Rankings and Chiefs
Hi everybody! All apologies for this week’s newsletter being a couple of days late but, hey, you try writing 100 very long baseball essays in 100 days. No, really, please, can you try it because I am thinking more and more that I will need all the help I can get.
In The Athletic
You can actually find all the links for the Baseball 100 on this page — but a few of you have asked me to continue to link individually so here we go:
We’ll get back to that last one in just a minute.
I also wrote this memory of the legendary Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt who, oddly, became something close to a friend.
— Lots and lots and lots and lots of people ask me, pretty much every day, if I plan to turn the Baseball 100 into a book. It’s flattering, there have been some big hitters who have approached me about it. I don’t know the answer yet, and frankly, I am too overwhelmed with the writing to think much about it yet. But I will be done with the writing (one way or another) over the next few weeks and then I will start thinking about what a baseball book could look like. More on this as it develops!
— The audiobook for The Soul of Baseball is out — more than a decade after the book was published — and I have to tell you: It’s spectacular. The book is read by a Kansas City native named David Sadzin, and he’s so wonderful. I hear the words I wrote in an entirely different way, which, well, it’s hard to even describe that feeling.
Hoping to do an event for it at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum sometime soon. More on this as it develops!
— There might be an exciting/horrifying bit of news on the PosCast (depending on your point of view). More on this also as it develops!
— I want to say something about my friend Mike Schur, whose work of art “The Good Place,” just aired its final episode this week. I remember when Mike first started developing the show in his mind, and he wouldn’t go into details but he told me that it was a strange idea and a risky idea and (most tantalizingly) that he had to do a lot of reading and studying for it.
In so many ways, I think “The Good Place,” was a journey for Mike, a way for him to try and make sense of the world and the universe, to make sense of what it is to be human, to make sense of our times, while also getting in a bunch of Jacksonville Jaguars jokes. Watching the final episode, I cried like everybody else and felt happy like everybody else and, mostly, I thought about how lucky we are that in this time and place where there’s money and fame and status in playing it safe, in hammering the hot take, in trolling for hits and talking nonsense for the headlines it might get you, a sweet and kind and glorious show like “The Good Place” can still happen.
The Baseball 100 Rankings
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but it seems like some people disagree with how I’ve been ranking the players on the Baseball 100. This, of course, is not only reasonable, it’s actually quite right. My rankings are terrible. ALL rankings are terrible — except your own. The very idea that you could not only choose the 100 greatest players but also rank them in exact order is ludicrous.
And yet: Here we are.
I will not lie: I’ve been waiting for today, for No. 56 on the list. It feels like my big reveal. You see, as I told you from the start, I spent hours and hours working on the numbers and I mentioned that it began with a formula that I developed with my good friend Tom Tango, a WAR-based formula that takes numerous other things into account. This is all true, and it’s also true that most of the complaints people have had about the rankings are really complaints they have about WAR.
Q: How could you rank Jeff Bagwell ahead of Tony Gwynn?
Short answer: Because Jeff Bagwell had 10 more career WAR and had a seven-win advantage in peak WAR, because Bagwell by the numbers was a much better overall hitter (lots more power, got on base more), a better fielder (at a less-valuable position) was even a better base runner even with fewer stolen bases. And there weren’t enough advantages for Gwynn to make up the difference.
Q: How could you rank Gaylord Perry ahead of Sandy Koufax?
Short answer: Because Perry had 40 more career WAR, had a HIGHER seven-year peak by WAR, and while Koufax did have his share of advantages, particularly in the postseason, it wasn’t quite enough to overtake Perry (there were only a couple of places apart).
But the truth is that even those short answers don’t quite get at what I’ve been trying to do with the Baseball 100. I didn’t tell all of it when I said that I worked for hours and hours on the numbers. See, these aren’t exactly rankings. Yes, there’s a general order, from great to greater to even greater to greatest.
But what I’ve been trying to do is not RANK the player. I’ve been trying to connect the player to a number. I know that sounds weird and perhaps stupid, but I really have tried to do this with every player. It isn’t always obvious. It isn’t always even logical. All I can say is: I’ve tried.
For example — and I really did think someone would pick up on one part of this but, best I can tell, nobody has — remember how Topps used to number their baseball cards? Those numbers seemed entirely random but if you looked close you found that the superstars would have their numbers end in double-zero, the big stars would have their numbers end in 0 and 5.
I have tried to do that. That’s why Ichiro is No. 100. That’s why Koufax ix No. 70, Pete Rose is No. 60, etc. That’s why Gwynn is No. 95 (I almost made him No. 94 to signify the year he almost hit .400 but thought he was too good not to have his number end in 5).
I tried hard to give each player a number that I thought made sense. Mike Mussina was 99 because that was the year he finished second in the Cy Young (to the incredible Pedro season).
Mariano Rivera was given No. 91 because of Psalm 91, the Psalm of Protection: “Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.”
Phil Niekro was given No. 83 because it is a prime number (and the sum of five consecutive prime numbers) which seemed to me to fit his pitching style.
Derek Jeter was given No. 79 because it is what is called a “happy prime,” and that sounded like a match. Also, 79 is the atomic number of gold. Also, ‘79 was the year Jeter started playing ball.*
*I also considered making Jeter 80 to give him a star number and making Carlton Fisk No. 79, but I thought this worked better.
Ernie Banks was 65 because (A) It ends with 5 which is a star number; (B) It is the magic constant in a 5 x 5 magic square (C) It was a year when Banks played in 163 games and finished THIRD in the league in games played behind two teammates, Ron Santo and Billy Williams. I love that one.
And so on. I couldn’t do quite make it work for every player. But whenever I could do it, and the order was about right, I did it. Maybe at some point at the end, I’ll print all of the number connections. It can be like that final scene of “The Usual Suspects.” Then again, I might never do that because some of them are REALLY out there.*
*Yes, I do realize that this is now a challenge, and I’m imagining all of you going all Russell Crowe on me to come up with connections.
I have to say that I did think people would pick up a pattern by now, looking back at it, I realize that I’m a lunatic and there was no way for ANYBODY to pick up the pattern.
Anyway, all that ends today because today the secret is out. I put Joe DiMaggio No. 56. I went back and forth on it — the rankings had him probably 20 or 25 spots higher and I didn’t move anyone else quite that much. But then I thought that the point of these rankings is to connect the player with a number, and if I put DiMaggio at 31 or 43 or something like that, who would even notice? Who would care about the number?
It seemed to me that the very best number for DiMaggio is No. 56. It’s his number. And so he got it.
There is a lot more of this number connecting to come in the next few weeks. I understand that some people might not like it this way and might prefer a more straightforward ranking so they can clearly and vividly scream about ranking Player X 22 spots ahead of Player Y. I apologize. Please feel free to scream anyway.
Chiefs and Chopper
The Kansas City Chiefs are in the Super Bowl. You might have heard something about this, I don’t know.
I just want to tell you that it’s pretty much madness around this house because, as I think I mentioned, our oldest daughter Elizabeth rather suddenly and thoroughly fell for the Chiefs sometime late last year. She spent the first 17 years of her life rebelling against all sports. She spent the last year and a half turning into me as a teenaged football obsessive. I don’t see this as growth.
But it has been enlightening. Mike Schur often calls his son William, “my jerk son,” because William has lived a charmed sports childhood. He likes the Patriots, the Red Sox and the Dodgers. He doesn’t know anything about losing.
Of course, as a Clevelander, I would argue that Mike doesn’t know about losing either because even though his childhood did have the lousy Patriots (who still went to a Super Bowl) and the heartbreaking Red Sox (who still went to a World Series), he also had the Celtics who won a lot. In Cleveland, we had none of it.
But this is getting off the point: It has been enlightening to watch my daughter, who is so much like myself, get to root for a WINNING TEAM. It is like watching my younger self if just one time the opposite thing had happened — if Brian Sipe had thrown that Red Right 88 pass into Lake Erie like he should have or if John Elway had thrown an interception on the drive or if Ernest Byner had not fumbled the football as he headed into the end zone.
Of course, none of those things happened. And Elizabeth is my jerk daughter who knows nothing at all about losing.
She’s intensely happy and deeply nervous. She’s so excited that she can barely hide her giddiness and she’s so scared the Chiefs will lose that she doesn’t even want to talk about it. She scans Kansas Chiefs Chiefs social media non-stop every minute in order to find pieces of news that will make her feel less nervous, less worried, more certain. I remember that feeling so well; you look everywhere for a hint that things will turn out OK.
One thing that she does that I highly recommend: She spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to create the PERFECT Super Bowl party. This is both a distraction and a healthy way not to lose your mind with fear. Elizabeth has spent a lot of time deciding exactly what food to get, what decorations to use, where everyone in the family will be allowed to sit. We have spent the week asking her to approve various recommendations.
“Should we have pretzels at the Super Bowl watching?”
— “Warm pretzels are fine. Hard pretzels are gross.”
“What sort of wings shall there be?”
— “There can be various kinds but none of those gross healthy wings.”
“Pizza bites or Pizza Bagels?”
— Bites, obviously.
And so on. It’s very funny to see her preparing. She doesn’t care one bit about the strategic ins and outs of the game. She doesn’t want to talk at all about what sort of defense the Chiefs need to play to stop the 49ers running game or how the offensive line will need to protect Patrick Mahomes. She’s in charge of the karma.