Commentary: Players 1-10
|1. Babe Ruth
Ah, the one consistency between all five lists, and indeed between most knowledgeable baseball fans.
People have different opinions regarding whom the best football, basketball, and hockey players of all
time were, but rarely is Ruth’s supremacy put into question. Among these four major sports, baseball is
most accurately evaluated through statistics. You would have to really misinterpret the statistics to come
up with anyone other than Ruth at #1.
2. Ty Cobb
Cobb was one of the five best hitters ever and one of the top 10 defensive outfielders of all time. What’s
difficult to analyze with Cobb is his baserunning, since we only have Caught Stealing data for half of his
years, and only three of those were during his prime. We do know that he has the fourth most stolen
bases in history, the most steals of home plate in history, one of the best SB% of his era, and scores
40% of his times on base, one of the best marks ever. Certainly, Ty was one of the most complete
players of all time.
3. Walter Johnson
Unlike Scott and Asher, I do not believe that the starting pitcher has a much greater impact on team wins
than position players do. Nevertheless, it is a valuable role, and Walter is as obvious a choice as best
pitcher of all time as Honus Wagner is for the best shortstop of all time. In fact, here’s a difficult question:
What is the most egregious effrontery, ranking a pitcher ahead of Walter, a shortstop ahead of Honus, or
any player ahead of Babe? I don’t have a good answer.
4. Rogers Hornsby
I can’t figure how there can be people out there who aren’t impressed that the greatest right-handed hitter
of all time was a second baseman! While Hornsby-haters are quick to claim that he wasn’t good enough
defensively to play second base, I counter that he was apparently good enough to play shortstop, where
he played about 20% of his career. Whether you look at Fielding Percentage, Fielding Runs, or Fielding
Win Shares, Rogers doesn’t look that good on defense, but he certainly doesn’t look like enough of a
liability to justify ranking another second baseman ahead of him.
5. Ted Williams
It isn’t as difficult to rank Ted as one might think given how much time he missed due to wars. But it’s
actually pretty clear that his hitting, fielding, and baserunning are all not quite at Ruth’s level. All in all, he’
s just too one-dimensional of a player to rate much higher, and too incredible of a hitter to rate much
6. Honus Wagner
Not only is his superiority over all other shortstops impressive, but Honus’ ability to play any other
position on the field if needed is pretty breathtaking as well. I tend to favor offense over defense when
ranking position players, but right now it’s hard to say that I’d rather have a team of nine Ted Williams
than nine Honus Wagners. Would Williams’ offensive advantage counteract Wagner’s defensive
dominance? I realize that this is not the only way to look at the issue of who is the more valuable player,
but it is an interesting one.
7. Barry Bonds
Bonds should be ranked higher than this, but we revise our lists at the All-Star break and tend to rate
active players conservatively. Yes, just a few months ago it seemed possible for Bonds to get injured
and spend a couple of years as a mediocre DH struggling to reach Aaron’s record. Now it seems as
though he may have his best seasons still ahead of him and break the record in ’05. I don’t see how he
could be ranked lower than #4 on next year’s list.
8. Mickey Mantle
People often remember Mickey as a slugger, and nothing more. Perhaps what he ought to be known for
is grounding into fewer double plays per plate appearance than any hall of famer for whom we have
significant GIDP stats, with the notable exceptions of Chuck Klein and Joe Morgan. He also had an
astounding 80.1 SB%, and was no slouch in center field.
9. Lou Gehrig
Where you rank Lou Gehrig ultimately comes down to two things. One is how much you penalize him for
being a first baseman, and one is how much you penalize him for being the second-best player on his
team. I rank him below Mantle because I think that if you were starting a team from scratch, it would be
easier to find a good-hitting first baseman to go with Mantle than a decent hitting center fielder to go
along with Gehrig. I deal with the second issue in Bill James Comment #14.
10. Willie Mays
Bucky Dent, Ron Swoboda: these are mediocre players who are remembered for single plays in their
careers. Willie Mays, certainly one of the best players of all time, is also known for a single play: an
overrated catch. Willie was one of the best defensive center fielders ever, but the hype of that catch
misleads people into thinking that he was the best ever. Although Mays has impressive career numbers,
his offensive career value is just lower than Mantle. Plus, none of his individual seasons rank near the
top 50 for position players, making his offensive peak value astonishingly low for someone who is often
considered as Ruth’s main challenger for the #1 spot.