Just for fun: Picking an all-time lineup for a must-win game

Mike Trout
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Things are understandably slow in the baseball world, as they are in most walks of life right now as we take preventative measures against Coronavirus (COVID-19). As a prompt to help us pass the time, The Athletic’s Marc Carig asked his followers to pick a lineup, from all players throughout baseball history, for a game you “absolutely must win.”

Carig added, with just a hint of irony, “no dh. i said real base ball. pitcher hits for himself.”

Carig’s lineup:

Needless to say, Carig’s lineup is mighty fine. As were many of the hundreds of lineups his followers and fellow writers sent in response. I’d like to try my hand at this, and I know full well people aren’t going to agree with my approach.

We’re all operating under the assumption that we’re pulling these players basically from the primes of their careers, as if we mastered time travel. That being said, today’s athletes are worlds better than those of yesteryear. Rickey Henderson in his prime runs laps — literally and figuratively — around Babe Ruth, for example. So would Ronald Acuña Jr., even though we have only seen two seasons out of him so far. My lineup is way more biased towards players of a more recent vintage.

RF Larry Walker
CF Mike Trout
LF Barry Bonds
1B Albert Pujols
3B Álex Rodríguez
C Iván Rodríguez
2B Chase Utley
SS Cal Ripken, Jr.
SP Pedro Martínez

I thought about cheating by putting Bonds in right field so I could fit Rickey Henderson in left, but I decided to play it honest. Beyond that, figuring out who goes where in the lineup was harder than actually choosing the players.

Going by FanGraphs’ version of WAR, no right fielder has more WAR since 1980 than Walker. Manny Ramírez is a very close second, 66.4 to Walker’s 68.7, which speaks to how good of a hitter he was because he lost so much value due to shoddy or nonexistent defense. I put Walker and his .400 career on-base percentage at the top of the lineup. Given the quality throughout the rest of the lineup, it makes sense.

Trout, on his way to becoming arguably the greatest player of all time, goes second. He has a career .419 OBP, but putting him second is kind of a happy medium where we can still take advantage of his ability to get on base and run the bases while also taking advantage of his ability to hit for power.

For Bonds, it was a question of batting him third or fourth. We’re more taking advantage of his power, since intentional walks are not nearly as prevalent in 2020 as they were during Bonds’ career when he drew 688 intentional free passes, an all-time record. Bonds, of course, is also the all-time home run leader with 762. He will be driving home Walker and Trout with ease.

It’s a bit of a shame that the last few years for Pujols have caused us to forget how absolutely frightening he was for pitchers to face during his prime. The three-time MVP had an adjusted OPS approaching 200 — 100 is the league average — in 2008 and came close again in ’09. Pujols never hit 50 homers in a season, but in his prime, he was a lock for a .300 average and a .400 OBP.

At third base, and batting fifth, I went with Álex Rodríguez over Mike Schmidt. It was close, as Rodríguez is only had by about seven WAR. As I mentioned, I prefer more recent athletes to those from further out, but Rodríguez also offers more speed and versatility.

Lots of people picked Johnny Bench or Gary Carter for their catcher, and I can’t really disagree. But Iván Rodríguez is not that far behind. In career FanGraphs WAR, Bench leads at 74.8, followed by Carter’s 69.4 and Rodríguez’s 69.2. Since it’s close enough to be a coin flip, my tie-breaker is recency. Prime Pudge was a monster at the plate, but just as importantly, he was an elite defender behind the plate. In a must-win game, throwing out a runner attempting to steal could be the difference between a win and a loss. I’ll take Rodríguez’s career 46 percent caught stealing rate to Bench’s 43 percent and Carter’s 35 percent.

Second base: the pick I expect most people will disagree with me for, so have at it. Utley is 12th among all second basemen in career WAR at 62.9. He’s third if you restrict it to just the last 40 years. Craig Biggio and Roberto Alomar, both Hall of Famers, have a narrow edge on Utley, 65.8 to 63.6 to 62.9. Both were better hitters and better base runners. That being said, Utley’s greatest strength during his playing days was his defense. According to FanGraphs, he was sixth best in defensive runs saved since 1980 and none of the five ahead of him came close to doing what he did with the bat. Utley is the best of both worlds.

Ripken got the nod at shortstop for me. There’s definitely an argument to put Álex Rodríguez at shortstop and pick someone like Chipper Jones for third base. However, I like Ripken’s contact skills, especially towards the bottom of the lineup. Ripken struck out in only 10 percent of his career plate appearances.

On the mound, I’m giving the ball to Pedro Martínez. He was a popular pick among those that responded to Carig, and for good reason. He was a regular season monster, twice finishing with a sub-2.00 ERA and nine more times finishing with a sub-3.00 ERA. I don’t put much more stock in postseason performance — which might give, say, Madison Bumgarner or Curt Schilling the nod — because they’re typically small samples. Martínez, for example, logged 96 1/3 postseason innings, about three percent of his total innings pitched.

Have at it in the comments. Which of my picks did I get wrong? What would your lineup look like?