We’re here, we’re finally here, the ten best players who have ever played the game, as compiles by the Hall of Miller and Eric. If you haven’t seen the first nine editions of our thoughts compared to those of ESPN, check them out: #100–91, #90–81, #80–71, #70–61, #60-51, #50-41, #40-31, #30-21, and #20-11.
We hope you enjoy the top-10 as much as we enjoyed this project.
10.Ted Williams (ESPN Rank: 4)
ERIC: One must assume that in ranking Williams fourth, ESPN has exercised some imagination. Simply look at Barry Bonds’ number compared to Williams. Same position after all, and Bonds spanks The Splendid Splinter overall. That’s true if you’re talking about WAR or raw numbers. In 700 more games, Bonds leads Williams by 400 runs, 300 hits, 75 doubles, 250 homers, 150 RBI, and 500 SB. In the WAR department, he leads by 40. There’s a huge gap in baserunning and especially fielding. Assuming for the moment that there’s not some anti-PED or anti-Bonds thing going on here, to get Williams ahead of Bonds, the voters would need to have filled in Williams’ World War II and Korean War service years with their imaginations. I don’t personally object to doing that so long as it’s clear that you’re doing it for everyone, you apply it fairly, and you obey established guidelines for doing so. We’ve got no such information about such instructions being given to ESPN’s expert panel, so we are left to assume that they have applied such judgments on their own, each in their own way. Otherwise, it makes little sense to rank Williams ahead of Barry.
9. Tris Speaker (ESPN Rank: 41)
MILLER: I used to think Stan Musial was the most underrated inner circle player. No more. Not at all. Speaker is the clear best player ESPN sort of ignored, ranking him really close to Ernie Banks, which is an absolute joke. Banks had four great seasons and seven very good ones. By my adjusted WAR, Banks’ seven-year peak reaches 50.8. Speaker’s is 73.1. If we ignore Speaker’s best seven seasons and only look at years 8-14, he still beats Banks with 55.8 wins. As much as I love Mike Trout, and as honest as I was when I said I thought he could be the best player I’ve ever seen, I’d lay odds, big odds, that he doesn’t reach Speaker’s heights.
8. Hank Aaron (ESPN Rank: 3)
ERIC: What’s amazing about Aaron is the sheer longevity. Year after year after year of fantastic seasons. From ages 21–35, his seasonal WAR never, ever dipped below 6.2, which he reached in that first season. If you want to toss that one out, he never dipped below 6.8. Those are the only two seasons when he was below 7.0 WAR for those 15 years. In 1970, at age 36, he merely had an All-Star-type year of 5.0 WAR. At 37, he rebounded with 7.2 WAR before the final slide began. Though it was a graceful slide nonetheless. Similarly, Aaron received MVP votes every year until he was 39 years old.
Like Roberto Clemente, Aaron could probably have been a starting centerfielder. In 308 games and 2626 innings across eight different seasons, BBREF gives him a +6 defensive rating and DRA is right there with them. He was simply a tremendous athlete and complete ballplayer. He ran the bases very well, hit like the dickens, had a great glove, and he hardly ever missed a game until very deep into his thirties. The only thing he couldn’t do was stay out of the double play, and even at that he averaged about a half-run to the negative per season. The only problem for him was there was someone even better in the league who typically stood to his right at the All-Star game.
7. Roger Clemens (ESPN Rank: 19)
MILLER: In his last four years on Boston, ages 30-33, Clemens was 40-39 and pitched 745 innings with an ERA+ of 130, 2.36 K/BB, and 18.2 WAR. A decade later, from 40-43, Clemens was 55-27 and pitched 750.2 innings with an ERA+ of 153, 3.05 K/BB, and 20.8 WAR. I really disliked Clemens because of his disappointing overall contribution in Boston those last four seasons (where, per inning, he was still an awesome pitcher). The frustration only grew when he put up 20 WAR in two seasons north of the border. Cy Young Awards for four different teams, I have to admit, is pretty cool. In fact, Clemens won 38 games for the Astros from 2004-2006. That’s the fourth most wins he had for one team. And no pitcher ever won that many for four teams.
6. Cy Young (ESPN Rank: 17)
MILLER: It’s kind of interesting that we have three pitchers in the top-seven. I’m not sure that’s the right decision, but I’m not sure it’s wrong either. I could get Young and Clemens as far back as Musial in 13th. Or here. It’s close, and it’s really difficult for me to compare pitchers and hitters. Young just boggles the mind. With my conversions, he posted six seasons of 10+ WAR and another four of 9+. Ty Cobb didn’t do that. Neither did Walter Johnson, nor Barry Bonds. Only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays join Young in claiming both six years at 10+ and ten total at 9+ WAR. And with seventeen seasons of playing at the All-Star 5 WAR level, he’s topped by only Cobb and Tris Speaker. Perhaps most remarkable about Young is something that’s far less frequently discussed than his 511 wins – his fourteen times leading the league in BB/9. That kind of control made him sometimes unhittable and helps him to sixth place on our list.
5. Walter Johnson (ESPN Rank: 9)
ERIC: It seems pretty safe to say that Walter Johnson’s crown as the king of pitchers is safe for a long time, if not ever. Roger Clemens is the closest we’ll ever see to Johnson’s like, an extreme combination of velocity, command, durability, longevity, and dominance that’s extremely rare. Why do I say that Johnson’s crown is safe? Simply because without a substantial change in how starters are used, no one will again rack up the kind of innings he threw per game, nor make the number of starts per year he made. Many theorize that the maximum effort required to throw as hard as today’s moundsmen do is unsustainable for all but the freakiest of physiques. One hundred pitches at max effort is a far different matter than Johnson reaching back for the velo when he needed it most. Clayton Kershaw is having a Hall-level career, maybe an inner circle one, and he’ll end up nowhere close to Johnson. So there’s two ways we, as a baseball loving community interested in parsing rankings and comparing the greats, can play it. Either we can just tell ourselves that the best pitcher ever played 100 years ago and leave it alone, or we can start to break pitching into epochs and compare pitchers within their own and perhaps adjacent eras. There’s little point in comparing Kershaw to Johnson, just as there’s little point comparing the Model A to a Tesla. But there might be a point in comparing a Tesla to a Delorean. Especially one that flies.
4. Ty Cobb (ESPN Rank: 8)
ERIC: Ty Cobb is synonymous with anger, aggression, speed, spikes, a kind of baseball violence. He has also long been associated with virulent racism, though that’s now been debunked. But it does give us a moment in which to reflect, during these turbulent times for race, about the intersection of race and baseball. Of course we mentioned the color line in Cap Anson’s entry a few posts back in this series. We didn’t say much about the color line in Jackie Robinson’s biography. I think I speak for Miller when I say two things. 1) That racism in its overt and subtle forms is not merely repugnant but immoral. Anyone who subscribes to a moral philosophy that includes The Golden Rule is breaking it when they engage in racist behavior. Anyone whose moral philosophy centers on the Utilitarian idea of bringing the most good to society are clearly in violation of their own code. Anyone who believes in the American Dream, a moral philosophy of sorts, puts its very values into question when they engage in racist behavior. Or sexist. Or xenophobic. Or whathaveyou.
2) A man’s attitudes about others have no bearing on whether he was a great player, until and unless we can prove that the actions emanating from those beliefs cost a team wins. It’s rare that we might be able to do so with confidence, and it’s not my idea of fun to go looking for incidents where I can label someone a racist with utmost precision.
My point here is that if we are making lists of great players, it behooves us to remember that the men who play baseball are not heroes and villains. They are not in any way emblematic of the greater good, of their teams’ communities, of anything really. They are just a very small subset of people within a larger society with a very specialized skilled job in our economy. We cheer for them. We love them. We live and die with them. But they are not us, and we are not them. If we care about seeking some kind of truth, some kind of best-we-can reckoning of the greatest in the game’s history, our first move must be to eliminate our own biases and seek answers in principles not personalities. Does that sound cold? Does that sound like the words of someone with merely a clinical love of the game? Maybe it does. But I don’t really care what it sounds like. What I care about is whether it works. I might have let some personal biases influence my rankings in this project. I wonder about my evaluation guys like Lou Gehrig and Satchell Paige. But on the whole, I feel like I’ve don’t the best I can to push aside my personality-driven proclivities to the best of my ability. Which is admittedly imperfect.
As for Ty Cobb, I think we’ve just about nailed him. I don’t think he can be reasonably said to be better than the three guys we have ahead of him without a lot of gyrations. I think there’s plenty of good fodder for the argument that he’s better than the guys we have behind him. And I think he’s one of the first players I’d want to go back in time to watch if I had the ability to do so.
3. Willie Mays (ESPN Rank: 2)
MILLER: Several of the ESPN writers put Mays #1 on their lists. I had such a visceral reaction to this choice, and upon further consideration, I haven’t changed my mind much. By my numbers, Ruth is far and away tops. Mays is in a group with Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds fighting for second. Really, I’d be okay with any of those three second. On the other hand, some people like Eric are timeliners. That’s shorthand for saying Ruth didn’t have the competition of others so his numbers shouldn’t be taken on face value. While I disagree with this notion, I completely understand it and can accept it. If you’re a timeliner, Mays certainly bests Cobb. And maybe he even catches Ruth. Similarly, if you timeline, he doesn’t beat Bonds. They’re basically the same without adjustments. If we make them, Bonds beats Mays. If we don’t, Ruth beats him. Willie Mays is not the best player of all time.
2. Barry Bonds (ESPN Rank: 5)
ERIC: If ESPN isn’t going to rank a pitcher or a catcher among its top five, then there’s little reason other than PED malice to put Bonds fifth behind a bunch of guys whose careers began 15–50 years before Bobby Bonds made the scene. Truly, how likely is it that the four greatest baseball players in history began their careers before color TV or Atari? Before the interstate system or the internet? Before JFK or JR were shot? Before Watergate or Irangate? Before the Challenger or The Dukes of Hazzard? Knowing what we know about the state of the game today and over the last thirty years, the answer is a spit take. Since you, dear reader, have surely been with us all the way since 2013 or dived deep into our archive, you must remember our article about the Schoenfield’s Paradox. In short, the further back in time you go, the easier leagues were to dominate, and, therefore, the more the best players stood out from the crowd. This is part of why the BBWAA and VC have struggled so much to recognize great players from 1970 onward, and it’s why an outfit like ESPN would have Bonds ranked where they do. Well, that, PEDs, or they didn’t like his surly personality in the clubhouse. But in any objective way of looking across time, we must ask ourselves the simple Jamesian question: Is there anything in the player’s record that may be creating illusions of context? Sometimes the answer is as simple as the ballpark. Sometimes it’s more subtly the run environment. Sometimes it’s something diabolical like pitching usage patterns. But in the case of the timeline, it’s not so specific or simple to see because we live in it. It’s part of the baseball air we breathe. We are living our way through the timeline, and in twenty years, I’ll be writing this same article about Mike Trout (at least I hope so). But it’s awfully hard to see the water when you swim in it.
1. Babe Ruth (ESPN Rank: 1)
You know when a player strikes a big walk-off hit and the announcers let the pictures do the talking?
THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ 10–1
MILLER: Ruth is first, so that’s good. But it’s a bit of a surprise to argue that no pitcher is among the best eight players ever. Then again, we think they have the right guy first. And it’s nice that Hank Aaron and Stan Musial, sometimes underrated among all-time greats aren’t underrated here. Finally, I’m not surprised that Mickey Mantle is seriously overrated. We put him at #25, which makes sense since he’s so clearly the 4th best center fielder ever. Nobody rates him over Mays. And nobody should rank him over Cobb. In terms of MAPES, Cobb has a 112 to 84 advantage. The third best center fielder ever, I’m quite confident, is Tris Speaker. JAWS agrees with us even though we think they underrate his defense in center. Anyway, this isn’t a bad top-ten, but it’s not great either.
ERIC: This has been a wonderful exercise. Fun and thought provoking. And, yes, I do like to snark on a few pet themes…. But mostly I find myself reminded that as much progress as we have seen made in the past 15 or so years in terms of rigorous thinking and analysis entering the baseball world, we continue to see amazing inconsistencies of reasoning. When groups, committees, panels of any sort work through a process, you hope that the wisdom of crowds prevails and that the central tendency of expert thought will yield answers with a compelling internal logic. But often it doesn’t. Too few experts to give a big enough sample. Or a panel of “experts” instead of experts. Or too much bias within a panel. Some voices louder than others. Decision-making systems flawed by vague instructions, overly specific instructions, or no instructions at all. Huh, we could be talking about the Veterans Committee here or maybe the BBWAA Hall of Fame electorate. Or the Oscars voters. [We could also be talking about Congress, but this isn’t that kind of site.] If you’ve ever been through design-by-committee, you know what I’m talking about. So what’s the big finish? There isn’t one, is there? Baseball keeps grinding along, year after year. We love it for its consistency and its constancy. It flows along like a river through our lives. We remember years of our lives based on who won the World Series. Soon enough, the Mike Trouts, Manny Machados, and Clayton Kershaws will have enough under their belt to start appearing on these lists. Soon enough we’ll have the kind of in-depth information on every Negro League season so that we can do more and better work at ranking them with precision on lists like these. Soon enough we’ll have a sports media full of people with baseball reasoning, not quote takers or quote makers. Soon enough it will be time again to revisit our rankings. Stick around, the game’s just beginning.
MILLER: Or you could just trust the people who are actually trying to get it right, not draw page views.