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The MLB Players Who Were The Best In The Game From 1984-2004

MONICA M. DAVEY. Getty Images.

We had a discussion on Picks Central yesterday about what NBA players had a right to lay claim to being the best player at any given time. I thought that same mental exercise could be fun with baseball too. I will say that while I hate what steroids did the game, I am going to try to take that out of it when it comes time to picking each player. Barry Bonds used PED's. He did with every intention to cheat. if you don't believe me, check out the great book Game Of Shadows. But having said that, it would be a total lie to exclude him from this list. 

I'm also going with 1984-2004. This wound up being longer than I thought so I'll do 2005-present next week. Without further ado, here are the greatest players for each specific year from 1984-2004:


Bruce Bennett. Getty Images.

1984-87 Don Mattingly, 1B (New York Yankees)

Don Mattingly is the rare guy who you can make a case was the best player in all of baseball and also should not be in the Hall of Fame. His peak was so short but so great. From 1984-87, Mattingly hit .337/.381/.560. It's even more incredible when you see how much of that time was dominated by pitching.

His back went and it ended far too soon for Donnie Baseball. In 1988, he was only 27 and you'd think he'd be entering a long stretch of greatness. After turning 27, Mattingly never hit 25 home runs or slugged .480 in any season. He retired at the end of the 1995 season when he was just 34 years old. He's the greatest Yankee to never play in a World Series game.

Robert Riger. Getty Images.

1988 Orel Hershiser, SP (Los Angeles Dodgers)

You could make a case for Jose Canseco. This was his 40/40 season and he was only 23. It seemed like the future was so bright. But this was Orel's season. He pitched 59 scoreless innings to end the 1988 season and then promptly won the World Series. He won the NL Cy Young, NLCS MVP and World Series MVP.

The crazy thing is he was almost as good in 1989 too. Lasorda pitched him so much (Hershiser led the NL in IP each year from 1987-89) that he tore his labrum in 1990 and was never really the same again. He was such a smart pitcher that he still managed to win 105 games after the shoulder injury but the dominance was gone.

It was a small window but speaking as a nerdy fucker, it was cool seeing this guy dominate.

Focus On Sport. Getty Images.


1989-90 Rickey Henderson, LF (New York Yankees/Oakland A's)

The A's trading for Rickey Henderson in 1989 was one of the smartest trades made in that decade. Not only was the return pretty pathetic (Luis Polonia, Eric Plunk, Greg Cadaret) but the A's went from being very good to great overnight. Rickey was the ALCS MVP in 1989 en route to the A's winning the World Series. In 1990, he had the greatest season of his career and won the AL MVP as he brought the A's to another World Series appearance.

Mitchell Layton. Getty Images.

1991-93 Barry Bonds (Pittsburgh Pirates/San Francisco Giants)

How good was Barry Bonds before he used PED's? The 1992 Giants went 72-90. Barry Bonds joined the team in 1993 and they went 103-59. He led the league in WAR (with a WAR of 8+ each year) during this stretch. There was a four year stretch from 1990-93 where he was either MVP or runner-up each year (and he deserved it over Terry Pendleton the year he was runner-up).

He was the best player for these three years but it is wild how he kept getting beat by the same team. In 1991 and 1992, the Pirates lost to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. As I mentioned, those 1993 Giants missed the playoffs by one game…because the Braves won 104 games that year and took the NL West.

Ron Vesely. Getty Images.

1994-95 Greg Maddux, SP (Atlanta Braves)

In these two seasons, Maddux went 35-8 with a 1.60 ERA over 411 IP with 20 CG's. Keep in mind that 1994 was a strike year so that's only 2/3 of what the 1994 should have been (1995 also was only 144 games because of the strike).

It was the second most dominant two season run I've seen from any pitcher (#1 is later on in this list). After the 1992 season, both Maddux and Bonds were free agents. Imagine if they had revered teams and Maddux went to the Giants and Bonds landed with the Braves. Would things be different? I tend to think because the Braves already had great pitching with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz that Bonds would have helped Atlanta more than Maddux would help the Giants.


Mitchell Layton. Getty Images.

1996-98 Ken Griffey, Jr., CF (Seattle Mariners)

In these three seasons, Griffey hit 161 home runs. That's an AVERAGE of over 53 home runs a season. He also missed 20 games due to injury in 1996. That is wild production from a guy who was also playing some great center field defense.

Barry Bonds had a better career than Griffey. Take the PED's out of it and there is really no argument. Bonds may have been better but I've never seen a more exciting hitter that was more fun to watch than Ken Griffey Jr.

BILL POLO. Getty Images.

1999-2000 Pedro Martinez, SP (Boston Red Sox)

With all apologies to Greg Maddux, this is the most dominant stretch I've seen from any pitcher ever. In these two seasons, Pedro went 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA. This is at a time when hitters dominated like no other time in history. The Rangers had a team ERA in 2000 of 5.52. 

I am not sure I'll ever be as excited to see an athlete do anything as much I looked forward to the days Pedro would pitch. It felt like anything was possible. Would he strike out 15+? Would anyone get a hit off of him? How electric will he be? It was a event every fifth day.

Giphy Images.


2001-04 Barry Bonds, LF (San Francisco Giants)

There hasn't been a player this dominant since Babe Ruth in the early 1920's. That's back when Ruth would out homer entire teams. Just look at Bonds' numbers:

2001: .328/.515/.863 (73 HR)

2002: .370/.582/.799 (46 HR)

2003: .341/.529/.749 (45 HR)

2004: .362/.609/.812 (45 HR with 232 walks!!!)

I know he was juiced to the gills. He cheated and I have no issue with him being out of the Hall of Fame. But even with all of that, those numbers are absolutely insane. 

Me and my best friend drove to Montreal from New Hampshire to see the Giants play the Expos so we could see Bonds play. I've never (before or since) heard the ball come off the bat quite like that. It was like an explosion.

As I said earlier, I'll do 2005-24 next week. If you think I forgot anyone in this timeframe, let me know in the comments. It was tough leaving off Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson specifically but I don't think there was a year where they were the very best player in baseball.