This is part ten of my series ranking the top 250 baseball players ever to play the game. For more information about how this list was compiled please refer to part one. This is the final section and is for players ranked 25-1.
25: Pedro Martinez at his best, was the most dominant pitcher in baseball history. In 1999 he threw 213.1 innings and struck out 313 batters. He posted an ERA of 2.07, which translates to an ERA+ of 243. His OPS against was .536, which converts to an insane OPS+ against of 35. His FIP was 1.39. The following year he pitched in 217 innings and struck out 284 batters. His ERA was 1.74, which converts to an ERA+ of 291, a modern record. His WHIP was 0.737, another record. His OPS against was .473 which translates to a record low OPS+ against of 18. From 1997-2003 Pedro’s ERA+ was 213, 113% better than league average. He won three Cy Young awards during that stretch.
24: Tris Speaker led the American League in doubles seven times, and finished his career with 792 of them, which is the Major League record. He retired with 3,514 hits and 436 stolen bases. Dutch Leonard accused Speaker of fixing a game and betting on his opponent (the Tigers) to win when he was the player/manager for the Indians in 1919. He was cleared of any wrongdoing when Leonard refused to appear at a hearing in front of Commissioner Landis. Joe Posnanski explains the scandal in detail in this fantastic piece. Speaker was believed to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He later helped mentor Larry Doby.
23: Josh Gibson never played a game in Major League Baseball but his white contemporaries were fully aware of his hitting prowess. Stories of his power reached near mythical proportions, he was commonly referred to as the “black Babe Ruth.” Gibson was a star in the Negro Leagues at the age of 18, he eventually became the signature player on the Homestead Grays dynasty teams of the 1930s and 1940s. His Hall of Fame plaque credits him with hitting “almost 800 home runs.” By comparison Gabby Hartnett had the most career homers by a catcher in MLB history at the time with 196. Gibson was an alcoholic, he died of a stroke at the age of 35, just a few months before Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut. Further reading on him can be found here, here, and here.
22: Frank Robinson won the Rookie of the Year in 1956, the NL MVP in 1961, and the AL MVP in 1966. In 1966 he won the Triple Crown, he also led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, TB, and runs. Later that year he was named World Series MVP as his Orioles swept the Dodgers. He is one of seven players in Major League history with at least 500 home runs, 1,800 RBI, and 1,800 runs. Robinson later became the first African-American to manage a Major League team.
21: Greg Maddux lacked the power of his other all-time great contemporaries but his command of the strike zone and the precision in which he manipulated it was unparalleled. Over his 23-year career he pitched in 5,008.1 innings, won 355 games, and struck out 3,371 batters. Only seven pitchers in MLB history have accomplished all of those things. He won a World Series championship in 1995 and was an essential part of the Braves teams of the 90s and early 2000s that won fourteen division titles in a row. From 1992-1995 Maddux won four consecutive Cy Young awards. He had two seasons with an ERA+ of 200 or better, and two seasons with an OPS+ against lower than 40. Maddux was also an exceptional fielder, perhaps the best fielding pitcher ever to play. He won eighteen Gold Gloves, led pitchers in assists twelve times, and putouts in eight.
20: Rogers Hornsby is statistically the best second baseman ever to play the game, he likely always will be. He led the National League in batting seven times, hitting at least .400 in three of those years. The only players with more black ink than Hornsby are Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. Hornsby won the Triple Crown twice, and finished his career with an insane slash line of .358/.434/.577 which converts to an OPS+ of 175. The next highest career OPS+ for a second baseman is 150. Hornsby was not well liked by his teammates or opponents; he was known his dirty play. He was a bigot, and it’s widely believed that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
19: Joe Morgan was the anchor of the Big Red Machine dynasty. The Reds acquired him from the Astros in 1972, he was the best player in baseball for the remainder of the decade. He won back-to-back National League MVP awards in 1975 & 1976. The Reds won the World Series both of those years. He finished his career with an OBP of .392, 2,517 hits, 268 home runs, and 689 stolen bases. It’s a very short list of players that have matched or bettered all of those numbers. Morgan is one of just ten position players who debuted in the integration-era with a WAR of 100 or better.
18: Randy Johnson had issues with command early on in his career that prevented him from becoming a star until he was 29-years old. Through age 29, among all integration-era pitchers, he ranks 282nd in WAR. However, from that point on Johnson was as good as any pitcher ever has been. Over the course of his 22-year career he ended up winning 303 games and striking out 4,875 batters. He won five Cy Young awards, led his league in strikeouts nine times, ERA+ six times, FIP six times, and SO/9 nine times. He holds both the single season and career records in SO/9. He was also named co-MVP of the 2001 World Series.
17: Lou Gehrig won six World Series championships with the Yankees. His slash line in the postseason was an astonishing .361/.483/.731. In the regular season he led the American League in home runs three times, RBI five times, and OBP five times. He won the Triple Crown in 1934, and was twice named AL MVP. Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games. That streak and his career ended abruptly after he was diagnosed with ALS. Gehrig died at the age of 37 due to complications from the disease. He was the first player to have his uniform number retired by a team.
16: Albert Pujols has been the most productive player in baseball since he made his Major League debut in 2001. He’s won three MVP awards, two World Series championships, and has been chosen as an All-Star ten times. He led the National League in WAR four consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2009, and has placed in the top five an additional four times. He’s the active leader in gray ink. He currently has 591 home runs, 2,825 hits, and 5,232 total bases. He’s on a record setting pace but his production has fallen off dramatically over the past few years.
15: Rickey Henderson is the best baserunner in the history of the game. He led the American League in stolen bases twelve times, this includes his 1982 season when he totaled a modern record of 130. He also led the AL in walks four times, and runs five times. He won the MVP award in 1990, a World Series with the A’s in 1989, and another with the Blue Jays in 1993. He retired as the all time leader in stolen bases (1,406), runs (2,295), and walks (2,190). Barry Bonds later surpassed his walks record but the other two still stand. Henderson is the only player in Major League history with at least 3,000 hits and 2,000 walks.
14: Mike Schmidt won three MVP awards, a World Series championship (where he was named the MVP), and was selected an All-Star twelve times. He also won ten Gold Glove awards. Schmidt had elite power, he led the National League in home runs eight times and finished his career with 548 of them. Among players who played at least 50% of their games at third base, Schmidt has the highest WAR, WAA, OPS+, and home run total.
13: Honus Wagner is statically still the best shortstop ever to play the game. It’s likely he always will be. Among players who have played at least 50% of their games at short Wagner is the all-time leader in AVG, doubles, triples, stolen bases, OPS+, WAR, and WAA. He’s in the top 5 in just about everything else. If Cal Ripken had three additional seasons like his best year in 1991, when he was an 11.5 win player, he would still trail Wagner in career WAR. Wagner towered over his contemporaries and many of his on-field accomplishments will never be approached, however, it’s also important to consider that the overall quality of play has improved greatly since his time. I don’t think we can take all of his numbers at face value, which is why he, and several other all-time greats from yesteryear are not higher on this list.
12: Álex Rodríguez was once one of the most popular players in baseball. A young star thought to be the heir apparent to Mays, Mantle, even Ruth. He was a five-tool player at shortstop, he received a record setting contract when he was just 25 years old, and he was for an extended period time the best player in the game, not named Barry Bonds. Alex seemed destined to break the all-time home run record and shatter many others along the way, and people wanted this, until the steroid rumors started. Rodriguez initially denied using but later admitted to taking steroids with the Rangers from 2001-2003. Major League Baseball was not testing then and had no punishments in place for using. More rumors kept circulating. He was linked to Dr. Antony Galea who was the subject of a federal investigation for providing athletes with illegal performance enhancing drugs. Rodriguez maintained he only used when with the Rangers but reality soon set in. The Miami New Times published reports that he purchased steroids and other illegal drugs from the Biogenesis clinic. Rodriguez initially denied any link to the clinic or its founder Tony Bosch, he even sued the player’s union over the matter. But the evidence against him was overwhelming and he was eventually suspended for the entire 2014 regular season, plus the playoffs. It was the longest PED suspension in the history of American team sports. Rodriguez like so many others on this list leaves behind a complicated legacy. He is one of the greatest players ever to play the game. He also used steroids and other illegal drugs to enhance his performance. He’s an all-time great and a cheater, he should be remembered as both. Further reading can be found here, here, here, here and here.
11: Oscar Charleston was doing Willie Mays type of things long before Mays was born. He had elite speed, power, and was widely regarded as the best defender in baseball, black or white. He was a member of some of the greatest Negro League teams ever assembled including the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords which featured five future Hall of Famers; Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell, and Charleston himself who was also the manager of team. Here’s what Negro League legend Buck O’Neil had to say about him, “Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year, and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since…he was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” Further reading on Charleston can be found here, here, and here.
10: Mickey Mantle wasn’t just a baseball player, for many he was an icon who transcended the sport. During his 18-year career he played in 12 World Series’, his Yankees won seven of them. He won three MVP awards, which includes his Triple Crown season in 1956. He was selected as an All-Star 20 times, and finished his career with 536 home runs. He did all of this, and much more, while playing hurt for the majority of his career. He suffered a knee injury, likely a torn ACL, in the 1951 World Series and his knee was never properly repaired. It wasn’t all glory for Mantle though. During his famous home run chase in 1961 he developed an abscess that prevented him from playing. It came from an injection of steroids and speed. He was also an alcoholic, at times playing completely inebriated. His longtime manger Casey Stengel left him off his personal all-time team mainly because he felt Mantle’s alcohol abuse affected his effort and play. This may sound crazy as Mantle was often the best player on the field but Stengel felt he could have and perhaps should have been even better.
9: Stan Musial didn’t have the swagger that some of his contemporaries did. He didn’t play in New York, he wasn’t chasing home run records, or playing in the World Series ever year. What he was though was one of the most consistent hitters ever to play the game. He led the National League in hits six times, batting average seven times, on-base percentage six times, and slugging percentage six times. He finished his career with 3,630 hits, and a then record 6,134 total bases. He won three MVP awards, and three World Series Championships. He missed all of his age 24 season due to his military service during World War II. Unlike many of the players on this list Musial was well liked by his teammates and universally respected for his accomplishments on the field and off. Further reading on him can be found here, here, and here.
8: Walter Johnson outpaced his contemporaries by a wide a margin. He led the American League in strikeouts twelve times, this includes a stretch of eight seasons in a row from 1912-1919. He was the first person to reach 3,000 strikeouts, it didn’t happen again for another 51 years until Bob Gibson did it. Johnson also led the AL in wins five times, and ERA five times. He threw 110 shutouts, a record that still stands today. He was voted MVP twice, and won a World Series in 1924. He was a member of the inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1936.
7: Roger Clemens won seven Cy Young awards, an MVP, and two World Series championships. He led his league ERA seven times, FIP nine times, and strikeouts five times. He won the pitching Triple Crown back-to-back years in 1997 & 1998. Among all pitchers he’s the career leader in fWAR, he ranks 3rd in bWAR, and 2nd in DRA WARP. He dominated and did so well into his 40s. Part of that was his own natural ability, adding pitches to his repertoire, and pitching smarter, but steroids and other performance enhancing drugs also game him a boost. Clemens was the focal point of the Mitchell Report, his former trainer and friend accused him of using off and on when with the Blue Jays and Yankees. The matter eventually resulted in several long court battles where Clemens was ultimately found not guilty on all counts. He has yet to receive even 50% of the vote on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot but it’s likely he will cross that threshold this year. A nice timeline of Clemens’ on field accomplishments, mishaps, and legal proceedings can be found here.
6: Ty Cobb made his Major League debut at the age of 18, at 20 he hit .350 and led the American League in batting for the 1st time. He would win 11 more batting titles. He hit .400 or better on three different occasions. He led the AL in on-base percentage seven times, OPS ten times, hits seven times, runs five times, and stolen bases six times. He finished his career with 4,189 hits, 2,244 runs, and a batting average of .366. He served with the U.S. Army during World War I. However, Cobb is another example of a great ballplayer who was also a flawed human being. He had violent tendencies, he got into numerous fights with teammates, and he attacked a handicapped fan in 1912. As a young man he was bigoted though his views on race seemed to evolve as he got older. Baseball researcher Charles Leerhsen recently wrote a book suggesting that some of Cobb’s unruly behavior was overblown or in some cases fabricated entirely.
5: Barry Bonds won seven MVP awards, eight Gold Gloves, and was selected as an All-Star fourteen times. He’s MLB’s career leader in home runs, walks, and intentional walks. He holds the single season records in home runs, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, BB, IBB, WPA, and runs created. He holds others too. A fun fact from Ryan Spaeder, remove Bonds’ stats from his 7 MVP years, he still has 440 HR & 359 SB, only four other players in Major League history have 400/300 over their entire careers. He had the greatest peak ever and did so at an age when most players start to decline. However, Bonds’ legacy is complicated and not all of those numbers can be taken at face value. When federal investigators raided BALCO in September of 2003, evidence detailing Bonds’ elaborate doping regimen started to trickle out. It was overwhelming, though Bonds repeatedly denied ever knowingly using. Eventually federal prosecutors indicted him on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, accusing him of lying to a grand jury. He was convicted of one obstruction charge but the jury was hung on any of the charges that specifically used the words steroids in them. Bonds later appealed the obstruction conviction and it was overturned. Even more troubling, and a much greater reflection of his character, Bonds’ ex-wife accused him of repeatedly beating her, including an attack when she was 8 months pregnant. Bonds got into several fights with teammates, and had his share of blowups at the media too. He was not a good human being, however he was one of the greatest baseball players anyone has ever seen. Even before he started using in 1999 he was already an all-time great. His combination of power, speed, defense, and peak performance is unmatched by anyone in the history of the game.
4: Hank Aaron was the most consistent elite player in Major League history. He hit at least 30 home runs 15 times, but he never hit 50. He also had 15 seasons with 300 or more total bases, and 18 with an OPS+ of 140 or higher. Aaron eventually surpassed Babe Ruth’s career home run record and did it in face of bigotry. He received hundreds of death threats, racist letters, and vile chants from fans along the way to greatness. He’s still the all time leader in RBI (2,297), TB (6,856), and extra base hits (1,577). He’s 2nd in home runs. He played at an MVP level for seventeen consecutive years. No one else has ever done that. Since 1999 an annual award named after him is given out to best hitter in each league. Further reading can be found here, here, and here.
3: Ted Williams mastered hitting. As a 20-year old rookie in Boston he hit .327/.436/.609, he led the American League in total bases and RBI. The next year he led league in OBP and runs. His third year he produced one of the greatest seasons ever hitting .406/.553/.735 which converts to an OPS+ of 235. He won the Triple Crown too. The next year he won the Triple Crown again, and led the league in several additional categories as well. He was just finishing his age 23 season. He missed the next three seasons due to his military service during World War II. When he returned he hit .342/.497/.667 and won his first MVP. He led the league in on-base percentage in five of the next six years, then he missed nearly two more full seasons due to his service in the Korean War where he flew in 39 combat missions and was shot at on numerous occasions. When he returned, he was still dominant, he posted an OBP of .513 in his first full year back. Williams played for 19 seasons, he led the AL in OBP in twelve of them, batting average in six, and OPS in ten. He finished his career 521 home runs and a slash line of .344/.482/.634. He is one of three players in Major League history with at least 500 home runs and 2,000 walks.
2: Babe Ruth is statically the best player ever, he likely always be. His was so dominant, so far ahead of his contemporaries he simply had no peers. In 1920 Ruth demolished his own single season home run record hitting 54 in his first year with the Yankees. He hit more home runs than any other American League team, only the Phillies in the National League hit more homers (64) than Ruth did that year. He led the AL in home runs 12 times, on-base percentage 10 times, and slugging percentage 13 times. He retired with a slash line of .342/.474/.690 which converts to an OPS+ of 206. He finished his career with a then record 714 home runs. He broke Roger Connor’s record, who had 138. He still holds numerous Major League records including best career SLG%, OPS, and OPS+. He won seven World Series championships, three with the Red Sox when he was a star pitcher, and four with the Yankees when he was the best hitter ever to play. He was so good his accomplishments seem made up entirely.
1: Willie Mays made his Major League debut at the age of 20, later that year he won the Rookie of the Year award. The following year he was drafted by the U.S. Army and missed nearly two full seasons because of his military service. When he returned he became the best all-around baseball player the game has ever known. He won twelve Gold Gloves, was named an All-Star on twenty-four occasions, and helped the Giants win a World Series in 1954. Mays won two MVP awards but he probably deserved at least five more. Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher said of Mays, “If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day I’d still look you in the eye and say Willie was better.” He finished his career with 660 home runs, 338 stolen bases, and 3,283 hits. He led the NL in WAR nine times, and had six ten win seasons. He was a true five-tool-player who became the prototype of the ideal modern baseball player. Mays’ former teammate John Milner testified in federal court that Mays’ locker was often stocked with amphetamines he called “red juice.” Mays denied the allegations. After he retired he was briefly on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list (banned) for taking a hosting job at a casino. Further reading on Mays can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
So that’s my list. Thank you to everyone that followed along and clicked through all the links. I have been making baseball lists my entire life, I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. I’ll revisit this list again after the 2018 season.
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