In 1999, Major League Baseball unveiled its All-Century Team to commemorate the best players of the 20th century. This was a watershed moment in baseball analysis for me—in an era where balloting was done by paper and submitted via mail, my dad was insistent that the ballot be taken seriously, and thus I, a ten-year old, paged aggressively through baseball almanacs to analyze the top players of the 20th century.
I don’t remember who made my ballot, but I’m confident that it was better than the final team, which included such egregious oversights as including Ernie Banks as a shortstop, a man who had a high but very brief peak at the position, over Honus Wagner (who later was added onto the team by a panel designed to overcome popular vote oversights) and Stan Musial not making the fan team in order to accommodate a 29 year-old Ken Griffey Jr. and Pete Rose, whose presence on the ballot was the dominant story behind the team as a whole (and whose presence during the team’s unveiling led to a legendarily awkward interview in which NBC’s Jim Gray tried to get Rose to admit to gambling on baseball).
There is no All-Century Team for the current century being planned for the very obvious reason that there are still (theoretically) eighty baseball seasons to be played this century. But squabbling over how the 2020 season should be played has me cynically considering baseball’s future and so why not commemorate what I do know and what I do remember?
As with the 20th century team, there are 30 players on this team. The 20th century team included a strangely batter-centric roster, with 21 position players and 9 pitchers, so I decided to recalibrate that. This roster includes 13 pitchers—eight starters and five relievers—plus seventeen position players—two at each position plus one designated hitter. Here is my ballot.
Catcher #1—Joe Mauer: There are two kinds of high-peak guys: ones who burn out (think Sandy Koufax) and those who fade away. Mauer is decidedly in the latter category—for the last five seasons of his MLB career, he was a low-power first baseman whose offense couldn’t have kept him afloat in the sport if not for his established reputation. But at his peak, Joe Mauer was one of the sport’s better hitters while also providing Gold Glove-caliber defense behind the plate. His 2009, in particular, remains one of the most preposterous single campaigns in history—as a full-time, Gold Glove-winning catcher, Mauer led the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS+ with the Minnesota Twins. He made only a brief cameo as a catcher beyond his age-30 season, but because his peak was so high, I’m giving the slight edge at the position to Joe Mauer.
Catcher #2—Buster Posey: In Buster Posey’s era, offense from the catcher position, which had been on the rise, suddenly became de-prioritized. Having premium defense was viewed as essential, and if a catcher could handle himself behind the plate, offense didn’t really matter. Posey fit the mold of a great defensive catcher—that he only has one Gold Glove is more a reflection of his competition for the awards than his lack of qualifications for it—but he also was one of the best hitters of his era, regardless of position. By offensive runs above average, Posey produced more than triple the runs of any catcher in the 2010s other than the aforementioned Joe Mauer. As a four-time Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove winner, and a three-time World Series champion with the San Francisco Giants, Buster Posey is among the best in every facet of the game.
Honorable Mentions: Yadier Molina, Russell Martin, Brian McCann
First Baseman #1—Albert Pujols: There were a number of great first basemen this century, but let’s put it this way—the gap between Pujols and his backup on this team is so great that taking only the seven best seasons of Pujols (as the JAWS method of historical greatness evaluation does) puts him in close proximity to his backup’s entire career. Albert Pujols was not only the best hitter among first basemen during his peak, but he was also a competent fielder and base runner in ways that he most certainly did not have to be to have a career. A frequent refrain about Pujols was that he, despite his 656 career home runs, wasn’t really a home run hitter but rather a hard line drive hitter, and his consistently high batting averages and shockingly low strikeout rates throughout his time with the St. Louis Cardinals reflect the reality of that. Even by the standards of this team, Albert Pujols was a freak.
First Baseman #2—Joey Votto: Although he was overshadowed by Pujols for his first few seasons while competing in the same division, Joey Votto vaulted himself into near-Hall of Fame territory thanks mostly to his superb plate discipline. Even while local media early in his career would lament that he wasn’t driving in enough runs and was instead trying to draw too many walks (this still remains as a bit of a straw man argument from sabermetricians, but I promise it really used to happen), the lifelong Cincinnati Red routinely hit for power, hit for contact, and didn’t necessarily need to swing to be effective.
Honorable Mention: Todd Helton
Second Baseman #1—Chase Utley: Despite playing on great Philadelphia Phillies teams, Utley was often overshadowed by teammate Ryan Howard, who usually wasn’t as good of a hitter and certainly provided less value defensively than Utley, continuously overlooked as one of the premium fielders at the position. In the second half of the decade of the 2000s, Utley was the best power hitter at an up-the-middle position in the sport, and for a full decade, he was above league average at offense, defense, and base running. Although he may fall just a hair short of the Hall of Fame, he should merit consideration in a few years.
Second Baseman #2—Robinson Cano: Arguably the greatest second baseman in New York Yankees history, Cano was one of the scariest bats on some of the strongest teams of their era. With 324 home runs, including 30+ home run campaigns with both the Yankees and the Seattle Mariners, Robinson Cano became one of the most feared bats of the post-PED era while providing solid defensive value.
Honorable Mentions: Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Ben Zobrist
Shortstop #1—Alex Rodriguez: Minor category fraud here, as Rodriguez was only a shortstop for the first four years of the century and then spent another twelve seasons at third base. But A-Rod has a credible claim to the shortstop title on the strength of his first four seasons alone—the 35.9 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement he posted in four seasons comprise a higher seven-year peak than his backup on this team. As an eleven-time All-Star, three-time MVP, seven-time Silver Slugger, and two-time Gold Glove winner (both times at shortstop) during the 21st century, Rodriguez would have certainly been the starter at either shortstop or third base.
Shortstop #2—Derek Jeter: He didn’t have nearly the peak of A-Rod, his long-time teammate on the left side of the New York Yankees infield, but Jeter was an above-average player for most of the years of this century. Sure, his five Gold Gloves at shortstop are a joke, but by and large, his twelve All-Star Game appearances were not. Jeter was a consistently high batting average hitter and he provided adequate amounts of pop, which is more than can be said of many shortstops. Much of the legend of Jeter began in the 20th century, but it was in the 21st that he cemented himself as one of the sport’s greats.
Honorable Mentions: Jimmy Rollins, Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez
Third Baseman #1—Adrian Beltre: It took nearly two decades for Adrian Beltre to finally earn the respect he had earned over his long and consistently productive career, but it finally happened. Beltre won five Gold Gloves but was arguably still underrated defensively—by Defensive Runs Above Average, he trails only Brooks Robinson in baseball history at the hot corner. And at the plate, Adrian Beltre hit 477 home runs, tied for 30th all-time with, ironically, his backup on this team. For years, Beltre seems like a player bound to be perpetually underrated at a position that has elected fewer men to Cooperstown than any other, but now, he looks like a first-ballot Hall of Famer who will likely only grow in the estimation of the general baseball public.
Third Baseman #2—Miguel Cabrera: The shortcoming of Cabrera relatively to Adrian Beltre is his glove—there is a reason Cabrera spent much of his career at first base. But as far as offensive peaks are concerned, Miguel Cabrera has one comparable to any player this century. Cabrera was an astonishingly capable young player with the Florida Marlins and later became a Triple Crown-winning veteran with the Detroit Tigers. Although his last few seasons have been comparatively lackluster, Cabrera is within spitting distance of 500 home runs and is a likely Hall of Famer.
Honorable Mentions: Chipper Jones, Evan Longoria, Scott Rolen, David Wright
Left Fielder #1—Barry Bonds: It is a crime that Bonds did not make the All-Century Team for the 20th century—he was always the superior player to Ken Griffey Jr. but didn’t even have a chance. But he made sure in the first five years of the 21st century that he established his bona fides. His four-year run from 2001 through 2004, during which he hit 209 home runs and had a cartoonish on-base percentage of .559 and an OPS of 1.368 (even in the steroid era with inflated offensive numbers, his era-adjusted OPS+ of 256 is downright impossible) is arguably the strongest run in MLB history, and that was even with Bonds being a fairly mediocre fielder and base runner, two areas in which he had excelled in his younger years. He tailed off quickly—he barely played the next season and was very good but not quite cartoonish in 2006 and 2007 before being blackballed rendered incapable of continuing his career by MLB, but Barry Bonds was an absolutely jarring freak of nature.
Left Fielder #2—Lance Berkman: He played a few different positions frequently enough to be a credible candidate there, but Berkman fits in well in left field. A power-hitting switch-hitter with a strong batting eye, the six-time All-Star spent the entire first decade of the century as a dynamic offensive threat for the Houston Astros before his brief resurgence in a World Series-winning campaign for the St. Louis Cardinals. Also, despite his somewhat unathletic frame, he was actually a decent defensive player for much of his career, including in 2002, when he was a statistically above-average defensive center fielder.
Center Fielder #1—Mike Trout: By FanGraphs WAR, Mike Trout is the 47th best position player of all-time, and he is only 28 years old. By either Baseball Reference or FanGraphs WAR, he is the fourth-best player of the 21st century despite his rookie season coming 60% of the way through the century so far. Despite having far fewer seasons from which to cherry-pick than most, Trout has the highest WAR7 in baseball this century, and I would be astonished (you know, if I make it to 110) if at the end of the 21st century, Mike Trout isn’t a starter on the comprehensive All-Century Team.
Center Fielder #2—Andruw Jones: He never quite reached the offensive heights expected of him when he burst onto the scene as a teenager in the 1990s, though he was still a quite good hitter. But Andruw Jones became arguably the best defensive center fielder ever, and certainly the best defensive center fielder of his era. His combination of speed, grace, and defensive awareness made him an incredible weapon in the field, and 434 career home runs aren’t exactly anything to sneeze at, either. His defensive decline happened rapidly when it did, but there is a good reason Andruw Jones won the first eight Gold Gloves of the century for the Atlanta Braves.
Right Fielder #1—Carlos Beltran: Beltran was a center fielder longer than he was a right fielder (though he played right field too, including for two productive seasons in St. Louis), but I couldn’t resist throwing him and Mike Trout into the same outfield. Beltran reached legendary status in three different cities—he was a true superstar for some fairly lousy Kansas City Royals teams, he was a playoff god for the 2004 Houston Astros, and he was the rare big-name free agent signing who was an unquestionable win for his team, the New York Mets. He was a power hitter—435 career home runs—and he was a .350 OBP hitter for his career while also delivering strong defense throughout most of his career. His Hall of Fame case will be a bit dicey given his involvement in the 2017 Astros sign-stealing scandal, but if this means we have to erase his awful 2017 season from memory, this only enhances his case.
Right Fielder #2—Ichiro Suzuki: Ichiro was both cutting-edge and a deeply old-school player. He was the purest contact hitter of his era—he didn’t hit a ton of home runs, despite likely apocryphal rumors that he could if he wanted to do so, and his walk rates were never very impressive, but his speed and pure contact skills were legendary, perhaps best demonstrated in 2004 when he broke the single-season record for hits in a season. Between his plate approach and his cannon of an arm in right field, he was as fun to watch as anybody. He was also the first position player from Japan to ever play in Major League Baseball, and his success under tremendous pressure with the Seattle Mariners changed the way the baseball-rich nation was perceived by Major League clubs.
Honorable Mentions: Andrew McCutchen, Jim Edmonds, Bobby Abreu
Designated Hitter—David Ortiz: Exhausting as much of the discourse surrounding David Ortiz’s supposed postseason clutchness could be, there was a reason he was perceived as a great playoff performer—because he was, in addition to being a great regular season performer. As far as pure designated hitters, a rare designation prior to the 21st century, go, it’s difficult to top his offensive production—seven of the eight players who produced more Offensive Runs Above Average in the 21st century on this team, and the eighth, Manny Ramirez, was a premium hitter for a shorter period of time and similarly provided zero defensive value. The presences of Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto may render Ortiz superfluous as a functional team, but to omit the position altogether felt wrong.
Honorable Mention: Jim Thome
Starting Pitcher #1—Justin Verlander: For a while in the mid-2010s, it seemed like Verlander was somewhere between cooked and tapering off. That he was still a starting pitcher by 2019 wasn’t shocking, but that he remained one of the sport’s elite arms was inconceivable. With the Detroit Tigers, he was a young workhorse with incredible velocity and command, and following a trade to the Houston Astros, he seemingly found the fountain of youth. Because of changes in starting pitcher usage, we have to recalibrate our expectations for an ace by and large, but Verlander is the exception, having thrown over 200 innings in all but two seasons of his career.
Starting Pitcher #2—Clayton Kershaw: Verlander had a head start, hence why he got the nod as the team’s staff ace, but Clayton Kershaw had every bit the peak of Justin Verlander. Still just 32 years old, Kershaw was cartoonishly effective from 2011 through 2016, and even in what was supposedly a down year for him in 2019, he still managed a 3.03 ERA in 178 1/3 innings. Kershaw will always be dogged by his postseason reputation, one more centered on narrative and the collective struggles of the Los Angeles Dodgers than on his actual performance, but he is undoubtedly one of the premier pitchers of his era.
Starting Pitcher #3—Roy Halladay: Strangely under the radar for the first decade of the 2000s while pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, Halladay finally saw himself properly regarded following a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, where he won a Cy Young Award in 2010, when he also threw a perfect game plus a postseason no-hitter, and he arguably deserved another Cy Young Award the next season. His decline following the 2011 season was rapid, and his untimely death four years after his retirement will unfortunately color the way he is perceived in retrospect, but the eight-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young Award winner didn’t gain those accolades through retrospect—he won them through his dominance on the mound.
Starting Pitcher #4—Zack Greinke: That Greinke’s three best seasons came in three different cities reflects the nomadic and often idiosyncratic nature of his career. Greinke had two truly dominant seasons—his 2009 Cy Young campaign with the Royals and his 2015 contract year with the Dodgers, during which he posted a 1.66 ERA—but otherwise was a consistent performer. The collapse of the Houston Astros bullpen in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series deprived Greinke on what would have been a fantastic bow on the first two decades of the century—a spectacular performance on the sport’s biggest stage.
Starting Pitcher #5—CC Sabathia: That a pitcher born in the 1980s reached 251 career wins seems inconceivable given the ways pitcher usage changed even up to the point where they would have debuted, much less how it evolved during it. Sabathia has 26 more wins than the next-winningest pitcher of the 21st century (Verlander), and 46 more than the next-highest active pitcher, and while pitcher wins are rightly diminished in the eyes of modern fans, Sabathia was a major part of those wins. He was a phenom, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting as a 20 year-old, and he was an above-average starter seventeen seasons later. He was an above-average pitcher for each of his first twelve seasons and was among the sport’s most feared starters as the 2000s turned into the 2010s.
Starting Pitcher #6—Randy Johnson: Randy Johnson was 36 years old at the beginning of the 21st century and was coming off a decade where he was the third or fourth best pitcher in all of baseball, depending on your preferred version of WAR. The idea that he would have a better 2000s would have been absurd, and yet he managed to do just that. He opened the decade with three consecutive Cy Young Awards for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and while his 2003 was an injury-addled drop-off, he was every bit his vintage self in 2004. He began to drop off a bit after this, and he didn’t pitch at all in the 2010s, but he had arguably the highest pitching peak of the century.
Starting Pitcher #7—Max Scherzer: Given his subsequent dominance, it is easy to forget that for the first few seasons of Max Scherzer’s career, he was a perfectly fine but totally unexceptional starting pitcher. But late in his run with the Detroit Tigers and through his first five seasons with the Washington Nationals, Scherzer became one of the sport’s elites. Very few pitchers can compete with Scherzer’s combination of old-school credibility (his immediately obvious intensity; his unusually high inning totals) and modern sensibilities (his high strikeout rates; his open embraces of advanced analytics), and very few hit as high of peaks as Scherzer hits during his finest outings.
Starting Pitcher #8—Felix Hernandez: Through his age-28 season, Felix Hernandez was one of the sport’s greatest pitchers. His age-29 season was a clear step back, but still decent. And then, suddenly, the man adoring Seattle Mariners fans dubbed “King Felix” became terrible. He is only 34, hardly ancient by MLB pitcher standards, and yet he is likely finished as a Major League pitcher. But when he was good, he was phenomenal. He was an All-Star six times over seven seasons (the one exception came during his 2010 Cy Young season, in which he redefined the award by winning despite an unimpressive-looking 13-12 record) and twice led the American League in ERA. His lack of postseason appearances remains one of the more baffling tidbits of modern baseball.
Honorable Mentions: Mark Buehrle, Roy Oswalt, Pedro Martinez, Cole Hamels, Johan Santana
Relief Pitcher #1—Mariano Rivera: Is there a position (to the extent that relief pitcher is a position) in sports where the conversation about the greatest to ever play said position is so open and shut as this one? By any measure, no matter how nuanced (ERA, saves, longevity, postseason success), Rivera is the greatest closer of all time, and his legend began in the nineties, it solidified in his subsequent fourteen seasons during the twenty-first century.
Relief Pitcher #2—Joe Nathan: Joe Nathan doesn’t seem like an elite reliever, but it’s hard to argue against the numbers. He spent his best seasons in the relative obscurity of Minnesota and then became a bit of a journeyman, but Nathan was a six-time All-Star who trails only Rivera among 21st century relievers in fWAR, bWAR, and bWAR7 (he ranks third in fWAR7). For his first six seasons with the Twins, he was as open-and-shut as any closer in baseball. He will likely be laughed off the ballot when he comes up for Hall of Fame consideration, but if Billy Wagner can at least get into the conversation, Nathan probably should, too.
Relief Pitcher #3—Jonathan Papelbon: He just missed the opportunity to close for the 2004 Boston Red Sox, but upon his 2005 arrival, Jonathan Papelbon became a force of nature. In his first full season, in 2006, Papelbon had a sub-1 ERA and accumulated 35 saves, and the next season, he closed out another World Series title for the Red Sox. Papelbon then spent 3 ½ underrated years in Philadelphia, where the team’s rapid decline, having nothing to do with his excellent performance, obscured his greatness. The wheels started to come off following a trade to the Washington Nationals, both by performance and off the mound (notably his physical confrontation with Bryce Harper), but his production prior to this is impossible to deny.
Relief Pitcher #4—Francisco Rodriguez: Rodriguez went through two distinct stages of his career—as a phenom with the then-Anaheim Angels and as a nondescript journeyman reliever. Although he had flashes of brilliance in the early 2010s, it was the man nicknamed K-Rod’s early Angels years that earned him his spot on this team. Despite only 5 2/3 career innings entering the 2002 postseason, the 20 year-old reliever was integral to a World Series championship, and by 2004, he had become one of the most important players on the team despite his limited playing time. Following Troy Percival’s departure, Rodriguez became the Angels’ go-to closer, and in 2008, he set the Major League record for most saves in a season with 62.
Relief Pitcher #5—Craig Kimbrel: When Kimbrel was dealing with control issues, which he often was, he was still an effective reliever (2019 being the exception). When he managed to curtail a penchant for walks and he was still striking out batters at jaw-dropping rates, he was the toughest pitcher to hit in baseball. Over his ten Major League seasons, he struck out over 13 batters per nine innings in his least dominant one. His peak came in 2012, when with the Atlanta Braves, he finished the season with 42 saves and a 1.01 ERA that was still, somehow, worse than his fielding-independent metrics suggested (he had a 0.78 FIP and 0.88 xFIP).
Honorable Mentions: Aroldis Chapman, Billy Wagner, Kenley Jansen