Open Thread: Who Is the Best Player You’ve Seen?

In the midst of last week’s delighful discussion about players we wished we’d seen, reader Tom Waits wondered about the best players we’ve actually seen. Come to think of it, so do I.

At the big-league level, Barry Bonds is the obvious choice. And I have fond memories of Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman. Going back further, I remember watching Mike Schmidt and the tail end of Johnny Bench’s career. I’ve told you my Ken Griffey Jr. and Robin Yount stories.

From a more subjective standpoint, two guys amazed me with their abilities. These are not the most accomplished players I ever saw, but they are the two whose exploits I am least likely to forget. Their names are Eric Davis and Bo Jackson, and they did things on a baseball field that I didn’t (still don’t) believe were possible.

At the minor-league level, my answer should be Felix Hernandez, but I saw him on the only bad day he ever had in the California League. The best player I saw in the minors was Jake Peavy, and it’s not close.

College? Easy. Stephen Strasburg.

High school? I’ve attended a few Aflac All-American classics, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember seeing Jason Heyward in 2006. But he was there, and so was I. I’ll go with Heyward over Madison Bumgarner, who I also don’t remember seeing that year.

So. How’s about you?

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35 Responses »

  1. Mays was past his prime when I saw him, so I will go with Griffey and Seaver. Honorable mention goes to George Brett who is the best performance I have seen. Saw him a handful of times, and he put on a show in nearly every game.

    On a side note: Marty Marion has passed away:

  2. I hate to say it but Barry Bonds.

  3. Clemente. We were in the cheap seats at Three Rivers, upper deck, left field, runner on second, less than two outs. Clemente catches a fly ball so close to the wall we can’t even see him with our obstructed view. Runner tags. One hop throw to third. Not even close.

    And then there was the grand slam Bonds hit off Tankersly that nearly hit the jumbotron. I think Tankersly hit the previous batter to load the bases. Everyone at the Q new Bonds was going to hit it out. There was just no alternative.

    Trevor. I love Heath Bell, but it’s just not the same.

  4. TeeVee is wonderful – we can say we saw lots of ballplayers when we weren’t at the ballpark, or even in the same city. As for players seen live, Ted Williams tops my list, and since the Sox were playing the Yankees, I can add Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. Not bad for the first game ever attended. The second game I ever attended, four years later, I saw Williams’ replacement, Carl Yastrzemski, along with Brooks Robinson, Luis Aparicio and Robin Roberts. If only I’d realized at the time what I was seeing. By the time I saw Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carleton beating the Padres at the stadium, I was more appreciative.

  5. Barry Bonds, even before the drugs.

    Other contenders are Rickey Henderson, George Brett, and the normally underrated Craig Biggio.

    Joe P talked about Brett’s contributions to the 1985 Royals on Wednesday. Not only was he great all year, but in the last week he drove his team to 5 wins that clinched the division championship. He hit 450/.520/1.190 over that week.

    I suspect Tony Gwynn might have accounted for the bulk of the Padres’ WAR in some years, but it would have happened in seasons when the team was nowhere close to the playoffs.

  6. Barry Bonds, 2001. I worked at the park and saw every home game that year. Whether you loved him or hated him… whether he did it fairly or not… that season, he was the single most unstoppable force baseball has ever seen.

  7. The best pitcher I’ve seen is a tie between Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton. Carlton used to dominate the Padres. Best hitter I’ve ever seen is Gwynn. Only saw Bonds as a Pirate at the Murph. When he was good and healthy (which wasn’t very often), Eric Davis was amazing. Willie Stargell hit the 1st HR I ever saw in 1980 and still the longest 20 rows up dead center.

    The years I went to live baseball games were 1980-1992. Moved away and saw the Pads play once in SD in ’95 and on a few occasions in Atlanta, the last time in 2000.

    College is 2… Buster Posey and JD Drew at Florida State. It hurts that Posey was drafted by a team I dislike. However, he is a great kid and I will always love him. Drew was without description coming out of college.

  8. OT: Mets release Luis Castillo, think Jed will have any intrest in signing him as a UIF?

  9. @Steve C


    They seem focused on somebody who can play SS.

  10. Batter: Griffey Jr. in ’99, Dawson in ’87, Mauer in ’09
    Pitcher: Peavy in ’05

    Random player I saw live I most wished was on the Padres: Nick Markakis.

  11. High School: Kevin Gregg … a man amongst boys in Corvallis, OR in the mid-90s … was excited when, about 10 years later, he made it to MLB …

    College: I saw Mark Prior’s only loss his last year at USC … versus the Oregon St Beavers :-) … Jacoby Ellsbury was quite fun to watch also …

    Pros … I was at a Bo Jackson game where Bo was Bo … runner on 3B, ball hit to Bo in LF, he one-hops it and throws the guy out at the plate … just FUN! Pretty sure he HR’d in that game, but that may just be fantasy …

    I’m going to see Padres vs Cubs tomorrow (Saturday) … anyone else gonna be there? I think I’m going to be in section 212 … wearing my Ducksnorts t-shirt …

    I was at the first 7 innings last night vs Rangers … wow, their pitchers and defense sucked, so I didn’t feel like I could learn much about the hitters … but they were hitting the ball all over the place … Maybin’s HR was a bullet … and his catch in CF was the real deal!!! I’m curious about Patterson’s “infield hit” … it was right in front of me and I’d swear he was out … but he sure is fast! Hudson hit the ball hard, and did Hundley. Clayton Richard got good results, but did not seem to be pitching as well as his results.

  12. Easy answer: Both Mays and Mantle in their prime years.

  13. Good stuff, folks; keep ‘em coming!

    @LynchMob: I will be at Saturday’s game against the Cubs… Section 119, wearing an Otsuka shirt and Portland Beavers cap.

  14. In person, I have seen Padre games since ’69, and all the players that have visited. The best player, based on his career, I saw in that time was Henry Aaron. The best player I saw the most of was Tony Gwynn, and the best pitcher was Tom Seaver. Now, I don’t see any active player who comes close to Albert Pujols.
    As for Barry Bonds, I liked his dad, Bobby. Good player who struck out a bit too much but could play the right field pretty well, hit for power, and run the bases.

  15. Off Topic
    NYT story about the Padres QB challenge from 2 weeks ago:

  16. Best hitters — Bonds in 2001 was the most awesome force I’ve ever seen. I saw Musial and Williams in their primes, Mantle in ’56, Maris and Mantle in ’61, Aaron and Mays for their entire careers, McGwire and Sosa in ’98, and they were great. But they didn’t have managers walking them, with nobody on base, out of sheer terror.

    Best pitchers — Koufax from 1962-1966 was the most amazing. His curveball, as it left his hand, looked as if it would end up on the screen. Then it broke into the strike zone. Seaver would probably be next on my list. Great heat and total command of every pitch. How you manage a .600 lifetime W-L percentage with the teams he pitched for still amazes me. And for one season, Gibson in 1968, Guidry in 1978 and Gooden in 1985 were totally beyond belief.

    Best fielders — Mays in the outfield, Ozzie in the infield, Bench behind the plate. Honorable mention to the young Andruw Jones, Mazeroski (nobody has yet matched him on turning the DP), and Keith Hernandez (he changed every game with his mobility).

    Best baserunner — Mays was the smartest. Jackie was the most intimidating.

    Most memorable at bat — in 1957, Koufax faced Aaron at Ebbets Field and threw his fastball, which was probably even faster than when Koufax was dominating the league because he had sacrificed a few MPH for better command. Aaron hit a line drive — there was no arc to it at all — that rose and cleared the 38-foot fence in right-center field about 340 feet out and was still rising as it sailed out into the night. If I’d seen it on TV, I doubt it would have made that much of an impression, but to see it in three dimensions…incredible.

    Most memorable fielding play — in 1960, Yankees at Cleveland, Tito Francona (the father) crushed a line drive to right-center. The second baseman might have had a play on it if it had been hit right over his head — as it was, it was hit so hard that it still cleared the four-foot chain link fence by about two feet. And somehow Roger Maris, who had been playing Francona to pull, got over to the fence just as the ball cleared it, caught it at full arm’s length beyond the fence, and pulled it back in. He hit the fence so hard that Mantle had to come over to throw the ball back in.

  17. Interesting question, because players that are great to watch may not be the greatest statistically. For me its Greg Maddux and Ryne Sandberg. Maddux, hands down the best pure pitcher I have ever seen. Saw him as a Cub, in Wrigley, just dominate with power and control. Saw him pitch the only complete game all year for teh Padres against the Reds and just disect that fairly potent line-up. Sandberg on the other hand was just a lot of fun to watch play baseball. Junior would be up there as well.

    College – Mark Prior. Just makes me sad about the downfall of USC baseball.

    High School – Tyler Matzek. Great pitchers seem much more dominant at thsi level than hitters.

  18. Nice to see Koufax get some love on a thread like this. Never saw him live, but through the magic of TV saw plenty of him as a big Dodger fan from when they first came out. His last five years were the most dominant of any lefty ever. I can’t think of another pitcher who put together a stretch that long, dominating to that degree in the live ball era; Lefty Grove won a lot of games but wasn’t a strikeout guy. Too bad his control was so mediocre in his early career; minor league seasoning would have helped him.
    If we go to TV, the best players and plays I can recall don’t change much from Aaron and Seaver. The best outfield fielding plays I ever saw were by Curt Flood and Mays. Best baserunner was Lou Brock. Best catcher, no contest, Johnny Bench. Best shortstop fielding was Ozzie Smith when he first came up. Best third baseman, fielding Brooks Robinson, hitting Mike Schmidt. Best relief pitcher Mariano Rivera.

  19. @ Frank: Love to look at things like you mentioned, Koufax’s last 5 years versus other pitchers. Grove is a good comp. He actually had a 7 year stretch where he was excellent, but if you look at his top 5, he probably does fall a bit short of Koufax. Although this sort of thing all depends on how you define “dominance.” Their ERA+ and WAR are very close for the 5 year stretch, but Koufax was much more of a strikeout pitcher, but then again his 1962 season is really not that impressive.

    The guy I would throw out there against Sandy would be Randy Johnson from 1998 to 2002. I think his ERA+ is better than Koufax and his K’s are higher as well. He falls a bit short on WAR though. Personally, I have some scepticism with regards to PED’s associated with players from that period, too. But without any evidence and making the assumption he was clean, I think Johnson is comparable to Koufax.

    I was only looking at left handed pitchers. I’m sure some other names would pop up if we looked at right handers.

  20. @ Pat

    Can you imagine Johnson throwing from the higher mound, let alone the Dodgers’ home mound, which was even higher than the rules allowed?

    I know ERA+ is adjusted for league and competition, but something tells me the Big Unit might have been even better under those circumstances.

  21. Warren Spahn in Milwaukee

  22. Jay Johnstone. Everything is relative.

  23. I think the best player I saw play was Tony Gwynn. Though I remember going to a very cold, overcast, and mildly rainy game in 1998 when Randy Johnson and the Mariners beat us 2-1 in an interleague game. Our one run coming off a Carlos Hernandez solo home run. I remember thinking that Randy Johnson was pitching so fast I could barely see the ball.

  24. @Pat
    Johnson, in my book, is the best strikeout lefty ever, and he had a great stretch. No match for Koufax, but I am partial. I think Randy after age 40 was getting millions to be Randy and because the HOF for some reason now requires 300 wins.
    There are a few righties that have dominated, over a stretch of five or six years to compare with Koufax’s numbers. Bob Felller for sure before, and after the war. Not a lot of people will agree, but I think Ferguson Jenkins was a dominant pitcher for five years from ’67, though I’m sure sabremetrics don’t back it up. Even with an off year, Marichal averaged 22 wins for 7 years, like Robin Roberts he didn’t strike guys out.I guess it depends on what your criteria are. I think dominating pitchers need to win lots of games, allow few earned runs, and strike out guys if they need to.

  25. Off the top of my head: Gwynn, Hoffman, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Barry Bonds*. Going back to read what everyone else said…Oh yeah, Greg Maddux, Mark McGwire* and Albert Pujols. I’m surprised that I didn’t think of Maddux right away. The fact that he wasn’t a power pitcher probably keeps me from thinking of him with some of those others, but he’s more than worthy and it was great that we had the opportunity to watch him with the Padres for a while even if it was at the end of his career.

    Honorable mention for a single feat of strength: I wouldn’t put him in this company, but the hardest hit ball I ever witnessed was hit by Cecil Fielder. I was halfway up the left field seats and even off the bat it was obvious that it was going to sail way over my head. It went directly over me and there was never a moment when I thought I should stand up to catch it. In my imagination that ball is still orbiting the globe.

  26. There’s a good question … who hit the hardest hit ball you’ve seen live & in person?

    For me, it was Sixto Lezcano … it was just foul down the right field line at Candlestick Park … into the Upper Deck … VERY unforgettable! And I saw Joe Lefevre hit a few bombs too.

    The hardest hit ball I saw live on TV was the Pujols HR off Lidge in the playoffs … where the TV camera had to adjust higher to find it rattling around in the rafters :-)

  27. Hardest hit ball seen in person: Mark McGwire meets Brian Boehringer, 1998, Qualcomm. It went out to left-center on a line, I’m convinced it was still rising when it hit the seats.

  28. A few stand that I’ve seen while in attendance.
    McCovey (as a Padre) hit a shot against the Mets at Jack Murphy that I thought was going to hit the scoreboard. It didn’t of course, but I remember the right fielder not even turning to chase the ball to the fence. It was obviously a HR the moment it left his bat. I was fairly young so my perception may not be the best, but for a long time, that was the farthest hit ball I had ever seen.
    Sheffield (92 or 93) hit a HR at JM to deep left-center that landed quite a few rows back. There was little arc to it. If anyone had been sitting where it landed, they could have been seriously hurt. Not the farthest hit, but possibly the hardest.

    Ivan Calderon (1989) hit a homer at old Comiskey that completely cleared the upper deck roof and landed on the street. While impressive, I later learned that the feat was fairly common and it would happen a handful of times a season.

    Griffey and Strawberry (1998 same series) both hit shots at Yankee Stadium to deep right-center field. Strawberry’s was a moon shot while Griffey’s was more of a line drive. Both balls landed just short of the billboards that wrap around, beyond the blacked out bleacher section. We were front row, upper deck so we had a perfect view for both of them. It’s funny how both were hit in the same series, but in retrospect, those are the two farthest hit balls I have seen.

  29. Hardest I’ve seen here: I beleive it was late ’77, for a while the Pads had a line up with Winfield, George Hendrick, and Dave Kingman hitting back to back. I was at a day game when Kingman hit a ball to left center that landed in the loge seats about five rows deep, in the deepest part of the power alley. I think they painted the seat. It was a rainmaker, rather than a drive.
    I saw the ball that McCovey hit that one-hopped the scoreboard, probably the same shot.

  30. Thanks Frank for the clarification on the McCovey HR. Glad to know my memories from the mid 1970′s are not totally exaggerated.
    IIRC, it was a day game; McCovey HR came in the early innings; Padres won big.

  31. @ Tom W: Johnson would have been lethal in the ’60′s off the dodger stadium mound!

    @ Frank: True regarding the right handers. There were some great ones, but none of 5 years that I can recall. Johnson, otoh, definitely is up there with Koufax for that sort of run. I don’t see anywhere Koufax separates himself in any significant way. Particularly when you look at the offensive context each was pitching in. The only place I could knock Johnson down would be in the PED area, but there’s no evidence of that so it is sort of difficult to do even that.

    Johnson definitely meets your criteria on W’s, K’s and ERA. He won 19, 17, 19, 21 and 24 in an era of 5 man rotations, Led the league in K’s each season except 1998 where he split time between the NL and the AL, but still struck out over 300 that year. He led the league in ERA 3 times and ERA+ 4 times in that 5 year stretch.

    Koufax did have more W’s, but he was pitching in a 4 man rotation and in 2 of the 5 seasons he had short seasons with just 14 and 19 W’s. He led the league in K’s only 3 timies to Johnson’s 4. Though he led the league in ERA each of the 5 seasons, he only led 3 times in ERA+, which adjusts for the huge edge pitching in dodger stadium half the time gave him. As great as Koufax was, pitching in dodger stadium in the 60′s has added an awful lot to his reputation and to his success.

    @ Hardest Hit Ball: San Diego Stadium, pre-Jack Murphay even, sometime in the 70′s, probably 76 or 77. George Foster hit one out to Left Center that hit, not landed, hit, a couple of sections over from where we were sitting. A line shot! It sounded like a gunshot when it hit the seat! Like someone else mentioned, good thing no one was sitting there. WOW!

  32. Fun exercise.

    Being an “old-timer,” here are the best players I have seen play, by position—none of whom are active today.

    Catcher: Yogi Berra followed by Mike Piazza
    First base: Johnny Mize (the best player not to have been voted into the HOF by the BBWAA), then Willie McCovey or Jeff Bagwell
    Second base: Robbie Alomar over Joe Gordon
    Third base: Mike Schmidt way over everyone else
    Shortstop: Lou Boudreau by a hair over Ozzie Smith
    Left field: Barry Bonds. I regret that I never saw Ted Williams or Musial, though.
    Center field: Willie Mays then Joe DiMaggio
    Right field: Hank Aaron over Tony Gwynn. I also saw Pete Rose playing RF.
    Starting pitchers: Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal.
    Relief pitcher: Hoyt Wilhelm.

  33. good questions,,, i saw edgar martinez as a very consistent hard line drive hitter. george brett hit hard liners too. pitchers?,,, well i saw koufax pitch in 1965 in candlestick park, i was fifteen at the time, he was better live than on the’ tube ‘

  34. Well, no thread about it yet, but Manny being a cheat and hanging them up is worth a line or two. I have always thought of Ramirez as a Purina-level dog, hear him bow-wow; a me-first walking argument for burning every computerized player sabremetric stat who jogged every grounder, loafed on most flys, swung at bad pitches, dogged his way out of Beantown for money, and would have hit journeyman numbers not hitting in a phone booth. Still, being Manny, he still opted to juice, over and over. Don’t want to start a juice thread, but Manny was one of those guys that dragged down the game for two decades-and didn’t give a damn.
    I have a buddy who argued with me a couple of years ago that Manny was one of the top right handed hitters ever-no lower than top five. This is a guy who had his own baseball blog thread, knows the game, and while he realizes I am old school, should know better. Manny even with juice was barely one of the top 20 right handed hitters, IMHO and his overall game draws it down from there. We are better off without him.