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Best Player Ever Ruth?


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Nobody Better Than The Babe


By Rob Neyer



When I'm asked about the greatest baseball players in major league history, there are nine names that always work their way into the conversation. In chronological order, they are:



Honus Wagner

Ty Cobb

Babe Ruth

Ted Williams

Stan Musial

Mickey Mantle

Willie Mays

Henry Aaron

Barry Bonds



Four of these players can be "matched," because they have contemporaries who played the same position: Williams with Musial, Mantle with Mays. If we're trying to eliminate competitors for the top spot, this is a good place to start.



As I've written many times before, Stan Musial is one of my favorites. I never saw him play, of course, but I've been reading and hearing stories about him for as long as I can remember, and the baseball that Stan signed for my grandfather is probably the only piece of memorabilia that I truly care about. That said, I just don't see any way to rate Musial even with Ted Williams.




Babe Ruth was a World Series pitching hero before becoming the game's greatest hitter.



Even if one assumes that the National League was superior to the American League in the 1950s -- true, I think -- it's hard to imagine the difference was great enough to push Musial past Williams. Stan was a better baserunner than Ted, a better fielder, and easier to manage. But in the 1940s, Williams was the best hitter in the world ... and you know, he wasn't too shabby in the 1950s, either.



Mantle vs. Mays isn't as clear-cut. As Bill James wrote in his most recent book, "I have Mantle rated higher than anyone else does, but just a little bit higher ... my argument would be that there has been too much talk about Mantle's drinking and too little about the impact of his career on base percentage, .421."



Agreed. And if you could have one of them for only one season, you probably would want Mantle. But Mays was a better center fielder, he was faster on the bases, and he was a lot better at staying out of the doctor's office. Make no mistake, Mantle was incredibly talented. But Mays was very nearly as talented ... and he played nearly 600 more games than Mantle.



Removing Mantle and Musial leaves seven players vying for the top spot. Here they are again, along with Bill James' Win Shares, career and per 154 games:




WinShares WS/154

Wagner 655 36

Cobb 722 37

Ruth 756 47

Williams 555 37

Mays 642 33

Aaron 643 30

Bonds 611 37




I've listed them (for now) in chronological order, because the time in which a player played does impact our evaluation. In a nutshell, it's likely that the quality of play in the major leagues has steadily improved since the National League was formed in 1876, and it follows that it's become steadily more difficult to dominate the competition. I'm not suggesting the trend line is absolutely straight, but it's fairly obvious that it was easier to pile up big numbers, relative to the competition, in Ty Cobb's era than in Henry Aaron's.



Now, looking at those numbers in the chart, a couple of things might pop out ...




Babe Ruth was awesome (yes, he was), and




Ted Williams is getting screwed (yes, he is).



Williams' Win Shares per 154 games are right up there with anybody except Ruth, but he's way behind in career Win Shares. Why? Because he served his country in not one, but two wars. And I don't think it's fair to hold that against him.




Year 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54

Actual 42 46 0 0 0 49 44 39 40 19 34 1 9 29

42 46 40 40 40 49 44 39 40 19 34 25 25 29




That bottom line includes my Win Shares adjustments for the five years in which Williams spent most or all of his time flying airplanes for his country. I was somewhat conservative, because 1) we should try to account for the possibility of injury, and 2) I think we should always be conservative when we do things like this. Still, adding 160 Win Shares to Williams' career total does wonders.



A similar adjustment helps Willie Mays, though not nearly as much. He spent most of the 1952 season, and all of 1953, in the army, and so I assigned him 60 Win Shares for those seasons (he earned 19 as a rookie in 1951 and 40 in 1954).



Now I'm going to run the same chart from above, but with the "adjustments" for Williams and Mays, and listing everybody in descending order of career Win Shares ...




WinShares WS/154

Ruth 756 47

Cobb 722 37

Williams 715 37

Mays 702 33

Wagner 655 36

Aaron 643 30

Bonds 611 37





Ted Williams is the last player to finish a season with a .400 or better batting average (.406 in 1941).



That changes things a bit, doesn't it? Williams moves into a dead heat with Cobb, and Mays separates himself from Wagner and Aaron.



Nobody can catch Ruth, though. He still has more career Win Shares than anybody else, and he kills the competition in Win Shares per season.



I should mention that Ruth's WS/154 are artificially high because he spent the first part of his career as a pitcher, and a pitcher will pick up more Win Shares per game (for the obvious reason that a pitcher has a huge impact on any game he starts). If we account for that, Ruth would still have something like 45 Win Shares per season.



You know that Ruth was a great hitter. How good a pitcher was he? From 1915 through 1919, Ruth went 68-40 with ERAs nearly as good as his winning percentages. Absent injury, he'd have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. Absent pitching, his home-run record probably never would have been broken by Hank Aaron. You can talk about the timeline adjustment and you can say Ruth was fat. But you can't say he wasn't the greatest player who ever lived.



Here, then, is how I rank the nine greatest players ever:



1. Ruth

2. Mays

3. Williams

4. Wagner

5. Cobb

6. Bonds

7. Aaron

8. Musial

9. Mantle



There is a big problem with this list: There are nine players, and eight of them are outfielders (Wagner being the only exception). This is consistent with Conventional Wisdom, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's right. Why do outfielders fare so well? Two obvious reasons: Outfielders tend to last longer, and they tend to hit better. If you want more infielders, though, I heartily endorse Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins and Mike Schmidt (and don't be shy about moving Wagner, a shortstop for most of his career, up a slot or two).



There also aren't any pitchers (Ruth notwithstanding); if you want a pitcher on that list, feel free to drop Walter Johnson somewhere between Bonds and Mantle. And speaking of Bonds, he deserves a couple of bullet points ...



Barry Bonds

Left fielder

San Francisco Giants






2,569 1,941 658 1,742 .433 .297






Obviously, he can still move up on the list. Assuming he plays three more seasons and is moderately healthy, Bonds is going to finish with more (actual) Win Shares than every player but Ruth and Cobb. Combine his career numbers with his per/154 numbers, and it's not hard to argue that he'll deserve to be ranked among the top three or four players ever. And that's before we make any sort of timeline adjustment.




The mere mention of Barry Bonds in this article will, I know, elicit a great deal of e-mail from readers who think that instead of moving Bonds up the list because he's not through yet, he should be moved down the list because of his (alleged) "creative use of modern pharmaceuticals."



I don't know what to do with that, though. You can't really accuse Bonds of cheating, because A) we don't know what, if anything, he's been doing, and B) the "rules" are not clear. You can't really accuse Bonds of doing things that other players aren't doing, because we know other players are doing things. Which isn't to say it shouldn't be a part of the discussion; I just don't know which part, exactly.



It's very difficult to rate an active player, and for now I'm comfortable saying only that Bonds is one of the game's 10 greatest players ever. As for where exactly he belongs in that group, we'll have to sort that out later.

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Personally I don't care for that whole win share thing, and unless someone was nortoriously bad defensively like Stuart "Dr. Strangeglove" we really can't assess if one guys defense was so much better than the other. We know Willies Mays was great defensively, but to what extent? I like going with adjusted OPS for assessing the top 10 players in history.


So in my honest opinion, the top 10 hitters in history are:

1. Babe Ruth

2. Ted Williams

3. Barry Bonds (sadly)

4. Lou Gehrig

5. Rogers Hornsby

6. Mickey Mantle

7. Ty Cobb

8. Jimmy Foxx

9. Stan Musial

10. Mark McGwire


Top 10 Pitchers of all time:

1. Pedro MArtinez

2. Lefty Grove

3. Walter Johndon

4. Greg Maddux

5. Roger Clemens (sadly)

6. Randy Johnson

7. Cy Young

8. Pete Alexander

9. Hoyt Wilhelm

10. Whitey Ford


Obviously, I have a bias against dead ball league pitchers, because in my honest opinion, if someone was merely good at pitching, leage eras were so low, you would perform great. Furthermore, very few players from the past would be able to compete with the super humans in the game today, so that's why I am assessing by how someone dominating in their era, but I admit I have a major bias against the deadball era and very early 1900s.


Top 10 Players of all time:

1. Babe Ruth

2. Ted Williams

3. Barry Bonds

4. Pedro Martinez

5. Lou Gehrig

6. Rogers Hornsby

7. Lefty Grove

8. Mickey Mantle

9. Ty Cobb

10. Jimmy Foxx

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Top Ten Hitters:


1. Babe Ruth

2. Ted Williams

3. Barry Bonds

4. Ty Cobb

5. Willie Mays

6. Lou Gehrig

7. Honus Wagner

8. Henry Aaron

9. Roger Hornsby

10. Stan Musial

10a. Todd Helton will have to be judged later



Top Ten Pitchers

1. Walter Johnson

2. Nolan Ryan

3. Cy Young

4. Satchel Paige

5. Lefty Grove

6. Roger Clemens

7. Pedro Martinez

8. Randy Johnson

9. Greg Maddux

10. Tom Glavine

10a. Eric Gagne will have to be judged later

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OPS+ is a terrible method of determining greatness because it says nothing about how long a player was great. longevity is a big deal, especially for the HOF and other major baseball distinctions.


a person could play for 4 seasons and be called the greatest ever because his stats would be averaged.

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(My list is a little more modern due to my age)

hehe, don't worry about it. i don't think anyone on this forum is old enough to have watched most of these players.


besides, modern day athletes ARE much better than the athletes of old. most of the old guys wouldn't be nearly as good in today's MLB.

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