Living Legends

Last week, I wrote a piece criticizing the All-Star game for corrupting the World Series. But for all of its faults (of which there are numerous), the All-Star game still brings together the finest ballplayers on the earth once a year. In that spirit, here are a few of the players we’ll miss when they’re gone. Players who will illicit a smile when their name is mentioned and whose highlights will live on in YouTube immortality-these are the best that the current game has to offer.

Miguel Cabrera

(Photographer Not Given/Deadspin)

The sweetest right handed swing since Joe DiMaggio belongs to the Venezuelan slugger who brought a World Series title to Florida in his rookie season and has feasted upon American League Central pitching for nearly a decade. DiMaggio’s greatest rival, the immortal (I mean that figuratively, unless they get the frozen head thing figured out) Ted Williams, once said that the hardest thing to do in sports was hit a baseball-“…You’ve got a round bat and a round ball and you’ve got to hit it square.” Yet it has proven itself no mystery to Cabrera, who possesses that “flick of the wrists power” that enables him to crack towering home runs with the same repetitive motion as he would bounce a seeing-eye single up the middle. “Miggy”, as he is known, has mastered the physics of the swing, giving him an effortless stroke that encompasses all the beauty of America’s game.

If hitting is an art, as it is so often referenced, Luis Aparicio draws stick figures and Jose Canseco sloshes a bucket of paint against a wall. But Cabrera-his stroke is a masterpiece, worthy of a Rembrandt or Van Gogh, reminiscent of a DiMaggio or a Ken Griffey Junior. Because his swing is so balanced and he doesn’t have to swing out of his shoes to generate power, Cabrera is able to put bat on ball at an astonishing rate and a superb .320 career batting average, highest among active players by a solid margin. Cabrera’s suspect defense has led to him being moved from the hot corner to the less taxing first base position, and he has yet to steal double digit bases in a season, but the purity of his swing erases all other faults.

Clayton Kershaw

(Photographer not given)

Clayton Kershaw is arguably the greatest left handed pitcher of all time, and that’s not hyperbole.

Now, Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson might have something to say about that, but the first nine years of Kershaw’s career are as impressive as any run any pitcher has ever had. Last year, his K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings) was hide-the-children filthy, and he struck out over 300 hitters. And that was the year he didn’t win the MVP. Now that Marshawn Lynch and Calvin Johnson have retired, there is no singular more dominant force in sports. Kershaw has Nolan Ryan’s heater and Greg Maddux’s control. There are plenty of dominant pitchers who become All-Stars and even hall of famers with those two attributes. What separates Kershaw is the late, dramatic movement that his pitches-the nastiness that will slide the ball just a few inches from where it resided previously, turning home runs into pop flys and dribblers into strikeouts. Kershaw’s dominance is good for the game of baseball. Every era needs an iconic pitcher and a hallowed slugger, and Kershaw fills his role impeccably.

The only things missing from Kershaw’s resume is postseason success and a good nickname. Despite historical regular season dominance, Kershaw has stumbled thus far in the playoffs. Not all of it lies on his shoulders, as his teams have consistently imploded throughout the past decade, but as he ages, the burden will weigh heavier and heavier on his shoulders.

Buster Posey

(Photographer not given)

If Buster Posey continues to play the way he has through the first seven years of his career for the next five, he’ll be in the Hall of Fame.

If he does it for the next ten, he will be the greatest catcher of all time.

Buster Posey entered baseball lore as a rookie, when he was called up in mid May and proceeded to bat cleanup and lead the Giants to an unlikely World Series title. He was Rookie of the Year and looked to be a franchise centerpiece for years to come.

The fairytale took an unexpected plunge when Posey suffered a gruesome ankle injury in the following season. Posey didn’t have much trouble with his comeback attempt-he was only NL MVP and a World Series Champion (again) during his first campaign back.

Posey posses the same smooth swing as Cabrera. He has a remarkable tendency to follow the law of averages-a slump never lasts too long with Posey, and there’s always one month where he catches fire-usually July-and hits near or over .400. Posey’s defense, too, has been superb. He is the best pitch framer in baseball and consistently throws out over 50 percent of potential basestealers with a compact motion and a rifle behind the dish.

The statistics speak for themselves, and barring an abrupt drop off, he is well on his way to 300 homers and 3,000 hits. Johnny Bench is widely accepted as the incumbent in terms of the greatest catcher ever, and he hit 389 dingers-a number well within Posey’s reach. Rookie of the Year, All-Star, Silver Slugger, Comeback Player of the Year, MVP, and 3 time World Series Champion-the accolades continue to pile up.

Where Buster will really be remembered is in the postseason. Already claiming three World Series titles, the Giants look to be well on their way to contending for a fourth during their tenure in San Francisco. The name Buster Posey is synonymous with “Champion.”

Mike Trout

 

(Photographer not given)

For those who value advanced statistics, Mike Trout’s career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is already ahead of Darryl Strawberry’s.

That means that in his five and a half seasons in the Majors have already been more valuable to his team than Strawberry’s seventeen year career. Had Miguel Cabrera not won the Triple Crown for the first time since 1967, Trout most likely would have been the first player since Fred Lynn to win the MVP award in their rookie season.

Oh yeah, and he’s 25 years old-the age when most players are first breaking into the big leagues.

There’s a common mis-perception about the term “athleticism”. Usually it refers to a person that can run fast and jump high. When someone like Steph Curry succeeds despite lacking in those areas relative to their peers, there’s a media firestorm of how amazing it is that he is able to win the MVP without being “athletic.” Yet there’s another type of athleticism that people fail to recognize all too often-coordination. For as high as Dwight Howard can leap or as quick as Dennis Rodman could bound up the court, the two of them as well as a tremendous number of athletes lack the other half of athleticism, the coordination to glide around defenders, time a jump, or scale a wall. In rare instances, there are athletes that possess both types of athleticism-think Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr.-immortals. There’s only one baseball player that can currently claim this combination-Mike Trout.

Only four players have ever stolen 40 bases and hit 40 home runs in the same season. Trout hasn’t done that yet, but he’s certainly proved himself capable. He’s completed each of the feats in separate seasons, indicating that the ability is there. Trout is probably the only player in the game today with even a slight chance at entering that hallowed club.

Think Mickey Mantle if he had never blown out his knee. That’s the type of player Trout is. The Angels’ star centerfielder possess the most complete array of the five tools of baseball since Willie Mays. These types don’t come around often.

Trout will most likely capture his second MVP award this season at an age where most of his baseball playing peers are hoping for a September call-up.

 

While the All-Star game certainly has it’s flaws, the game of baseball is in good hands. Four living legends that have shaped this decade of baseball-and will continue to in the years to come.

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