On Greatness and Carl Crawford

This is not terribly Rays related, but I swear I get there in the end.  My train of thought is a bit odd here, so just follow me if you will (I promise it's going somewhere).   I love baseball history and since we're so baseball-deprived right now, I can't resist taking a bit of a spin through time.

Who remembers the 1990s?  I got a bit nostalgic the other day while looking through my baseball card collection (...why do I admit these things? Yes, I'm a tool) and started thinking about all the great moments from that decade.  Well, the second half of that decade; the strike was a stinker, although that happened just before I became a big baseball fan.  Maybe it's that I was still a kid at that point, but the emotions and memories from that decade seem so strong and poignant, like I just lived them yesterday.  I cherished the McGwire and Sosa homerun race, and that image of them embracing towards the end of the season is burned into my brain.  I remember my dad waking me up to watch the Yankees win the World Series in 1996, and me not being able to fall asleep again afterwards from sheer excitement.  I remember Griffey as an icon - the smiling poster-boy for baseball - and Alex Rodriguez as one of the greatest hitters ever.  It seemed like everywhere I turned, I read or saw something else about how A-Rod had a good chance to break Aaron's record and to my tween-ish self, it seemed inevitable.  Baseball was great and A-Rod was the best there was.

A decade later, things have changed a little bit on that front.  A-Rod still has a shot to end up in the 700 homerun range, but it no longer seems preordained to me.  Actually, when looking at A-Rod's statistics, I can't help but think, "Wow, A-Rod's declining."  He's no longer a consensus number one fantasy pick, and if you look at his historical WAR numbers, you realize that he's slowly slipping down from superstar level to all-star.  Just look at how he performed this past decade (using Sean Smith's historical WAR data):

WAR

2000

11

2001

8

2002

8.2

2003

7.7

2004

6.2

2005

8.4

2006

4.2

2007

9.9

2008

5.4

2009

3.9

Blame last year on his injury if you want and I admit that A-Rod will more than likely be better this year, but the point remains that the years of WAR values consistently above 7 are long over.  A-Rod is 34 this season and it's well within the realm of possibility that he's going to keep declining.  Of course, the best players in baseball history still remain great players well into their late 30s, so we'll simply have to see how A-Rod ages.  While A-Rod while undoubtedly go to Cooperstown when he retires, how fast he declines could end up determining if he goes in as one of the best of his time or one of the best of all-time.

"Greatness", though, is such a hard to define concept.

One could argue that A-Rod is already one of the best players of all-time, considering he has 580+ homeruns and ranks 21st all-time in historical WAR values for position players.  There are so many different layers of great, though.  Part of it's public perception, part of it's true talent, and part of it's an individual feel that differs from person to person.  For instance, growing up a Yankee fan, a part of me considers Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris as legendary greats because they're the names I grew up learning about.  The historical WAR totals for these players vary from legendary to merely great - Dimaggio, 83.4; Mantle, 120.2; and Maris, 39.7 - yet I know more about them than I do about such players like Eddie Collins (126.7 WAR), Stan Musial (127.9), Joe Morgan (103.5), and Eddie Matthews (98.2).  Like I said, "greatness" is far from a hard and fast category.

Now, Pujols is awesome, right?  I think we can all agree on that.  It seems to me that Pujols has stepped in during the past couple of years and usurped the unofficial "Best Player in Baseball" title away from A-Rod.  He's put up some incredible seasons recently, seems to possess legendary talents, and doesn't seem to be slowing down at all.  However, Pujols is younger than A-Rod and just turned 30 about two weeks ago, so here's where my mind went next: how does A-Rod's career compare with Pujols' career to this point?  Were both of them on a similar track up through age 30 or was one better?  And since both Pujols and A-Rod are considered legendary talents, how do their careers through age 30 compare with some of the all-time greats?  Here's what I found:

Historical WAR Totals

Pre-Age 30

Career Totals

Cobb

84.8

159.3

Ruth

81.9

172

Williams

79.7

125

Pujols

76.6

76.6*

Mays

76.3

154.7

Aaron

76.1

141.5

A-Rod

75.6

99.1*

Griffey

68.7

79.2*

Bonds

67.2

171.4

DiMaggio

62.4

83.4

Thomas

48.9

75.9

*Active Player

There's so much I could say from looking at this, I barely know where to begin.  Basically, holy cow - Pujols and A-Rod both deserve to be called legendary, top-10-in-baseball-history talents.  Their pre-age 30 seasons rank right alongside Ted Williams, Willy Mays, and Hank Aaron, with Pujols having the slight edge over A-Rod despite breaking into the league at an older age.  Who knows where they'll end up, though; you notice that there's a wide range of outcomes for these players, with them landing anywhere between 125 WAR (Ted Williams land, although he missed a year and a half off his peak due to WWII) and 170 WAR (which only Ruth and Bonds have managed to break).  Where will they end up?  Who knows?  Their most comparable players are Mays and Aaron, and they ended up in the 140-150 WAR range, which seems about right.  However, there's Griffey on this list as a reminder about how things can change; he looked destined for greatness and he still has had a great career, but 80 WAR is far short of 140 or even 125.  The players at the top of this list weren't just great young players, but they were great old players as well.

(Oh, and I included DiMaggio and Frank Thomas on the list as mere comparisons, to give you some idea of how ridiculous those numbers at the top of the list are.  We're talking incredible, earth-shattering talent here and it's easy to forget that when you don't give yourself a bit of context.)

Anyway, I've written over 1,000 words already and I still haven't connected this back to the Rays yet.  Where the heck is this going?  Well, after spending this time considering greatness, my mind, like it normally does, ended up on the Rays.  I've spent a lot of words talking about greatness and how variable it can be, so in your mind, who do you consider the greatest player in Rays history?  I'm not going to both conducting a poll because I feel like once you stop to think about it, the answer is obvious: Carl Crawford.

In his career so far, Crawford has amassed 21.3 WAR, which is certainly a far cry from the players we've been talking about, but is still certainly no small feat.  He's about 2-3 seasons away from cracking into the list of Top 500 players of all time and when you considering how many thousands of players have played professional baseball, that's a great accomplishment.  He may never be a hall of famer, but he's our talent and our star for these past eight seasons and he we should certainly appreciate that.  He was a glint of light on hopeless team after hopeless team, and he's given me more joyful memories than I can count.  Not only has he been a great player, but he's been one of my favorite players to watch.  We've been lucky to have him.

And so, the whole point of this is to remember that greatness comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  A player doesn't have to be one of the all-time greats to make it onto someone's personal list of greatest players.  Crawford may not be in the same class as Pujols or A-Rod, but I know that years from now, he'll be the main player that I'll be telling stories about when I think of the 2000-2009 Rays.  Remember that time he stole 5 bases in one game against Boston?  Or what about that catch he made in the all-star game?  This upcoming season may very well be his last on the Rays, so don't take him for granted.  If nothing else this season, take some time to appreciate the greatness of Carl Crawford.

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