I want to answer a simple question: what are the best baseball lineups ever, based on WAR?
WAR is a relatively recent invention, a baseball statistic that attempts to combine everything a player does and convert it to wins (specifically, how many wins that player produces above a hypothetical replacement-level player, thus Wins Above Replacement or WAR).
WAR has its fans and detractors, but it’s widely considered perhaps the best single statistic to determine how good a baseball player is (or was). I’m looking at Baseball Reference’s career WAR (different sites, like FanGraphs, calculate WAR slightly differently than Baseball Reference, but I’m most familiar with BR).
The final wrinkle to this little project is that I thought it would be fun to split baseball evenly into three different eras. While the MLB was founded back in the 1870s, the first World Series was in 1903, and that’s when I want to begin. That’s when baseball first really exits a fairly murky past.
That first era, which I’m calling the Founders, didn’t include Black ball players. They were relegated to barnstorming teams, exhibition games, foreign leagues and the Negro leagues. Last year, MLB finally acknowledged Negro leagues statistics for what they are — major league baseball statistics. But the stats are incomplete, a lasting legacy of racism and segregation. That means that the best Black players before 1947 won’t show up in this list. Josh Gibson, for instance, is one of the greatest catchers of all-time — my twin brother holds that he’s THE greatest catcher ever — but his WAR, based on spotty statistics, puts him 28th all-time. Thus, the Classic Era, 1944–1983, is the first team to truly benefit from Black baseball excellence.
I’ll tally up the career WAR of each team and declare a winner. Each team has a first and second teamer at each fielding position, five starters and four relievers for a 25-man roster (no designated hitters. Sue me). Positions are determined by Baseball Reference.
A quick note: If a player’s career bleeds into different eras, I stick him into the era that makes the most sense AND allows me to get the best players in this list, within reason. Players will be put in the position where they had the most service time. Guys who spent the majority of their career before 1903 won’t be included (so no Cy Young).
Starting Pitchers: Walter Johnson (1907–1927, 165.1 WAR), Pete Alexander (1911–1930, 119.3 WAR), Lefty Grove (1925–1941, 106.8 WAR), Christy Mathewson (1900–1916, 106.5 WAR) and Eddie Plank (1901–1917, 90.8 WAR)
Total WAR: 2,277.9
Total WAR: 2,190.4
Starting Pitchers: Roger Clemens (1984–2007, 139.2 WAR), Greg Maddux (1986–2008, 106.6 WAR), Randy Johnson (1988–2009, 101.1 WAR), Pedro Martinez (1992–2009, 83.9 WAR) and Mike Mussina (1991–2008, 82.8 WAR)
Total WAR: 2,131.8
The Founders Era wins! Was that a surprise? It turns out that the starting pitching in the first 40 or so years of MLB was enough to overcome the stellar outfields of the Classic Era or the powerful middle infields of Modern baseball.
Again, the era splits were fairly arbitrary, there’s some messiness (Gary Carter certainly seems out of place) and I’m not saying these are the BEST players ever (you would need replace the fairly no-name relief pitchers in the Founders Era, add Negro league players and be less restrictive on outfielders to get that). But hopefully you had as much fun reading this as I had putting it together!