Ranking the 10 Greatest Modern-Era MLB Players Who Never Won a World Series

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IFebruary 3, 2021

Ranking the 10 Greatest Modern-Era MLB Players Who Never Won a World Series

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Individual brilliance does not always result in team success: Just ask Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout. Even in just the last 30-plus years, the list of MLB greats who have failed to win a World Series is expansive.

    We've ranked the 10 best from the modern era, defining "modern" as those players whose primes occurred in the 1990s or after. 

    Multiple factors went into the ranking, including career WAR, accolades, playoff performance and general impact on the game. 

    Let's get to it.

Honorable Mentions

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    TED S. WARREN/Associated Press

    The following players just missed the cut:

    • Andruw Jones
    • Kenny Lofton
    • Edgar Martinez
    • Roy Halladay
    • Mike Piazza
    • Craig Biggio
    • Vladimir Guerrero
    • Ichiro Suzuki

Frank Thomas*

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    MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/Associated Press

    Frank Thomas technically earned a ring with the Chicago White Sox in 2005. However, he played just 34 games before a foot fracture ended his season. He did not play in the playoffs.

    But make no mistake: Frank Thomas was one of the best right-handed power hitters ever and would slot fourth on this list sans that technicality.

    The only right-handed-hitting first basemen with a higher wRC+ than Thomas are Jimmie Foxx, Mark McGwire and Dick Allen, one of the more notable Hall of Fame snubs.

    If you expand the list, those three guys plus Rogers Hornsby and Willie Mays are the only right-handed hitters with a higher wRC+ than Thomas in MLB history—with one exception, but he's in the prime of his career, and we'll get there soon. 

    The Big Hurt was a hitting machine. He finished with a .301 average and 521 homers. The only guys to hit at least .300 and club 521 or more homers are Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mays, Manny Ramirez, Foxx, Ted Williams and Thomas. That is elite company. 

    Thomas won back-to-back AL MVP Awards with the White Sox in 1993 and 1994. Much like Jeff Bagwell in the NL, Thomas' strike-shortened 1994 season was ridiculous. He hit .353 and walked a whopping 109 times in 113 games, leading the majors in OBP (.487) and OPS (1.217) while hitting 38 homers and leading baseball in runs scored (106).

    He did not have many opportunities to shine in October, though. He hit .353 with a 1.122 OPS in the 1993 ALCS, but the White Sox lost to the eventual champion Toronto Blue Jays. Thomas returned to the ALCS with the Oakland Athletics in 2006, but he went hitless in a four-game sweep.

    Thomas deserved more postseason success. He carried a mostly dormant White Sox franchise for years. But even when Chicago won the World Series in 2005, it was as if Thomas was not part of the team.

    He had a contentious split with the White Sox the following winter, signing with the A's and later hitting his 500th homer as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. 

    Still, Thomas is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—players in White Sox history.

10. Zack Greinke

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Is Zack Greinke the most undervalued pitcher of this past decade?

    For all the talk of sheer dominance from Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, Greinke sometimes feels like a bit of an afterthought.

    At 37, he is aging quite well. He had a 4.03 ERA in 12 starts in 2020, but his 2.80 FIP was the fourth-lowest of his career. 

    Greinke is second on the active list for pitching Baseball Reference WAR (bWAR) and 38th on the all-time list. He is ahead of Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Bob Feller and John Smoltz, among others.

    The Orlando, Florida, native won the AL Cy Young with the Kansas City Royals in 2009, going 16-8 with an MLB-best 2.16 ERA while also leading the majors with a 2.33 FIP and 205 ERA+. Greinke had four more top-10 Cy Young finishes in the 2010s and arguably should have won the NL Cy Young in 2015. He went 19-3 that year, leading baseball in ERA (1.66), ERA+ (222) and WHIP (0.84) but lost out to then-Chicago Cubs starter Jake Arrieta.

    Aside from being one of the craftiest pitchers in baseball, Greinke is one of the best in terms of fielding his position. He has won six Gold Glove Awards, and ranks second only to Mark Buehrle in defensive runs saved (DRS) since the stat became available in 2003.

    He even has a pair of Silver Slugger Awards. The only thing missing is a World Series ring. Greinke might also have that were he not the victim of a questionable early pull by Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series.

9. Tony Gwynn

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    LENNY iGNELZI/Associated Press

    San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn would be a breath of fresh air in today's era, which prioritizes launch angle and exit velocity.

    Gwynn was one of the finest pure hitters ever, finishing with a .338 batting average and eight batting titles. He sprayed the ball to all fields and had gap-to-gap doubles power.

    The 15-time All-Star had five seasons with 200 or more hits. He was a menace on the bases early in his career, with four seasons of 30 or more stolen bases. But the most impressive measure of Gwynn's hitting ability was his command of the strike zone.

    He struck out just 434 times in his career. He had fewer than 20 punchouts in six straight seasons from 1991 to 1996. He won three batting titles during that stretch, including the strike-shortened 1994 season when he flirted with a .400 average.

    Unfortunately, Gwynn never got many opportunities to showcase his hitting prowess on the grandest of stages. He played in two Fall Classics, but the Padres won just one game between those two series. Gwynn was hardly to blame, however. Mr. Padre hit .500 with a homer in a four-game sweep at the hands of the dynastic New York Yankees in 1998.

    The only reason Gwynn is not higher on this list is because three of his best seasons came in the 1980s. Still, his hitting genius deserves a place in the top 10.

8. Jim Thome

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It would be easy to point to Jim Thome's home run total as the reason for his inclusion in these rankings. After all, the left-handed slugger sits eighth all-time in round-trippers.

    But Thome was much more than a guy who hit homers.

    Sure, the five-time All-Star struck out a lot. In fact, Thome is second all-time in strikeouts. However, he also walked a lot, ranking seventh all-time in bases on balls. Thome led the AL in walks on three occasions and had nine seasons with 100 or more walks.

    In many ways, Thome is one of the standard-bearers for the three true outcomes. This does not mean he lacked a hit tool, however. Thome racked up 2,328 hits in 22 seasons, finishing with a .276 batting average.

    Still, the power was the star of the show. He clubbed 30 or more homers in nine consecutive seasons from 1996 to 2004, including four straight seasons of 40 or more dingers from 2001 to 2004.

    More notably, Thome had massive playoff performances. He hit a pair of homers and drove in five runs during his age-24 season in the 1995 ALCS. Thome hit two homers and had a .965 OPS in a crushing seven-game loss to the Florida Marlins in the 1997 World Series. That was the final opportunity Thome got at a World Series, but he mashed 10 homers and had 20 RBI in his next 15 playoff games in 1998 and 1999.

7. Larry Walker

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    DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/Associated Press

    Larry Walker was finally elected to the Hall of Fame in 2020. Before you scream "Coors Effect," consider these numbers.

    Yes, Walker dominated in Colorado. He had a 1.172 OPS at Coors Field. But he also had an .865 OPS on the road. That's hardly pedestrian.

    Prior to the Canadian's induction to the Hall, Jayson Stark of The Athletic also used Baseball Reference's Stat Neutralizer to gauge how Walker would perform in a neutral National League park in 2019. The final career slash line was .305/.390/.547, with 14 fewer hits and 11 fewer homers. So, no, it wasn't just Coors.

    Walker's 1997 MVP season was one for the ages. He led the NL with 49 homers, also driving in 130 runs and stealing 33 bases. His slugging (.720) and OPS (1.172) led baseball, as did his 409 total bases. 

    Not to be outdone in the outfield, Walker won seven Gold Glove Awards. He also ranks seventh among right fielders in total zone runs

    Although Walker's career will always carry some "What if?" because of injury, he still racked up 72.7 bWAR in 1,988 games played. That places him in the top 60 all-time among hitters. 

    We should also make note of Walker's absurd 2004 postseason. He clubbed six homers and drove in 11 runs that October, consistently proving himself the most dangerous hitter in the St. Louis Cardinals lineup. Although the Redbirds were swept by the Red Sox in the World Series, Walker slashed .357/.438/.929 with a pair of homers.

6. Adrian Beltre

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Adrian Beltre's late-career renaissance not only earns him a place on this list, but it also all but guarantees him a spot in Cooperstown. 

    Beltre had always shown signs of being a slugging type in his early days with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he came out of nowhere to finish second in the NL MVP voting in 2004, leading the majors with 48 homers. It looked like a true breakout season in what was sure to be a brilliant career.

    Only, Beltre waited until his 30s to get down to business. He ranked fifth among all players in FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) from 2010 to 2016, making four All-Star teams and leading baseball in hits (199) in 2013. Beltre hit 30 or more homers in his first three years with the Texas Rangers, hitting .304 with a 128 OPS+ over eight seasons in Texas.

    How important to his legacy was Beltre's late run? Well, he joined the 3,000-hit club after averaging 160 hits per year in Texas. He also found more playoff success, as the Rangers came within a strike of winning the World Series in 2011. Beltre hit .300 with a pair of homers in that series, including one in the famous Game 6.

    Beltre ranks 27th all-time in bWAR among hitters, ahead of other legendary third basemen Chipper Jones and George Brett. He also ranks first all-time in defensive runs saved since the 2003 inception of that metric, and he is a two-time Platinum Glove winner.

    Beltre might not have the eye-popping numbers of some of his peers on his list. But he was a tremendous player nonetheless.

5. Jeff Bagwell

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    DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press

    Jeff Bagwell is one of the most underrated stars in MLB history.

    Bags hit .297 with a .948 OPS during his career. He ranks 34th all-time in OPS+ and 30th all-time wRC+(28th not including young, current stars Aaron Judge and Juan Soto). 

    Bagwell's 80.2 fWAR ranks ahead of guys like Thome, Thomas and Eddie Murray, to name a few. Then there’s this: Bagwell ranked third in fWAR in the 1990s behind only Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds.

    The numbers only tell part of the story. Bagwell won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1991. A few years later, he assembled one of the most impressive seasons in MLB history. 

    Bagwell won the 1994 NL MVP Award, slashing an absurd .368/.451/.750 with 39 homers, 116 RBI and 104 runs scored. He also stole 15 bases and led the majors with a 213 OPS+. Of course, that was the strike-shortened season. Stretch Bagwell's numbers out over a full 162, and you get 57 homers, 170 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Those are ridiculous totals.

    Like Thome, Bagwell also excelled at working counts and drawing walks. He had at least 100 or more bases on balls in seven straight seasons from 1996 to 2002. Bagwell ranks just behind the late Hank Aaron on the all-time walks list. 

    Indeed, Bagwell was renowned for his total hitting prowess. But he was tremendously underrated in his ability to steal bases. He had 40-30 seasons in 1997 and 1999, and was one of only two first basemen with 150 or more stolen bases during the '90s. Andres Galarraga, the next-closest on that list, had just 82 steals.

    The Astros made the playoffs six times in his 15 seasons, but by the time Houston reached the World Series in 2005, Bagwell was in his age-37 season and at the end of his career.

4. Mike Mussina

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Mike Mussina is the best modern pitcher without a ring. No, seriously. 

    He ranks 23rd all-time in pitching bWAR. But accounting for our working definition of "modern," he is fifth on that list. The guys ahead of him are Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. That's pretty good company.

    Mussina finished in the top five or better in the AL Cy Young Award voting six times. His win-loss percentages with the Baltimore Orioles (.645) and New York Yankees (.631) were practically identical. He won 17 games or more eight times and had his first 20-win season in 2008 at age 39. 

    He also deserved to win the 2001 AL Cy Young. In his first year with the Yankees, Mussina went 17-11 with a 3.15 ERA. He tossed four complete games and three shutouts, and led the AL with a 2.92 FIP.

    Mussina's 7.1 bWAR easily paced all Cy contenders that season. Yet he somehow finished fifth in the voting, despite also having the best ERA+ among the top six vote-getters.

    Mussina was also typically excellent in October but again seemed to get the short end of the stick. 

    The Williamsport, Pennsylvania, native gave up just four hits and one run in 15.0 innings in the Orioles' 1997 ALCS showdown with Cleveland, including going eight innings and allowing one hit in a do-or-die Game 6. The O's lost in extra innings.

    Mussina's first World Series start in 2001 did not go well at all (3 IP, 3 ER). But he tossed eight innings of two-run ball in Game 5 to bring the Yankees within a game of winning their fourth straight Fall Classic. The Arizona Diamondbacks won each of the next two games. 

    Mussina then outdueled Josh Beckett in Game 3 of the 2003 World Series, allowing one run across seven innings. But it would be his only start, as the Marlins won in six games.

    No, Moose did not win 300 games or post over 3,000 strikeouts. But he pitched so well for so long that the BBWAA took him for granted until his induction to the Hall in 2019.

3. Mike Trout

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Yes, Mike Trout is still active. Yes, he could still win a World Series. And yes, he deserves to be No. 3 on this list.

    The Los Angeles Angels center fielder is the best player in baseball. His 74.6 career bWAR already ranks 81st all-time, ahead of guys like Thomas, Thome and Reggie Jackson, to name a few. In 2019, Trout became just the 11th player in MLB history to win at least three MVP Awards. His next MVP will place him second all-time on that list behind Barry Bonds.

    But the wildest part about all this is Trout has yet to turn 30 years old.

    The New Jersey native still has so much of his career ahead of him and is producing at a prolific rate. Trout's 172 wRC+ ranks sixth all-time. His 176 OPS+ is fifth all-time. Trout is the fastest to reach 300 homers and 200 stolen bases in his career, accomplishing the feat in 60 fewer games than Willie Mays. Need we go on?

    Ideally, Trout will have ample opportunity to win a ring. But the reality is the Angels have made the playoffs just once during his decade of brilliance. More frustratingly, L.A. does not appear to be much closer to a playoff berth than in past seasons.

    Granted, Trout is signed through 2030. Still, baseball fans can only hope one of the greatest individual players in the history of the game will not have his legacy tarnished by a lack of team success.

2. Ken Griffey Jr.

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    Bill Chan/Associated Press

    Name a bigger trendsetter than Ken Griffey Jr. in terms of making baseball cool. You can't. 

    He had an unparalleled aura in terms of his marketability and charisma during the 1990s. He wore his hat backward and grinned from ear to ear. He starred in tons of commercials and became the poster boy for multiple baseball video games. This is to say nothing of the popularity of the Air Griffey Max sneakers.

    Of course, Griffey would not have been such a big star were it not for his awe-inspiring talent.

    The 1987 No. 1 overall pick was a five-tool standout who, during his prime years with the Seattle Mariners, was nearly unparalleled in terms of what he could do on the diamond.

    Griffey hit 56 homers during his 1997 MVP season. Then he did it again the following year. It was part of a run in which The Kid hit 40 or more homers in five straight seasons. He won all 10 Gold Glove Awards in center field during the '90s and had the second-most homers and RBI in the decade, trailing Mark McGwire and Albert Belle, respectively.

    For quite a while, it looked as though Griffey was trending toward becoming the greatest player in baseball history. But his luck began to change when he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds at the beginning of the new millennium.

    Griffey's first season in Cincy brought about the usual brilliance. He hit 40 homers and had a .942 OPS. However, Junior played just 203 games in the next three years combined. Griffey had a slight resurgence in his mid-30s, even making the All-Star team in 2007. But there will always be questions as to what might have been.

    Still, Griffey provided indelible moments. That includes the 1995 ALDS against the New York Yankees, when he clubbed five homers and famously sprinted from first to home on Edgar Martinez's walk-off double in Game 5.

    Want more evidence of Griffey's lasting impact? He was the first to suggest players wear No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. Additionally, Major League Baseball announced Friday he would serve as a senior adviser to the commissioner "with an emphasis on baseball operations, youth development and improving diversity at all levels of the game." 

    The Kid was the true precursor to the "let the kids play" movement. Baseball will turn to him to make baseball fun again.

1. Barry Bonds

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    ERIC RISBERG/Associated Press

    This is by no means a campaign to get Barry Bonds into the Hall of Fame. His candidacy will always be as polarizing as his personality.

    But the reality is Bonds was a Hall of Famer well before his steroid use. In fact, his eventual home run chase detracted from the supremely gifted all-around talent Bonds was during the 1990s.

    Let's look at Bonds' numbers from 1990 through 1998, the year McGwire and Sammy Sosa embarked on their historic home run race. During that nine-year stretch, Bonds amassed 78.0 fWAR. The next-closest star was Griffey with...61.1 fWAR. Thomas next at 51.7.

    Obviously, the gap between Bonds and the rest was enormous. He led baseball with a 173 wRC+ in those nine years and ranked first in runs scored and RBI. He also ranked third in homers and sixth in stolen bases.

    The seven-time MVP won his first three MVPs from 1990 to 1993. Then he had a 40-40 season in 1996. Oh, Bonds also won eight Gold Glove Awards from 1990 to 1998.

    Still, we have no choice but to address the 2000s. The numbers are unfathomable. Set aside the 73-homer season in 2001 for a second. Bonds walked 232 (!) times in 2004, including 120 (!) intentional walks. That was the same season, at age 39, he set career highs in OBP (.609) and OPS (1.422) in the last of four straight MVP campaigns. Even when he got into his 40s, opposing pitchers still refused to pitch to Bonds.

    The 762 home runs will always garner the most attention. But Bonds also holds the record for bases on balls (2,558) and intentional walks (688). Nobody wanted any part of this man, probably because he had unbelievably quick hands on the inner half and could also drive the ball to all fields. 

    Please just watch former Los Angeles Dodgers closer and NL Cy Young winner Eric Gagne explain one of the greatest at-bats in MLB history from 2004. Bonds lays off a ridiculous backdoor 0-2 breaking ball and then hits a 1-2 fastball (at 101 mph) miles down the right field line, just foul. Then Bonds turns around a 99 mph fastball on 2-2 and deposits it into the center field bleachers. 

    That at-bat alone says so much about Bonds. But we can't forget about his 2002 postseason. Bonds hit eight homers, including four during a World Series in which he hit .471 in a seven-game loss to the Los Angeles Angels. His Game 2 shot prompted Angels legend Tim Salmon to appear to call it the furthest ball he had ever seen hit. 

    It doesn't matter which way the cookie crumbles. Bonds is one of the best players to ever grace a baseball field, regardless of performance-enhancing drugs.

                    

    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference or FanGraphs, unless otherwise mentioned.

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