MLB's best of the 21st Century
When the living members of the original All-Century Team hit the field, tears sprang to Joe Torre’s eyes. It was the night of Game 2 of the 1999 World Series and Torre was preparing to manage a huge game, but he knew what a sweet moment it was when the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were honored at Atlanta’s Turner Field. “You can’t just round those guys up and get them together,” Torre recalls. “And I still get excited about that stuff.”
Here’s hoping Torre and others who nerd out on baseball history feel the same way about what we’d like to call our All-21st Century Team (So Far). We’re picking the best the 2000s have to offer in honor of the 20th anniversary this season of the original All-Century Team.
Mike Trout (duh) is the headliner of the 30-man club. We added a designated hitter (sorry, purists) and relievers, both of which did not make the first All-Century Team. The game’s different now. We squeezed in an extra player at both first and second base because, well, have you seen Joey Votto and Chase Utley play?
Most of these guys won’t make the one that comes out in 2099, but you can bet some will. The amazing Trout seems like a lock, even 80 years out. Can’t you just see him throwing out the first pitch at age 108 (thanks, modern medicine!) when the living All-21st Century Team members are introduced at InSight Field at Red Planet Ballpark on Mars?
This was not an exact process. Nor was it easy — by MLB’s count, 5,364 men played in the majors from 2000 through 2018. We did not add a morals clause, either, so there’s no PED factor. Don’t @ us.
But it sure was fun.
You may rage against the inclusion of certain players and shake a fist at the idea another didn’t make it. And we know the time frame is a tad awkward, especially for those of you stuck on the idea the 21st Century began in 2001. But this is what both history and the calendar dealt us.
Our WAR (Wins Above Replacement) figure is from baseball-reference.com, and most stats in the bios were compiled from 2000-18. We also consulted John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, for intel on picking such a squad, though Thorn was not involved in the selections.
He did offer this sage advice, however, from his approach when he was on the nominating and voting committee for the original: “People had to remember who you were.” Even if the player in question starred in the era of lumpy gloves and cross-country train trips.
“It’s not just your performance on the field,” Thorn adds. “It’s what sticks in the memory and dream factory.”
With that in mind, here’s our All-21st Century Team (So Far).
CLAYTON KERSHAW, LHP
He made the majors at age 20 and by the next season started a 10-year streak (that’s still active) in which his highest ERA was 2.91. No wonder he’s won three Cy Young Awards and rates as the best pitcher of this so-far century. Among starters with 100-plus decisions from 2000-18, Kershaw has the best ERA-plus (159).
MAX SCHERZER, RHP
Scherzer struck out 200-plus for the seventh straight season in 2018, meaning Tom Seaver (nine) is the only hurler with more consecutive seasons at that mark. Good company. From 2013-17, Scherzer won three Cy Young Awards and finished fifth, fifth and second in the voting the other years.
ROY HALLADAY, RHP
A two-time Cy Young Award winner (2003 in the AL, 2010 in the NL), Halladay — who died in a plane crash in 2017 — also has a perfect game on his resume. Also, in 2010, he threw just the second postseason no-hitter in history, beating the Reds. His 19 shutouts are tops in our time period, and his 62.5 WAR is second behind Justin Verlander.
RANDY JOHNSON, LHP
Who will ever forget the Big Unit, a 6'10" lefty whose mullet, which flopped with every high-octane delivery, and gritty snarl may have been as intimidating as his sizzling slider. Johnson won three of his five career Cy Young Awards in our time frame while going 143–78 with a 3.34 ERA and accumulating 51.3 WAR, 10th among pitchers.
CHRIS SALE, LHP
The tall, lanky Sale is a whirling mash-up of elbows and heat when he delivers, and it’s made him one of the most effective hurlers of our era. He averages 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, tops in our timeframe, and does it with impressive precision — his 5.31 K/BB ratio is third. Sale is fifth overall in ERA-plus (144) and has finished in the top six in voting for the AL Cy Young Award seven straight seasons.
JUSTIN VERLANDER, RHP
Whatever you think of wins as a stat, Verlander has 13 of them in the postseason, and that’s fourth all-time. He leads pitchers in WAR for our time period (63.8). He notched his 200th win and 2,500th strikeout in 2018 and now has five AL strikeout crowns on his resume. He won the 2011 AL Cy Young Award and has finished second in the voting three times.
PEDRO MARTINEZ, RHP
His long hands gave his breaking stuff extra bite, and there was plenty of lightning in Martinez’s arm, too. He did a lot of good work before the turn of the century but won his third Cy Young in 2000, grabbed three ERA titles and led the AL in strikeouts twice. His ERA-plus (152) is third in our time frame, and his .691 winning percentage (112–50) is first.
JOHAN SANTANA, LHP
Santana nabbed the AL Cy Young in 2004 and ’06, is ninth in our time frame in ERA-plus (136) and was 139–78 for the Mets and Twins. He won three ERA crowns and three strikeout titles and threw the only no-hitter in Mets history.
MARIANO RIVERA, RHP
Can you name a season in which Rivera was not a very good reliever? We’re waiting. Once he turned to the bullpen full-time, Rivera was dominant and had an ERA above 2.85 exactly once (3.15 in 2007). He’s the all-time leader in ERA-plus (205) and saves (652, 523 of which came during our time frame) and might be the greatest postseason pitcher ever, thanks to a 0.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP in October/November.
BILLY WAGNER, LHP
This blazing lefty had a 2.30 ERA during our time frame, much lower than, say, Trevor Hoffman’s 3.02. From 2000 until he retired after the 2010 season, Wagner’s ERA-plus was 191. He struck out 11.1 per nine innings (802 in 650 innings pitched) and notched a 0.977 WHIP.
CRAIG KIMBREL, RHP
Here’s how good Kimbrel has been: His ERA-plus is 211, so it’s better than Rivera’s, though he’s not considered the all-time leader because he’s only banked 532.2 innings. Kimbrel’s 333 saves over our time period rank sixth, and he has struck out 14.7 batters per nine innings, basically defining the type of power arm teams crave at the back of their bullpen.
Posey has three World Series rings, the 2012 NL MVP and the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year Award in his trophy cabinet. He’s also gotten MVP votes six different times. He and Joe Mauer are tied for best among catchers with a .306 batting average. Posey is third among backstops with an .840 OPS and first with an OPS-plus of 132.
The best defensive catcher of his era, Molina owns nine Gold Gloves, including eight in a row from 2008-15. Since 2004, he’s thrown out 41 percent of runners trying to steal. Oh, and if you’re worried about offense, he might not be Joe Mauer, but he’s delivered, batting .282 (eighth among catchers in the era) with 508 extra-base hits (seventh) and a .740 OPS.
Over our time frame, Pujols accumulated 100.0 WAR, tops in the majors. He also leads in doubles (639), runs (1,773), homers (633) and RBIs (1,982). Only Ichiro Suzuki had more hits. Pujols set an NL record with 10 consecutive 100-RBI seasons before signing with the Angels. Once he gets to 2,000 RBIs, he’ll join Hank Aaron as the only players with 600 homers, 600 doubles and 2K RBIs. ’Nuff said.
We kid when we say this, but Cabrera is so good he beat out Mike Trout for the American League MVP Award. Twice. Seriously, Cabrera is one of the finest hitters the game has ever known, and in 2012 he became the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the Triple Crown. His 151 OPS-plus in our time frame is fifth best, and his 69.4 WAR is fourth.
Votto is the picture of patience, but we’re not making him wait to be recognized. His .427 OBP during our time frame is second only to Barry Bonds and 12th all-time. His OPS-plus (155) is better than that of Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. Votto won the 2010 NL MVP, and since 2000, he’s 11th in WAR (58.8).
The eight-time All-Star leads all second basemen of the era with 534 doubles, 311 home runs and 69.2 WAR. His 127 OPS-plus is tied for second, and he’s received MVP votes in eight different seasons. Only Miguel Cabrera (781) has more extra-base hits since 2007 than Cano’s 769. The new Met has five more years on his contract to add to his Cooperstown-worthy totals.
Utley’s 65.4 WAR is second among second basemen of our era and sixth overall. At his position, he recorded strong counting stats (second in homers, doubles, RBIs, third in runs) and rate stats (third in slugging and OPS, fourth in OPS-plus and fifth in OBP).
This 5'6" blur has collected three batting titles, the 2017 AL MVP Award, six All-Star selections and four seasons of 200-plus hits. All since 2011. In his first 1,000 games, Altuve had 1,272 hits, more than luminaries such as Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Pete Rose. And his 127 OPS-plus is tied for second among second basemen of the time frame.
Matinee idol, big-time pitchman and terrific ballplayer. History will show that the Yankee captain transcended baseball, no matter what you think of his defensive metrics. In our time frame, Jeter won two of his five World Series rings and led all shortstops in on-base percentage (.374), hits (2,658) and runs (1,437). He made 12 of his 14 All-Star teams, too.
Rollins’ counting stats, 2007 NL MVP trophy and defensive prowess helped him get this nod over Miguel Tejada, Troy Tulowitzki and Omar Vizquel. Rollins is second to Derek Jeter in WAR for shortstops in the era (46.3) and second in runs, hits and steals. He led shortstops in walks and doubles. He was also sixth among shortstops in slugging (.418) and eighth in OPS (.743). Yes, his OPS-plus (95) is less than enticing, but he was a terrific player.
A third baseman who has these fielding skills, 3,000-plus career hits and 477 homers? We’ll take him. Overall on our so-far 21st century timeline, Beltre is third in doubles (600) and hits (2,976) and fifth in runs (1,422). He’s also second in WAR (91.7), behind only Albert Pujols.
With his ability to court controversy and his PED brawl with MLB, Rodriguez’s nickname might as well have been Lightning Rod. But A-Rod was much more than a villain, as anyone who saw him play would attest. He started soaring in the 1990s but compiled 90.1 WAR in the 2000s and hit 548 of his 696 career homers in that time frame, too. Only Albert Pujols hit more since the turn of the century.
Bonds had already won three MVPs by the time our era started, but he won four more from 2001-04 while re-writing the record books. He’s out front of everyone, even Trout, in OPS-plus during our time frame (Bonds is at 221, Trout 175). His slash line from 2000-07 was .322/.517/.724, video-game numbers. He also walked 1,128 times in 4,072 plate appearances, 27.7 percent of the time.
No one knew what to expect when this lithe lefty hitter arrived in Seattle in 2001, but he established himself immediately as an artist with a bat and a defensive dynamo. In 2004, he broke George Sisler’s single-season hits record. In our era, he had more hits than anyone (3,089) and was third overall in steals (509), sixth in average (.311), seventh in runs (1,420) and ninth in WAR (59.3). And that arm!
Trout has played seven full seasons and part of one more, and he already has six top-two finishes in the AL MVP voting. He won the award in 2014 and 2016. He’s also amassed 64.3 WAR already, more than the career totals of Hall of Famers such as Dave Winfield, Billy Williams and Jackie Robinson. He already has three seasons in which he accumulated 10-plus WAR, something only Babe Ruth (nine), Willie Mays (six) and Rogers Hornsby (six) have done. He has made seven straight All-Star teams and won the All-Star MVP in both 2014 and 2015.
Some Mets fans choose to dwell on the Adam Wainwright breaking ball Beltran looked at to end the 2006 NLCS. But Beltran was a marvelous player: tremendous hitter, slick outfielder, efficient base stealer. He’s seventh overall in our era in WAR (64.8, which is first among outfielders), seventh in homers (413), sixth in RBIs (1,472). He stole 282 bases in our time period and was caught only 41 times, an 87.3 percent success rate, second among players with at least 1,000 games. Did we mention his postseason numbers? Beltran had a 1.021 October OPS.
He could be flaky and wasn’t always the finest baseball citizen, to put it gently. But Manny Being Manny also meant hitting and more hitting. His OPS of 1.008 in our era is topped only by Barry Bonds, and he was second in slugging (.591) and third in OPS-plus (159). His bat earned him the 2002 AL batting title and the 2004 World Series MVP when he and the rest of the Red Sox broke an 86-year-old curse.
This recent addition to the Baseball Hall of Fame had a special throwing arm, raw power and the odd ability to hit any pitch — even if it bounced. It added up to a wonderful career in which he was second in average among outfielders in our era (.318), sixth in homers (357), seventh in OPS-plus (140) and 10th in WAR (45.9).
The DH is part of the fabric of today’s game, so Ortiz, the most terrifying of the lot, deserves inclusion. Edgar Martinez straddled centuries, so the man for whom the DH Award is named for doesn’t rate here. Among players who had at least 50 percent of their at-bats as a DH from 2000-18, Ortiz led in hits (2,379), homers (531), doubles (609), RBIs (1,716) and had a .937 OPS. He also won the Edgar eight times.