King of Baseball (cont.)
It wasn't Johnny Bench or Pete Rose that wore the crown during the years of the Big Red Machine. Instead, it was a welterweight in Joe Morgan whose combination of speed, power and fielding at a premium defensive position helped him win consecutive NL MVPs and Cincinnati back-to-back world championships in 1975 and '76.
Total WAR: 65.8
Trivia: Morgan had many tools, including enviable speed, stealing 441 bases over eight seasons, 27 more than the next hitter on the list. He was still outrun by Lou Brock -- five years Morgan's senior -- who stole 513 bags.
One can almost hear Harry Kalas intoning the name of "Michael Jack Schmidt, King of Baseball." Again, it was a combination of skills that kept him at the top: His power (he finished his career with 548 home runs) and his slick fielding (10 career Gold Gloves) at the hot corner.
Total WAR: 87.7
Trivia: Over the 11 seasons from 1974-1984, Schmidt put his contemporaries to shame. George Brett is his closest rival at 60.1 WAR, almost 30 wins behind Schmidt.
As great as Henderson was for such a long period, it's more of a surprise that he was only King for two blocks than that he's on this illustrious list.
Total WAR: 43.7
Trivia: Henderson finished his Hall of Fame career as baseball's all-time leader in stolen bases, runs and walks (since passed by Barry Bonds).
Just before what became known as "The Steroid Era", it was a slap-hitting throwback that took the crown. Boggs did have one big power year (24 home runs) in the power-blip season of '87, but it was his consistent stay at the top of the batting title and the OPS leaderboard that made him King. Boggs may not have hit many homers, but he crushed doubles like they were made of chicken.
Total WAR: 59.3
Trivia: From 1983 to 1990, no player in baseball got on base more times than Boggs did.
Bonds wasn't just the King. He held the title for fifteen blocks, more than double anyone else. To give you an idea of how long this was, he first wore the crown in '91, when Albert Pujols was still eligible to be playing for the Little League World Series. And before you start, more of Bonds' reign came before his alleged use of PEDs than after it.
Total WAR: 161.0
Trivia: Bonds' 161 WAR is more than double the next best player over that era. Ken Griffey Jr. had a very respectable 80.3 WAR for second best, Jeff Bagwell was close to Griffey at 79.9 WAR, and yet literally neither was half as good as Bonds.
Pujols' current six-block run as King could go on much longer, or so the Angels hope. The longtime Cardinals star is only the second reigning King to switch teams (after Bonds, who moved from the Pirates to the Giants after the 1992 season), but the shift didn't hurt Bonds' production at all. Pujols' career has been in slow decline for years, but has been at such an elevated level that he's just starting to look human. It's unlikely that he could keep the crown as long as Bonds did, but he could challenge Ruth for the second-longest reign.
Total WAR: 82.2
Trivia: Despite having the sixth most home runs among active players, Pujols only topped the NL in homers twice, in 2009 and 2010.
It's unlikely that Pujols will concede his crown in the next segment. For the four seasons that will be included in the next block -- 2008 to 2011 -- he has a seven win lead over the rest of the pack, ahead of Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who are themselves separated by just one-tenth of a win. While Pujols may soon be entering in a declining phase and Longoria and Mauer are still in their ascendancy, seven wins is nearly impossible to make up in a single season, unless Pujols misses the entire year and Longoria or Mauer has an MVP-caliber season.
Looking at the blocks ending in 2013 or 2014, however, it is possible that a new king will be crowned, and the most likely successor is Longoria. While Mauer will always have the advantage of being a catcher and getting a nice positional adjustment from that, he has struggled mightily to stay healthy and may soon lose that positional boost if he has to move out from behind the plate. Add in the fact that Minnesota's Target Field has been particularly unkind to hitters so far, and it seems more likely that Mauer will fall back into the rest of the field than surge to the top.
Longoria has the advantage of being two years away from his theoretical peak, which has to be a terrifying idea for pitchers. He has been healthy, amassing at least 500 plate appearances in all four of his major league seasons so far. Perhaps most importantly, he has been consistently great: Since his rookie season of 2008, Longoria has been worth at least 6.4 wins.
High peaks, like Matt Kemp's 10-win season in 2011 are great, but baseball's kings have traditionally been players who perform consistently well rather than players who ebb between being phenomenal and merely above average. Longoria has already achieved that level of consistency and still has a few years to grow before he plateaus and even longer to go before he declines, which makes him the heir-apparent to Pujols' throne and crown.
That said, there have been plenty of "almost Kings" along the way that never quite got over the hump. It could be that the next King is playing in the minors or even on a sandlot somewhere. Kings don't have a lot of overlap, it seems. While there are many players that can be described as good and some that can be described as great at any given time in baseball history, there are a surprisingly small number who can legitimately claim to have been the best.
Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index was immensely helpful in putting together this article. Data compiled by Dan Wade.
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