Hot Off the Presses: The July All-Star Issue of Vine Line

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Quick … which catcher had the greatest statistical season in Cubs history?

I’ll give you a second to think about it.

What about Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett? He went to six All-Star Games, won the 1935 NL MVP and was generally considered the best catcher in NL history until Johnny Bench came along.

Maybe Randy Hundley. He went to an All-Star Game, won a Gold Glove and threw out a remarkable 50 percent of base stealers four times in his career.

Jody Davis? Johnny Kling? Keith Moreland even played some catcher.

What would you say if I told you it was Rick Wilkins? Yes, the same Rick Wilkins who was a 23rd-round pick out of Furman University. The same Rick Wilkins who played for eight different teams in his 11 big league seasons. The same Rick Wilkins who put up a career .244/.332/.410 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line. Not exactly the stuff of legend.

But then there was 1993—a year in which the peripatetic Cubs backstop hit .303 (he never again hit better than .270), slammed 30 home runs (he never again hit more than 14) and drove in 73 runs (he never again plated more than 59). That season, he compiled 6.6 wins above replacement (WAR), an advanced statistic meant to summarize a player’s value to his team in a single, all-encompassing number.

According to stats website Fangraphs, the source of these figures, anything above a 6.0 is considered an MVP-caliber season. The best Hartnett ever managed was a 5.6. Mind you, Hartnett’s career WAR was 53.4; Wilkins’ was only 14.0 (and, remember, almost half of that came from one season).

There’s no better way to get baseball fans riled up than starting a good, old-fashioned intergenerational debate. Stats geeks and old-school fans alike can spend countless hours arguing the merits of Aramis Ramirez over Ron Santo or Ryne Sandberg over Rogers Hornsby.

For our July All-Star issue, we set out to find the best-ever single season by a Cubs player at each position in the team’s more than 100-year history. Of course, it seems obvious Mark Grace would have had the best first-base season (he didn’t) or that Billy Williams was the top left fielder (he wasn’t).

There are a million ways to go about a task like this, and they’re all incredibly subjective. So we turned to a single advanced metric to help us figure things out. WAR is an all-inclusive stat that takes into account offense, defense and baserunning to determine how many wins a player is worth over a league-average replacement player.

We’re not saying the men on our list are necessarily the best players in Cubs history. Some of them are. Several of them decidedly are not. But they all had at least one spectacular season that set them apart statistically and can truly be considered the best ever by a Cub at their respective positions (as measured by this one metric).

We also take time this month to look down the chain at some of the other All-Star athletes throughout the organization. The Cubs are building a winner from the bottom up, and fans need to know which players are on the rise. That includes everyone from this year’s first-round draft pick (second overall) Kris Bryant to minor league mashers like Dustin Geiger and Rock Shoulders (whose name we try to work into every issue if we can).

Finally, to ensure the pipeline of young talent remains strong, the Cubs are investing heavily in their international scouting and player development. Outside of the U.S., more major league players hail from the Dominican Republic than from any other country. The Cubs crop includes big leaguers such as Starlin Castro and top minor league prospects like Junior Lake. While the restoration of Wrigley Field is getting the headlines on the facilities front, the Cubs recently opened a 50-acre baseball academy in the Dominican to find more top talent and diamonds in the rough. We give you a look inside the state-of-the-art facility.

We’ll be releasing our WAR All-Stars position by position here on the blog in the coming weeks. If you want to weigh in with your own opinions, email us at vineline@cubs.com or talk to us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.

Let the debate begin.

—Gary Cohen

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