In honor of Chanukah starting tonight, I decided to do some research into a few of the greatest Jewish baseball players of all time. To stick with the holiday spirit, I found eight greats in honor of the eight nights and eight candles of the menorah for the holiday. Rod Carew and Lou Boudreau were not included as they were not raised Jewish, despite popular belief. Here is the countdown of the eight best according to fWAR (Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement), along with a few honorable mentions. All players are listed as members of the Jewish tradition according to the website, Jewish Baseball News.
Honorable Mention/Shamash: Gabe Kapler. Despite not being on the top of any WAR leaderboards, Kapler gets an honorable mention, as he has embraced sabermetrics and is a friend of the Effectively Wild podcast. Prior to recently joining the Los Angeles Dodgers as their director of player development, Kapler worked for Fox Sports as a member of Just A Bit Outside (JABO), helping lead the Fox Sports1 broadcast during the off-season to sabermetrically-inclined fans. Kapler is respected as a player who embraced advanced statistics and is an advocate for current players to do the same. With a combination of a playing career in baseball and an ability to discuss statistics, Kapler is able to communicate well and educate fans curious about advanced statistics. He will be missed as a member of Fox Sports, but we wish him the best of luck with his new position in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ front office.
Future Consideration: Joc Pederson. No list of top Jewish players can be complete without adding the new starting center fielder and fellow “Member of the Tribe,” as Jonah Keri would say, Joc Pederson. At age 22, the future looks bright in center field for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Last year at Triple-A Albuquerque, Pederson led the Pacific league with a .435 OBP and tied for the league lead in OPS at 1.017. Not only that, but he finished 7th in stolen bases while leading the league in home runs. While he may not be able to repeat that power or ability to steal at a major league level, he should be able to generate good contact and get on base. However, he also was one of the tops in strikeouts, which may be concerning going forward. Pitching will get tougher and his strikeout rates will get worse. It will be interesting to see how his career pans out.
- Shawn Green – 31 career WAR – Shawn Green was a great baseball player because of what he was able to accomplish on and off the field. I will remember him not for his 4-home run game, but for sitting out the Dodgers’ game on September 26th, 2001, in observance of Yom Kippur. Additionally, Green was one of the greatest Jewish players for what he was able to accomplish on the field during his career. During a great 1999 campaign he finished in the top 25 in WAR, wRC+, and wOBA. In 2001, he had an even better season finishing with a career high 6.7 WAR and in the top 25 in wRC+ and wOBA. However, Green played in the wrong time period to get the respect he deserved for a fantastic career. Despite not being linked to performance-enhancing drugs, Green’s performance will be compared to those from his era when PEDs were prevalent. However, Green remains to this day one of the best Jewish ball players of all time, and possibly the one most recognizable for the youngest generation of fans.
- Ryan Braun – 33.1 career WAR – Braun began his career on pace to be perhaps the greatest Jewish baseball player of all time, but that has come to a screeching halt. During his first six years in the league, Braun was fourth in wRC+, sixth in WAR, fourth in wOBA, and third in Slugging. In a pitcher’s era, Braun was easily on pace for a Hall of Fame career. However, that is all now overshadowed by his failed PED test and link to the Biogenesis case. In December 2011, Braun’s urine tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. However, Braun was able to win the case after claiming that the sample had been mishandled. Unfortunately for Braun, his name was later discovered in the Biogenesis scandal. Having failed a test already and with overwhelming evidence against him, Braun accepted a 65-game suspension. In 2013 and 2014, both suspension-shortened seasons, Braun did not put up nearly as good numbers. If he can turn around his career to be anywhere close to where it was prior to his suspension, then Braun could change the perception among fans across the county.
- Ian Kinsler – career 34.4 WAR – In Kinsler’s nine-year career, he has posted an average of 3.83 WAR. Unfortunately, down years in both 2012 and 2013 have slowed his pace. In 2014, he returned to form by posting 5.4 WAR. He was able to do this through terrific defense and baserunning this year. Despite posting a K% of 10.9% his BABIP of .288 was not enough to help his offense. Steamer projects him for 3.9 WAR in 2015. Kinsler also considered playing for Israel in the most recent World Baseball Classic.
- Al Rosen – 35.2 career WAR – Despite only playing seven meaningful seasons, Al Rosen was able to have a major impact on the Cleveland Indians for a few very memorable seasons. In 1950, Rosen finished second in the Major Leagues with a 6.9 WAR, 15th in walk rate, and 11th in wOBA behind the likes of Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Larry Doby and Joe DiMaggio. In 1953, Rosen once again dominated the league by leading it in WAR at 9.1, which was ahead of Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Eddie Matthews. He also finished first in the league in wRC+. Also notable is his strikeout rate of 7%—far below league average of 10.7%. Despite a few fantastic seasons, Rosen was forced to retire at age 32 after a series of injuries. A switch to first base and contract issues led to disputes with Hank Greenberg, the Indians’ general manager at the time (and a great Jewish player in his own right). Rosen will also be remembered for his willingness to stand up for his Jewish heritage sitting out games on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur. He also got into arguments and threatened to start fights when he was the target of antisemitic slurs.
- Sid Gordon – career 35.8 WAR – Another career shortened due to World War II, Sid Gordon had a successful stint with the Giants and Braves from 1948 to 1952. During this time period, Gordon ranked sixth in WAR at 25.2, which was behind notable Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Ralph Kiner, Ted Williams and Larry Doby. His wOBA of .414 was good enough for eighth. What is impressive about his production is that his BABIP during that time period was only .274, which means that he got on base without striking out and by walking a lot. This is seen through his 13.5% walk rate and strike out rate of only 6.3%. Despite these great statistics, Gordon returned to only slightly above average play. As a Jewish baseball player, he dealt with a lot of antisemitism wherever he went.
- Ken Holtzman – career 38.7 WAR – Holtzman’s career spanned 15 seasons from 1965 to 1979 with the Cubs, A’s and Yankees. Holtzman had a terrific six years in his prime, 1969 to 1974, during which he ranked 10th with 28.8 WAR for starting pitchers, which was ahead of the likes of Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. However, he was not in the tops of FIP, K%, BB% or BABIP. Holtsman was the number two to Ferguson Jenkins on great Cubs teams that finished second in the NL East in 1969 and 1970. He was then the number three behind Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter on the 1973 and 1974 Oakland Athletics teams—teams also featuring slugger Reggie Jackson—that won back-to-back World Series championships. Holtzman holds the record for most wins by a Jewish pitcher in the Majors.
- Sandy Koufax – career 57.9 WAR – Despite a shortened 12-year career, of which only nine consisted of greater than 20 starts, Koufax is still one of the most dominant pitchers of all time. At 55.9 WAR, only Don Drysdale (50.7 WAR) over the time period from 1958 to 1966 came close to matching Koufax’s ability to overpower hitters. Since 1947, Koufax only trails current Dodger’s ace Clayton Kershaw in terms of FIP. In K/9, Koufax was also dominant, as he ranks 12th on a list that is dominated by pitchers of the past decade, when strikeouts have been more frequent. As one of the best pitchers in history, it is clear that Koufax is the greatest Jewish pitcher ever. In addition, Koufax is remembered and respected by Jewish fans for refusing to pitch in game one of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins in observance of Yom Kippur.
- Hank Greenberg – 61.1 career WAR – Known as “Hammerin’ Hank,” Greenberg played 12 seasons in the Major Leagues and is regarded as the greatest Jewish hitter of all time. His storied career included four and half seasons missed due to service in World War II. In the seasons he did play, Greenberg consistently rated among the greatest players, as he won MVP awards in 1935 and 1940. With a lifetime wOBA of .453, he ranks sixth all time, tied for fifth in Isolated Power at .292, and sixth all-time in OPS at 1.017. With these statistics it is clear to see that Hank Greenberg is one of the greatest players of all time and definitely the greatest Jewish hitter of all time. Unfortunately, he does not get the respect he deserves because of his limited seasons due to his military service. If Greenberg had not missed time due to injuries and serving in the military, he would surely rank higher in all-time rankings of Home Runs and RBIs. For those who are able to appreciate sabermetrics it is easy appreciate what Greenberg accomplished. Like Shawn Green, Al Rosen, and Sandy Koufax, Greenberg also sat out games in observance of Jewish holidays. During the 1934 season with the Tigers and in the midst of a pennant race, Greenberg sat out the game on Yom Kippur to attend synagogue services. While the Tigers lost the game, they still did win the pennant that year. Greenberg will also always be known as the “Hebrew Hammer” solidifying his place in Jewish baseball history.
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