Winning one Best Tools category is difficult enough. Winning multiple categories or dominating in one field are a sign of excellence.
Here we rank the most prodigious Best Tools winners of the millennium. Going back to the year 2000 gives us 15 ballot results from which evaluate players, and remember that major league managers and coaches supply these results, meaning that while they’re subjective, they’re also informed.
For the sake of relevancy we have excluded any player who retired so long ago that he has appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot—or who will be eligible for induction in 2015—to limit the player pool to those who are active or recently retired. Unfortunately, this means Pedro Martinez (13 Best Tools wins in the 2000s), Barry Bonds (10) and Randy Johnson (nine) are excluded, but then including them here would only serve to shortchange their greatness in the 1990s.
Best Tools Wins: 41
With more than twice as many Best Tools nods as any other big leaguer since the year 2000, Suzuki is an easy choice for No. 1. In fact, of the five traditional tools which scouts use to evaluate position players, Suzuki has been recognized as best-in-show by American League managers for all of them but power. In a 10-year span, he won Best Hitter three times (2002-03, 07), Fastest Baserunner three times (2001-03), Best Defensive Outfielder seven times (2003-08, 10) and Best Outfield Arm nine times (2001-03, 2005-10). In addition to those 22 traditional Best Tools wins, Suzuki has been singled out as the AL’s Most Exciting Player five times (2001-03, 2006-07) and has 14 additional wins for the more subjective categories Best Bunter and Best Baserunner.
One of the most unique players in baseball history, Suzuki just might be the greatest offensive player ever in his family of speed-oriented players with well below-average power. Despite not joining the major leagues until his age-27 season, he has accumulated more runs created than anybody in the Integration Era to bat 3,000 times, steal 100 bases and have an isolated slugging percentage of .100 or lower. Only Gene Richards and Richie Asburn have higher adjusted-OPS+ figures.
Best Tools Wins: 16
Rare is the player who stands out for his pure hitting ability and power production, but Pujols claimed Best Hitter honors seven times (2003, 2005-06, 2008-11) and Best Power three times (2005-06, 09) during his peak. The average Pujols season from 2005-09, when he won three MVP awards and finished runner-up a fourth time, looked like this: .334/.439/.631 with 41 homers, 40 doubles, 122 RBIs, 114 runs scored and 101 walks. He picked up six additional Best Tools wins for Most Exciting Player (2005, 2009-10), Best Strike-Zone Judgment (2009-10) and Best Defensive First Baseman (2009).
Best Tools Wins: 11
Verlander led the AL in both strikeouts and innings in 2011-12, picking up a Cy Young Award in the former and finishing runner-up in the latter, while going a combined 41-13, 2.52. Managers voted him Best Pitcher both seasons, but in fact they were enamored of his raw stuff before they ever recognized his performance. Verlander won Best Fastball five times (2007, 2009-12) and Best Curveball four times (2009-12) at his peak. In those four years of utter dominance, he averaged 95 mph on his fastball and nearly 80 mph on his curveball, according to Pitch f/x data presented at FanGraphs.com. No qualified starter threw harder during that time.
Aside from Verlander, managers in this millennium recognized Aroldis Chapman (four), Randy Johnson (four) and Billy Wagner (four) most often in the Best Fastball category. Barry Zito (five) and Adam Wainwright (three) also received much consideration for Best Curveball.
4. Roy Halladay
Best Tools Wins: 11
Halladay retired with 203 wins, a 3.38 ERA and 2,117 strikeouts, which aren’t traditionally viewed as being north of Hall of Fame standards, but his contemporaries viewed him as one of the best pitchers in the game. Literally. He won Best Pitcher honors in our Best Tools survey six times (2003, 2005-06, 2008-09, 11), which is more than anybody else this millennium.
That also jibes with the two Cy Young Awards and two runner-up finishes Halladay garnered.
The only pitch that managers singled out for Halladay was Best Slider in 2010, but he pulled down Best Control four times (2008-09, 2010-11), which makes sense given that his career walk rate of 1.9 per nine innings set him apart from the typical power-oriented ace.
Best Tools Wins: 11
Guerrero captivated managers as a five-time winner in the Most Exciting Player (2000-02, 2004-05) category, but as is the case with Roy Halladay, he played like a Hall of Famer for an extended stretch without necessarily hitting the career benchmarks or racking up the black ink to sail into Cooperstown on the first ballot. At his five-year peak from 2000-04, Guerrero hit .331/.403/.602 while averaging 36 homers, 22 steals and 109 RBIs per season. Managers recognized him as Best Hitter in 2005 for the only time in his career.
Because Guerrero retired after the 2011 season with the Orioles, his final moments in the limelight occurred in the 2010 World Series, which unfortunately consisted of him stumbling around in right field for the Rangers and going 1-for-17 at the plate. By this time he had been a regular DH for three seasons, but in Guerrero’s prime he was a nimble, rifle-armed right fielder, one who nearly went 40/40 for the 2002 Expos and one who earned Best Outfield Arm honors five times (2000-04).
Best Tools Wins: 12
What a marvel Rodriguez was before his chemical regimen came to light. He hit, he hit for average, he played a quality shortstop, he had a cannon for an arm. In fact, A-Rod even ran a bit as a young player, swiping 46 bags for the 1998 Mariners and stealing 322 bases for his career (so far). Managers recognized Rodriguez’s obvious talent, selecting him as Best Hitter (2008), Best Power Hitter (2002, 05, 07), Best Defensive Shortstop/Third Baseman (2003/04) and Best Infield arm (2000-04) a total of 11 times.
He even earned Most Exciting Player honors in 2000, after hitting .316/.420/.606 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs as he set his sights on free agent riches.
Among infielders, only Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt (eight) and Harmon Killebrew (six) have more league home run titles than A-Rod’s five.
It’s only fitting that baseball’s most dynamic duo rank first and second in wins above average since 2012, as per Baseball-Reference, seeing as McCutchen and Trout have taken home Most Exciting Player honors in their leagues each of the past three seasons.
Managers also singled out McCutchen, the National League MVP last year, as Best Defensive Outfielder and owner of Best Strike-Zone Judgment this year.
Over in the AL, managers nominated Trout as Best Defensive Outfielder (2013) as well as Best Baserunner and Fastest Baserunner (2012-13).
Best Tools Wins: Seven
While other players have had bursts of transcendence—Best Hitter for Miguel Cabrera (four times), Best Power for Josh Hamilton (three), Best Pitcher for Clayton Kershaw (three) and Fastest Baserunner for Jose Reyes (four)—nobody dominated a category quite like Santana did from 2005-10, when he won Best Changeup for six straight years. Because Santana has ended each of the past four seasons with a lengthy stay on the disabled list, we forget how valuable he was at his peak. He led the AL in ERA three times, in strikeouts three times and in WHIP four times while taking home two Cy Young Awards from 2004-08. Managers selected him as Best Pitcher in 2007 Best Tools balloting.
9. The Defensive Elite
Standing out from the field while in the field can be a significant feather in a player’s cap, and our various Best Defensive Player category winners often track closely with the Gold Glove awards. As one would expect, Yadier Molina (eight) is the most decorated defensive catcher in Best Tools balloting this millennium, while a best-defender infield would include Mark Teixeira (six) at first base, Brandon Phillips (five) at second, Scott Rolen (eight) at third and Troy Tulowitzki (four) at shortstop. The rangy outfield would consist of Andruw Jones (eight) in center, Ichiro Suzuki (seven) in right and Torii Hunter (three) or Michael Bourn (three) playing out of position in left.
While third baseman Adrian Beltre won half as many Best Defensive Third Baseman nods (four) as Rolen, he helped make up the difference by taking the Best Infield Arm category seven times. He has claimed both awards in each of the past four seasons.
10. Bruce Bochy
Now that managerial stalwarts Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa have retired and sailed into the Hall of Fame, Giants skipper Bochy has assumed the designation of most esteemed manager in the National League. Bochy has claimed the last four Best Manager awards after guiding the 2010 and 2012 Giants to World Series titles, and he continues to buttress his own HOF credentials this season by breaking into the top 20 all time for managerial wins. That, along with his three pennants and two Series wins, places Bochy in elite company and makes up for the fact that managing is not a traditional tool as measured by scouts.
Cox, with 10 Best Manager wins, dominated this category in the 2000s, while Jim Leyland (four), Mike Scioscia (five) and Joe Torre (four) drew the most accolades in the American League.