For better or worse, the 21st century has given us some of the most exciting moments in the history of baseball. We’ve seen steroid scandals, broken curses, broken home run records, and seven perfect games.
As David Schoenfield of ESPN points out, the great thing about baseball is that the game never changes: “If you stepped into a time machine and turned the clock back to 1900, you would still recognize the game of baseball. The same cannot be said for basketball or football. Oh, there weren't many home runs and starting pitchers completed nearly every start, but it was still the same game. The bases were 90 feet apart and three strikes meant you were out. Heck even then players and owners constantly squabbled over money.” The Yankees will always be the Yankees, the Red Sox the Red Sox. The only difference is new players will dawn the uniforms.
With that in mind, here are the eight best and seven worst MLB players since 2000.
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15 BEST: CLAYTON KERSHAW
Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher to come around since Sandy Koufax, and when his career is over (he’s just 28), he might go down as the best of all time.
Just look at what he’s accomplished so far: In nine seasons, he’s finished with an ERA below 2 three times, he’s struck out 1,918 batters in 1760 innings, he’s won three Cy Young Awards and one MVP (just like Koufax), and he’s compiled a career record of 126-60 with a 2.37 ERA.
Kershaw only appears to be getting better with age, too. Last season he had an ERA of 1.69 in 21 games, finishing fifth in Cy Young voting despite missing nearly half the year with a back injury.
14 WORST: JOSE LIMA
Jose Lima was a larger than life character throughout his career. Also larger than life was his ERA in the 21st century.
After a career-year in 1999—wherein he put up personal bests in wins (21), ERA (3.58), and strikeouts (187)—Lima would go on to become one of the worst pitchers of the 2000s, starting the century off by going 7-16 with a 6.65 ERA while leading the league in earned runs and home runs allowed.
From 2000-06, no one was as consistently bad on the mound as Lima. Pitching for five different teams, he compiled a record of 43-62 with an even 6 ERA.
13 BEST: DEREK JETER
He might not have been the flashiest player, and some will call him overrated, but there’s no denying that Derek Jeter was one of the most consistent performers of the 21st century, both in the field and at the plate.
From 2000-2014, he had at least 600 plate appearances every year but two, batting over .300 nine times while playing one of the toughest positions on the diamond (and earning five Gold Glove Awards). Over 15 seasons, he hit .307/.374/.432 with 197 home runs, 970 RBIs, and 272 stolen bases. More important than stats, however, Jeter led the Yankees to two World Series championships in the 21st century (five in total) and became known as the paragon of professionalism.
12 WORST: JOHN VAN BENSCHOTEN
With the eighth overall pick in the 2001 draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates were hoping pitcher John Van Benschoten would turn out to be one of the greatest pitchers of the 21st century—instead he turned out to be one of the worst.
In three seasons with the Pirates, Van Benschoten went 2-13 with a 9.20 ERA and 2.144 WHIP, finishing with a -3.5 career WAR. His longest—and worst—season came in 2007, when he made nine starts and lost seven games without a single win, posting a 10.15 ERA and walking more batters than he struck out in 39 innings.
Van Benschoten pitched well in the minors at the beginning of his career, but the pressure of being in the majors was clearly too much to handle. In 2012, he told Deadspin, “When you come up through the minors, everybody's helping you. All the coaches want to spend time with you. In the big leagues, that cuts off. They tell you to be a man, and I didn't handle that well.”
11 BEST: PEDRO MARTINEZ
Despite his short stature, Pedro Martinez was one of the most dominant pitchers of all time—not just the 21st century. Pedro won his third and final Cy Young at the turn of the century, going 18-6 with a career-best 1.74 ERA while averaging close to 12 strikeouts per nine innings. He would follow it up by posting a 2.27 ERA combined over the next three seasons.
In 10 seasons in the 21st century, Pedro won nearly 70% of his games with a 3.01 ERA and 1,620 strikeouts compared to just 350 walks in 1,468 innings. His stretch from 1999-2003 (82-21, 2.10 ERA, 11.6 K/9) was possibly the greatest in MLB history.
10 WORST: KEVIN JARVIS
More shocking than the awful numbers Kevin Jarvis put up (including a career 34-49 record with a 6.03 ERA) is the fact that he was able to play in the majors for 12 years. You’d think that after racking up a 7.68 ERA in 1997 his career would be over, but instead teams (10 in total) kept giving him chances, allowing him to make 187 appearances throughout his career, despite never finishing with an ERA below 4.37.
Just about the only time the bases were empty for Jarvis was at the start of an inning or after letting up a home run. In 780.2 innings, he gave up 937 hits (149 of which were home runs) and averaged less than a hit per inning in only two seasons.
9 BEST: MIGUEL CABRERA
Given all that he’s already accomplished, it’s hard to believe that Miguel Cabrera is only 33.
In 14 big league seasons, Miggy has put together a .321 batting average (he’s led the league in this category four times) with 446 home runs and 1,553 RBIs. In 2012, he won the Triple Crown with a .330 average, 44 home runs, and 139 RBIs, and followed it up with an even better 2013. He’s failed to hit above .300 in a full season only twice, and even then he just barely missed the mark.
If he can stay healthy and remain consistent at the plate, he should easily go down as one of the best hitters of all time—certainly one of the best players of the 21st century.
8 WORST: DREW BUTERA
Kansas City Royals catcher Drew Butera showed major signs of improvement in 2016, finishing with career-bests in batting average (.285) and home runs (4) in 133 plate appearances, but it did little to improve his overall statistics. In seven seasons (just under 1,000 plate appearances), he has a batting average of .198 and on-base percentage of .253 to go along with just 13 home runs. Prior to 2016, he had never above .200, with a low of .167 in 2011.
Butera at least gets credit for pitching scoreless innings in both the American and National League. Armed with a fastball that touches mid-90s, he has made five appearances in the majors as a pitcher, with a respectable 4.50 ERA and four strikeouts.
7 BEST: MIKE TROUT
Just 24 years old and six years into his big league career and Angels centerfielder Mike Trout has already accomplished more than the average player does in an entire career: a Rookie of the Year Award, five All-Star selections, five Silver Sluggers, and two MVPs. In fact, Trout has finished first or second in MVP voting in each of his six full seasons in the majors.
Because of his ability to excel at every aspect of the game, Trout has drawn comparisons to another great centerfielder: Willie Mays, whose name often comes up in discussions about the greatest all-around player of all time. Should his game continue to evolve, Trout’s name will surely join that discussion one day.
Hell, even Bryce Harper thinks Trout is the “best player in the game, hands down.”
6 WORST: JP ARENCIBIA
JP Arencibia hit a lot of home runs for his position (including a club-record 23 for the Blue Jays in 2011), but not nearly enough to make up for his (many) other deficiencies. For example, his career batting average was just .212; worse yet, he had an on-base percentage of .258, walking just 85 times in 1,687 career plate appearances.
Catchers are often forgiven for their offensive shortcomings by playing stellar defense, but JP struggled on both sides of the game. “Although defensive prowess is tough to measure for catchers,” wrote Scott C. of Bluebird Banter in 2013, “it seems to be a consensus among people who watch the Blue Jays that Arencibia is a pretty horrible defensive catcher. According to Fangraphs, Arencibia's -2 Defensive Runs Saved is among the bottom 10 for catchers this season. To back this stat up, J.P. leads the league with 6 passed balls and is sixth with 15 wild pitches.”
5 BEST: ALEX RODRIGUEZ
Perhaps the most polarizing figure in baseball history, Alex Rodriguez left the MLB on a low note this past season, batting just .200 with nine home runs in 65 games. But regardless of your feelings of him or how his career ended, there’s no denying that he was one of the greatest in the history of the sport.
Although he accomplished much at a young age, his best seasons in the majors didn’t come until after the year 2000. From 2001-07, he led the league in home runs five out of seven times, earning him three MVP Awards. All told, in 22 seasons A-Rod swatted 696 home runs (fourth all time, with or without an asterisk) with 2,086 RBIs and a batting average just shy of .300. He also stole 329 bases and won two Gold Glove Awards at shortstop.
Even after factoring in the boost he may have received from taking performance-enhancing drugs, Rodriguez should still be considered one of the best players of the century.
4 WORST: JUAN CASTRO
Juan Castro came in at number five on Beyond the Box Score’s list of the 10 worst players in baseball history according to WAR. Castro was also the only player on the list from the 21st century.
As baseball writer Rob Neyer points out, Castro’s batting line of .229/.268/.327 is the third-worst for players with at least 2,500 plate appearances since the second World War. Adding insult to injury, he was a below average defensive shortstop who stole just four bases in 1,103 career games.
Despite failing at just about every facet of the game, Castro somehow lasted 17 seasons in the majors, playing for five different teams.
3 BEST: ALBERT PUJOLS
From 2001-10, Albert Pujols hit .331 and averaged 41 home runs and 123 RBIs per season, never hitting lower than .312 or fewer than 32 home runs, finishing in the top three for NL MVP voting eight times (winning three times).
In recent years, Pujols’s production has dropped off slightly, but even a down year for him is a career-year for most. Last season, he bounced back from a career-low .244 average in 2015 by finishing second in the AL in RBIs (119).
Albert has never hit more than 49 home runs in a season and he’s likely to fall far short of the all-time career home run mark set by Barry Bonds, but for most of his time in the majors he’s been the picture of consistency, finishing with no fewer than 95 RBIs in any full season.
2 WORST: NEIFI PEREZ
Worst of the century has to go to Neifi Perez, who makes a strong case for being the worst player from four different teams since 2000. Thanks to King Kaufman, who coined the phrase “Neifi Index,” Perez’s name will forever be synonymous with subpar performance—that is, the “Neifi Index” measures the amount of value a player brings to his team by not playing, and it was named after the Dominican infielder for obvious reasons.
In 12 seasons, Perez hit just 64 home runs with an on-base percentage below .300. To be fair, he had a few good moments at the start of his career, including back-to-back years with 70 RBIs in 1999 and 2000, but for the most part he was a liability to whatever team would take him.
1 BEST: BARRY BONDS
Barry Bonds’s association with performance-enhancing drugs has prevented him from entering the Hall of Fame, but it shouldn’t change the fact that he was the greatest player of the 21st century—and possibly of all time.
From 2000-2007, he hit 317 home runs (including a single-season record of 73 in 2001) with an unheard of on-base percentage of .517. Bonds won four of his seven MVPs (most all time) in the 21st century, and finished his career with the most home runs (762), the most walks (2,558), and the most runs created (2,892).
You can argue that he wouldn’t have put up these numbers were it not for steroids, but consider the fact that three of his MVPs came before the steroid era when not only was he a great hitter, but he was also a great fielder and base runner, with eight Gold Gloves and 514 career stolen bases.
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