Like millions of other sports-starved people, I eagerly anticipated the first two episodes of The Last Dance, ESPN’s ten-part documentary mini-series about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Naturally, most of the show’s focus is on the team’s greatest superstar, Michael Jordan. The first two episodes, which debuted to huge ratings on Sunday night, were generally strong. So far, the series lacks the social significance of ESPN’s documentary magnum opus OJ: Made in America and the editorial slant against general manager Jerry Krause, essentially the only major late-90s Bulls figure not there to defend himself (he died in 2017), gets a bit uncomfortable at times, but as entertainment, the show is well-made and is building drama. I’ll be back for Parts 3 and 4 on Sunday.
As is often the case whenever Michael Jordan is brought up, a new round of arguing over who the greatest player of all-time is emerged. That the question, when referring to 21st century players, is often framed around which player most resembles Michael Jordan (hence why Tim Duncan is rarely mentioned) speaks to Jordan’s candidacy. Speaking as a person whose basketball opinions are far less refined than my baseball ones (which are also stupid and not to be trusted), I think there are four players you can reasonably argue are the greatest player of all-time, which isn’t to say these are the four best players of all-time necessarily. One is Wilt Chamberlain, who had the highest peak in NBA history; no player has more dominated his era than the guy who once averaged over 50 points per game for an entire season. Two is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the sport’s greatest accumulator, a gifted center who scored more points than any other player in league history in a sport that, while perhaps not as talented as it is today, reached a level of sophistication and professionalism beyond that of Chamberlain’s NBA. Three is Jordan, the dominant superstar who commanded the NBA for a decade and re-wrote our conceptions of how big of a star a basketball player could be. And four is LeBron James, who has been in the conversation for best player in the league for about a decade and a half straight and while his statistical resume isn’t quite as strong as Jordan’s, he played against the strongest and toughest basketball players in history. I think of these four as the basketball equivalents, to use baseball shorthand, of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, and Mike Trout. Depending on the day, you could convince me any of the four lay claim to the subjecive title of greatest position player of all-time.
I wasn’t alive for the beginning of Michael Jordan’s career and I was barely paying attention during the 1997-98 season documented in The Last Dance (I would become a Chicago Bulls fan a few years later, which may be part of why I am empathetic to Jerry Krause’s desire to assure that those future teams weren’t going to be absoluetly godawful by building towards the future even as Michael Jordan was around). At the time, though, nothing about his style of play seemed unusual besides “he was better than anybody else at it”. This isn’t entirely true throughout Jordan’s career: the league he entered was largely built around centers and power forwards dominating the game, and the league Jordan left had dozens of Jordan-like (if not Jordan-level) guards who could take over games. But still, it wasn’t as though Jordan was an extreme outlier. He wasn’t the league’s best shooter, nor the league’s best defender, nor the league’s best passer, though he was extremely good at all of these things.
If you watch a basketball game from twenty years ago, and then you watch a basketball game from this season, it’s like two different sports are being played. For as much as baseball fans talk about how the game has changed during the post-Moneyball era, the change is even more obvious in basketball. The three-point line existed for Michael Jordan’s entire NBA career, but it was never truly embraced as the basis for an offensive strategy until after Jordan’s retirement(s). The Houston Rockets have been the most extreme team as selling out for the three-point shot, but casual fans may associate it more with the team that has reached the highest levels of success with the three-pointer, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors of the late 2010s were a divisive team (and were awful in 2019-20; they are the only team officially eliminated from contention for playoffs I am increasingly pessimistic will ever happen) but they were undeniably successful, winning three titles in the midst of a five-year stretch of consecutive conference championships. In his NBA career, Michael Jordan made 581 three-pointers. Stephen Curry has made 578 three-pointers since the beginning of the 2017-18 NBA season, in a stretch during which he has only played 125 games. It’s just a different game.
This isn’t to say that Michael Jordan doesn’t translate to the modern NBA–LeBron James isn’t an especially prodigious three-point shooter himself, and if anything, is even more old-school in style than Jordan given his considerable strength and size. But if the late-90s Bulls were put into the modern NBA, Jordan would almost certainly be sacrificing some shots to the likes of Steve Kerr, his teammate who later became the architect of the three-point revolution as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. In some ways, Michael Jordan is a relic of a basketball player in the way Rickey Henderson is a relic of a baseball player because players don’t steal bases with that frequency anymore–that doesn’t mean he couldn’t or wouldn’t do it in the modern era; it would just stand out more.
Michael Jordan’s brief professional baseball career is an important part of his legend, particularly if you are a baseball writer trying to find a way to make the only thing remotely happening in sports right now about your sport. Reviews on his career have long been mixed. My memory, as a small child, was that Michael Jordan’s run with the Birmingham Barons, the AA team of the Chicago White Sox, was derided and that his lack of success was held against him and mocked. But in recent years, especially, there is an appreciation that has grown for the mere fact that he was able to, having not played baseball since high school, show up fourteen years later at a relatively high level minor league and, if not thrive, not be a complete embarrassment.
I’m not here to defend Michael Jordan’s baseball career as some grand accomplishment–he was clearly not a great player, and given his age, putting him in the Majors at any point would come across, correctly, as a publicity stunt. The whole thing was a publicity stunt–even if you, the reader, could put up Michael Jordan’s numbers as a 31 year-old in AA (speaking as a 31 year-old, I am confident that I could not), you would never be given the chance because you are not as famous as Michael Jordan. But as I’ve been thinking more about Michael Jordan lately, I naturally headed to his Baseball Reference page, where his numbers are treated the same as any other minor leaguer from 1994, and I realized that while Michael Jordan the basketball player doesn’t fit the modern definition of his sport, Michael Jordan the baseball player does.
In 497 plate appearances, a full minor league season that approximates decently to the Major League standard to which most of us are accustomed to calibrating, Michael Jordan had a .202 batting average, which is bad now but was even worse then. But batting average is almost universally derided in increasingly prominent sabermetric circles–on-base percentage is the king. And Jordan’s OBP in 1994 was .289. Is a .289 OBP good? No, but it’s noticeably less bad than a .202 batting average. All 135 players who qualified for the league leaderboards last season had a better than .202 average, but four had a worse on-base percentage than Jordan–Randal Grichuk, Roughned Odor, Orlando Arcia, and Kevin Pillar. Pillar is especially notable here because he had a .259 batting average; the non-pitchers in Major League Baseball last season had a collective .256 batting average. In 1994, a season conveniently (for our purposes) shortened by a strike and therefore with players whose plate appearances more resemble Jordan’s, once again, all 157 qualified players topped a .202 batting average. Both Matt Walbeck and Vince Coleman (whose style might be the least conducive to the modern environment of any player of his time–Rickey Henderson at least got on base a lot) had lesser on-base percentages, and Jordan tied the mark of Scott Brosius.
Jordan had really good plate discipline–he walked in 10.3% of his 1994 plate appearances. Major League non-pitchers, who had spent their entire lives playing baseball, struck out in 9.1% of plate appearances. And while it’s true that Michael Jordan was facing competition more prone to loss of control, he finished third on the Barons in walks. And consider the factors working against him. Jordan is 6’6″, an unexceptional height for an NBA player but extremely tall for an MLB player, particularly a position player. Only one non-pitcher played in MLB that season who was taller–the 6’7″ Billy Ashley, and only two, Dave Winfield and Darryl Strawberry, were as tall. This meant he had a naturally larger strike zone for pitchers to find. Jordan didn’t have much power, totaling just 21 extra base hits and only three home runs (this doesn’t translate to 2020, but it didn’t translate to 1994, either), so it wasn’t as though there was much strategic benefit by and large to pitching around Jordan. And also, he had to deal with pitchers who had the chance to strike out Michael Jordan. Minor league pitchers weren’t going to be telling their grandchildren about the time they struck out Mike Robertson, even if he was an acclaimed prospect who eventually made it to the Majors. They would be bragging about striking out Michael Jordan.
And Jordan did strike out quite a bit–he led the Birmingham Barons and was among the league leaders in it. This was probably the most notable hole poked in his game at the time. But Jordan’s strikeout rate looks downright palatable by modern standards–his 22.9% K-rate was eclipsed by only 11 of 157 qualified MLB players (one of them was Ray Lankford, I say so nobody complains that this post has nothing to do with the St. Louis Cardinals), but in 2019, this rate ties him with Kris Bryant, who ranked 41st in the Majors. The Major League strikeout rate was actually a tick higher, at 23%.
Defensively, Jordan made a lot of errors, but this is yet another near-obsolete way of examining things. And while 11 errors in 119 games sounds like a lot, they are also a reflection of his tremendous speed. The right fielder recorded 213 putouts, more than all but four MLB right fielders in 1994. His fielding metrics from 1994 aren’t especially sophisticated, but by Range Factor per Game, Jordan had 1.84 putouts or assists per game. This doesn’t put him elite territory, but it’s higher than the likes of Raul Mondesi, James Mouton, or Ruben Sierra. At this point, it’s slightly guesswork to determine if Jordan was a good right fielder defensively. I would lean towards probably not, but that he was almost certainly more competent in the field than his error totals would suggest.
By all accounts, Michael Jordan improved as the season went along and was more impressive during his short stint in the Arizona Fall League after the Barons season ended. Some have claimed that if not for the strike, Jordan would have eventually made it to the big leagues, which I don’t sense is actually true, but it’s hard to know for sure. While Michael Jordan had a mostly-earned reputation for selfishness and ego, he deserves credit for the fact that when asked to participate in 1995 Spring Training as a replacement player, he refused because of his respect for the MLBPA, and this is probably still his greatest baseball accomplishment. Michael Jordan was not a great baseball player, but his career is easier to understand from a modern perspective in baseball than it was in basketball.