having broken that tie, I’m going to let Giambi’s superior overall numbers and .441 OBP do the talking and keep him in the second spot and play doubting Thomas over Pujols’ ability to keep doing what he’s been doing and rank him fifth:

1. Barry Bonds
2. Jason Giambi
3. Jim Thome
4. Manny Ramirez
5. Albert Pujols
6. Sammy Sosa

Things only get tougher from here as the next eight players clump together, the primary differences between their offensive numbers being attributable to park factors. I’ll spare you the number crunching, but after pouring over their various stats I wound up sorting them, in almost the exact order of their OWPs (which is actually what happened with the top six as well):

7. Brian Giles
8. Gary Sheffield
9. Todd Helton
10. Jim Edmonds
11. Chipper Jones
12. Carlos Delgado
13. Alex Rodriguez
14. Lance Berkman

For those of you alarmed by A-Rod’s thirteenth-place ranking let me first say that these eight players are essentially all tied. Also, A-Rod has been the beneficiary of the second highest park factor (a three-year average of 107.33) among these fourteen players (Todd Helton’s 118.33 being the highest). Let me also point out that A-Rod is the only one of our fourteen hitters to post a three-year OBP below .400 and that only three of them (Sosa, Jones and Berkman) had a lower OPS+ than Rodriguez in 2003. Brian Giles had an identical OPS+ to Rodriguez in 2003 and all four of the players whose OPS+ was equal to or less than A-Rod’s in 2003 had an OPS+ equal to or greater than his in 2002.

So to answer part one of our final question:

Q: Where exactly does Alex Rodriguez rank among the top hitters in the game today?

A: The numbers for these players are all so close that I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying anything more specific than A-Rod is somewhere between the eleventh and fourteenth best hitter in the major leagues.

With that in mind, let’s bring baserunning and defense into the picture. A-Rod is the only player among our fourteen hitters who plays a position to the right of center field on the defensive spectrum. A move to third base would shift him to the left of only one man, centerfielder Jim Edmonds. What’s more, I have difficulty rationalizing the fact that Rodriguez could be considered a “worse” player simply by changing positions. He’s still the same player with the same abilities and he should be playing short, as opposed to men like Brian Giles and Lance Berkman, who probably shouldn’t be playing center field. Thus, I will consider A-Rod a shortstop for our purposes here.

Before we move on to compare A-Rod to the thirteen best hitters to his left on the defensive spectrum, let’s compare him so the best hitter to his right. Mike Piazza edges out Jorge Posada as the best hitting catcher over the past three years, but Piazza was slowed by injuries last year, is turning 35, and should be moving to first base this season because of his inferior defense behind the plate. So let’s compare Rodriguez to the best-hitting catcher entering 2004, Jorge Posada (who, by the way, is the fourth current Yankee to enter into this discussion, five if you count Jeter back in the shortstop discussion).

A-Rod has a considerable park advantage (107.33 to 98 for Posada), but even when that’s corrected for, there is really no contest here. Just look at the two player’s OPS+ numbers (which correct for park factors):

A-Rod: 164, 152, 148
Posada: 119, 123, 146

Pretty close last year, but A-Rod smokes Jorge in the previous two. Add to that the fact that Jorge is a dead average defensive catcher (career Rate2 of 100; seasonal totals of 98, 100 and 102 over the last three years) and Rodriguez an above average shortstop, that Posada runs like . . . well, like a catcher, while Alex steals about 15 bases per year, and I feel comfortable saying that Rodriguez is a better player than Jorge Posada.

Back to our list of fourteen. Lance Berkman offers little beyond his bat, which I’ve actually ranked below A-Rod’s to begin with. Carlos Delgado has become a decent first baseman, but never could run. Chipper Jones seems to have lost the ability to steal bases. He’s gone 19 for 33 over the last three seasons, that’s a 58 percent success rate, and was just 2 for 4 in 2003. He was also so bad a third baseman that the Braves moved him into the outfield without having a decent replacement on hand to fill his spot in the infield. Those three are eliminated out of hand.

Things get a bit tougher beyond that. Brian Giles can steal a base, but at a lower success rate than Rodriguez. He’s also just average defensively. Rodriguez takes that one. Jim Edmonds is a spectacular center fielder. I would go as far as to say that Edmonds is of nearly equal defensive value to Rodriguez. Unfortunately, he is injury prone—in part as a result of the abandon with which he plays his position—and offers very little on the base paths, so A-Rod squeaks by him. Todd Helton is an even better first baseman than Edmonds is a center fielder, but he’s a first-baseman. He also offers nothing in terms of base stealing ability. Advantage A-Rod once again. Gary Sheffield, according to the numbers, is both an above average right fielder and has similar base stealing ability to A-Rod’s—he had the second highest power/speed number in the NL in 2003 with a 24.6, a nearly identical figure to A-Rod’s 25. All things being equal at the plate and on the bases, A-Rod wins this one on the basis of his defensive position only.

As players, I would rank the seven men Rodriguez has just passed in this order: Jim Edmonds, Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton, Brian Giles, Carlos Delgado, Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman.

Having moved A-Rod past the seven players who are essentially his equals at the plate, we now must compare him to the six who are clearly his superiors with the bat. The first on this list is Sammy Sosa. Sosa hasn’t been a useful basestealer since 1996 and is a below average right fielder. That combined with the strong downward trend of his offensive numbers and his recent 35th birthday are enough for me to rank A-Rod ahead of him.

Next up is Albert Pujols. Pujols is an interesting case as he’s spent time at all four corner outfield and infield positions in his young career. Looking at his Rate2s, he’s an average outfielder at best but an above average first and third baseman. What’s more, his best fielding stats are those that he put up at third base, where he posted a 116 Rate2 in 96 games over his first two seasons. Of course, the reason Pujols is an unexceptional outfielder is his lack of speed (8 for 16 career on the basepaths), and he won’t be playing third again any time soon because of the torn elbow ligament in his throwing arm that he suffered last season. With all of that in mind, the question becomes, is Pujols’ offensive lead on Rodriguez enough to compensate for his more one-dimensional game? The same question needs to be asked for Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Jason Giambi.

But not for Barry Bonds. Although he’s a left fielder, Bonds, spectacular in his youth in Pittsburgh, remains an above average defender. He also remains a basestealing threat, having swiped 29 of 34, an excellent 85 percent success rate, over the past three seasons. But even if Barry didn’t have those extra dimensions to his game, his offensive production is enough to fend off A-Rod’s multi-dimensional ability all by itself. A-Rod’s relationship to Bonds is much like his relationship to Honus Wagner, there’s really no contest. Even at 39 years old, Barry Bonds is far and away the Best Player in Baseball.

So where does A-Rod rank behind Bonds? I’d put him ahead of Manny, just because Manny will be Manny and A-Rod won’t. But I simply can’t find a way (or more to the point, I don’t trust defense metrics enough) to break the tie between Rodriguez and the remaining trio of Thome, Giambi and Pujols. Until Giambi’s knee proves to have significantly reduced his production, Thome shows similar signs of age, or Pujols either comes down to earth, ages seven years overnight or—I can’t even fathom it—ratchets his game up another notch, I’m going to have to call this one even.

Q: When speed and defense are taken into account, how much further would Alex Rodriguez move up the list of the games greatest players?

About ten spots, from being the eleventh-to-fourteenth best hitter in the game, to being one of the Four Best Players in Baseball Not Named Barry Bonds.

So what does this all mean? Well, to begin with, the Yankees are an incredibly talented team. The heart of their order features three of the ten best players in baseball, including two of the top five. And that doesn’t even count the best-hitting catcher in the game, the historic level of production they get from their shortstop, or Bernie Williams. Never mind the three aces in their starting rotation, their Hall-of-Fame closer, or their all-star middle relief corps.

But to trace my motivation for this analysis, it means that when people, myself included, call Alex Rodriguez “The Best Player in Baseball,” or say that he’s in a virtual tie with Honus Wagner as the best shortstop in the game’s history, they’re really doing a significant injustice to Wagner and Barry Bonds.

Beyond that, though, they’re not far off.

Cliff Corcoran runs the stellar Yankee-based site, Clifford's Big Red Blog; in addition, he's a frequent contributor to the "comments" section here at Bronx Banter. You can contact Cliff at: cliffordsbrb@yahoo.com.

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