Thursday, March 5, 2009

Greatest Ever: Chicago White Sox

Last season, I wrote a bunch of posts about the greatest-ever pitchers and position players for each franchise. Check the archives to find the posts. Needless to say, I didn't get through all the teams, so now that spring training has begun, I'm starting up again. Today, we'll take on the Chicago White Sox.

The White Sox are interesting. They've been around over 100 years, all in the same city, yet they haven't had a ton of great players. Not like the Giants or Yankees or Dodgers or Cardinals. So it makes choosing their best players a fun exercise. Let's begin.


Contenders: Ted Lyons, Red Faber, Ed Walsh

Identifying the top three pitchers in White Sox history turned out to be pretty simple: Lyons, Faber, and Walsh are the three leaders in wins for the Sox, and they're all in the Hall of Fame. They're all old-timers, though, and I hate to focus exclusively on old-timers for these rankings because it implies that modern players aren't as good as the old folks. But in the case of the White Sox, there simply aren't other options.

Walsh was the best pitcher in baseball for a couple of years, and he has the lowest career ERA of any pitcher in baseball history (with long careers) at 1.81. Of course, he pitched in the dead-ball era, when nobody hit home runs, and he pitched in the comparatively weaker league at the time. He won 40 games once and 24+ three other times, but that's about the extent of his contributions to the Sox. He only pitched seven effective years and was basically finished at 31.

Faber pitched 20 years, all with the Sox, and finished with 254 victories and a 3.15 ERA. More than half his career occurred during the lively ball era, so he had a tougher time than Walsh. He won 20+ games four times, and at least 12 in eleven seasons. He was a solid but unspectacular pitcher, and his Hall of Fame induction is a little generous. There are a lot of pitchers not in the Hall who were much better (including Bert Blyleven).

Lyons was another solid but unspectacular pitcher whose career is filled with seasons like 15-8, 14-7, 12-10, but he pitched until he was 45, so his career numbers look great. He never struck out more than 100 batters in a season (!), and his ERAs were barely above average. Again, his HOF induction is strange.

The winner: I'm going to go with Walsh for this one. His career was much shorter than the other guys, but his peak was much higher, and he was clearly one of the 2 or 3 best pitchers in baseball for several seasons.

Player: Eddie Collins, Nellie Fox, Frank Thomas*

I really want to pick Frank Thomas for this one. He was the most devastating offensive force in baseball (except for Barry Bonds) throughout the 1990s. He hit home runs, got on base, drove in buckets of runs, won two MVP awards, and won a few division titles. He finished his White Sox career with franchise records in both doubles (447) and home runs (448), the latter more than 200 more than the number 2 guy (Paul Konerko).

Yet I have to pick Eddie Collins for this honor. Whereas Thomas is one of the top 10 first basemen of all time, Collins is one of the top 2 or 3 second basemen, and possibly one of the top 15 players of all time. Collins's weapons were speed and slap hitting, and he, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker were the three top offensive players of the 1910s; Collins was still pretty damn good in the 1920s when the lively ball hit.

Nellie Fox is a distant third to Thomas and Collins, but that's no knock on Fox. He was a great second baseman for a long time, and, as Bill James has pointed out, he's the only player who won an MVP award during Mickey Mantle's peak years who actually deserved it over Mantle.

The winner: Collins

*Why not Joe Jackson? His career is too short and he played only five years with the White Sox. He also played for the Indians and, briefly, the A's.