Upon Further Review: Who are the Greatest Hitters in MLB History?
In one of our most recent Upon Further Review discussions, writers Greg Kaplan and Vinny Ginardi made their cases for whom they each think is the greatest pitcher of all time. Naturally, this led to a discussion on who they each think is the greatest hitter to ever play the game.
Across the history of the sport, there have been numerous hitters to dominate their era. But who is the best? Greg and Vinny couldn’t limit themselves to just one player, so they each made a list of their top five.
Greg Kaplan: Vinny and I are cheating a little bit today, because we both know in advance who we’re saying is the Greatest Hitter of All-Time, and we agreed on it. For that matter, we elected to expand the process out to our own personal Top Fives.
There is very little debate in the game, I feel, as to the title-holder for Greatest Hitter. Its a one man show. Who’s the name people drop whenever they want to talk about hitting, and doing it the right way? Who has some of the most iconic quotes about the art of hitting? Who was the first player that forced managers to use a shift in order to limit his hits? Who arguably left more on the table because his country was in a time of need?
The answer to all those questions, and the purest hitter to ever grace the diamond, is Ted Williams.
I don’t even know where to start with the love fest I’m about to put on paper for Teddy Ballgame. I guess we’ll start with the record of his that still stands. In 1941, his third season in the Major Leagues, Williams hit .406. Nobody has hit .400 since then. Not a one. What more is there to say beyond that?
For his career, Williams finished with a triple-slash of .344/.482/.634, with the .482 on-base percentage being a Major League record. He also mashed 521 career home runs, 1,839 RBI and 1,798 runs, good enough for a 162-game average of 37 HR, 130 RBI and 127 runs. No big deal. Those figures would only win him an MVP every year if he did that today.
Williams also presents one of my all-time favorite “What Ifs” in sports history. People of our generation often forget that Ted Williams missed three full seasons from 1943-45 due to service in the military during World War II, then played in only 43 of a possible 312 games from 1952-53 for service during the Korean War. Realistically, Ted Williams missed five seasons of professional baseball not due to injury, but due to patriotic duty. Respect.
OK, the reason I bring up those five missed seasons is for this: what if Ted Williams never joined the military and played baseball instead? How ridiculous would his numbers be then? Stick with me here:
Ted Williams missed his 24, 25, and 26-year old seasons due to World War II. The year before he went to war, he won the Triple Crown, hitting .356 with 36HR and 137RBI, finishing second in the MVP Voting. The first year back from War, Williams posted a .342 average with 38 HR and 123 RBI on his way to his first of two MVP awards (no big deal, the guy doesn’t play professional baseball for three straight years and wins an MVP his first year back). Similarly, Williams hit 30 homers the year before he left for Korea and 29 his first full season back. It is not a stretch of the imagination at all to assume, had he never left for active duty, he would’ve hit his career average or close to them in the five years he left.
For arguments sake, let’s take the average of the two seasons combined before he left for duty and add them to his career totals. So, from 1943-45, Williams could’ve averaged 141 runs, 181 hits, 37 home runs and 130 RBI. From 1952-53, Williams could’ve averaged 101 runs, 151 hits, 30 home runs and 108 RBI. In those five seasons, in total, Williams could’ve added 625 runs, 845 hits, 171 home runs and 606 RBI.
Where would that have left his career numbers, you ask?
- His adjusted total of 2,423 runs would be #1 in baseball history (ahead of Rickey Henderson’s 2,295)
- His adjusted total of 3,499 hits would be #6 in baseball history (between Tris Speaker’s 3,514 and Cap Anson’s 3,435)
- His adjusted total of 692 home runs would be #4 in baseball history (between Babe Ruth’s 714 and Willie Mays’ 660)
- His adjusted total of 2,445 RBI would be #1 in baseball history (ahead of Hank Aaron’s 2,297)
I love that “What If”, because everything about those numbers are attainable if he hadn’t joined the military. Hell, it is just as likely Williams does even better, especially during his ‘43-’45 absence when he was in the heart of the prime of his career. And imagine he didn’t play in Fenway Park, where most pull-heavy lefty hitters had home runs robbed thanks to the dimensions at the time.
Before I get into my next four hitters, I’ll let Vinny have his moment with The Splendid Splinter (his nicknames rocked, too).
VG: I’ll try to keep my section on Ted Williams relatively short because Greg did a great job covering most of what I would want to say.
My favorite story of Williams is how he entered the final day of the season (a double-header) with a .400 batting average. His manager offered Williams an opportunity to sit both games and end the season at .400. Instead, Williams wanted to play. The result? He went 6-for-8 and brought his average up to .406. How many players would risk that today? Hell, Jose Reyes came out of the final game last season just to ensure he had a lock on the batting title. Note: Williams didn’t win the MVP this year despite leading the league in average, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging. I know Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak was great, but if they ever do a re-vote for MVPs, there is no doubt Williams takes the hardware.
As Greg pointed out, Williams is the best pure hitter to ever play the game. This article isn’t discussing which hitter had the best career (that would certainly belong to Babe Ruth), but rather, which hitter was simply the best. Williams has the eighth best batting average of any player ever, the second best slugging percentage, second best OPS, and the best on-base percentage. And, as Greg mentioned, he had 521 home runs despite missing many at bats due to military service.
Oh, and he won the triple crown…twice.
Obviously, a very strong argument can be made for Babe Ruth as the greatest hitter of all time. But I’m going with Williams because he struck out less, led the league in batting average more times, got on base more and played in an era where the field of competition was much deeper.
GK: Vinny threw down key verbiage in his last statement: deeper field of competition. It is very, very hard to make an argument against Babe Ruth being #2 on any Greatest Hitter list. However, to me, there is something inherently more impressive about Willie Mays’ career than Babe Ruth’s because of the era in which both players found themselves involved in.
There is no denying the excellence of each player, and they’re both in the Top 3. I don’t think I’m creating too many waves putting Mays ahead of Ruth, but let me state my case in the scenario where someone, anyone, disagrees.
The 20-time (!!) All-Star Mays played in an era where the talent pool was much deeper. There are a lot of debates about how Ruth never had to play against or with African-American hitters or pitchers, drastically inflating, or at least impacting, his numbers. You can’t take away the .346 batting average and 714 home runs, sure. But, many people forget the career-.302 hitter Willie Mays was and 660 homers. Oh, and here’s my favorite kicker, like Ted Williams, Mays missed two years of baseball due to service during the Korean War. Are you ready for some more “what if” home run totals? Oh, I think you are…
At the ripe age of 20 in 1951, Mays hit .274/.356/.472 with 20 home runs and 68 RBI, winning Rookie of the Year. Mays would only play in 34 games because of military service took him out of action for the next two years.. In 1954 when he finally returned from duty, all Mays did was hit .345/.411/.667 with 41 home runs and 110 RBI on his way to his first of two MVP awards. Mays missed the seasons in which he would’ve been 21 and 22 years old. It isn’t out of the question to assume he would’ve, at least, averaged 30 home runs and 100 RBI in the two years he missed. Curious as to where that would’ve put him in historical context? Around 720 home runs (yup, more than Ruth) 2,100 RBI (would’ve put him just behind Ruth, and there is always the chance he could’ve had more than the 100-per-season rate).
Mays also would’ve closed the gap in the career WAR margin, which Ruth currently holds the record of. But, its frustrating to look at Mays’ career and think to yourself Man, if only he played those two seasons at the beginning of his career.
My closing argument for the greatness of Willie Mays comes from when he was 37-years old and well past his prime. At age 37, Mays hit .289/.372/.488 with 23 home runs, 79 RBI, 20 doubles, 5 triples, 84 runs and 12 stolen bases. Why am I harping on this age 37 season? The year was 1968. You may be familiar with that year, known as The Year of the Pitcher. Would a 37-year old Babe Ruth do the same under similar circumstances? We will never know and it really is unfair to assume. All I can say is this is what Mays accomplished, and its spectacular.
VG: Greg, Greg, Greg. You make an interesting argument for Mays, but I think you are trying to get a little bit too cute here. That’s not to say that Mays wasn’t one of the best hitters the game has ever seen, because he was, but I can’t accept putting him ahead of Ruth, whom I contemplated ranking first overall.
I don’t want to turn this into a debate of Mays versus Ruth but here are their 162-game averages:
- Ruth: .342/.474/.690, 46 home runs (!), 143 RBI (!!)
- Mays: .302/.385/.564, 36 home runs, 103 RBI
Also, Ruth’s career OPS of 1.164 is higher than the OPS of any single season of Mays’ (1.078 was his highest).
Looking at those numbers, I can’t see any way that I could put Mays ahead of Ruth. If we were discussing who the better all-around player was, it very well may be Mays. He’s one of the best defensive center fielders the game has ever seen and also led the league in steals four times. But who is strictly the better hitter? It’s gotta be Ruth.
We’ve already seen Ruth’s averages, but it also must be noted that he’s the all-time leader in slugging percentage (.690), WAR (159.2) and OPS (1.164), second in on-base percentage (.474) and RBIs (2213), and third in home runs (714).
In addition, we have to recognize that Ruth single handedly put an end to the Dead Ball era. He invented and popularized the home run and changed the sport forever. On multiple occasions, Ruth hit more home runs than most, if not all, teams in the league. He set single season and career home run records that weren’t broken for decades and some of his career numbers still stand and will stand as icons in the sport’s history.
GK: Again, my only argument for Mays over Ruth relates to the eras in which they played. It’s a difficult argument to make and could be viewed as unfair to both Mays and Ruth, but its what I’m sticking to. I’m more impressed by what Mays did against superior competition than how Ruth dominated everybody that he played. And, again, having Ruth as the third best hitter in baseball history is nothing to scoff at.
There isn’t much purpose regurgitating impressive Ruth numbers like you threw down, so I’m going to skip to who I would rank fourth all-time, and that’s one of our personal favorites, The Georgia Peach, Ty Cobb.
The peak of Cobb’s career took place in the heart of the Dead Ball Era, an era in which if you didn’t hit for a high average, you almost served no purpose. However, Cobb distinguished himself from his peers because there truly wasn’t anybody who was better at the art of hitting than him, and many of his records passed the test of time.
Cobb won a remarkable 11 batting titles, led the league in hits eight times, had nine 200+ hit seasons, hit .400 or better three times (including .420 in 1911), is the Major League leader in career batting average with .366 and is second all-time in hits with 4,189. Despite only producing two season in which he had double-digit home run totals, Cobb drove in 100+ runs seven times, including a career-high 127 in his MVP season of 1911. He also posted 724 career doubles and 295 career triples to his credit.
To me, the true mark of a player is would their basic skills translate to any era in the history of the game, and Cobb’s would. The man knew how to hit, and he was adeptly skilled at doing just that. Not including Cobb in a Top 5 discussion for best hitters of all-time would be slighting the game of baseball.
VG: Maybe this is a little late to mention this but I am not going to include anyone on my list that has a direct link to steroids.
Okay, anyway, for my third best hitter of all-time I am going to go with someone who is one of the sport’s most underrated hitters, Rogers Hornsby. Hornsby’s first few years started in the Dead Ball era, so the power numbers didn’t come to surface until his sixth year in the league. But from 1920 to 1925, Hornsby had one of the most dominant stretches of any hitter in baseball history. For those six seasons, Hornsby averaged .397/.467/.666 with 30 HRs and 133 RBIs. In each of those six years, Hornsby led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (he also led the league in HRs twice and RBIs four times). During this peak he also had two of the greatest seasons by any hitter ever:
1922: .401/.459/.722, 42 HRs, 152 RBIs
1925: .403/.489/.756, 39 HRs, 143 RBIs
Hornsby won the triple crown in both of those years. He has the second best career batting average ever (.358). Unfortunately, Hornsby’s career was cut short because of injuries. Still, he gave us one of the best hitting stretches, if not the best, the game will ever see. So why isn’t he remembered as much as the other legends? Simple: He played in the same era as Ruth.
For my fourth selection I am going to pick Willie Mays for all of the reasons that Greg previously stated. So Greg, I hand it off to you to kick off our fifth and final picks.
GK: My final selection involves a little future projection. There are a lot of worthy hitters that could easily slot into my fifth spot atop the all-time hitters list, ranging from the likes of Hornsby to Gwynn to Cap Anson.
However, in my lifetime, there is no question as to who the most mystifying and talented hitter has been. I remember being wowed by the raw power and beautiful swing of Ken Griffey Jr., but he’s not who I’m talking about. No hitter has made better and more consistent contact than Ichiro, but he, too, is not who I’m talking about.
In my 23 years as a die-hard baseball fan, Albert Pujols stands out among the rest, and he is well on his way to a historic career. In his first 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pujols’ career low in all three Triple Crown categories (.299 in 2011, 32 home runs in 2007 and 99 RBI in 2011), could be seen as an MVP-caliber season.
He is the active career leader in batting average (.326) and slugging percentage (.610). He’s won three MVPs in his career to date, and probably should have won more (he was runner-up to Barry Bonds in both 2002 and 2003). He’s already up to 454 career home runs, and will no doubt get to 500 sometime next season (when he will be 33, a full year younger than Hank Aaron when he hit #500).
People were probably a little too unfair on Pujols for his slow start in Los Angeles this season, as his line is up to .260/.314/.433 with 9 home runs, and he will find a way to get to 30 home runs this season. His 162-game average is currently .326/.417/.610 42 home runs, 125 RBI, 121 runs, 43 doubles and 196 hits. That’s incredible, especially for this era where pitching is beginning to take over the game again.
Am I overstating Pujols’ current place among the all-time greats? Most likely. However, I truly believe when all is said and done, he will be high up on this list, and at least at #5. He’s that good of a player.
VG: Interesting choice, Greg. I must admit that I did contemplate putting Pujols in my top five, but I think I’m going to let the rest of his career play out before placing him among baseball’s elite.
For my fifth selection, though, I am going to go with someone else who once played for the St. Louis Cardinals: Stan Musial.
Musial finished with 475 home runs, leaving him short of the 500 home run club, but he did miss the 1945 season for military (seems like a common theme among some of our great hitters). If Musial played that season, it’s possible he would have ended up around 500 home runs. He averaged 25 home runs a season, though his power numbers didn’t surge until 1948.
Still, Musial’s career as a hitter can’t go unnoted. Musial won three MVPs (1943,1946, 1948) and placed second in MVP voting four other times (1949-51, 57) and in the top five two other times (1944, 1952). He led the league in batting seven times, and on-base percentage and slugging percentage six times. He finished with a career average of .331 and made the all-star team in every full season he played except for one (his first full year). Also, Musial’s first year with a batting average under .300 came when he was 38 years old.
Stan The Man may not have as much power as some of the other hitters we’ve discussed (though 25 home runs a year is nothing to sneeze at), but his consistency, especially in terms of batting average, is something that should be recognized.
1. Ted Williams 1. Ted Williams
2. Willie Mays 2. Babe Ruth
3. Babe Ruth 3. Rogers Hornsby
4. Ty Cobb 4. Willie Mays
5. Albert Pujols 5. Stan Musial