Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Greatest Ever: Chicago Cubs

Sorry I've been away from the blog for a few days.

But I'm back now and it's time to renew my ongoing feature about the greatest position player and pitcher for each franchise. In the past, I've covered the Pirates, Cardinals, Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Boston Braves, Philadelphia A's, and Oakland A's.

Today, I'll take on everybody's favorite cursed team, the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are one of the oldest teams in baseball, having operated continuously since the National League's founding in 1876. In my feature, I'm focusing on post 1900 players because that's generally considered the dividing line between old baseball and the modern game. (It would take a whole separate post to explain that further.)

Anyway, here goes.


Contenders: Mordecai Brown, Ferguson Jenkins, Charley Root.

I was surprised to discover that Root is the Cubs' all-time leader in victories. He's most famous for giving up Babe Ruth's called shot home run in the 1932 World Series, but his career goes way beyond that moment. He was a solid pitcher for the Cubs from 1926 to 1937, usually good for about 15-20 victories per year during an era when the best pitchers were winning 20-25 per year. With modern relief pitching and 5-man rotation, I'd say it's the equivalent of winning 10-15 games today. Good but not great.

Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown* was one of the Cubs' pitching aces who led the team during their dynasty period of 1906 through 1908. He won 20+ games six years in a row (1906-1911), usually with excellent ERAs. His best year was 1908, when he won 29 games for the pennant-winning Cubs, including, by my calculations, four in the last nine days of the season. He finished his career with 188 victories as a Cub, 239 overall.

*Why "Three-Finger"? Glad you asked. Seems he lost his forefinger in a corn-grinder accident at the age of 7. He attributed his wicked curveball to the unnatural break caused by the mangled hand.

Ferguson Jenkins pitched 10 seasons with the Cubs (19 overall) and ranks fifth on the Cubs' all-time list with 163 wins. He won 20+ games six years in a row (sound familiar?) for teams that were good but not great. His ERA+ stat (which compares his ERAs to the league-average ERAs) are in the mid-100s, which means he was substantially better than the league. Jenkins was a great pitcher in a tough era.

The winner: It is a very close call between Brown and Jenkins, but I'm going to go with Brown for two reasons. First, he played on pennant-winners -- three of them -- and he was a key performer in each victory. Second, he was much better relative to his league than Jenkins was (based on the ERA+ scores; check out their pages at baseball-reference.com). If Jenkins had played with the Cubs a few more years and compiled better counting stats, then maybe he would claim the title, but I'm going to stick with Brown.


Contenders: Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa (apologies to Cap Anson, who played in the 1800s)

Known for his sunny demeanor, Banks won two MVP awards as a shortstop, becoming the first MVP winner to play for a second-division team. He was a devastating offensive force in his younger days, but after injuring his knees, he became a slow, immobile first baseman. In fact, he logged more time at first base than at shortstop over the course of his career. From 1962 on, he was just an average first baseman with good but not great power.

Ryne Sandberg inherited the title of baseball's best second baseman from Joe Morgan in 1984 and kept it for almost a decade, when Roberto Alomar took over. Sandberg won the '84 MVP award and later became the first second baseman since Rogers Hornsby to lead the league in home runs. He also won nine Gold Glove awards. I have to acknowledge, however, that Sandberg's offensive totals were much helped by his home park, Wrigley Field. His OPS+ scores aren't that great.

Sammy Sosa is the only player to have three 60-home run seasons, yet in none of those years did he lead the league in that category. Amazing. (He did lead the league with 50 in 2000 and 49 in 2002.) At his peak from 1998 to 2002, he was practically unstoppable. He seems to be under a cloud of suspicion for using performance-enhancing drugs, but he never failed a drug test and he was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report. His career with the Cubs ended badly, but it shouldn't overshadow his contributions to the club.

The Winner: This is a tough one. Each player has his pros and cons, and each of them was helped to some degree by playing in Wrigley. If Banks had played shortstop his whole career, he would easily be number one. If Sosa's best years hadn't come at the height of the steroid era, then he would easily be number one.

I'm going to go with Banks, though. It comes down to this: If I were starting a team and could choose one of these players at their peak, I would choose the young Banks at shortstop hitting 47 home runs instead of the young Sosa in right field hitting 66.

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