From Babe Ruth to A-Rod, ranking the best players in major-league history
Alex Rodriguez's final game with the Yankees leads us to wonder where he ranks among the all-time greats
Alex Rodriguez is playing his final game on Friday, weather permitting. A-Rod, like it or not, is one of the great players of history, and the occasion of perhaps his final game leads us to ask where he ranks among the sport's luminaries. So here we are, asking and deigning to answer that very question. What follows is a fool's errand.
While baseball is blessed with a rich history of measures and metrics that do a tremendous job of correcting for the innumerable ways in which the game has evolved over the years, at a certain point we still step blindly into the unknowable. So when someone like me -- or anyone, really -- purports to rank the best players across the grand sprawl of baseball history, we affect a confidence that's wholly unjustified.
Yes, the numbers do the heavy lifting, and we can make some qualitative adjustments that most will agree are very sensible and necessary, but short of reanimating the greats of the past and putting them on the field with their contemporary iterations, we can't truly know. How would Babe Ruth fare against fully integrated competition? What if Jim Creighton could avail himself of modern training and nutrition and a century of human growth trends? What if you took those things away from Mike Trout?
In part, it's that uncertainty -- the unknowable -- that animates a guiding principle of mine when it comes to making out lists such as this one. That principle is that players should be judged based on their success relative to their peers. I have no doubt that if you transported Trout or Manny Machado or Starling Marte or Clayton Kershaw back to 1925 or so, they'd dominate (again, recall those advances in training and nutrition and the march of human evolution). That strikes me as unfair to the players of the past, though, who, as noted, lacked those native advantages. So the standard is who was the greatest at the time they played. How does the extent that Barry Bonds lorded over his era compare to the extent that Willie Mays lorded over his? That's the question that guides this exercise, minus those particular specificities.
Also, since we're ranking major-league players, we'll not be including any Negro League greats. You can bet that the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Pop Lloyd, and Buck Leonard would rank quite high -- those first three names probably in the top 10 all-time. In a broader list of the greatest ballplayers of all-time as opposed a narrower such as this one populated by major-league players, Negro Leaguers would be heavily represented. For these purposes, though, we're sticking to those players in the organized major leagues, of which so many of those Negro Leaguers should have been part had basic justice prevailed.
So with all those qualifiers laid out, here's one scribe's rankings of the best players in baseball history from No. 1 through Alex Rodriguez, who's soon to be no longer a Yankee and perhaps soon to be no longer a major-leaguer ...
1. Babe Ruth
Even after you ping him for competing against an artificially limited peer group, Ruth towers over all. He's the all-time leader in WAR, and for his career he owns an unimaginable OPS+ of 206. Checking off his other mighty bestowals is beyond the scope of this exercise. No one towered over his contemporaries like Ruth did. If he wasn't the best damn hitter in baseball history, then he may have wound up a Hall of Fame pitcher.
2. Willie Mays
Mays remains the quintessence of the five-tool player. Across 22 seasons and almost 3,000 games, Mays racked up 660 homers, 338 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 156. All the while he spent almost 25,000 defensive innings in center field, and much of those inning he was perhaps the best defensive center fielder anyone's ever seen.
3. Barry Bonds
Bonds won a remarkable seven MVPs, put up a career OPS+ of 182, swiped more than 500 bags, and is the all-time home run leader. He was also an excellent defensive left fielder for many of those years. Peak? From 2001-04, his worst seasonal OBP was .515.
4. Ty Cobb
The breadth of Cobb's statistical accomplishments is astounding, and few can match his combination of dominance at the plate and on the bases, all while pinning down an up-the-middle position. Want some numbers? Cobb reached base more than 5,500 times; he stole almost 900 bases; he ripped more than 700 doubles and almost 300 triples; he led the entire major leagues in batting 10 times. We could go on, of course.
5. Honus Wagner
Wagner's the greatest shortstop in baseball history. Over 21 seasons of Deadball and deep Deadball conditions, Wagner batted .328/.391/.467 with 732 steals and 643 doubles, and 252 triples. As for his glove-work, we'll let the great John McGraw sum it up: "The only way to get a ball past Honus is to hit it eight feet over his head."
6. Walter Johnson
The Big Train! He won a whopping 417 games, and his career ERA+ of 147 ranks third all-time among pitchers with at least 2,000 innings. Speaking of innings, Johnson worked almost 6,000 of them. Within all those innings, are 110 shutouts.
7. Hank Aaron
When you think of prolific hitters, Aaron surely leaps to mind. He's the all-time leader in RBI and total bases, and for decades he was the all-time home run king. Aaron was also an underrated fielder, and on the bases he swiped 240 bags while taking the extra base 51 percent of the time. Aaron was a just a steady baseball colossus across almost a quarter century.
8. Ted Williams
Suffice it to say, had Williams not lost almost five full seasons to valorous military service, he'd be even higher than he is. No, he wasn't much with the glove or on the bases, but at the plate he wasn an otherworldly hitter. His career line is an unthinkable .344/.482/.634 (190 OPS+), and he also tallied 521 homers. He's also of course the last batter to hit .400 or higher in a season. In that legendary '41 season, he also walked 147 times against just 21 strikeouts.
9. Cy Young
Baseball's only 500-game winner obviously merits a spot. Young's era (or eras, plural, to be more precise) was obviously vastly different from today's, but, again, relative to his peers he compares favorably to the best ever. He's the all-time leader in wins and innings, and he led the majors in K/BB ratio in 11 different seasons.
10. Tris Speaker
Speaker was a legendary defensive center fielder who in some ways pioneered the practice of playing shallow. Somehow, he managed to turn 107 double plays in his career while, of course, playing center. His work at the plate was no less impressive, as he batted .345/.428/.500 (157 OPS+) over 22 seasons. Along the way, he tallied more than 3,500 hits, and he remains the all-time leader in doubles.
11. Roger Clemens
Clemens won a record seven Cy Young awards, one of them at age 41. As well, he pitched almost 5,000 innings, put up an ERA+ of 143, and struck out 4,672 batters (good for third all-time). Clemens is one of nine pitchers in history to win at least 350 games.
12. Rogers Hornsby
He was not a good fielder at second base and was widely regarded as something of a jerk. But he may be the greatest right-handed hitter ever. Hornsby owns a 175 OPS+ across 9,480 plate appearances, and during his five-year peak from 1921-25, he batted .402/.474/.690. Hornsby's also responsible for perhaps the greatest quote in the annals of the sport: "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
13. Stan Musial
Musial racked up 3,630 hits and rather famously had the same number of hits at home as he did on the road. He also mashed 475 home runs, 725 doubles, and 177 triples, while drawing 1,599 walks. For his troubles, Musial won three MVPs and finished runner-up on four other occasions.
14. Eddie Collins
For roughly 25 years, Collins was a tremendous defensive second baseman, a standout base-runner, and one of the best hitters of his era. For his career, Collins trumpets a .424 OBP and 142 OPS+ to go with 741 stolen bases and a record 512 sac hits. An Ivy League grad, Collins was also known as one of the headiest players of his generation.
15. Grover Cleveland Alexander
The hard-drinking Alexander spent 20 seasons in the bigs and authored a 135 OPS+ over more than 5,000 innings. He remains the only moundsman to win the pitcher's triple crown for three straight years. He won 373 games and struck out more than 2,000 batters (a remarkable figure for his day), and his performance in the 1926 World Series remains the stuff of legend. Alexander's drinking worsened after his traumatic experiences in World War I, but he still managed of the great careers of any pitcher.
16. Lou Gehrig
Gehrig was a force of nature at the plate. He batted .340/.447/.632, and hit 493 homers. In addition to racking up more than 5,000 total bases, and he also showed some surprising speed for a power threat (102 steals and 163 triples). Gehrig also batted a mighty .361/.483/.731 in 34 World Series games.
17. Alex Rodriguez
Because I take the numbers at face value rather than wandering into the cornucopia that is making cocktail-napkin adjustments for PED use, A-Rod stands as one of the greatest ever -- the 17th-greatest ever, to be specific. He spent the plurality of his defensive innings at shortstop and added a great deal of value in the field and on the bases. Oh, he's also within spitting distance of 700 homers. A-Rod won three MVPs (and should've won at least five) and is sixth all-time in total bases.
With a list such as this, there are necessarily many painful omissions, and opinions will vary widely. For instance, receiving heavy consideration were names like Joe DiMaggio Mickey Mantle, Nap Lajoie, Greg Maddux, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Frank Robinson, Jimmie Foxx, and Mel Ott, among others.
As ever, your righteous outrage makes fine kindling for this writer's fireplace. Thank you for warming my home and thus providing me with the ambient bodily comfort necessary to produce more great sports content you'll love.
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