The Greatest Players in Baseball History: A Simulation

Warning #1: today’s post has absolutely nothing to do with the typical themes of this blog, save that it’s about a kind of history.

Warning #2: today’s post will reveal me to be far nerdier than already is widely assumed.

If you’re still here… I’m excited — and a little bit horrified — to report on something my son and I have been doing off and on for the past three years.

Strat-o-Matic Baseball box with player cards

I first introduced Isaiah to Strat-O-Matic Baseball in the fall of 2016, when our family spent my last sabbatical in the Blue Ridge mountains. Since the 1960s, Strat-O-Matic (hereafter: “Strat”) has let players conduct hyperrealistic simulations of sports. Here’s an introduction if you’re not familiar with how it works:

In 2016, Isaiah and I simulated an eight-team short season, drafting players from the previous MLB season and assigning them to teams in our version of Caribbean winter league baseball. Isaiah’s Dominican Republic team dominated both halves of the 30-game season, but my second-place squad from Curaçao managed to win a best-of-three series to claim the championship.

Now is when I should mention that Isaiah turned seven as that tournament finished. Seven.

Anyway, we both had so much fun that I bought him/me a Christmas present: the complete Strat set of baseball Hall of Famers as of 2016 (Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza). I proposed that we try something more ambitious: simulating an entire 162-game season, broken into three equal tournaments of 54 games each. We’d have completely new teams every tournament, then total up the statistics to figure out which Hall of Famers were actually the best players.

Our first game was in June 2017, and we played our last two weeks ago. Altogether, we simulated something like 670 games, including mid-tournament all-star games and postseason series to determine tournament champions. We used National League rules and the Advanced style of Strat play, plus a couple of its Super Advanced options.

So, to whet your appetite for the resumption of actual professional baseball later this month, here are the results of our epic adventure in Strat-O-Matic Baseball, starting with highlights from each tournament and then concluding with the collected statistics.

Tournament 1 Highlights

Theme: None — I just sorted the HOF set by position, ranked players by career WAR, and then we each drafted the four best teams we could, representing eight minor league cities in Eastern and Western divisions.

Season Summary: Isaiah’s Rochester Red Wings dominated the regular season, going 33-21 with a slugging lineup that had five players reach double-digits in home runs (led by Duke Snider and Ron Santo with 13 each). Then another of Isaiah’s teams, the New Orleans Octopi, made a stunning turnaround in the second half to overtake my Calgary Cowboys. (My fault entirely: at the All-Star Break I tried to revive my New Haven Nine by trading Ty Cobb for fellow slow starter Christy Mathewson; Cobb proceeded to bat .431 for the Octopi.) In the World Series, New Orleans’ superior starting pitching won out, with Rube Waddell, Dennis Eckersley (the 1970s version), and Bullet Joe Rogan leading them to a 4-1 victory over Rochester. (Over the course of our simulation, Rogan also played at least 10 games each at all three outfield positions, plus first and second base — a feat bettered by fellow Negro League hurler Martín Dihigo, who added shortstop to that list.)

Reggie Jackson in 1973, with the Oakland A’s – Wikimedia

Batting Leaders:

BA: Ty Cobb (LF/CF, New Haven and New Orleans), .392
OBP: Babe Ruth (RF, Blue Ridge), .439
SLG: Reggie Jackson (RF, Calgary), .743
OPS: Reggie Jackson, 1.160
HR: Reggie Jackson, 21
Runs: Ted Williams (LF, Calgary), 41
RBI: Reggie Jackson, 45
SB: Joe Morgan (2B, Rochester), 22

Pitching Leaders:

ERA: Pedro Martínez (RHP, Blue Ridge), 2.47
WHIP: Pedro Martínez, 0.932
Wins: Big Bill Foster (LHP, Oklahoma City), 9
Saves: Goose Gossage (RHP, Waterloo), 14
Innings: Bullet Joe Rogan (RHP, New Orleans), 102
Strikeouts: Randy Johnson (LHP, Blue Ridge), 109

Tournament 2 Highlights

Theme: Still eight teams in Eastern and Western divisions, but this time we added a wrinkle. We started by clustering together players based on the cities they played for in real life. For example, the many Yankees in the HOF formed the core of a New York side, while the best of the Cubs and White Sox came together for a Chicago team. Then we filled things out with a few that didn’t quite fit in.

Season Summary: Once again, one of Isaiah’s teams ran away with the regular season: drawing on greats from Pittsburgh (Pirates, but also the Crawfords and Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues) and Philadelphia (Phillies and A’s), the Pennsylvania Quakers won 60% of their games behind the all-around brilliance of league MVP Oscar Charleston, the slugging of Josh Gibson and Willie Stargell, and the stellar pitching of Lefty Grove and Steve Carlton. Then Isaiah was set to claim the other half of the tournament with a Great Lakes assembly of Tigers, Indians, Brewers, and Twins greats, but San Francisco’s Seals (27-26) eked out a win in a weak Western Division, concluding a furious comeback by sweeping the Lakers in the last series of the season. In a stunning upset, the light-hitting Seals took the title in seven games, with Willie Mays making up for a mediocre regular season by batting .348 with two homers and three steals and little-used Orlando Cepeda hitting three doubles and three homers against the Quakers’ southpaws. (Consolation prize for Pennsylvania: Rube Waddell pitched the only no-hitter we’ve ever simulated in a midseason game in San Francisco.)

Pedro Martínez late in his career, with the New York Mets – Creative Commons (alpineinc)

Batting Leaders:

BA: King Kelly (C/RF, Boston), .407
OBP: Ty Cobb (OF, Great Lakes), .457
SLG: Oscar Charleston (CF, Pennsylvania), .664
OPS: Oscar Charleston, 1.103
HR: Willie Stargell (LF/1B, Pennsylvania), 17
Runs: Ty Cobb, 47
RBI: Carl Yastrzemski (LF/1B, Boston) and Ernie Banks (SS, Chicago), 37
SB: Eddie Collins (2B, Chicago), 21

Pitching Leaders:

ERA: Dazzy Vance (RHP, Hollywood), 2.26
WHIP: Pedro Martínez (RHP, Boston), 1.012
Wins: Steve Carlton (LHP, Pennsylvania), 10
Saves: Bruce Sutter (RHP, Chicago), 8
Innings: Lefty Grove (LHP, Pennsylvania), 98.2
Strikeouts: Sandy Koufax (LHP, Hollywood), 93

Tournament 3 Highlights

Theme: for the final go-round, we placed eight teams in mostly non-MLB cities in northern and southern divisions. But this time, we started with a territorial draft, forming teams around players’ birthplaces. With all non-US born players assigned to a single international team based in Havana, we then placed teams in the seven states (or sets of neighboring states, like Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia) accounting for the most hall of famers (California, Pennsylvania, and New York led the way), and filled out the squads with stars from other states (which is how Georgians Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson wound up on teams in Cuba and Iowa).

Season Summary: For once, I had the best team from start to finish, as my Sacramento River Cats led the South from start to finish; Joe DiMaggio paced them in the first half, then Ted Williams picked up the slack after the Yankees’ legend went down for two weeks with an injury. (They lost 31 games to finish in last place, but Isaiah’s Havana Sugar Kings did feature the best battery we’ve ever seen: Pedro Martínez and Josh Gibson.) My Cooperstown Knickerbockers almost overtook Isaiah’s Williamsport Little Leaguers (he’s now 10, by the way), but the Keystone Staters won a Game 55 playoff behind two doubles and a home run from Stan Musial, who knocked in the game-winning run off Cooperstown closer Jim Palmer. Then the series again went the full seven, with Sacramento holding on for a 9-7 win despite Honus Wagner and Mule Suttles each hitting two over the fence for the visitors. With Williams batting below the Mendoza Line for the series (.185), his Red Sox teammate Joe Cronin led the way with ten hits and ten RBI.

Batting Leaders:

Josh Gibson with the Homestead Grays in 1931 – Wikimedia

BA: Josh Gibson (C, Havana), .370
OBP: Ted Williams (LF, Sacramento), .462 [Gibson was 2nd]
SLG: Josh Gibson, .708
OPS: Josh Gibson, 1.147
HR: Mike Piazza (C, Williamsport), 16
Runs: Honus Wagner, 45
RBI: Rogers Hornsby (2B, Dallas) and Willie Stargell (LF/1B, Dyersville), 38
SB: Ty Cobb (OF, Havana), 28

Pitching Leaders:

ERA: Al Spalding (RHP, Dyersville), 1.69
WHIP: Pedro Martínez (RHP, Havana), 0.960
Wins: Christy Mathewson (RHP, Williamsport), 9
Saves: Goose Gossage (RHP, Sacramento), 11
Innings: Christy Mathewson, 100.1
Strikeouts: Pedro Martínez, 98

Overall Leaders

If you really want to do a deep dive into my madness, the entire spreadsheet — not just batting and pitching, but fielding for each position — is embedded below.

Batting Leaders:

BA: Ty Cobb (OF), .371
OBP: Ty Cobb, .389
SLG: Josh Gibson (C), .651
OPS: Josh Gibson, 1.010
Hits: Ty Cobb, 214
2B: Nap Lajoie (2B/1B), 47
3B: Buck Ewing (C), 20
HR: Mickey Mantle (LF/CF), 42
Total Bases: Willard Brown (OF/SS), 343
Runs: Ty Cobb, 117
RBI: Babe Ruth (LF/RF), 100
SB: Ty Cobb, 59
Walks: Ted Williams (LF), 119
Strikeouts: Ken Griffey, Jr. (CF), 128

Pitching Leaders:

ERA: Pedro Martínez (RHP), 2.20
WHIP: Pedro Martínez, 0.968
Wins: Al Spalding (RHP), 20
Saves: Goose Gossage (RHP), 30
Innings: Christy Mathewson, 278
Strikeouts: Pedro Martínez, 276
Complete Games: Pedro Martínez, 8
Shutouts: Pedro Martínez, 6
K/9: Randy Johnson (LHP), 11.46
K/BB: Pedro Martínez, 4.84

Lou Gehrig, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, and Babe Ruth in 1928 – Wikimedia

Silver Slugger Team

C: Josh Gibson
1B: Lou Gehrig
2B: Rogers Hornsby
3B: Eddie Mathews
SS: Honus Wagner
LF: Ty Cobb
CF: Oscar Charleston
RF: Willard Brown
P: Al Spalding

Gold Glove Team

C: Mickey Cochrane
1B: Lou Gehrig
2B: Charlie Gehringer
3B: Wade Boggs
SS: Honus Wagner
OF: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker
P: Sandy Koufax