(Published Wednesday, before Max Scherzer and the Nationals won Game 7 of the World Series.)
Admittedly, I feel uncomfortable even broaching the subject.
Yogi Berra is an iconic St. Louisan – heck, an iconic American – who was proud of his home city and starred in America's biggest city. His childhood home on The Hill is a stop on walking tours. He's a one-name American icon – he's baseball's Cher.
But if Max Scherzer wins Wednesday night in Game 7 of the World Series (update: he did!), does Max overtake Yogi as the greatest baseball player from St. Louis?
Now, comparing a catcher from the 1950s to a pitcher from the 2010s is pretty tricky.
Yogi himself might've said something like: “It's comparing apples to orange juice.”
But for the fun of the argument, consider that the baseball statistic WAR – Wins Above Replacement – is often cited as the fairest comparison of players from different eras. It's an accumulative, all-encompassing gumbo of a number.
Yogi Berra had a career WAR of 59.8, per baseball-reference.com.
And with the 2019 regular season over, Max Scherzer's career WAR is now 60.3.
Pretty amazing how close they are (almost eerie, even). Of course, Scherzer will continue to pitch and compile more WAR. He's 35 years old and at the top of his game, coming off yet another season that should land him in the top-five for Cy Young voting.
So before we get deeper in all of this, let's look at the standard stats.
Catcher, New York Yankees
1946-1963 (and nine at-bats for the 1965 Mets)
• Three MVP awards (1951, 1954, 1955)
• Fifteen consecutive All-Star Games
• From 1950-56, he finished in the top-four in MVP voting
• Career slash line: .285/.348/.482 (for an OPS of .830)
• Career homers: 358 (87th all-time)
• Career RBIs: 1,430 (68th all-time)
• And he played before the Gold Glove Award, but five times he finished in the top-10 of defensive WAR.
• And perhaps most impressive, he played in FOURTEEN World Series, winning 10 of them.
Of course, Berra played in an era with fewer teams, and in an era when there was less movement with trades. So good teams stayed together longer, and few teams in history were stronger longer than the Yankees of the late-1940s to 1963. (The 1964 World Series, which Yogi's Yankees lost to his hometown Cardinals, was the beginning of the end of that Yankee dynasty. The Yankees didn't return to the playoffs until 1976.)
OK, so let's look at the pride of Parkway Central and the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Pitcher, Arizona, Detroit and currently Washington
• Three Cy Young awards (2013 in AL, 2016 and 2017 in NL)
• Seven consecutive All-Star Games
• Assuming he cracks the top-five for Cy Young this year, it will be the seventh-consecutive season he's in the top-five for Cy Young voting.
• Pitched two no-hitters and one 20-strikeout game.
• Led the league in strikeouts three times
• Led the league in wins four times and WHIP four times
• Only the second player to ever strikeout 200 or more batters in eight-consecutive seasons.
• Career record: 170-89
• Career ERA: 3.20 (250th all-time)
• Career strikeouts per nine innings: 10.6 (fifth all-time)
• Career WHIP: 1.092 (23rd all-time)
• Cool eyes
So yeah, it's ridiculously difficult to compare these two players. In his prime, Yogi was an annual MVP candidate, and in Max's prime, he was/is an annual Cy Young candidate.
Yogi clearly has the edge in postseason accomplishments, and though he was one of the best players on his team, a lot of that had to do with the team he was on. And Yogi has become legendary via pop culture. With his fun name and personality, and his later years as a major league manager and coach, he gave just as much to baseball culture as he did to baseball history. He was famous. He was recognizable. If we're doing Q-score, he has Scherzer beat.
But with Scherzer, there is naturally some recency bias. He's a star right now. He's been a star for the past 7-8 seasons. The game has never been more difficult and intricate and detailed – everyone is equipped with technology to enhance their minds and their skills. And yet Scherzer ascends in this modern game. Dominance. Prominence. And he's famously intense. Fun to watch.
Even if he wasn't pitching in Wednesday's Game 7, his legacy would be cemented. But, man, consider this rare opportunity: To start and earn a franchise its first World Series by winning Game 7 on the road against a offensive team that, statistically, is right there with the 1927 Yankees? Oh, and pitching against one of his peers in Zack Greinke? And pitching after taking a cortisone shot two days prior to combat crazy pain in his neck?
A win tonight could sway things Max's way.
One other stat aspect that should be noted – there have been other St. Louisan-born players with amazing WAR totals. Scherzer's 60.3 isn't even the best. A gentleman named Pud Galvin, born on Christmas Day in 1856, compiled a 73.5 WAR. He pitched 15 seasons, finishing in 1892 with the St. Louis Cardinals – the first season the franchise denotes in its team history. "Pud" was not James Francis Galvin's only nickname. He also went by “Gentle Jeems” or “The Little Steam Engine.”
Theodore Breitenstein (1891-1901) accumulated a 50.5 WAR, and in one glorious summer of 1894, he led both the Cardinals and all of baseball with 447 1/3 innings pitched (he was 27-23 that year with a 4.79 ERA). Just below Breitenstein on the WAR list is another St. Louis born player from the 19th century – Silver King (1886-1897). His WAR was 50.4, enhanced by his 1888 season for the St. Louis Browns, when he went 45-20 with a 1.63 ERA in 584 2/3 innings.
But if we put aside the cartoon stats of yesteryear, one St. Louis area pitcher who deserves to be mentioned here is the modern stalwart Mark Buehrle (2000-2015). The St. Charles native and graduate of Francis Howell North compiled a 59.2 WAR, just below Yogi's 59.8.
A perfect game hurler and World Series winner (2005 with Chicago), Buehrle played 16 seasons with a 3.81 ERA and five All-Star appearances. For 13 consecutive seasons (think about this) he pitched 200 or more innings. And in that 14th season, which was his last (2015 with Toronto), he finished with 198 2/3 innings pitched.
An underrated career for the St. Louis kid. And his 59.2 WAR would be the best for most native sons of cities, but not our city.
Another person to consider is James "Cool Papa" Bell. He moved to St. Louis at age 17, but is considered a local legend. A longtime star in the Negro Leagues, Bell was inducted into Cooperstown in 1974.
So as for Max vs. Yogi? Well, I make a lot of proclamations and share a lot of opinions for stltoday.com. But with this one, I'm going to have to defer to the old Tony La Russa line, when comparing great things: They're tied for first.