They were Toronto sports icons. They played pivotal roles in one of the greatest seasons in franchise history. Collectively, they formed the greatest outfield in franchise history. So how did George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield stack up against the best outfields of all time?
The Jays’ dynamic trio played five-plus seasons together as full-time outfielders, starting with Bell breaking through as a full-time player in 1984 and ending with Barfield getting traded to the Yankees on April 30, 1989, for Al Leiter.
A shared tenure lasting more than half a decade looks impressive in the modern era. Free agency, rising salaries and teams’ keen appreciation for the impact of Father Time make keeping three outfielders together for five years or more a major challenge — and just keeping them together offers no guarantees the three will excel for the duration of their stay.
Still, measured against the entirety of Major League Baseball’s history, the Bell-Moseby-Barfield combination can’t stack up to some of the greatest trios ever, since the sport existed for a century before free agency ever changed the landscape, thus binding players to one team for far longer back in the old days.
What we can do, though, is compare Bell, Barfield and Moseby at the height of their powers, and see how they measure up against the all-time greats.
Bell’s best season came in 1987, when he blasted 47 homers, led the league in total bases and runs batted in, and won the American League Most Valuable Player award. Barfield’s best season was 1986, when he won the Silver Slugger and made his only appearance in the All-Star Game. Moseby’s best season was 1984, when he slammed a league-best 15 triples, stole a career-best 39 bases, and was an all-around terror.
But as a trio, their best combined season was 1985. At age 24, Barfield was the best of the three that year, stamping himself as a true five-tool player. The right fielder batted .289/.369/.536, a line that was 42 per cent better than league average per park-adjusted metrics. Barfield showed off both power and speed, ripping 27 homers and swiping 22 bases. A rocket-armed, defensive standout, he gunned down 22 runners on the basepaths, raising the obvious question: Why the hell would anyone ever run on Jesse Freaking Barfield?
Put everything together, and Barfield netted 6.8 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference; as a point of reference, 0 WAR is your typical 25th man on a roster, 2 WAR is league average, and 6+ WAR represents elite performance. Sure enough, Barfield finished seventh that season in MVP voting.
Bell finished right behind Barfield in the MVP race and took home AL Silver Slugger honours, blasting 28 homers, stealing 21 bags and knocking in 95 runs. A free swinger, Bell was more highly valued during an era in which on-base percentage wasn’t as closely scrutinized — his aggregate .275/.327/.479 line was a more modest 14 per cent better than league average. But Bell’s combination of power and durability as the everyday left fielder (he played in 157 games that year, and no fewer than 153 at any point between 1984 and 1989) made him a four-win player — or 4.1 WAR, to be precise.
The Shaker’s ’85 campaign was a come-down from his stellar ’83 and ’84 seasons. But Moseby’s speed and defence at a premium position still made him a valuable commodity for the Jays. He swatted 18 homers, 30 doubles and seven triples, stole 37 bases (albeit while getting caught an ugly 15 times) and played strong defence in centre field. His all-around contributions netted 3.1 WAR.
Combined, Bell, Moseby, and Barfield generated 14 WAR in that magical, 99-victory, AL East-winning season, pushing the Blue Jays to the playoffs for the first time in their ninth year of existence.
Where do Bell, Moseby and Barfield rank among the 40 greatest Blue Jays of all time? Have your say by clicking here.
So if we take that ’85 effort and compare it to the greatest seasons of all-time for outfields, how does it rate?
The answer is… still not as highly as you might expect. As excellent as Bell, Moseby and Barfield each were, none of the three ever became a true superstar, with even Bell’s one MVP award (Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs and Alan Trammell were all more deserving in ’87, by the numbers). Stick any two warm bodies next to, say, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio or Ty Cobb in his prime, and you could argue that the Jays’ spreesome threesome lags behind.
As ESPN.com writer David Schoenfield wrote last year, Ruth, Mays, DiMaggio and Cobb did indeed form one-third of four of the best outfields of all time, thanks to their own outstanding performances, and also sizable contributions from teammates. Rickey Henderson was part of two of the best outfields ever, turning the trick as a young buck in 1980 and then again as an established superstar in 1990. All eight of Schoenfield’s top eight cleared 20 WAR, making them significantly more valuable than Bell, Moseby and Barfield, even at the height of their powers.
Still, focus on the past 40 years, slide down to the next tier of excellence, and Bell, Moseby and Barfield still hold an esteemed place in baseball history. They come close to memorable outfields like the 1994 Expos’ trio of Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker, the Mariners’ combinations of Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and a rotating cast of left fielders, plus Barry Bonds and Mike Trout mixed with literally anyone.
And if you’re looking for a present-day comp, consider the Marlins’ trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Viewed by many as the best outfield in the game today, man for man, the Big Three Fish have only once surpassed any of the three best combined seasons put up by Bell, Moseby and Barfield.
And hey, if any other outfield rocked a better combination of hair and mustaches, we’ve yet to see it.