There's no way for me to keep everyone happy with this list, so I openly acknowledge its imperfection. Taking into account the differences in eras -- ballparks, styles, and substances -- it's impossible to find a flawless ranking system. With that in mind, here's what I've come up with:
(1) For hitters, I consider the following four categories the most important: (in no particular order) batting average, home runs, RBI, and OPS (combined slugging and OBP).
(2) For pitchers, I consider the following four categories the most important: (again, in no particular order) wins, ERA, strikeouts per nine innings, and opponent's batting average against. Let's call the last two "K's/9" and "Opp. BA."
Total strikeouts is an unfair category because pitchers went deeper into games in the past. Thus the starters from the mid and early 20th century have a distinct advantage there, due to a longer leash from their manager and organization, and subsequently more innings pitched. K's/9 provides a level playing field. At least, level in comparison to total strikeouts.
(3) Perimeter offensive stats like stolen bases, hits, walks, and runs will be considered, but given less weight than the four listed in point #1.
(4) Perimeter pitching stats like losses, walks, and saves will be considered, but given less weight than the four listed in point #2.
(5) I will not be eliminating players who have tested positive for steroids (or have been accused of taking steroids) because it's impossible to know which players would have thrived with or without the use of performance-enhancing drugs. For example, I'd say Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez would be superstars without PED's, and that Mark McGwire probably wouldn't be, but can I truly know for sure?
Of course I can't.
Also, substance use is relative to era. For example, Willie Mays has openly admitted that the players of his era took "greenies" -- better known as the drug "speed" -- to maintain their energy and competitive edge over the course of the long professional baseball season.
So, I won't discriminate.
(6) It's difficult to find databases that have the all-time stats available, so for your knowledge, this is what I used. Notice that they don't have winning percentage, strikeout-to-walk ratio or WHIP available. Definitely a shame.
All right, enough with the pre-game. Here we go...
30. Nolan Ryan-RHP
It's become vogue to label him "overrated," because of his losses (3rd) and walks (1st). But there's something to be said about his dominance, as "The Ryan Express" is first all time in batting average against. Hitters were weaker against him than anyone else, a statement also supported by his No. 3 rank in K's/9.
We can't overlook his No. 14 rank in wins, either.
29. Manny Ramirez-LF
The first of the active players, Manny's in the top 20 in both homers and RBI. His totals will increase in those cumulative statistics as his career crawls to its end, and he's a superstar in one non-cumulative stat...
OPS. "Man-Ram" is 7th all time in OPS, showing his ability to get on base and produce runs in some way, shape or form. In addition, he's undoubtedly one of the premier clutch hitters, boasting ridiculous playoff and RISP stats.
Hey, that's just Manny being Manny.
28. Tris Speaker-CF
Known for throwing baserunners out at first base from center field, Speaker is one of the most talented defensive players in the history of the game. But he was more than just a glove, ranking 4th all time in batting average, and 5th in hits. He had a nice defense/hit for average balance, but wasn't very powerful nor dangerous on the basepaths.
27. Cy Young-RHP
He is the all-time leader in pitching victories, so I had to get him on here somewhere. I mean, they did name the elite pitching award after him. But as many of us already know at this point, Young is also the all-time leader in losses. His K's/9 and Opp. BA aren't impressive, and he's only 33rd in ERA.
I say "only," because virtually every other all star pitcher of his era ranks above him in lifetime ERA. It was a time for the pitchers, and Cy wasn't as stingy as many of his constituents.
26. Rogers Hornsby-2B
Behind only Ty Cobb in batting average, Rogers is one of the purest hitters of all. His bat control made him a nightmare to opposing pitchers, that in addition to his professor's knowledge of the strikezone. That great eye is indicated by his 8th ranked OPS, which also suggests further offensive production.
Of course second base is one of the important skill positions, as well.
25. Grover Alexander-RHP
Not to be confused with the president, Grover Cleveland Alexander, this right-handed pitcher ranks third all time in wins. What's most impressive about Alexander is that he's not in the top 30 in career losses, while the leaders in wins -- Cy Young and Walter Johnson -- are both in the top five in defeats. An absolutely incredible winning percentage for Grover, to go along with his 28th rank in ERA.
24. Joe DiMaggio-CF
There's a little reputation involved here, but I can't punish "Jolten Joe" for protecting our liberties in World War II. Joe D didn't have the longevity to dominate in the cumulative statistics, but he's top 30 in both batting average and OPS. He's actually top 15 in OPS.
When they hit their stride at similar points in their careers, DiMaggio was right up there with Stan Musial and Ted Williams (both of whom you'll see later on).
23. Cap Anson-1B
"Who?" you're wondering.
Relative to their positions on typical lists, like Mel Ott and Stan Musial, Anson is an underappreciated player. Cap is in the top 20 in four major offensive categories, and take away batting average (18th), and he's top ten in the others. "The others" being RBI, runs scored, and hits.
Did you know that Anson is third in the history of the game in RBI? You probably didn't. I didn't either, until I looked it up.
22. Bob Gibson-RHP
Similar to Koufax, I often hear that he is "the greatest pitcher to ever live." Unfortunately for Big Bob, the numbers don't necessarily show that. He's in the top 20 all time in K's/9 and Opp. BA, but he's not as dominant as Koufax, Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson in those categories.
Gibson is also 26th in walks, showing longevity, and yet he's not in the top 30 in wins. Maybe not as successful as his reputation suggests.
21. Mel Ott-RF
Seemingly a forgotten man when it comes to the all-time greats, Ott is in the top 25 in four major offensive categories: homers, RBI, OPS, and walks. He had a keen understanding of the strikezone, and used that to his advantage in RISP situations. Mel was a power player with a sharp eye, in the offensive mold of Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.
20. Walter Johnson-RHP
Sure he's second all time in wins, but he's fourth in losses. It's the old Cy Young debate, except Johnson's peripherals are better. Twelfth in Opp. BA is particularly notable because it appears to be a stat dominated by contemporary pitchers, and Johnson is far from that.
He's also No. 9 in ERA, and that's something to write home about.
19. Alex Rodriguez-SS/3B
It seems like he has plenty of offensive prime left, and yet he's already 12th in home runs and 29th in RBI. OPS is a relative statistic (not cumulative), and Alex is 15th there. When it's all said and done, he may very well be the home run king.
Have to make mention of his 40/40 season, and the fact that he's been a sure-handed defensive player at both shortstop and third base. When indexed as a shortstop for his career, A-Rod becomes all the more impressive.
18. Tom Seaver-RHP
"The Franchise's" numbers are similar to Bob Gibson's, but better. He's one of the premier ERA guys of the modern era, and is in the top 30 all time in wins, K's/9, and Opp. BA. He has a better lifetime ERA than Gibson (who is mythical), and less walks. Tom's obviously the best pitcher in the history of the Mets' organization.
17. Albert Pujols-1B
No player has had a better start to their career. In his first eight seasons, "The Machine" never had less than 32 homers. He never had less than 103 RBI. He never had an OPS lower than .955, and he never hit below .314. During that time period he hit over 40 homers four times, and had over 120 RBI five times. Don't forget .330 or better five times, either.
And now he's a Gold Glove defensive player? What can't he do? If Pujols continues at this pace he'll unquestionably rank in history's top five.
16. Honus Wagner-SS
The man on the most famous baseball card in the history of the world, is the greatest shortstop of all time. Shortstop is the most important defensive position, and Honus had great hands, but was even more impressive with the bat. He ranks in the top 30 in four major categories: batting average, RBI, stolen bases, and hits.
He played during a pitchers' era, one of few homers, and yet he's 20th all time in runs batted in. Like Ty Cobb, Wagner was an absolutely incredible situational hitter. A true clutch guy.
15. Sandy Koufax-LHP
Like Bob Gibson in the realm of pitching, and Mickey Mantle/Willie Mays in the offensive discussion, Koufax has a legendary mystique to him. "Koufax" -- it's like an institution. Many have said he's the best pitcher in the history of the game, but the career numbers aren't quite there. Like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Sandy's career was shortened in some manner.
Still, he's 4th all time in K's/9, and 2nd in Opp. BA. His career ERA is excellent as well, but he was in a weaker hitters' era than some of the pitchers to come.
14. Randy Johnson-LHP
The greatest left-handed pitcher of all time...is still pitching. Go figure.
"The Big Unit" holds the No. 1 spot in K's/9, and he's also in the top 10 in Opp. BA. His stats are similar to Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez, but he's the only one of the trio to place in the top 25 in career victories. Still, Pedro gets the slight nod over Randy because I value ERA over K's/9.
13. Pedro Martinez-RHP
Yup, he's the third best pitcher in the history of the bigs. Pedro's statistical rankings are eerily similar to those of Sandy Koufax, so we have to give Martinez the nod considering the era he pitched in. With the vast majority of the league's top sluggers using performance-enhancing drugs, it's an incredible accomplishment to boast the lowest ERA of the time period.
Forget about the time period for the other statistics; Pedro is second all time in K's/9 and fourth in Opp. BA. Those two are where he's especially similar to Koufax.
12. Jimmie Foxx-1B
Only five players in the history of the major leagues are in the top 30 in homers and batting average, and Jimmie is the first to land on the list. You'll have to read on for the next four. Foxx didn't have a tremendous amount of defensive value, but his widespread offensive production more than makes up for that.
To go with his top 30 in homers and BA, Jimmie is in the top 10 in both RBI and OPS. He's actually fifth all time in OPS, the statistic that Billy Beane and Theo Epstein have labeled the most important.
11. Mickey Mantle-CF
Like Willie Mays (who you'll see in a little bit), "The Mick" is a bit of a reputation player. Nowadays, when the "Who's the best player of all time?" debate arises, Mantle is quite often in the discussion. During his playing career Mick was a celebrity, and remains one of the most popular players to ever grace the field.
However, he doesn't have the all-around statistics of the offensive players you'll see in the top ten. He's in the top 15 in homers, OPS, and walks, but the hitters in the top 10 are exceptional in at least four major categories. In fact, with the exception of Mays, they're all in the top 30 in five major categories. Mantle was a superb defensive outfielder, but it's not enough to make up the significant statistical difference.
10. Christy Mathewson-RHP
Like the more popular Walter Johnson, Christy is in the top ten in both wins and ERA. On the negative side, Johnson is 4th all time in losses, and 24th in walks. Mathewson, on the other hand, isn't in the top 30 in losses or walks. He had excellent control and an impeccable winning percentage.
Christy also ranks in the top 30 in Opp. BA (albeit barely, at No. 30, the
very last spot), something that can't be said of most of the superstar pitchers
of his era. Of the true old time pitchers, only Mathewson, Johnson, Ed Walsh, Addie Joss, Ed Reulbach, and Rube Waddell are in the top 30 in Opp. BA. That's a category dominated by more contemporary hurlers like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Clemens, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson.
9. Roger Clemens-RHP
It pains me to do this, because I hate Roger Clemens, but his numbers and the specifics of his success indicate that he's the best pitcher of all time.
He has the durability and longevity of an old-time pitcher, ranking 9th in wins, behind only Greg Maddux of this era. He's second in ERA for the longball era, behind only Pedro Martinez, and he's 7th in the history of the game in K's/9. "The Rocket" is one of only four pitchers in the top 10 in wins that isn't in the top 30 in losses. Grover Alexander, Christy Mathewson, and Kid Nichols are the others, but none of them have Roger's strikeout rate or Opp. BA.
As sickening as it is, he has the perfect balance in pitching statistics.
8. Willie Mays-CF
If I went solely on reputation, "The Say Hey Kid" would probably rank second overall. There's a mystique to Mays, and we often hear announcers and commentators of this era saying, "He's the best player I ever saw."
But the numbers aren't quite there. They are certainly impressive, but if stats were the only thing in consideration he'd probably be in the 13 or 14 range. Luckily for Willie, I have to consider his all-world defense in center field, as well as his excellent speed and baserunning instincts.
As for the specifics of the numbers: 23rd in OPS, 10th in RBI, 7th in runs, and 4th in homers.
7. Lou Gehrig-1B
First basemen get a raw deal on a list like this because they are generally slow-footed, and their position is considered one of the easiest (if not the easiest) to play defensively. On the bright side for Mr. Gehrig, he's the greatest first baseman of all time.
The numbers are astounding: he's in the top 30 in batting average, homers, RBI, OPS, and runs, and is in the top 10 in three of those categories. He was considered a slick fielder, and of course he never took a day off. I'm sure you all remember the consecutive games played streak.
6. Stan Musial-LF
"Stan the Man" is certainly the sleeper of the entire list. Most baseball fans would expect him to be on here at some point, but likely in the 15-to-20 range. In reality, a ranking that high would represent a slap in the face to Musial.
Stan's one of only three players to rank in the top 30 in six major offensive categories (Bonds and Ruth are the others), and he was an outstanding defensive outfielder and baserunner (9th all time in runs scored).
5. Ty Cobb-CF
For a guy who wasn't a "home run hitter," so to speak, it's incredible that he's 7th all time in RBI. That indicates an awful lot about his situational hitting; if there were runners in scoring position, "The Georgia Peach" wasn't letting them down.
Cobb also boasts the highest batting average in the history of the game, that to go along with the No. 2 spot in hits, and the No. 4 spot in stolen bases. He wasn't a power player, but he hit to all fields and used his speed to his advantage during his prime. He also ranks in the top 30 in OPS.
4. Hank Aaron-RF
Here's a man who may have become the most underrated player of all time. For years people have been saying he's overrated because his stats were a result of longevity and not dominance, but why should he be punished for continuing to produce with age? Now that the general public seems to accept that "overrated" label, I think "Hammerin' Hank" is underrated.
He's top 30 in five major offensive categories, and I say that only because he's 30th in OPS. Take OPS out of the picture, and then I can say he's top four in four extremely significant categories: home runs, RBI, runs, and hits.
Hank was a relentless run producer during his career; 1st in RBI and 2nd in homers...that's hard to ignore.
3. Ted Williams-LF
"The Splendid Splinter" is often referred to as the greatest "pure" hitter in the history of the game. That may be true, depending on your definition of "pure." Looking at the numbers, "Teddy Ballgame" is in the top 20 in batting average, homers, RBI, OPS, and walks. Looking even closer, he's 13th or better in all of those categories except homers.
And there's one ever-so-important thing to remember about Williams' career:
He lost some of his prime baseball years to service in World War II. That makes his No. 4 ranking in walks (a cumulative statistic) all the more impressive. Teddy was a true scientist of hitting, and a protector of our freedom in the armed forces.
2. Barry Bonds-LF
Now the so-called "purists" out there will dismiss this ranking completely, but as I said in the opening, I have my reasons for including the sons of the Steroid Era. As for Barry's specifics, he's in the top five in homers, RBI, OPS, runs, and walks. It's certainly impressive to be first, and Bonds is first in both homers and walks. He's also in the top 30 in stolen bases, and was a 40/40 guy at one point.
Before his bulky days, Barry was one of the premier defensive outfielders in the game.
1. Babe Ruth-RF/LHP
George Herman "Babe" Ruth is the greatest player in the history of baseball. "The Babe" is one of only five players to rank in the top 30 in both home runs and batting average, and is one of only three players to rank in the top 30 in six major offensive categories. He has the highest OPS of all time, and is in the top three in homers, RBI, and walks.
On lists of this nature, Ruth has often been criticized for his lack of mobility on the bases, and in the outfield. To me, however, that is overshadowed by his astonishing success as a left-handed pitcher. Babe had a 2.28 lifetime ERA, and he won 18 or more games three times. His record was incredible, at 94-46.
Something else to consider about Ruth is his style of play relative to the collective style of the era. To put it simply, Babe hit more home runs than entire teams in certain seasons. If I remember correctly, he once had more homers than an entire league.
That's incomprehensible to me. Too impressive for words, really. I'll leave it to action, by listing Ruth as the best player in major league history.
I know some people will be upset, but I can't satisfy everyone with a list like this. I welcome all of your comments and opinions below.
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It's the first full-length book centered on Boston Red Sox's popular
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