Top 20 Most Valuable Fantasy Players Since 1980
One of the end goals of building the fantasy all-star teams of the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s was creating an all-time ranking of fantasy baseball superstars—the players who have helped people win fantasy leagues with their volume of production in standard 5x5 scoring categories
Those standard categories are batting average, runs, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases for hitters and wins, saves, strikeouts, ERA and WHIP for pitchers. Fantasy baseball was created in 1980, giving us a 40-season sample from which to draw.
To determine the ranking of all-time fantasy stars, I graded players on their best seven seasons, applying more weight to the “worst” of the seven seasons to reward sustained excellence.
In some ways, one can follow the BBWAA awards to determine the best fantasy players ever. After all, the writers don’t award players for mediocre statistics. But baseball writers also consider factors like position played or leadership qualities or key performances in a pennant race. None of that is considered here, nor is the Hall of Fame's character clause invoked.
The top closers don't quite measure up to the the value of top hitters or starting pitchers, so no closers are included in this ranking, but the identities of the most valuable since 1980 are no surprise. Billy Wagner ranks No. 1 because of his historic strikeout rate, followed by Craig Kimbrel, Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Trevor Hoffman and Aroldis Chapman.
1. Barry Bonds, OF
Seven MVP awards, 762 home runs, 2,558 walks and five 30-30 seasons—those are all-time records held by Bonds. Actually, he and his father Bobby share the record for 30-30 seasons, but the point is made. Bonds is one of the great offensive players of all time, and even muting one of his greatest real-life skills—he led his league in walks a record 12 times—he impacted all five Roto categories like no other player in the past 40 years.
2. Randy Johnson, LHP
With five Cy Young Awards, a record six 300-strikeout seasons—including nine league-leading totals—and 303 career wins, Johnson provided immense value as a real-life and fantasy ace. His high innings totals amplified his contributions to ERA and WHIP. What's most impressive is that Johnson carried a 1.43 WHIP—thanks to a walk rate of 5.7 per nine innings—through his first five seasons and didn't turn in his first truly great year until he was 29.
3. Alex Rodriguez, SS/3B
Rodriguez regularly delivered elite totals in four categories—and factored in stolen bases in a number of seasons. That he spent his first 10 years at shortstop made him perhaps the hottest fantasy commodity ever. That's why it's surprising that two of Rodriguez's three MVP seasons came as the Yankees' third baseman, and compared with league norms, those two seasons made the largest fantasy impact, too. Rodriguez, Ernie Banks and Vern Stephens (in a wartime season) are the only shortstops ever to led their league in home runs. In fact, Rodriguez led his league five times, which is more than any post-World War II slugger but Mike Schmidt (eight), Ralph Kiner (eight) or Harmon Killebrew (six).
4. Pedro Martinez, RHP
Martinez collected three Cy Young Awards, five ERA titles and a pair of 300-strikeout seasons. He is widely recognized as one of the most dominant pitchers in history but doesn't get enough credit for his finesse. Martinez is one of 18 pitchers to top 3,000 career strikeouts, and among that exclusive group of power pitchers, he has the best ERA+ and lowest WHIP, including a single-season record 0.74 in 2000, compiled in the heart of a hitter's era. In fact, Martinez's 154 ERA+ ranks as the second best since integration, while his 1.05 WHIP ranks fourth best.
5. Albert Pujols, 1B
Pujols won three MVP awards in the 2000s but probably would have claimed at least one more had he not been in the National League when Barry Bonds was winning four straight trophies from 2001 to 2004. In his 20s and early 30s, Pujols was an all-time great player, hitting .300 in 10 different seasons, topping 40 homers seven times, scoring 100 runs 10 times and driving in 100 runs 14 times. Pujols has tailed off in his late 30s but is poised to pass Willie Mays (660) for fifth on the all-time home run list and Alex Rodriguez (2,086) for third on the RBI list.
6. Roger Clemens, RHP
Clemens won a record seven Cy Young Awards, his first in 1986 when he was 24, his last in 2004 when he was 42. That made him a fantasy mainstay who dominated four pitching categories in three different decades. Clemens won 354 games, claimed seven league ERA titles—the most by any pitcher since World War II—and struck out 4,672 batters, the third most all time.
7. Rickey Henderson, OF
Henderson absolutely dominated two of the five hitters' categories in fantasy, ranking as the all-time leader with 1,406 stolen bases and 2,295 runs. He has three of the eight 100-steal seasons in major league history and led his league in that category a record 12 times. Only Babe Ruth (eight) and Ted Williams (six) led their league in runs scored more often than Henderson did (five times). Henderson also enhanced his stolen base opportunities with 2,190 walks, second only to Barry Bonds all time.
8. Jeff Bagwell, 1B
Bagwell owns the only two 30-30 seasons ever from a first baseman, and the only first basemen to steal more career bases than Bagwell (202) all began their careers more than 100 years ago. Bagwell's steals gave him an added dimension at a position devoid of speed, making him a true five category first baseman who regularly hit .290 and topped 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs.
9. Greg Maddux, RHP
Maddux never had the best stuff in baseball, but he had the best command and the most efficient plan. He won four Cy Young Awards in a row from 1992 to 1995, recording a 1.98 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in that span while leading the league in innings each season. Maddux's durability is remarkable and his reliability critical to his fantasy value. Among pitchers to debut in the past 50 years, he is the only one to top 5,000 career innings. The only seasons between 1988 and 2008 that Maddux didn't make at least 30 starts were the strike-shortened years of 1994 and 1995—and even then he topped 200 innings.
10. Ken Griffey Jr., OF
"The Kid" was the transcendent star of the 1990s. He hit for average, he popped 40 homers seven times, drove in 100 runs eight times and swiped at least 15 bags eight times. And that swing! That smile!
11. Manny Ramirez, OF
For all his shortcomings as a defensive player and on the basepaths, Ramirez was a hitting savant who was good for a .300 average, 35 homers and 120 RBIs annually during his prime. Batting fourth for the epic 1999 Indians, the last team to score 1,000 runs, Ramirez drove in 165 runs, the highest single-season total since the high-scoring 1930s.
12. Mike Trout, OF
Trout burst on the scene with a Rookie of the Year season in 2012. Three MVP seasons and three MVP runner-up season followed in the next seven seasons. Trout is a fantastic real-life player who does everything on both sides of the ball. He also contributes in all five fantasy categories, too, and has led his league four times in runs scored. Trout loses a bit of ground compared to other fantasy superstars because of comparatively low RBI totals.
13. Frank Thomas, 1B
Big Frank won back-to-back American League MVP awards in 1993 and 1994 and had three other top-three finishes. In his prime he was a four-category monster who had four seasons with at least a .300 average, 40 home runs, 100 RBIs and 100 runs. Since integration, only Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Willie Mays had more. The 1994 strike cost Thomas a chance at a fifth .300-40-100-100 season. He missed by two home runs when the season came to a premature end in mid-August.
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14. Miguel Cabrera, 3B/1B
Cabrera has won four batting titles and has led his league in home runs and RBIs twice each. In 2012 he put everything together to win the first major league Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Cabrera's 12 seasons with at least 100 RBIs are third most since integration, trailing only Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols.
15. Larry Walker, OF
Diametric forces acted on Walker's time with the Rockies, which lasted 10 seasons. On the one hand he received a boost from Coors Field, the best hitting environment in major league history. But on the other, he averaged roughly 120 games per season as he dealt with nagging injuries. Walker's MVP campaign in 1997 is perhaps the best fantasy season since 1980, and from that year through 2001, he hit .357 in more than 2,200 at-bats.
16. Max Scherzer, RHP
Scherzer entered rarified air when he won his third Cy Young Award in 2017. Every other pitcher in the thee CYA club is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, save for special case Roger Clemens and the active Clayton Kershaw. Scherzer is at least two seasons away from 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, benchmarks that would all but punch his ticket to Cooperstown.
17. Clayton Kershaw, LHP
It's easy to take Kershaw's historic standing for granted because he's been so consistent since he emerged as the Dodgers' ace as a 21-year-old in 2009. No starting pitcher since World War II has a lower ERA (2.44) or WHIP (1.00) than Kershaw. The only thing holding him back from a fantasy perspective are lower innings totals, which mute the overall value of his shiny rate stats.
18. Sammy Sosa, OF
Sosa is the only player in history to hit 60 home runs in a season and not lead his league—and he did it three times. At least he got some measure of redemption by leading the National League with 50 homers in 2000 and 49 in 2002. In his best seasons, Sosa put up monster totals for homers and RBIs while hitting for high averages.
19. Curt Schilling, RHP
The ace or co-ace for four World Series rotations—1993 Phillies, 2001 D-backs, 2004 Red Sox, 2007 Red Sox—Schilling retired with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in history. Five pitchers of the 2010s, headed by Chris Sale, have surpassed him. Schilling posted three 300-strikeout seasons, which is the same total as Sandy Koufax and more than any pitcher in history but Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.
20. Justin Verlander, RHP
The consistent greatness and durability of Verlander may be underappreciated. He has more top-five Cy Young Award finishes (eight) than all but three pitchers in history: Roger Clemens (10), Greg Maddux (nine) and Randy Johnson (nine). Verlander has fronted eight October rotations and has accumulated the sixth-most postseason innings and the highest strikeout total. But it's the 225 regular-season wins, 3.33 ERA and 3,006 strikeouts that fantasy owners noticed the most.