Whenever Major League Baseball teams return to action following the disruption of the novel coronavirus pandemic, they will do so with a few new rules in place, including an increase in the size of the active roster from 25 players to 26. Clubs also will have to designate each roster member as a pitcher or a position player, and they can carry a maximum of 13 pitchers at a time.

In the meantime, wouldn’t it be fun to come up with an all-time 26-man roster of major leaguers throughout history?

We used metrics rather than opinions to construct this team. We considered both career and peak (the best seven years of a player’s career, not necessarily seven years in a row); performance via wins above replacement (according to Baseball Reference); and context-neutral championship win probability added because it calculates the impact of each play on the team’s probability of winning the World Series without padding stats for players who just happened to find themselves in situations when the game was on the line more often.

The player’s reputation also was factored in via MVP and Cy Young shares. Players nominated for these awards are typically thought of as being the best of the best. For example, Barry Bonds won the MVP award seven times on his way to 9.3 MVP shares, the most in major league history.

Here is the all-time best 26-man lineup with a batting order, starting rotation and bullpen optimized for modern baseball. Disagree with any selections? Let us know in the comments.

Starting lineup

Batting 1st: Lou Gehrig, 1B

Gehrig, a two-time MVP, is most known for playing in 2,130 consecutive games for the New York Yankees, a remarkable streak thought to be unbeatable until Cal Ripken Jr. broke the record 56 years later. He was largely overshadowed by Babe Ruth, but Gehrig set the American League single-season RBI mark in 1931 (185) and then won the Triple Crown in 1934 (.363, 49 home runs, 166 RBI). He also led the league in RBI and on-base percentage five times, runs four times and home runs three times, and he scored more than 100 runs and drove in more than 100 runs for 13 straight seasons.

Batting 2nd: Barry Bonds, LF

This pick will stir asterisk talk given Bonds’s ties to the steroid era, but his talent is also indisputable. Baseball’s record holder for home runs in a season (73 in 2001) and a career (762) was a seven-time MVP with eight Gold Gloves to his credit. From 1989 to 1998, he was worth an average of 8.6 wins above replacement per 650 plate appearances, and if you fielded a lineup of Bonds in all nine slots of the batting order, you could expect to win more than 81 percent of your games, equivalent to a 132-30 record over a 162-game season.

Bonds never won a World Series ring, but don’t fault him. He has the most context-neutral championship win probability added (0.75) in baseball history.

Batting 3rd: Willie Mays, CF

Mays, a two-time MVP winner with 12 Gold Gloves, ranks third among position players in wins above replacement (156.2). From 1954 (a year after he served in the military) to 1965, he hit .318 with a .997 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (67 percent higher than the league average over that span) while averaging 42 home runs and 23 steals per 162 games.

Batting 4th: Babe Ruth, RF

The Sultan of Swat shouldn’t need justification on this list, but he ranks second to Bonds in wins above replacement (162.1) and leads all players in slugging percentage (.690) and OPS (1.164). He also hit the third-most home runs (714) in baseball history.

Not enough? Ruth led the league in slugging percentage 13 times, home runs 12 times, walks 11 times, on-base percentage 10 times, runs eight times and RBI five times.

Still not convinced? He won seven AL pennants and four World Series titles with the New York Yankees on his way to posting the third-highest context-neutral championship win probability added of all time (0.58).

Batting 5th: Rogers Hornsby, 2B

Hornsby is one of the greatest right-handed batters in history. He produced two Triple Crown seasons (1922 and 1925, the latter earning him one of his two MVP awards). He led the National League in batting seven times, including an unbelievable stretch from 1921 to 1925 in which he averaged .402. Hornsby also led the league in on-base percentage and slugging in each of those years.

Batting 6th: Alex Rodriguez, SS

He’s another player with the steroid era caveat, but Rodriguez is one of three players to finish his career with at least 600 home runs and 300 steals — Bonds and Mays are the others — and one of four players to hit at least 40 home runs and steal at least 40 bases in a season.

According to Bill James’s power-speed metric, which combines a player’s home run and stolen base numbers into one stat, Rodriguez has the highest single-season power-speed mark of all time (43.9 in 1998) and he ranks fourth for his career (446.8) behind Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Mays.

Batting 7th: Mike Schmidt, 3B

Schmidt led the majors in home runs six times and earned 10 Gold Gloves and three MVP awards (1980, 1981 and 1986). On April 18, 1987, Schmidt became the 14th member of the 500 home run club and finished his career with 548. He also produced the most wins above replacement among third baseman.

Batting 8th: Johnny Bench, C

Bench, a 17-year veteran, helped Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine win four NL pennants and two World Series titles from 1970 to 1979 by batting .267 with 33 home runs and 114 RBI per 162 games over that stretch. The 10-time Gold Glove winner also threw out 43 percent of would-be base stealers in his career compared with the league average of 35 percent.


SS/RF/1B Honus Wagner

The "Flying Dutchman” played 21 seasons and ranks in the top 10 in wins above replacement (130.8, 10th), hits (3,420, eighth), singles (2,424, eighth), doubles (643, 10th), triples (252, third) and stolen bases (723, 10th).

C Gary Carter

The five-time Silver Slugger finished his career batting .262 with 324 home runs and an above-average rate of catching would-be base stealers (35 vs. 32 percent).

RF/1B Stan Musial

Musial won seven batting titles and three MVP awards and just missed the Triple Crown in 1948 by a lone home run (career-high .376 with 39 home runs and 131 RBI).

LF Ted Williams

One of the best acquisitions in baseball history, Williams created runs at a rate that was 88 percent higher than average after accounting for era, league and park effects. Only Ruth was better (97 percent higher than average). Williams is also the last player to hit .400 or better, hitting .406 in 1941.

RF Hank Aaron

The former home run king (755) won the MVP award in 1957 and ranks eighth in MVP shares (5.5).

2B Joe Morgan

Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards (1975 and 1976) and ended his career with the third-best walk rate among second basemen after taking into account era, league and park effects.

1B Albert Pujols

Pujols, already a member of the 3,000-hit club and the 600-home-run club, entered 2020 with a 24 percent chance of hitting home run No. 700 at some point in his career.

Starting rotation

RHP Roger Clemens

Clemens won seven Cy Young awards over a 24-year career, two of those while leading the league in pitching’s Triple Crown categories (wins, strikeouts and ERA), 1997 and 1998. He led his league in those categories 16 times. Clemens also helped his teams to six pennants and back-to-back World Series championships with the Yankees (1999 and 2000). His average season was 17-9 with a 3.12 ERA (30 percent lower than the league average) and 224 strikeouts.

Clemens also leads all pitchers in context-neutralthe lowest among pitchers with at least 4,000 career inningsticized for his links to HGH use.t

LHP Randy Johnson

From 1999 to 2002, Johnson won four straight NL Cy Young Awards, scored three ERA titles and struck out at least 334 batters each season. Among pitchers with at least 4,000 career innings, only Nolan Ryan had a higher career strikeout rate after accounting for era, league and park effects.

RHP Walter Johnson

The “Big Train” ended his career with a 2.17 ERA, the lowest among pitchers with a least 4,000 career innings after accounting for era, league and park effects. He also won the ERA title five times.

RHP Greg Maddux

Maddux is perhaps the most efficient starting pitcher to take the mound. He was so efficient that a start in which a pitcher tosses a shutout on fewer than 100 pitches is now called a “Maddux.” Since 1988, the first year accurate pitch-count data is available, Maddux ranks first in the majors with 14 such starts during the regular season. No other pitcher has more than seven.

RHP Pedro Martinez

The three-time Cy Young Award winner is one of five pitchers with at least 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks. In addition, batters scored 540 fewer runs against him than expected after taking into account the men on base and outs left in the inning of each at-bat. Only Clemens, Lefty Grove and Maddux were better. Martinez provided a quality start (three or fewer earned runs in six or more innings) two-thirds of the time, with an average game score (an all-in-one metric to measure pitching performance) that was well above the norm.

Pedro Martinez
Quality start %
Game score
1992 to 2009
28 percent
7 percent
67 percent
MLB average
17 percent
9 percent
48 percent

LHP Clayton Kershaw

Among left-handed starters, only seven have produced more wins above replacement than Kershaw (65.3). However, none of those seven had a better ERA (2.44, 57 percent better than average) after adjusting for era, league and park effects.


Closer: Mariano Rivera

The all-time saves king (652) and most clutch player in major league history won five World Series rings with the New York Yankees. His bread-and-butter pitch, a cutter, was nearly unhittable. From 2007 to 2013, the only years of his career that individual pitch data is available, batters hit .194 against him with 337 strikeouts in 1,227 at-bats ending on the pitch.

Rivera’s cutter (2007 to 2013)
Times thrown
Regular season

Dennis Eckersley

In 1992 (7-1, 51 saves and 1.91 ERA with 93 strikeouts over 80 innings), he won the Cy Young and MVP awards, becoming the ninth pitcher to capture both awards in the same season. He is also the only pitcher with 100 saves and 100 complete games. No reliever in the Hall of Fame produced more wins above replacement (62.1) over his career.

Dan Quisenberry

His submarine style and sinking fastball baffled hitters, allowing him to win AL fireman of the year honors (awarded to the reliever with the most combined wins plus saves in a season) five times, including four years in a row from 1982 to 1985.

Batters also scored 120 fewer runs against him than expected over his 12-year career after taking into account the men on base and outs left in the inning of each at-bat. Only 10 relievers were better at keeping runs from crossing the plate.

Rich Gossage

His 6-foot-3 frame was intimidating, and so was his 100-mph fastball. He struck out 20 percent of batters faced (when the league average was 14 percent) and amassed the fourth-most wins above replacement among relievers (41.1) during his 22-year career.

Billy Wagner

No bullpen would be complete without a left-hander, and Wagner produced the second-most wins above replacement among left-handed relievers (27.8). He struck out 33 percent of batters faced (nearly twice the league average over his career) and only walked 8 percent of them, a huge advantage in any era.