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When was the Golden Age for every position in baseball history?

From catcher to DH, let’s look for the best year at every position in baseball history.

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Justin Turner is hitting .387 with a .472 on-base percentage. Those are absurd, fan-fiction numbers, suggesting that the Dodgers’ third baseman has found a new gear. He hasn’t made the All-Star team yet.

Kris Bryant isn’t hitting for average, but the reigning MVP is still pummeling the ball, with a .901 OPS to match his stellar defense. He hasn’t made the All-Star team yet

Anthony Rendon is having a career year, with a .947 OPS and more walks than strikeouts. His defense at third is also solid, and he’s ripped 16 homers. He hasn’t made the All-Star team yet.

Eric Stephen doesn’t have a single home run this year. He hasn’t made the All-Star team yet. But he did look at why Turner might not be going to Miami, and he determined that third base is a rough place for a prospective All-Star.

Turner ranks second in fWAR this season, and he’s in the Final Vote, along with fellow third baseman Anthony Rendon (fourth in fWAR) and reigning MVP Kris Bryant (10th). The starter at the position — Nolan Arenado — ranks ninth in the NL in fWAR. That’s rough.

Lamb, the players’ selection at third, ranks 18th in fWAR.

If the top 18 players in the National League according to FanGraphs, five of them are third basemen. I’ve pointed out that this is a golden age of third basemen before, and it doesn’t seem like it’s slowing down. Except that leads me to two questions:

  1. Is it really a Golden Age of third basemen?
  2. When were the Golden Ages of other positions?

I’ll try to figure this out two ways. The first is to search for the seasons with five-win players at the various positions and see which season had the most of them.

The second is to eyeball the lists because I hate and distrust the first way.

C - 1977

Ah, yes, 1977. Star Wars is released. Pink Floyd’s Animals teaches us that rich people are bad. A handsome, nearsighted baseball writer is introduced to the world. And there are catchers, catchers, catchers. Check out the list of catchers in the middle of All-Star-caliber seasons, if not MVP-caliber seasons:

  • Johnny Bench
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Gary Carter
  • Ted Simmons
  • Jim Sundberg
  • Thurman Munson

That’s three Hall of Famers, one should-be Hall of Famer (Simmons), a guy I keep going back and forth on (Munson), and Sundberg, who won six straight Gold Gloves and was generally excellent for about a decade. Bob Boone, one of history’s greatest spoonerisms, was coming into his own at the plate. The perennially underrated Darrell Porter was in his prime. There were other name-brand catchers, too, like Steve Yeager, Butch Wynegar, and John Stearns.

The 1977 season easily passed the eyeball test, too. There was no runner-up.

1B - 1998

This was the turn of the millennium, which is when statheads were firmly ensconced in their “We have absolutely everything figured out, just ask us” phase, and one of the unquestioned tenets of this time was that it was super easy to find first basemen. They’re everywhere! Just grab one!

It makes sense, in retrospect. In 1998, teams were enjoying five-win seasons or better from Mark McGwire, John Olerud, Carlos Delgado, Rafael Palmeiro, Mo Vaughn, Andres Galarraga, and Jeff Bagwell. There were strong seasons, too, from Will Clark, Tony Clark, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, Fred McGriff, and Jim Thome.

Giambi hit .295/.384/.489 with 27 home runs in a pitcher’s park, and he was the 17th-most valuable first baseman in 1998 according to WAR. Offense was up compared to today, but that’s still ridiculous.

I scoured the list to make sure I wasn’t suffering from recency bias, and while there were strong first base things happening in the ‘30s (Foxx, Mize, Greenberg, Gehrig), and the ‘80s (Hernandez, Mattingly, Clark, Murry, Hrbek), the depth of the late ‘90s won me over.

2B - 1979

According to Baseball-Reference’s WAR, the answer is 2016, when the fancy numbers suggest that each of the following players had All-Star caliber seasons (5 WAR or better):

  • Jose Altuve
  • Robinson Cano
  • Ian Kinsler
  • Jean Segura
  • DJ LeMahieu
  • Dustin Pedroia
  • Brian Dozier

And that doesn’t include Daniel Murphy, whose defense dinged him, but he shows up on the also-impressive second tier, with Ben Zobrist, Jason Kipnis, and Cesar Hernandez. But the raw totals are going to favor more recent seasons because there are 30 teams with a second baseman. If you go back to when there were 16 teams, you can take Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and names picked at random to come up with an equally impressive list.

My eyeballs are going to stray, though, and pick a year from the ‘70s. Joe Morgan! Rod Carew! Paul Molitor! Davey Lopes! Frank White! Willie Randolph! I’ll take 1979 so I can sneak Lou Whitaker on there, too.

Plus, as FanGraphs noted, the 2017 crop of second basemen isn’t nearly as impressive this season. Bark beetles, but for second basemen, probably.

SS - 1904

Oh, heck yes. I was worried that my search would be unfairly biased toward the modern player and that one of these years wouldn’t show up. Instead, welcome to 113 years ago, when shortstops were in their prime.

That’s not really true. When the 1904 season was playing, the average height of a baseball player was 5’3” and every single one of them had rickets. Stuff them into a time machine, and they wouldn’t make a D-II roster. But for their time, compared to their peers, it was hard to beat these guys:

  • Honus Wagner (Hall of Fame)
  • George Davis (Hall of Fame)
  • Bobby Wallace (Hall of Fame)
  • Bill Dahlen (probably should be in the Hall of Fame)
  • Freddy Parent
  • Kid Elberfeld

In 1904, all six of them were in their prime and providing gobs of value for their team. There were 16 teams, and six of them had a shortstop of note. That’s a mighty high percentage.

But, fine, if you don’t want to go all the way back to the time when baseballs were made out from the hides of syphilitic armadillos, there are three alternatives. The first is roughly 1999, when Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Barry Larkin, and Omar Vizquel were all rolling, with a second tier of Rich Aurilia, Miguel Tejada, and Edgar Renteria doing fine work.

The second is 1982, when Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell, and Robin Yount were all thriving, and it doesn’t matter who else was joining them.

The third is now, right now, because Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Addison Russell, and Xander Bogaerts are going to define the position for a decade, and there are a half-dozen prospects coming up soon who can add to that impressive list. The Great Wave of Shortstop Hegemony is coming, if it hasn’t swept us away already.

I’ll go with 1904, though, just to even out the final team. They played baseball back in the olden times, too, and they were pretty good at it.

3B - 1982

Not expecting arguments with this one. Not only do you have the best third baseman of all time (Mike Schmidt), but you have George Brett, Wade Boggs, and Paul Molitor, too. That’s four Hall of Famers in their prime, which is a nifty trick for any position in any era. The second tier is vast, and it includes players like Tim Wallach, Gary Gaetti, Buddy Bell, Toby Harrah, Carney Lansford, Bill Madlock, Graig Nettles, Bob Horner ... it just keeps going.

If you’re rolling your eyes at the old man reciting old names, just wait a couple decades and see what the teens say about “David Wright, Justin Turner, Todd Frazier ...” The All-Stars of today will be the Bill Madlocks of tomorrow, and that’s not a bad thing. Just keep it in mind when you’re dismissing the players you haven’t watched.

Doug DeCinces! Rance Mulliniks! Ken Oberkfell! Is ... is that Pedro Guerrero playing third for some reason, well, OK, I’m in! What a fun time for third basemen.

Apropos of nothing, I just found out that Rance Mulliniks wasn’t the first “Rance” in baseball history, and I have to step away from the computer for a bit.

LF - 1993

Apparently, the 2002 season featured the most five-win left fielders. The list included Chipper Jones and Albert Pujols, though, so I’m throwing it the hell out. Fake left fielders! Fake!

So if we’re going to rig this, we’ll have to include either a) Ted Williams, b) Rickey Henderson, or c) Barry Bonds. The correct answer might b) and c). In 1993, Bonds won the NL MVP, Henderson helped the Blue Jays win a World Series, Juan Gonzalez led the AL in home runs, Albert Belle led the AL in RBI, Ron Gant was an MVP contender, and Tim Raines was building on a Hall of Fame career. That would appear to be the winner.

Except in the late ‘20s/early ‘30s, when teams scored roughly 50 runs per game, you had ...

  • Goose Goslin
  • Heinie Manush
  • Lefty O’Doul
  • Wally Berger
  • Chick Hafey
  • Aloysius Harry Simmons (Bucketfoot Al)

While those are four Hall of Famers, and two players with at least a solid argument, I’ll still go with the Henderson/Bonds combo because those are two of the three best left fielders of all time.

CF - 1925

The 1992, 1996, 1999, and 2011 seasons supposedly had seven different 5-WAR center fielders, and, no, I’m not buying any of them as the Golden Age of center fielders. There were 30 teams and 30 center fielders, and a few of them were bound to have some out-of-character defensive seasons that would jimmy with the WAR. Peter Bourjos is one of the center fielders included in the above. Which is swell, but he probably isn’t the herald of the Golden Age.

Not when you could travel back to 1925, when Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Al Simmons, Edd Roush, Earle Combs, Hack Wilson, and Max Carey were all building Hall of Fame careers. If we’re going to give extra credit for fewer teams in the league in previous sections, it has to be considered here.

I’ll be honest: I was planning to rig this for a Mays/Mantle/Snider season, and there were some great players like Richie Ashburn and Larry Doby mixed in there, too. Al Kaline even played center for a couple seasons in that mix, so it’s a strong contender.

In the end, though, we’re talking about seven Hall of Famers — including one of the inner-circliest of inner-circle Hall of Famers — out of 16 starting center fielders. I’ll go to 1925 and regret nothing later.

Give me 1954, though.

RF - 1969

As usual, a random season from the ‘90s snuck with the raw numbers, with 1998 producing eight different All-Star-caliber seasons. The names are fun, too, with Sammy Sosa (in that season), Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, Larry Walker, and Bobby Abreu, all of whom have valid arguments for the Hall of Fame.

In 1969, though, with the mounds lowered, pitchers got to face ...

  • Hank Aaron
  • Frank Robinson
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Al Kaline
  • Tony Oliva

And Rusty Staub! I was nervous that I wasn’t getting the ‘60s involved (and justifying it by assuming the pitching would be the representative in a future column), so this will do beautifully. Aaron, Robinson, Clemente all in their primes at the same time is all you need to say, really. That’s a Golden Age that will be nearly impossible to top.

DH - 2000

I will pretend that I care about the DH long enough to point out that Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez were both doing excellent things in 2000, and David Ortiz was just getting started. That’s a Golden Age. Done.

That gives us ...

C - 1977
1B - 1998
2B - 1979
SS - 1904
3B - 1982
LF - 1993
CF - 1925
RF - 1969
DH - 2000

That leaves us without the 1910s (dead ball), the ‘30s, the ‘40s (WWII), the ‘50s, and anything from the last few years (because it’s hard to separate the shooting stars from the celestial bodies without the benefit of hindsight).

I feel guilty about leaving off the ‘50s, and it’s a little weird for the Golden Age of Baseball to be so underrepresented in a list of Golden Ages, so maybe consider center field a tie, and let 1955 or 1956 sneak on there.

This isn’t quite the Golden Age of third basemen, but it sure has a chance to be one. Arenado, Bryant, Josh Donaldson, and Turner are doing amazing things, and Manny Machado, Rendon, and Kyle Seager aren’t far behind. Adrian Beltre is going to the Hall of Fame, and Evan Longoria is going to the Hall of Pretty Great. It’s not not a Golden Age of third basemen.

But now we know when the actual Golden Age was.

Also, Golden Age would be a solid name for a middle reliever if we’re just talking here.