Sliders: Who's the greatest living Hall of Famer now? (2024)

Welcome to Sliders, a weekly in-season MLB column that focuses on both the timely and timeless elements of baseball.

It’s a sad reminder of baseball’s runaway steroid era that none of the three greatest living players are members of the Hall of Fame. Willie Mays had been the undisputed holder of that mythical title until his death on Tuesday at age 93. Now, it’s a lot more complicated.

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Do you consider Barry Bonds, and his record seven MVP awards, to be the new GOLD standard? (That’s Greatest Of Living Dudes, and yes, I just made it up.) Or maybe it’s Roger Clemens and his record seven Cy Young Awards. Any support for Alex Rodriguez, the only player besides Mays with 3,000 hits, 600 homers and 300 stolen bases?

Maybe, maybe not. For many fans — and for enough Hall of Fame voters to keep them all out of Cooperstown — the thicket of steroids is simply too twisted to untangle.

So let’s make this exercise more straightforward: Who’s the greatest living Hall of Famer? It’s not an easy answer, either, but at least it’s a baseball argument, not a chemistry class or morality play.

The wins above replacement metric, while flawed, is at least useful as a baseline for the debate. Here are the 25 living players with 80 bWAR:

Living bWar leaders (all Hall of Famers, unless noted)

PlayerLifetime bWAR

Barry Bonds

162.8*

Roger Clemens

139.2*

Alex Rodriguez

117.6*

Rickey Henderson

111.1

Mike Schmidt

106.9

Greg Maddux

106.6

Albert Pujols

101.4#

Randy Johnson

101.1

Carl Yastrzemski

96.5

Cal Ripken Jr.

95.9

Bert Blyleven

94.5

Adrian Beltre

93.5

Wade Boggs

91.4

Steve Carlton

90.2

George Brett

88.6

Mike Trout

86.2#

Chipper Jones

85.3

Fergie Jenkins

84.2

Pedro Martinez

83.9

Ken Griffey Jr.

83.8

Mike Mussina

82.8

Justin Verlander

81.4#

Nolan Ryan

81.3

Rod Carew

81.2

Tom Glavine

80.7

Source: Baseball Reference
* — have not been elected to the Hall of Fame
# — not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame

Missing from that list are two of the four winners of Major League Baseball’s 2015 Greatest Living Player balloting, when Mays and Hank Aaron were joined by Johnny Bench (75.1 WAR) and Sandy Koufax (48.9) in a pregame ceremony at the All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

Koufax had a brief peak and thus compiled fewer bWAR than Cesar Cedeno, Brian Giles and Larry Jackson, among hundreds of others. At 88, he’s the second-oldest living Hall of Fame player (behind Luis Aparicio, 90) and an inner-circle guy in Cooperstown.

You could make a fair case for Koufax or Bench, the extraordinary catcher of the fabled Big Red Machine. But the feeling here is that the best candidates are Rickey Henderson, Mike Schmidt, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson.

Maddux has the most victories of any living pitcher, with 355, but Johnson had about 1,500 more strikeouts in around 900 fewer innings. Maddux won four Cy Young Awards and Johnson won five. Both had losing records in the postseason despite generally pitching well, and both won one championship. Too close to call.

That brings us to Henderson and Schmidt. So let’s ask Ben Davis, who played with Henderson in San Diego and grew up near Philadelphia watching Schmidt, who spent his entire career with the Phillies.

“Mike Schmidt is the best third baseman of all-time, and Rickey Henderson revolutionized the leadoff spot,” said Davis, a former catcher and now a Phillies broadcaster. “What Rickey did on a baseball field, you talk about different ways to beat you — he obviously beat you with his legs, he had thunder in his bat with the leadoff homers, he played a decent left field. He has records that will never be broken.”

As teammates on the 2001 Padres, Davis saw Henderson set the career records for walks and runs scored (he homered and slid into home) while also collecting his 3,000th hit. Bonds has since passed Henderson for walks, but Henderson still leads in runs (2,295), leadoff homers (81) and stolen bases, with 1,406 — a total so absurd that you could swipe 50 a year for 28 years and still fall short.

But just as Davis seemed ready to talk his way into Henderson as the new greatest living Hall of Famer, he pivoted. Yes, Schmidt is a broadcast partner for some Sunday home games, but Schmidt also once predicted that Nolan Arenado would supplant him as history’s top third baseman; he’s humbler than your average living legend.

“I mean, they’re two different positions, but I’d probably go with Schmitty,” Davis said. “I think the MVPs set him apart and the Gold Gloves set him apart, to go along with the 548 home runs.”

Henderson won the American League MVP award in 1990, but Schmidt took National League honors three times: 1980, 1981 and 1986. Henderson captured one Gold Glove, while Schmidt won 10. Both won a postseason MVP award and led the league in walks four times.

It’s really a matter of what you value. Henderson did many things well and was a historical outlier in stolen bases with the longevity to amass more total bases than Schmidt. But Schmidt was no short-peak guy: he had a mind-bending prime of 14 consecutive superstar seasons (1974 through 1987) and refused to hang on when he stopped meeting his personal standards.

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The difference, perhaps, was the defense, which made Schmidt a force whenever he appeared on the field. Then again, Ken Griffey Jr. also won 10 Gold Gloves and hit 82 more homers than Schmidt. Carl Yastrzemski won seven Gold Gloves and three batting titles, with 452 homers and more hits than every living Hall of Famer besides Derek Jeter.

Koufax is the only living Hall of Famer with multiple Cy Young Awards, no-hitters and championships. Steve Carlton was the first pitcher to win four Cy Young Awards and the last to work 300 innings. Nolan Ryan leads the world in strikeouts and no-hitters. Pedro Martinez is the only living pitcher with 3,000 strikeouts and an ERA under 3.00.

Bench won 10 Gold Gloves and two MVPs at baseball’s most demanding position. Eddie Murray is the only living Hall of Famer with 3,000 hits and 500 homers. Cal Ripken had 400 homers, 3,000 hits, two MVPs and the record for consecutive games. Wade Boggs is the only player to debut after 1941 with a .320 average and a .850 OPS.

On and on it goes. Maybe, in this post-Mays world, the easiest answer to the greatest-ever question is to remove the Hall of Fame qualifier. Like it or not, we all know who it is — even our Henderson/Schmidt expert.

“Barry Bonds is the greatest player of all time,” Davis said. “Hands down.”

Gimme Five

Five bits of ballpark wisdom

The Padres’ Matt Waldron on the knuckleball

The knuckleball is forever an endangered species in baseball, yet it’s too effective to ever go extinct. The latest practitioner of the mystical art is Matt Waldron, a San Diego Padres right-hander who is 5-6 with a 3.46 ERA in 15 starts this season.

Waldron, 27, differs from most of his predecessors by throwing other pitches more often. The most prolific knuckler of all time, Phil Niekro, usually threw almost nothing else, believing in a monogamous relationship based on unwavering trust. But Waldron throws fastballs, sinkers, cutters and sliders, too.

His affection is growing. Last season, in eight games, he threw the knuckler only 29.3 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs. This year, it’s up to 38 percent — more than any other pitch in his arsenal. In an interview in Philadelphia this week, he explained that he’s something of a natural at it, but conceded: “I think it’s a lot harder than I even know.”

Here are five of Waldron’s insights into his favorite fluttering pitch:

Out of the video screen, into the yard: “My twin brother and I were playing a video game and Tim Wakefield was in it, and we made a rule: ‘We can’t use this pitch. It’s too good in the game. This is not fun. This isn’t baseball.’ And so we went out to the backyard and I’m not kidding, we learned it in maybe six throws and I still grip it the same way. It was always just like a fun little thing. I’d be at shortstop and just throw it and the reactions I feel like would tell me. And it’s weird, that’s how it is now. I feel like the reactions are what’s making me believe it more.”

A love/hate relationship: “I never had a first full season being a conventional pitcher, or whatever you want to call it. Halfway through (2021), I went 80 percent knuckleball for a couple months and then I got promoted to Double A. The numbers were looking good, results were there, and the next year I still really trusted that 80 percent. But then I got to Triple A, in El Paso, and it’s such a hitter-friendly league that I doubted the heck out of myself. I was like, ‘I can’t, nobody’s doing it for a reason, that darn knuckleball,’ all this stuff. At the beginning of last year there was a couple of months where I shelved it, I completely went away from it. Then I trusted myself again, and my fastball went back up. So I feel like I could do both, and I think that’s what also made failing so hard. I was like, ‘I’m freaking done, I’m done with this.’ Those lows were low. But I just trusted that failing was part of learning, and it wasn’t as bad as it seems.”

Sliders: Who's the greatest living Hall of Famer now? (1)

Matt Waldron shows off his knuckleball grip. (Tyler Kepner / The Athletic)

It’s a separator for an ordinary repertoire: “I’ve got pretty average stuff, if you think about it. I could look around and be like, ‘I don’t have that,’ or ‘I don’t throw as hard as that.’ But I always believed in my ability within this game and my commitment to that. I always worked harder, and I always took away something from each outing. So it’s been a long journey, and even though it’s only been like a couple of years, it feels like a really long time with the way each outing brings out some emotions.”

Different speeds for different purposes: “The hardest this year has been 84.5 (mph) and the lowest has been like 71 — because I’m trying to get ahead sometimes, and there’s times where I’m trying to strike somebody out with it. I don’t really like to slow it down a whole lot, though, because it just feels less competitive and (relying more on) chance. And it’s harder to throw it for a strike when I really slow it down.”

He’s part of a brotherhood now: “I definitely have felt it. I’ve felt the fraternity of guys that really wanted to see it at this level again and help me out. I would say (Tim) Wakefield and (Tom) Candiotti were two big ones — Wakefield for sure, because he was the first one I talked to. He had such a passion for it, and his perspective of it was like: ‘Have fun with it. Make ’em look stupid. The mentality behind it is more important than you think.’”

Off The Grid

A historical detour from the Immaculate Grid

Allan Travers: Detroit Tigers/Pitched Min. One Game

Here’s a brief summary of how Aloysius Stanislaus Travers, a future Catholic priest, came to qualify as a Detroit Tigers pitcher on the Immaculate Grid last Saturday.

It was May 18, 1912, and Travers was a junior at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and assistant manager of the school’s baseball team. An acquaintance, a local sportswriter named Joe Nolan, reached out with a request. The Detroit Tigers were in town to play the A’s, and, well, they might stage a strike — so could Travers round up some locals to take their place? They’d get $25 apiece, and they probably wouldn’t even play.

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Travers, 20, quickly gathered some sandlot players and a couple of amateur boxers from his neighborhood. He brought them to Shibe Park for the game. The Tigers, including the great Ty Cobb, took batting practice — but the umpires were not about to let Cobb play.

A few days earlier, in New York, Cobb had gone into the stands to confront a heckler who happened to have only one hand, with just three fingers. According to a SABR article by Gary Livacari, Cobb pummeled the man’s face with his fists and stomped his abdomen with his spikes, despite pleas from nearby fans.

“He has no hands!” they cried.

“I don’t care if he has no feet,” Cobb retorted.

This was long before television, of course, but the American League president, Ban Johnson, didn’t need footage to study; he was in the stands, too. He suspended Cobb indefinitely, and after one game without him, the Tigers voted to strike until Cobb’s reinstatement.

Facing a fine and forfeiture, manager Hughie Jennings called Travers and his pals onto the field. They signed contracts, donned the uniforms of the strikers and played an official, certified Major League Baseball game that went about how you’d expect.

Facing the reigning world champions, the paper Tigers fared as well as that poor fan Cobb had thrashed in New York. Pitching to Deacon McGuire, a 48-year-old coach and former MLB catcher, Travers allowed 26 hits in a 24-2 Philadelphia romp that included seven errors by Detroit. The 24 runs allowed remains a single-game record for a pitcher.

“I was throwing slow curves and the A’s were not used to them and couldn’t hit the ball,” Travers told Red Smith, many years later. “Hughie Jennings told me not to throw fastballs as he was afraid I might get killed. I was doing fine until they started bunting. The guy playing third base had never played baseball before.”

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Cobb soon accepted a 10-game suspension, and the Tigers left the strikebreakers behind. Travers became a Catholic priest and taught Spanish and religion at St. Joe’s Prep. He never pitched again, of course, but from the sound of things, he was well-versed in the timeless art of blaming your fielders for a rough day on the mound.

“I threw a beautiful slow ball and the A’s were just hitting easy flies,” Travers told Smith. “Trouble was, no one could catch them.”

Classic Clip

1973 World Series, Game 7

Willie Mays’ last day as an active player was Game 7 of the 1973 World Series. The Mets went down to the Oakland A’s, 5-2, and a man with 660 home runs never got off the bench.

The Mays of October 1973 was not prime Mays, of course. He was 42 years old and had not homered in more than two months. But with two out and one on in the top of the ninth, and Oakland leading by three runs, first baseman Gene Tenace flubbed an easy grounder by Ed Kranepool.

That brought the tying run to the plate in Wayne Garrett, a lefty who’d homered twice in the World Series but was hitless that day, with three strikeouts. Rollie Fingers, the future Hall of Fame righty who’d closed out Game 7 the year before, had faced 15 batters already and was pulled for a lefty, Darold Knowles.

Yogi Berra, the Mets’ manager, had Mays’ right-handed bat on the bench. In his book “24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid,” written with John Shea, Mays said he regretted not telling Berra to put him in. He watched helplessly as Garrett popped out to shortstop Bert Campaneris to end the World Series.

“I was ready to hit. I kick myself,” Mays wrote. “I could’ve gone to Yogi and said, ‘I gotta pinch-hit, man.’ I think he would’ve said, ‘OK, go ahead and pinch-hit.’ I think that’s what he would’ve said because we had that type of relationship. But I said no, that’s not how to do it. I never did that. That’s not the right way to do that. After the game, I didn’t change my clothes. Don Hahn asked for my glove, and I gave it to him. Then I got in my car and went on home.”

It ain’t over til it’s over, as Berra’s famous quote goes … and when Garrett popped out, it really was over — for the Mets, for the 1973 season, and for the glorious career of Willie Howard Mays.

(Top photo of Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt in 2022: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

Sliders: Who's the greatest living Hall of Famer now? (2024)

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