Creating the Ultimate MLB Lineup Using 1 Player from Each Decade
The 1901 season marked the debut of Major League Baseball as we know it, with the American League on one side and the National League on the other. Since then, a dozen decades have passed.
Which got us to thinking: What if we built a superteam with one player from each decade for every position?
This involved choosing one representative for all nine offensive positions, including designated hitter. Rather than one or the other, we also sought one right-handed starting pitcher and one left-handed starting pitcher. And to round things out, a closer.
Ideally, our choices would have been guided strictly by players' production in any given decade. But because of slim pickings at some positions and overlapping greatness at others, we had to get creative.
In any case, let's take it away.
Catcher: Johnny Bench in the 1970s
Key Stats: 1,435 G, 6,006 PA, .267 AVG, .349 OBP, .491 SLG, 132 OPS+, 290 HR, 56 SB
By the time the 1970s began, Johnny Bench had already been a Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star and Gold Glover for the Cincinnati Reds. Even still, his best was yet to come.
Bench greeted the '70s by winning the National League MVP on the strength of 45 home runs. That broke Roy Campanella's record for homers by a catcher, and it still stands 50 years later.
He reached the 40-homer plateau again and won his second MVP two years later. And while he slowed down after that, he was still an annual All-Star and four-time Gold Glover between 1973 and 1979.
In the meantime, Bench was also a standout postseason performer during the '70s. He homered in all but one of the 10 playoff series in which he played, and he was named the MVP for the second of Cincinnati's back-to-back World Series triumphs in 1975 and 1976.
In all, Bench was pretty much a no-brainer for the best decade ever by a catcher.
Honorable Mention: Yogi Berra in the 1950s
First Baseman: Lou Gehrig in the 1930s
Key Stats: 1,397 G, 6,340 PA, .343 AVG, .453 OBP, .638 SLG, 181 OPS+, 347 HR, 72 SB
Lou Gehrig had already done plenty with the New York Yankees before the 1930s, including winning the American League MVP for 1927.
For that matter, he never had another season as outright great as his '27 campaign. The lesson there is that it's hard to improve on numbers such as a .373 average, 446 total bases and 173 runs batted in.
However, Gehrig was remarkably consistent as a hitter for the first eight years of the 1930s. His batting average never went lower than .329, while his OPS remained safely above the 1.000 plateau. He also averaged 40 home runs per season, with peaks of 49 in 1934 and 1936.
All the while, Gehrig also added to one of the greatest postseason resumes of all time. He led the Yankees to victory in the 1932, 1936, 1937 and 1938 World Series, across which he hit .347 with six homers.
Tragically, Gehrig's ALS ended his career in 1939, and he died in 1941. He is nonetheless baseball's all-time greatest first baseman, and the '30s were his masterpiece.
Honorable Mention: Albert Pujols in the 2000s
Second Baseman: Nap Lajoie in the 1900s
Key Stats: 1,224 G, 5,234 PA, .346 AVG, .388 OBP, .487 SLG, 164 OPS+, 47 HR, 202 SB
This is where things begin to get difficult.
By WAR, either the 1920s version of Rogers Hornsby (93.5) or the the 1910s version of Eddie Collins (73.5) would have been better picks for our roster's second baseman. Heck, Nap Lajoie even played second fiddle to shortstop Honus Wagner during the 1900s.
But if nothing else, Lajoie can lay claim to being the first great star of the American League.
He had already made a name for himself with the National League's Philadelphia Phillies between 1896 and 1900. He then jumped ship to the AL's Philadelphia Athletics for the 1901 season and promptly went off for a league-high 14 home runs and a staggering .426 average. The latter still stands as a modern record.
In 1902, Lajoie went to a Cleveland club that was then called the Bronchos, but it changed its name to the Naps in his honor. He and the name stuck around through 1914. More than 100 years later, Lajoie is still the organization's all-time WAR leader.
Honorable Mention: Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s
Third Baseman: Mike Schmidt in the 1980s
Key Stats: 1,320 G, 5,556 PA, .277 AVG, .385 OBP, .540 SLG, 153 OPS+, 313 HR, 57 SB
But since A-Rod played at third for only six of those seasons, we instead found ourselves weighing the two great third basemen of the 1980s: Mike Schmidt and Wade Boggs.
Despite that, Schmidt's 153 OPS+ actually tops the 150 mark that Boggs put up throughout the '80s. That points to the Phillies star's gigantic advantage in the power department, as he blasted 249 more homers than Boggs during the decade.
Plus, it never hurts to be a six-time Gold Glover who wins three MVPs for the regular season and another for a World Series victory in 1980.
Honorable Mention: Wade Boggs in the 1980s
Shortstop: Ernie Banks in the 1950s
Key Stats: 922 G, 3,955 PA, .295 AVG, .355 OBP, .558 SLG, 139 OPS+, 228 HR, 35 SB
Between Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider, the 1950s primarily revolved around center fielders who thrilled and delighted huge crowds in New York.
And yet, we'll argue that none of the three revolutionized center field like Ernie Banks did with the shortstop position in the latter half of the decade.
Before he came along, Boston Braves star Vern Stephens had already set records for home runs by a shortstop in 1948 and 1949. Banks took it from there, becoming the first shortstop to cross the 40-homer threshold with 44 blasts in 1955.
The Chicago Cubs star later mashed 47 homers in 1958 and 45 in 1959, winning the National League MVP both seasons. He ultimately trailed only Mays and Mantle in WAR between '55 and '59, yet he hit more home runs than them or anyone else in that span.
By the time he called it a career in 1971, Banks had hit nearly 100 more homers as a shortstop than anyone who had ever come before.
Honorable Mention: Honus Wagner in the 1900s
Left Fielder: Ted Williams in the 1940s
Key Stats: 1,035 G, 4,671 PA, .356 AVG, .496 OBP, .647 SLG, 200 OPS+, 234 HR, 14 SB
But hey, it's not Ted Williams' fault that World War II cost him three prime seasons during the 1940s.
In the seven seasons that Williams did play for the Boston Red Sox between 1940 and 1949, his average never slipped below .342, and his OPS only went as far down as 1.036. His pinnacle was when he hit .406/.553/.735 with 37 home runs in 1941, leading the AL in each of those categories.
Frankly, Williams should have won the American League MVP over Joe DiMaggio that season. Thankfully, he eventually got his in 1946 and 1949, the second of which he won in part thanks to a career-high 43 home runs.
Though Williams didn't really slow down in the 1950s and ended his career with a remarkable age-41 season in 1960, the 1940s were the decade that cemented him as the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Honorable Mention: Barry Bonds in the 1990s
Center Fielder: Willie Mays in the 1960s
Key Stats: 1,498 G, 6,213 PA, .300 AVG, .377 OBP, .559 SLG, 159 OPS+, 350 HR, 126 SB
By the end of the 1960s, Willie Mays wasn't really Willie Mays anymore. He was in his late 30s and was mired in a decline that would last until the end of his career in 1973.
However, the first half of the decade was a different story.
Between 1960 and 1966, Mays was a nigh-unstoppable force who slashed .307/.384/.592 with an average of 42 home runs and 10.1 WAR per season. He won only one MVP in that span, but he was an annual Gold Glover and All-Star.
Unfortunately, the lone World Series that Mays and the San Francisco Giants played in during those years didn't go well. Mays hit only .250 during the 1962 Fall Classic and was left stranded on second base when Willie McCovey's ninth-inning lineout clinched a 1-0 victory for the Yankees in Game 7.
All the same, anyone who caught a glimpse of Mays between '60 and '66 saw arguably baseball's greatest living player at his very best.
Honorable Mention: Ty Cobb in the 1910s
Right Fielder: Babe Ruth in the 1920s
Key Stats: 1,399 G, 6,226 PA, .355 AVG, .488 OBP, .740 SLG, 216 OPS+, 467 HR, 88 SB
WAR: 102.3 WAR
That Babe Ruth could reach that number in a single decade is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Ruth began the 1920s with a season that more or less broke baseball. In 1920—his first season with the Yankees—his 54 home runs broke his own single-season record by 25 and were also more than any other American League team.
The rest of the league got the gist and steadily caught up to Ruth's slugging prowess. Yet he still led the majors in home runs in all but two seasons during the '20s, and his 60 blasts in 1927 stood as the top single-season mark for more than three decades.
Moreover, Ruth didn't ease up in October during the '20s. He played in 32 World Series games, wherein he hit .350 with 13 homers.
Honorable Mention: Hank Aaron in the 1960s
Designated Hitter: Edgar Martinez in the 1990s
Key Stats: 1,295 G, 5,589 PA, .322 AVG, .430 OBP, .532 SLG, 154 OPS+, 196 HR, 38 SB
Love it or hate it, the designated hitter is indeed a position. And nobody has ever done it better than the one and only DH enshrined in the Hall of Fame: Edgar Martinez.
To be fair, Martinez didn't become a full-time DH until the Seattle Mariners gave up on him as a third baseman in 1995. Yet his transition to DH unlocked the full potential of his bat.
Between 1995 and 1999, he slashed .334/.455/.579 with an average of 27 home runs per season. Before '95, he had never even hit 20 homers in a single year.
Martinez was also clutch in those years, tallying a .977 OPS in high-leverage situations. That isn't even counting his extraordinary performance in the '95 American League Division Series, in which he toppled the Yankees with two homers and seven RBI in Game 4 and a walk-off double in Game 5.
To his credit, David Ortiz at least deserves a shout-out here. Between all he did for the Red Sox between 2003 and 2016, he should be a lock as the next DH in Cooperstown.
Honorable Mention: David Ortiz in the 2000s
Right-Handed Starter: Walter Johnson in the 1910s
Key Stats: 454 G, 3,427.2 IP, 2,219 K, 661 BB, 1.59 ERA, 183 ERA+
The club for 100-WAR pitchers is even more exclusive than the one for hitters. It's a mark that only nine hurlers have reached throughout baseball history.
Atop that list is Cy Young, yet arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history is the man directly below him: Walter Johnson.
Johnson was only 19 when he first joined the Washington Senators in 1907. By 1910, he was ready to embark on a 10-year run in which he would post an ERA under 2.00 in all but one season. He also allowed zero home runs in both 1916 and 1919.
Granted, this was well before integration in 1947 and also smack in the middle of the ultra-low-scoring environment known as the "dead-ball era." Relatively speaking, pitching was easy during the 1910s.
Honorable Mention: Cy Young in the 1900s
Left-Handed Starter: Clayton Kershaw in the 2010s
Key Stats: 294 G, 1,996 IP, 2,179 K, 434 BB, 2.31 ERA, 164 ERA+
In theory, this spot should belong to somebody like Lefty Grove or Randy Johnson. But more so than right-handers, left-handers have had a tough time stringing together truly spectacular decades.
So, let's take this moment to appreciate the decade that Clayton Kershaw just had.
To be sure, it didn't end particularly well. The Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw fell short of 30 starts and 200 innings each year between 2016 and 2019, during which his results also fluctuated. There's also little point in ignoring the overall disappointment of his postseason track record.
Even still, Kershaw was the best pitcher of the 2010s by both WAR and ERA+. He surely peaked between 2011 and 2015, when he had a 2.11 ERA over an average of 226 innings per season. He won an MVP in 2014, and there's a good argument that his three Cy Young Awards should have been five.
Honorable Mention: Lefty Grove in the 1930s
Closer: Mariano Rivera in the 2000s
Key Stats: 651 G, 713.1 IP, 669 K, 137 BB, 2.08 ERA, 217 ERA+
From Barry Bonds to Albert Pujols to Alex Rodriguez, several history-making stars littered the 2000s.
All the while, Mariano Rivera was digging in as the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history.
Rivera debuted with the Yankees in 1995 and was already a three-time World Series champion when the 2000s began. He promptly won a fourth ring in 2000, and he rounded out the decade with his fifth in 2009.
Altogether, Rivera notched 397 of his record 652 saves between 2000 and 2009. He saved another 26 in the postseason, throughout which he had an 0.94 ERA.
Based on his 217 ERA+, Rivera during the 2000s was basically a one-inning version of Pedro Martinez (213) between 1997 and 2003. And he did it all with just his cut fastball, which is perhaps the single most nasty pitch ever thrown by any pitcher.
That's how you gain unanimous entry into the Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention: Dan Quisenberry in the 1980s
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.