Eric and I recently finished a series of posts where we ranked the 100 best players in baseball history. In that series I used the argument that there are only two players who could be baseball’s best, that is, if we want to be accurate. There’s a third who many tout. And in this post, I’ll construct an argument, one that I don’t really believe, that there might be a fourth. If I don’t believe it, why do it? Well, that’s a fair question. I’m doing it only because I think it’s fun. And that’s what this project should be all about.
The Best Players Ever
The easiest player to rank as the best ever is Babe Ruth. He’s the guy Eric and I put there. He’s the guy ESPN put there. He’s the guy experts and novices alike put there.
My view is that the only other player with a legitimate claim to the top spot is Barry Bonds. If you’re one to hold Ruth back because he didn’t play against the best competition of his time (African Americans, chiefly), or because pitching was far from as refined as it is today, okay. I don’t do that, but if you do, it’s gotta be Barry.
I know, I know. Bonds probably used performance enhancing drugs. And they probably helped his stats. If that’s the case and you really need to go with Willie Mays, I’m not going to debate with you right now. I don’t think that’s a call supported by statistics or logic. But those who tout Mays don’t always use logic beyond their love of a player they saw as a young boy. And that’s not really logic. Anyway, if you want Mays, so be it. I have an argument to make.
The Other Choice
Nolan Ryan struck out over 17% more batters than any other pitcher in history. If you think that’s impressive, Rickey Henderson stole nearly 50% more bases than anyone else ever. On the other hand, pitcher have responsibilities beyond just striking batters out. In many of those areas, Ryan had warts. If he’s outside your top-25 pitchers ever, we’re like-minded. As far as Henderson, I think he’s underrated, but it’s clear non-pitchers have a lot of responsibilities beyond stealing bases. After intensive study, I think you’d find Rickey to rank somewhere from 12-18 among non-pitchers. He’s clearly not the best player ever.
Here’s someone who might be. Mariano Rivera. While pitchers are responsible for more than just strikeouts, and hitters are responsible for more than just stolen bases, relief pitchers aren’t responsible for anything other than stranding runners, getting batters out, and suppressing scoring. That’s really all there is to it. And we can all agree that Mariano Rivera did those things better than any relief pitcher ever.
How much better? Well, if you’ve read the HoME for a while, you’d be at least vaguely familiar with my MAPES ranking system. For relievers it includes a mix of peak, prime, and career WAR. It also adjusts for reliever stress by looking at win probability added, and there’s an adjustment for for playoff contribution. Overall, I rank Mariano Rivera as the 29th best pitcher ever. The next best reliever, Goose Gossage, comes in at 86th.
That’s a pretty great difference. Let’s see how great by looking at their MAPES separation. There’s a difference of nearly 29% in terms of their MAPES rankings. That’s greater than the difference between Babe Ruth and the seventh best non-pitcher ever, Hank Aaron. And it’s far greater than the difference between Walter Johnson and the third best pitcher ever, Roger Clemens.
Mariano isn’t the best player ever. But there’s a greater difference between him and his closest rival than there is between the best hitter and second best, the best pitcher and second best, and the best player at any other position and the second best.
If you squint and look at things sideways, there’s a chance you might call Mariano the best player in baseball history. I won’t, though I think it’s an interesting concept to consider.