Best of the rest

Who are the 25 greatest baseball players who aren't in Cooperstown?

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SAN DIEGO — First things first: This list shocked me. It shocked me because the only reason I even did it was to highlight Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant and Dick Allen and Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat and some of the fine players who, once more, did not get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. I thought: Let’s put together a list of the 25 greatest baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. That will be a good chance to write about those great players who were snubbed one more time.

Here was the problem.

Not one of those guys on this year’s Golden Era ballot made my list.

Now, to be fair, this list is not necessarily the players most WORTHY of the Hall of Fame. You might see that as a different thing. For instance, Minnie Minoso seems to me an obvious Hall of Fame choice because, in addition to being a great player for a decade or so, he was the first great dark-skinned Latin player in Major League baseball, and the first black player in Chicago. He was a pioneer. His case is, to me, very similar to Hall of Famer Larry Doby – and Minoso might have even been a little better player than Doby. The Hall of Fame is poorer without him.

But this list is much more specific: These are my 25 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. No caveats.  No character clauses. No bonus points for being a pioneer. This list includes current players and players who are ineligible for the Hall for various reasons.

The list proved one thing to me: There are a LOT of great players not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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25. Shoeless Joe Jackson

If you get a chance, go over to Baseball-Reference’s fun MLB EloRater, which is this system they use to have fans rank the greatest players in baseball history. As a way to actually rank the best players, the system falls a bit short for me. But as a way to read how fans VIEW baseball, it’s pretty fascinating.

Right now, the Top 5 everyday players on the list are: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays. You will notice one thing about those five – not one of them played in the last 40 years.

The pitching list is even more ridiculous: Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson are the top five – for crying out loud you’re telling me the five greatest pitchers in baseball history ALL played 100 years ago? There has not been a single pitcher in the last CENTURY who was better than those guys? Not one? Is this some sort of joke? Could you imagine any other sport suggesting such nonsense?

But that’s the sport I love, a sport buried in its past. And here I am falling for it, too. This player should not be Shoeless Joe. It should be Manny Ramirez, Larry Walker or, frankly, lots of people – I feel very sure that, if you’re really measuring the two on a level field, Manny Ramirez was a much better hitter than Shoeless Joe Jackson.

But the Shoeless Joe mythology is overpowering; I simply could not leave him off the list. In his time, Shoeless Joe could hit. He could run. He could field. He could come back to life through a cornfield. He could get Kevin Costner together with his father. And so on. But, seriously, that was a LONG time ago. He had his best season more than 100 years ago, in 1912 – how long ago was that? Well, it was the same year that the first world record for the 100-meter dash was set by Donald Lippincott. The record was 10.6 seconds. Usain Bolt could run that backward.

But there’s that Jackson mythology  — .356 lifetime average, he hit .408 in his first full season, he hit triples and stole bases, his glove was where triples went to die, all that – and he will always have a strong contingent of fans who fight to get him into the Hall of Fame even though he admitted taking money from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.

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24. John Smoltz

People will undoubtedly say I have him too low – maybe I do.  I’m just not as persuaded as others by Smoltz’s two-tiered career as a starter and reliever. That combination got Dennis Eckersley into the Hall – I think Eck at his best was a little bit better starter than Smoltz, and he was a revolutionary closer while Smoltz merely dabbled in the art of finishing games.

Don’t get me wrong, Smoltz was a terrific pitcher. He is in my Hall of Fame. I just have a few other pitchers above him. And, to be honest, my ranking system (which I would explain if I actually understood it myself) had him and Roy Halladay in a dead heat.

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23. Mike Piazza

Paul Bacosa, Jim Greenlee, Juan Price and Phil Mendelson – among others – would occasionally get a call from reporters in the 1990s. The reason? They were drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 June Amateur Draft. And so was Mike Piazza.

You know Piazza’s story: His father, Vince, loved baseball. He was into real estate and used cars and made enough money that he tried for a while to get into a Major League Baseball ownership group. That did not work out, but he made a lot of friends in and around the game; when Mike was 12 or 13 he got a hitting lesson from Ted Williams. Vince convinced a friend, Tommy Lasorda, to take a flier on his kid late in the draft. The Dodgers used their last pick on Piazza.

After two mediocre but not terrible minor-league seasons, Piazza smashed 29 homers as a 22-year-old at a couple of minor-league stops. Suddenly, the kid was a real prospect. In his first year in the big leagues, he hit .318 with 35 homers and 112  RBIs. He won Rookie of the Year and finished Top 10 in the MVP voting.

Greatest hitting years for catchers by batting runs:

  1. Mike Piazza, 1997 (.362/.431/.638, 40 homers, 100-plus runs and RBIs, 69.42 batting runs)
  2. Joe Mauer, 2009 (.365/.444/..587, 28 homers, 57.75 batting runs)
  3. Buster Posey, 2012 (.336/.408, .549, 39 doubles, 24 homers, 55.52 batting runs)
  4. Mike Piazza, 1996 (.336/.422/.563, 36 homers, 53.12 batting runs)
  5. Johnny Bench, 1972 (.270/.379/.541, 40 homers, 125 RBIs, 49.65 batting runs)

The reluctance to put Piazza in the Hall of Fame seems to be wrapped around unfair whispers about PEDs and fair whispers about his defensive liabilities. He’s the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history, I think.

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22. Jim Thome

The Thomenator is one of my favorite ever people in sports so I can’t be unbiased when writing about him. I can talk about his 612 home runs, his .402 lifetime on-base percentage, or how he is Top 25 all-time in just about every meaningful hitting statistic – slugging percentage, OPS, runs created, extra-base hits, walks, (strikeouts too), at-bat per homer and so on. Instead, I’ll mention one of the million Thome stories I keep handy:

In 1998, he came into a tie game in the ninth to face the Angels’ Troy Percival, who in those days threw about as hard as anybody in the world. Thome liked fastballs. You could get him to swing and miss a lot on pitches with any kind of wiggle. But straightball – Thome hit it very much.

So this seemed like what analysts call “a classic matchup.” Only it wasn’t. Percival had no chance at all. None. Thome hit a ridiculous bomb to left-field that only landed last Tuesday to win the game.

Two years later, Cleveland playing the Angels again, Percival’s pitching again, Thome comes up with the Indians down 10-9. Percival’s pumped up for this one. And … Thome cranked the game-winning homer, hitting it even HARDER than the first time. He lumbered around the bases like he always did with the big, goofy grin on his face. You could not throw a ball hard enough when pitching to Thome.

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21. Ivan Rodriguez

He was just a ridiculously good defensive catcher. Ridiculously good. He also was a good hitter for a catcher – certainly not in Piazza’s league, but he hit 300 homers and hit .300 or better 10 times – but Rodriguez’s defense was off the charts. His arm should be on display at the Smithsonian. That arm was not only absurdly strong, he also had a lightning quick release, and his throws would land on the corner of the bag again and again and again. He led the league in caught-stealing percentage nine times.

Rodriguez, like so many players, was a shell of himself the last few years of his career, and I fear that’s the guy so many people remember. As a young man, he was a wonder.

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20. Craig Biggio

I feel sure he will get elected into the Hall this year. He fell just two votes short last year – he’s got the 3,000 hits and he’s fifth all-time in doubles and 15th all-time in runs scored and all those things. He’s got the counting stats. He will get elected.

Biggio was a truly great player in the mid-90s. Superfan Bill James often talks about Biggio’s 1997 season – he hit .309/.415/.501, had 310 total bases, stole 47 bases, walked 84 times, got hit by 34 pitches, won a second-base Gold Glove and didn’t hit into a single double play all year. He had four or five other years that were comparable.

In a way it was a shame Biggio hung around at the end; many people just remember the shell of that player. But realistically he’s going to the Hall of Fame because he hung around at the end and got that 3,000th hit. Without it, I suspect he would be a cult favorite like Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and the like.

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19. Adrian Beltre

I hope this name surprised you. It sure as heck surprised me. It also surprised Bill James when I told him that I couldn’t find a way to get other players on the list because of Beltre. “Beltre?” he asked. “Really? He was one of my favorite players when he was with the Sox. I guess need to look into his career again.”

Look, I knew Beltre was a very good player. However, I did not appreciate that he’s got a real shot at 3,000 hits, he will pass 400 homers this year, he’s getting better with age like Clemente did. His last five years, he has hit .316/.364/.535 and averaging 36 doubles and 29 homers a year.

Throw in the fact that he is one of the greatest defensive third basemen in baseball history. What a player. He’s not only a Hall of Famer, he’s a first-ballot shoo-in – I now believe he’s one of the 100 best players in baseball history. And he’s got some years left in him.

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18. Mike Mussina

A great pitcher who went out on his own terms rather than clinging to the game in order to get 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts or any of that jazz. Mussina mostly pitched in hitters’ ballparks in the heyday of the American League East during the biggest offensive era in baseball history. And he was superb just about every year. There were always cosmetic forces working against him – he did not win 20 until his last year, his ERA was usually higher than 3.00, he joined the Yankees one year after their second-to-last World Series and he retired one year before their last.

A great Mussina story – you probably know that teams give out written tests to prospects in order to get some insight on how the prospect’s mind works. Well one team approached Mussina when he was at Stanford and gave him the test to fill out. Mussina looked at the test, looked at the scout.

“Nah,” he said. “I’m not doing that.”

That’s how Mussina’s mind worked. I’m pretty sure his answer was the right one.

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17. Ichiro Suzuki

I’m counting his years in Japan too. There has never been a player like him. When I put together my 100 greatest ever players (currently in review), I put up these charts about Ichiro:

Most seasons with 200-plus hits:

  1. Ichiro Suzuki, 10
  2. Pete Rose, 10
  3. Derek Jeter, 8

Most seasons with 210-plus hits

  1. Ichiro Suzuki, 8
  2. Paul Waner, Ty Cobb, 7

Most seasons with 220-plus hits:

  1. Ichiro, 5
  2. Rogers Hornsby 4

Most seasons with 230-plus hits

  1. Ichiro, 3
  2. Three players tied with 2.

Most seasons with 260-plus hits

  1. Ichiro, 1

(No one else has ever done it.)

Of course the game isn’t ALL about getting hits. Ichiro was also a great base-stealer. Ichiro was a great right fielder with a great arm. He didn’t walk at all, and he didn’t hit for power, and that has led some to say he was overrated. I suppose you could make the argument. But Miles Davis couldn’t hit, and Picasso couldn’t throw, and DeNiro can’t dunk. I’d prefer to appreciate genius for what it is.

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16. Mark McGwire

Yes, I know that the consensus is in, and it has judged McGwire an artificially enhanced terminator who would have had Dave Kingman’s career had he not juiced. It’s just that Mark McGwire is the greatest home run hitter I’ve ever seen in my entire life – including Bonds in his crazy home run year. McGwire would keep entire stadiums spellbound with his batting practice. He would hit baseballs so high and far that, even while they were suspended in air, you would laugh at the sheer insanity. He hit home runs so ridiculous that pitchers were PROUD to give them up – they would watch the ball defy all physical rules and think, “I had something to do with that!”

Comedian Hannibal Buress has a great, great bit about steroids in baseball. He imagines a scene where a father and son go to a Cubs game to see Sammy Sosa. And then in the ninth inning, the score’s tied, the father and son are standing and hugging each other and hoping, and then Sosa swings, and he hits the ball hard. The father and son are jumping up and down as Sosa takes that famous little hop step he used to take. They watch with sheer glee as the ball sails out of Wrigley. And then they hug even harder, and jump up and down together and they both know that they will never ever forget this moment.

“In other words,” Buress says, “if you are against steroids in baseball, you are against family.”

Sosa didn’t quite make my list, though he hit 60-plus homers three times. McGwire was even better at hitting baseballs out. He did have a few other skills (he walked a lot and wasn’t a bad first baseman, early in his career especially) but being the greatest home run hitter ever – his one homer per 10.6 at-bats is the best ratio in baseball history – is enough for me.

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15. Curt Schilling

He has the greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history, and he was one of the greatest postseason pitchers ever. I have absolutely no idea why the voters seem so skeptical about him. He was (and is) a divisive figure, I guess, and his career had some severe peaks and valleys. He’s still a clear Hall of Famer – last year, he lost almost 10 percent in the voting, I sure hope that trend reverses quickly.

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14. Mariano Rivera

Much like when I was ranking the Top 100 players, I did not know where to put Rivera. This spot is either way too high or way too low. He might have been the greatest player at WHAT HE DID in baseball history. I don’t just mean he was the greatest closer. I mean he was as great at closing games as Roberto Clemente was at throwing a ball, as Willie Mays was at catching them, as Babe Ruth was at hitting home runs.

Now, what’s the value of a closer in baseball? Open question. Should Rivera be ranked higher than really good pitchers who threw almost three times as many innings, like Mike Mussina or Curt Schilling? Nobody knows for sure. I’m quite sure that Rivera will sail into the Hall of Fame first ballot, 90-plus percent of the vote, while Mussina and Schilling are facing uphill battles. So the voters certainly are decided on the issue of Rivera’s relative greatness.

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13. Tim Raines

I’ve written so much about Raines that I’m not sure what’s left to say. You know that he reached base as often as Tony Gwynn, right? You know that he was the greatest percentage base-stealer in the history of the game, right?

Every now and again, someone will remind me that it’s called the Hall of FAME – their point seems to be that the Hall should reward the most famous players. I do not think it means what they think it means – I think the Hall is supposed to BESTOW fame on people, not just recognize it. But there is a point in what they’re saying. Tim Raines was not famous enough when he played. He had the misfortune of playing in Rickey Henderson’s time – Henderson was the greatest player of his kind (leadoff hitter, walks a lot, steals a lot, scores a lot). Raines, the second-greatest, had to look up. Raines also played his early days on the same team as Andre Dawson, so he was overshadowed from that direction too. Raines played his best baseball in Canada. He never won an MVP award because people didn’t appreciate his true value. People filed him in the “good but not great” box and kind of just left him there even though he was clearly misfiled.

Other players – Steve Garvey, Jack Morris, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Maury Wills and others – were filed in the “great” box, even though there are some who would argue they were also misfiled. And so they have sticky Hall of Fame cases. Raines is not in the Hall of Fame yet because a lot of people who watched him play just never quite thought of him that way. It’s hard to get that first impression out of the mind

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12. Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera’s No. 1 hitting equivalent, comparable on Baseball Reference, through age 31 is Henry Aaron, and that’s fitting. Miggy, like Aaron, seems to be this perfectly calibrated hitting device who hits .325 every year, 35 homers every year, 100 RBIs every year, 100 runs every year. Then, some years, he hits even better.

Cabrera grew up with a baseball field right next to his house in Venezuela. He was a natural from the start – the Marlins gave him a $1.9 million signing bonus, which set some kind of Venezuelan record. Here’s a fun little fact for you – when Cabrera was in Class A ball he roomed with Adrian Gonzalez, who was a year older. Gonzalez helped Cabrera get comfortable with English and the pressures of being a big prospect – the next year, Miggy hit 43 doubles, and the following year he destroyed Class AA by hitting .365 and slugging .609 in 69 games – he was just 20 but those were the last minor-league games he would play.

It will be interesting to see how Cabrera ages – big first baseman tend to decline pretty rapidly. Cabrera’s already got his reservation for Cooperstown.

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11. Jeff Bagwell

Here’s all you need to know about the crazy offense of the 1990s:

In 2014, Giancarlo Stanton led the NL with 37 homers. Bagwell had six seasons with more.

Adrian Gonzalez led the NL with 116 RBIs. Bagwell had five seasons with more.

Anthony Rendon (yes, Anthony Rendon) led the NL with 111 runs. Bagwell had five seasons with at least that many.

Justin Morneau led the NL with a .319 batting average. Bagwell had two seasons where he hit higher. Andrew McCutchen’s .410 on-base percentage led the league. Bagwell had six seasons with a higher OBP. And so on.

Point is: The silly numbers of the 1990s and early 2000s have made it hard to judge any of the best players. Throw in the PED suspicions and admissions and you have a fog. You have a guy like Jeff Bagwell, who has never admitted nor been charged with PED use, whose numbers say he’s one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, and who seems to be losing traction in his Hall of Fame bid. I feel sure he will get elected, but it might be a little while.

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10. Derek Jeter

There’s nothing more to say about Derek Jeter. He was the most essential, the most beloved, despised, talked about, argued about player of his time. In the end, he finished sixth all-time in hits, 10th all-time in runs. He won five Gold Gloves for defense, one of the inspirations for a word I coined, Jeterate, which means to praise someone for something that he is entirely unworthy. He finished Top 10 in the MVP voting eight times but never won one. His teams won five World Series, and Fortune Magazine once called him the world’s 11th greatest leader.

In other words, it was a wonderful career.

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9. Chipper Jones

He was called “Chipper” because he was a chip off the old block, that block being his father Larry Wayne Jones Sr.

Question 1: What would Chipper’s career have been like if he had been called “Larry Jones?”

Question 2: Did you know there has never been another “Larry Jones” to play in the Major Leagues? That doesn’t quite seem possible – the names seems way too common. There have been a couple of Larry Jones in other sports – Larry Jones coached Florida State to an 0-11 record in 1973. Larry Jones was a high-scoring guard for the Denver Rockets of the old ABA; he actually led the ABA in scoring in 1968-69.

Anyway …

Chipper Jones is one of only 19 players in one of my favorite baseball clubs – the .300, .400, .500 club. That is: .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage, .500 slugging percentage. He won an MVP award, and he won a batting title, but for the most part he did his work quietly and effectively and for great teams.

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8. Pete Rose

The irony, of course, is that the Hit King is way more famous and talked about for not being in the Hall of Fame than he ever would be if he had been elected 20 years ago.

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7. Ken Griffey Jr.

When I lived in Cincinnati, I lived near a supermarket which had a small X marked in the parking lot. That X was where one of Junior’s home runs had landed back when he was in high school.

Junior hit 630 home runs in his career, sixth all-time, but until he got into his 30s it seemed like he (and not his contemporary Barry Bonds) would make a serious run at Henry Aaron’s record. But his body took a beating those first 10 or so years. He played 161 games as a 28-year old, 160 as a 29-year-old … and he never played 150 games in a season again. Aaron’s 755 home runs were a testament to a relentless life – he was waves beating against the shore. Junior was a better home run hitter than Aaron, but he was not a GREATER home run hitter than Aaron … he couldn’t stay on the field long enough.

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6. Pedro Martinez

I’ve said it before – if I needed a pitcher to shut down the Devil’s team and save my soul, I’d pick Pedro Martinez circa 1999-2000. There’s Koufax in the mid-1960s, Gibson in 1968, Feller and Ryan when they threw harder than anybody, Clemens or Big Unit in attack mode, Maddux when he carved the plate like it was Thanksgiving. But none of them, in my mind, was as good as Pedro at the height of the Selig Era, with hitters wearing body armor, the strike zone shrinking daily, and home runs flying absurd distances. They just couldn’t hit him.

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5. Albert Pujols

This is a bit obscure, but when I was a kid Orson Welles used to show up in the weirdest places. He used to do these Paul Masson wine commercials where he promised that they would sell no wine (sigh) before its time. He would do these little magic tricks on talk shows. He would show up on game shows. I knew him, but had absolutely no idea why he was famous – it was later that I learned about “Citizen Kane” and “War of the Worlds” and his youthful genius.

I can’t help but wonder if some of that will happen to Albert Pujols. He has so many years left on his contract, and I’m sure he will have some pretty good years … but as time goes on will people forget his youthful genius, when he was not only the best player in the game but one of the best players of all time? From 2001-10, he hit .331/.426/.624, averaged 41 homers, 123 RBIs, 119 runs. Pujols won three MVPs (and should have won one or two more) and two Gold Gloves (and should have won three or four more) – his worst year was better than just about anybody else’s best year.

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4. Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez hit more home runs than any player through 25, through age 26, through age 27, through age 28, through age 29. At age 31, he had 50 more home runs than any other player and 120 more than Henry Aaron at that point in his career.  Here’s the thing – when he played his most recent game at age 38 he STILL had more home runs than any player at that age in the history of the game.

Well, A-Rod is now 39 years old. He’s disgraced. He didn’t play all last year. Nobody particularly wants him to play this year. All of the great controversial figures in baseball history – Bonds, Clemens, Cobb, Rose – have their supporters. Best I can tell, nobody likes Alex Rodriguez.

None of that changes that he’s one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. At his best, there was nothing beyond his talents. He hit pop-ups that sailed 450 feet. He threw runners out on ground balls fielded in left field. One year, he hit 40 homers and stole 40 bases. One year, he hit 57 home runs and won a shortstop gold glove. He scored 100 runs and drove in 100 in 11 consecutive seasons – something only Lou Gehrig had done.

People write off A-Rod’s career, which is a shame because it’s a unique career.

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3. Randy Johnson

I saw Big Unit pitch in Jacksonville back in 1987; he was already 23 years old and sort of a living Nuke LaLoosh. He struck out 163 and walked 128 in 140 innings. Hitters talked about how scary it was to face him, but he seemed more oddity than prospect – the tallest pitcher in baseball history. For the first few years of his big-league career, it was the same. He first led the league in strikeouts when he was 28. He had his first great season when he was 29. And after that, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball history.

Here are the top five pitchers in Wins Above Average after age 30:

  1. Randy Johnson, 63.8.
  2. Lefty Grove, 55.7
  3. Roger Clemens, 49.6
  4. Phil Niekro, 48.0
  5. Curt Schilling, 44.8

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2. Roger Clemens

Someday there will be an Oscar-nominated movie about this guy. I despised him. And I think he’s the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

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1. Barry Bonds

One Barry Bonds fact will suffice. Here are a few random all-time players and their single-season career high in walks.

— Barry Bonds, 120.

— Albert Pujols, 115

— Willie Mays, 112

— Stan Musial, 107

— Alex Rodriguez, 100

— Ken Griffey, 86

— Henry Aaron, 92

— Derek Jeter 91

Pretty impressive huh? Oh, wait, that’s not Barry Bonds’ career high in walks. That’s Barry Bonds’ career high in INTENTIONAL WALKS. Yeah, 2004, Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times. And people aren’t voting this guy into an institution called the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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(Best of the rest: When I began the list, I fully expected to have some of my favorite Hall of Fame candidates on there – Larry Walker, Lou Whitaker, Manny Ramirez, Roy Halladay, Dwight Evans, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Scott Rolen and Luis Tiant among others. They did not make the list. They are as worthy, I suppose, as the last nine of ten players on my list – it’s all very, very close. I don’t really feel good about leaving off some of these guys (and I’m sure you won’t either) but such are the complications of lists.)