Have at it…

Babe Ruth is the Greatest Player Ever — But He’s Far from the Best

A new list to argue about

Bill James, who has thought more about how to quantify and contextualize player performance than the next best two people combined, recently tackled a vexing hypothetical that has proved irresistible to baseball fans for generations: How would Babe Ruth perform in today’s game?

The short of it: James suspects Ruth would perform at a “superstar” level if we were able to pencil him into the lineup for opening day 2019. He wouldn’t be Ruthian, of course; but he’d still be pretty great. 
 
The reasoning behind this line of thought (if I’m understanding James correctly) is that while the overall quality of play at the league level has improved significantly since 1927, Ruth was so much better than his league (James puts him at two or three standard deviations better, which translates to impossibly better) that even 90 years later, quality of play hasn’t passed The Big Fella by.

It’s impossible to really know, of course. As James points out, baseball in 2019 bears little resemblance to the game in Ruth’s time. “Changes in HOW the game is played are not necessarily changes in how WELL the game is played,” he writes. “Not all changes in the game are changes for the better.”

In other words, the game is fundamentally different today. Players aren’t necessarily better — they’re just different. I don’t know that I buy it. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
 
Anyway, the James post got me to thinking about the notion of greatness. Or, more specifically, what it means to be the “greatest” in one’s field of athletic endeavor. How it translates across time and circumstance.

I haven’t the foggiest notion how to truly quantify it — sure, we can come up with formulas to determine who had the “most” of something. But “most” doesn’t mean “best.” Context has a say in the matter.

Take Walter Johnson: More powerful than a locomotive, Johnson barreled to a 16-WAR season in 1913 (36–7/1.14 ERA/243K). That’s better than great. It’s better than historic. As ranked by WAR, it’s the best season of the 20th century.

Except… it’s not. Not really.

Johnson threw 346 innings in 1913, using soft baseballs the color of tobacco juice. He was basically allowed to do whatever he wanted to the ball to make it sing and dance (not that he had to). Hitters wielded beams better suited for framing a barn than lifting the ball. And just imagine stepping into the box with no batting helmet, no body armor, against Walter Johnson as the late-afternoon shadows crept from behind the plate toward the mound. Getting on base was probably secondary to getting out alive.

So yes, Johnson set an obscure statistical record that will likely never be broken. A pitcher could never approach Johnson’s WAR total in today’s game. Conditions just don’t allow it. WAR is essentially a counting stat, dependent to a large degree on accumulation, and today’s front-line starters barely eclipse 200 innings in a season — not because today’s players are brittle, coddled divas; not because MEN were MEN in Johnson’s day; because, as James points out in his piece, the game has fundamentally changed since The Big Train’s day: Teams today know there’s a competitive advantage in not allowing your starter to face a lineup for the fourth time; teams know it’s exponentially more difficult to get through innings today than it was in Johnson’s time; teams know they’ll win more games by going to the bullpen early and often.

WAR may rate Johnson’s 1913 the best, but there’s no way you’re going to convince me it was even as good as the best seasons produced by Maddux, Clemens, or Martinez (or Jacob DeGrom, if you prefer a more recent vintage). But Johnson’s 1913 might be the greatest pitching season ever.[1] Because when absolute measures are taken as a whole (16 WAR! 36 wins! 1.14 ERA! 29 Complete Games! 11 Shutouts!), it leaves one wide-eyed. [2]

Greatest. But not nearly the best.

Greatest vs Best

So what, exactly, do we mean by “Greatest” and “Best?”

In boxing circles, Muhammad Ali is usually recognized as worthy of his self-proclaimed status as “The Greatest”; Sugar Ray Robinson is probably the consensus best fighter who ever lived. I suspect both would be more than happy with the designation.

Why?

Because Ray Robinson was the better fighter, the more skilled fighter — but Muhammad Ali was the greater fighter, the Greatest fighter. I suspect you know why, since more has been written and recorded on Ali than even the Babe.

OK, OK. I know. Boxing vs baseball. Like comparing apples to sardines. Maybe another way to look at it is this: Greatest is a measure of impact and accomplishment; best is a designation of skill-level, an amalgam of athleticism, technique, and level of competition. To borrow an example from yet another sport: The 1972 Dolphins are the only undefeated team in NFL history; by that measure they are the greatest team to ever take the gridiron.

Except nobody with even a passing knowledge of professional football thinks the 1972 Dolphins would stand the slightest chance against even an average NFL team today. Too small, too slow, too… 1972.

Greatest is relative; best is absolute.

Which brings us back to Bill James and his thought-piece on Babe Ruth. James, if you remember, mused that despite the significantly improved quality of play, Ruth would probably be a superstar if we were able to space-time him into today’s game (Make it so, Number One).

Now, if anybody from pre-integration baseball could make the leap, it would be the Babe. But my feeling is that while James correctly rates Ruth’s greatness relative to his time, he probably overestimates Ruth’s level of competition, and underestimates how much better players have gotten over the years (and yes, I realize how absurd it must read for a relative neophyte such as myself to assume anything about Bill James’ intentions).

As famously explained by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in his essay “The Extinction of the .400 Hitter” and subsequent baseball essays, it was far, far easier for individuals to produce outlier performances in decades past. Guys like Ruth, Cobb, Hornsby, Wagner, Johnson, etc. essentially represented the next stage of baseball evolution; the game played by most of their peers was too primitive for more highly evolved baseball organisms. 
 
But over the decades, the game’s rate of evolution began to accelerate: Players as a whole got bigger, faster, stronger, more knowledgeable. The game began to catch up to the Speakers and Lajoies and, perhaps, Ruths. Athleticism, strategy, technique, and statistical analysis are so advanced in the modern game that it’s much more difficult to produce extremes in individual performance as compared to 90–100 years ago. As Gould wrote, “Wee Willie Keeler could hit ’em where they ain’t, because fielders didn’t yet know where they should be.”

James posits that the quality of play has improved incrementally and at a slower pace than most folks might expect (and he cautions we should take care to decouple player ability from advances in technology). If I had to guess, I’d say the baseline talent level required to play in the major leagues improved incrementally as the game grew in popularity over the first decades of the 20th century. But I’d also argue that the baseline talent level improved dramatically in the 1960s, as the true effects of integration were being felt (before leveling off and continuing to improve at a slower rate through today).

In other words, players weren’t just better than ever in the 1960s, they were being selected from a much deeper, much broader, much more Darwinian talent pool: The best black players didn’t replace the best white players; they replaced average-to-below-average white players. Ruth competed against his fair share of farm boys and railroad porters; Aaron competed against… Mays, Banks, Robinson, Clemente. This didn’t represent incremental change; integration was a seismic change, evolution on, er, steroids. It became much more difficult for even the best players to distance themselves from this superior talent pool. Willie Mays was undoubtedly a more skilled player than Babe Ruth — he just couldn’t dominate his league like Ruth. No one could: Ruth was a killer whale swimming with fluke. Mays was a killer whale… leading a pod of killer whales.

And that’s just through the 1960s. Things don’t get any easier for the Babe from there. As noted by Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt in “Baseball Demographics, 1947–2016,” trends in player demographics have undergone a profound shift since the days of the Babe (and, in fact, the days of Willie Mays). In 1947, white players comprised 98.3% of the player population (prior to 1947, this number was almost certainly 99.9% of the player population). African Americans, naturally, represented an infinitesimal sliver of MLB rosters: .09%, while Latin players accounted for even less: Just .07%.
 
By 1965 (the year Willie Mays captured his second MVP award), whites represented 78.3% of the MLB population; African Americans 12.7%; Latinos 8.8%. In other words, once non-whites were allowed to play, they captured 22% of available roster spots in less than 20 years.

The African-American player population peaked in the 1980s (reaching as high as 18.7%), and has dropped steadily over the last thirty-odd years (6.7% in 2016). Over that same time-frame, as MLB scouting operations became truly international, the Latino player population grew to 27.4%, while Asians now comprise 2.1%. White players now hold just 63.7% of available roster spots — with the highest concentration of white players in pitching roles.

In other words: Over the last 90 years, the player population has gone from 99.9% white (and likely the same percentage American) to 63.7% white, 36.3% non-white.

And those are just the demographics of the player pool; we haven’t yet touched on the size of the player pool. Back when the Babe was chasing skirts, eating steaks, and challenging “some sonofabitch to beat that!”, the U.S. population was approximately 119 million people — a fraction of whom were eligible to play MLB (which restricted its talent pool to able-bodied white males between the ages of 15–30, give or take). By 2017, the U.S. population had nearly tripled to 325 million. Huge difference? Sure. But we’re just getting started.

Add to that 325 million the population of Mexico (130 million), Japan (128 million), South Korea (51 million), Venezuela (32 million), Cuba (12 million, with some obvious restrictions) and Dominican Republic (11 million), to name a few. The potential talent pool (again, able-bodied males of a certain age) from which MLB finds, recruits, and develops talent has grown from, say, approximately 10 million in 1927 to more than 75 million in just the seven countries we list above. According to Major League Baseball, 19 countries and territories were represented in the Big Leagues in 2017; a record 259 players (or 29.8%) were born outside of the United States.

When the full international scope of MLB operations is taken into account, the potential talent pool has increased by at least a factor of eight (and the actual number is probably far greater) since Ruth was out-homering entire teams. At the same time, the number of roster spots has about doubled from 16 teams in 1927 to 30 teams today. Do the math: There are at least eight times the number of players competing for less than double the number of roster spots. It is much, much more difficult to make the Show today than it was at any time in the game’s history.

Ruth was the best player of his day. He was the greatest player of any day.

But “Greatest” is relative; “Best” is absolute.

The Lists

You’ve made it this far, so here they are: The lists. We’ll start with the 20 greatest position players of all time.

The 20 Greatest Position Players of All-Time

  1. Ruth 
    2. Wagner 
    3. Mays
    4. Bonds 
    5. Cobb
    6. Aaron 
    7. Mantle 
    8. Speaker
    9. Williams 
    10. Hornsby
    11. Collins
    12. Gehrig 
    13. Musial 
    14. Schmidt 
    15. A-Rod
    16. J. Robinson 
    17. Rickey 
    18. DiMaggio 
    19. Lajoie
    20. Bench

And before you ask, someone had to be #21.

I’d guess this list looks similar to other such lists you’ve seen. And it should. Many lists contain many of the same names, in what I suspect is a pretty similar order (in case you’re wondering, the methodology used to reach these rankings is a witch’s brew of WAR, WAA, OPS+, additional positional adjustments, minor timeline adjustments, a pinch of whim and a dash of whimsy). 
 
Ruth, of course, is by any rational measure the greatest player to ever step on a field. His was a sui generis, elemental, transformative greatness, and one might argue the gap between Ruth and the #2 man on this list approximates the difference between #2 and #10 (this in no way denigrates Honus Wagner, or Willie Mays, or Hank Aaron). On a relative basis, no one touches him save peak Bonds, and Ruth towered over his game in ways even Bonds couldn’t approach.

And that’s Ruth the player. We haven’t touched on Ruth, the myth; Ruth, the man who “saved baseball”; Ruth, the man who invented sport celebrity. His HOF plaque inscription is understatement bordering on parody: “The greatest drawing card in the history of baseball.” It was true then and it’s true now: Ruth occupied a place in the popular imagination never again reached by an American athlete.

This list, after Ruth, is familiar — and fungible. Again, you want to quibble with the list, quibble away. Mays is a consensus #2 across most lists of this type, and really, who’s going to argue with that? (I will, however, argue with any list that ranks Wagner any lower than #3). Maybe you need to find a place for Jimmie Foxx, or Joe Morgan, or Albert Pujols. Maybe Jackie Robinson should be much higher, considering what he accomplished and what he endured. Maybe you need to take Bonds down a peg or two or 10, maybe bump Joe D. up a dozen notches. Maybe you disqualify all Deadball guys; maybe you disqualify all pre-integration guys. Maybe anybody ever associated with PEDs gets consigned to your personal baseball purgatory. These all seem like valid reasons to adjust, tweak, tear-up the list. Have at it. I won’t be offended.

Because now we get to the complicated stuff.

Some time ago, I posted an article that advanced the premise that maybe, just maybe, Lou Gehrig isn’t the greatest first baseman who ever lived. Maybe — just maybe — it’s Albert Pujols. [3]

We won’t argue Gehrig-Pujols here, but a few passages from that article (written prior to 2018 season, so Pujols’ OPS+ has taken a hit since then) are relevant: 
 
“We began this exercise by comparing the greatest first baseman of all-time as ranked by Adjusted Production (OPS+). OPS+ is a useful metric because it allows us to compare, on a relative basis, how a player performed within the context of his league. With a career OPS+ of 179, Gehrig was roughly 79% more productive than a league-average hitter. Pujols, over the course of his career, has been about 52% better than an average hitter. Clear advantage Gehrig, right?
 
Well… probably not. OPS+ tells us how a player performed relative to his league — but it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of that league, about the degree of difficulty attendant to that league. And Gehrig, like every player who stepped onto a major league field prior to 1959 (when Boston finally integrated), suffers by way of this comparison. Simply put, the talent pool is much larger, much deeper, much better today than it was in Gehrig’s time — to say nothing of surgically calibrated defenses and bespoke bullpens stocked with fire-breathing robot dragons.
 
Larrupin’ Lou competed in an eight-team league comprised exclusively of white players born in America. We can say with utter certainty that this talent pool did not represent the best players in the world at the time: Roster spots that should have been taken by the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson instead went to vastly inferior players of a preferred skin tone.
 
None of this is Gehrig’s fault, of course. But the fact is, he was a thoroughbred who competed against a field that had its share of pack horses.
 
Pujols, on the other hand, has competed in a 15-team league (more, really, when one considers inter-league excursions) against nothing but thoroughbreds (and some chemically enhanced thoroughbreds at that). It’s true Pujols has dominated his league to a lesser extent than Gehrig — but Pujols has played in a much bigger, much tougher league. How much tougher? We can’t say with any certainty — but is it a stretch to think the level of competition in Pujols’ time is, say, 15% better than Gehrig’s era?
 
Because if you buy that, you buy that Pujols has been just as good a hitter as the Iron Horse relative to his league (on a percentage basis, Gehrig’s OPS+ is 15% better than Pujols’). And if you buy that, you buy that Pujols is a viable alternative at first base on your “all-time team.”
 
Because if Pujols is Gehrig’s equal as a hitter, and his superior in every other facet of the game, he’s the best first baseman of all-time.”

Which is as good a segue as any into another list (again, the criteria is the same: WAR, WAA, OPS+, but with significant timeline adjustments):

The 20 Best Position Players of All-Time

1. Bonds
2. Mays
3. A-Rod
4. Aaron
5. Mantle
6. Schmidt
7. Rickey
8. Pujols
9. J. Robinson
10. Trout
11. Morgan
12. Ruth
13. Wagner
14. Williams
15. Ripken Jr.
16. Cobb
17. Musial
18. F. Robinson
19. Bench
20. Griffey Jr.

This, to me, is the more interesting and contentious list. Ruth, being Ruth, still ranks among the best players of all-time (he was also a front-line major-league pitcher, after all). Like James, we’ll give the Babe the benefit of many doubts and assume his hypersonic hand-eye coordination and immense strength transcend eras and translate to today’s game. It’s highly probable I’ve ranked Ruth too high, but in the end, it IS the Babe. If I’m being honest, I could probably re-order slots 6–20 tomorrow, and not lose any sleep. It might be too early for Trout. Griffey Jr. might be ranked too high, while Wagner and Cobb are out of their depth. I might’ve convinced myself Johnny Bench belongs over Eddie Mathews or Wade Boggs because I wanted a catcher on the list. Like I said, have at it.

You’ll notice five players place among in the top-10 on both lists: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, and Mickey Mantle.

A few odds and ends:

· Willie Mays was pretty good at baseball. In fact, he was better at baseball than almost anybody else who ever lived. How good was he? Among position players, his career WAR (156) ranks third, behind Ruth and Bonds. If you prefer “peak value” over “career value,” Mays averaged 9.9 WAR over 13 seasons (1954–1966), an extended run second only to Ruth in baseball history. Yes, it’s a bit silly to call a decade and a half of playing time a “peak,” when a typical peak is 5–7 years. But Mays never got the message that it was OK to have an off-year once in a while.

· It may come as a surprise to some that WAR rates Bonds (163) as the second-best player of all time (behind Ruth, natch). Bonds didn’t have some of the defensive gifts of his godfather Mays, but he was plenty good in left field. Mays gets the nod in base running, but again, Bonds was excellent. Bonds overflows all gaps between them with his production at the plate: While Mays was a great hitter, Bonds defers only to Ruth and Williams (and a strong case can be made that they defer to him).

· Mickey Mantle may have been the most athletically gifted man to ever play the sport. As a teenager, Mantle was the fastest player in the game and the most powerful. In 1951, Casey Stengel, describing his rookie outfielder, said, “He has more speed than any slugger I’ve ever seen, and more slug than any other speedster — and nobody has ever had more of both of ’em together. This kid ain’t logical.” His legend includes the fastest “recorded” time to first base from home plate (3.1 seconds) AND the longest home run ever “measured” (565 ft). Both of these records are fiction — but the fact they were plausible for decades speaks to Mantle’s talent.

· Aaron’s records are legion, yet he ranks behind Mays on both lists. Mays, who led the league in charisma and flair, was the more famous of the two, and undoubtedly the bigger drawing card. Aaron, a man of quiet dignity, was every bit his equal on the field. Mays is the nominally better player because of his defense and base running, but it’s much closer than many might think. Aaron’s 6856 total bases seems as safe a record as Cy Young’s 511 wins.

· A-Rod. Oy. What to do about Alex Rodriguez? Issues. I know. But, like Bonds, we can only go by the numbers, and the numbers tell us that at the time of his retirement, Rodriguez led all active players in WAR, runs, home runs, RBI and hits. He led his league in WAR six times, home runs five times, runs scored and slugging four times apiece, RBI and OPS+ twice. He was named MVP three times and has a case for two or three more. He did most of this while playing shortstop, and padded his sterling resume at third base. A-Rod wasn’t a “shortstop who hit like a corner outfielder” — he was a shortstop who hit like Hank Aaron. He might be the most talented player to ever step on a field.

Like I said, the more interesting and contentious list. Have at it.

Jeremy Lehrman is the author of Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots. For more baseball writing, click here.

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NOTES

[1] It’s not. That would be Dwight Gooden, 1985.

[2] Johnson actually tallied 16.4 WAR in 1913. His pitching netted him 15 WAR, while his hitting and base-running added another 1.4 to his total.

[3] That was on the heels of another article that declared, with certainty, that Clayton Kershaw — not Sandy Koufax — is the best pitcher in Dodgers’ history. But I digress.