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The 20 greatest position players in baseball history

Posted by Andy on September 3, 2010

Here's one take on the twenty greatest position players in the history of major league baseball.

In the comments on other recent posts, there has been much discussion among our readers about what qualities a Hall of Famer should possess. Certain players like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Rogers Hornsby are often mentioned as prototypical members, but many argue that average HOFers cannot be held to the standards of those all-time greats.

Numerous other readers have talked about fringe HOFers like Andre Dawson, Lou Brock, Bill Mazeroski, High Pockets Kelly, and George Kell, and their desire to have these players kicked out. Realizing that would never happen, some folks have suggested creating an inner circle of all-time greats in the HOF, or even multiple levels in the HOF.

These are interesting ideas and I started to wonder who would be on this list. My first thought was to look at the all-time leaders in Wins Above Replacement. We've had plenty of debates on WAR recently, and while there is good reason to be measured in our acceptance of it, WAR remains the best single statistic we have to analyze the full contributions of players.

Among position players, Babe Ruth is #1 all-time with 172.0 WAR. This does not include an additional 18.0 WAR Ruth racked up as a pitcher. Interestingly, Barry Bonds is just a hair behind Ruth at #2 with 171.80 WAR, and both are well ahead of everybody else. (Isn't it amazing how the two best hitters in history ended up with nearly identical WAR?)

Ruth, however, is only 42nd in career plate appearances, making his accumulation of WAR even more impressive. He has a positional WAR/PA career ratio of 0.0162, or 1.62%

Here are the top players in MLB history with a WAR at least 1.6% of their career PA total, ranked by highest WAR:

Rk Player WAR/pos PA From To Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS Pos Tm
1 Babe Ruth 172.0 10617 1914 1935 19-40 2503 8399 2174 2873 506 136 714 2213 2062 1330 .342 .474 .690 1.164 971/83 BOS-NYY-BSN
2 Ken Tatum 1.2 51 1969 1974 25-30 175 45 7 11 1 0 4 6 3 17 .244 .306 .533 .839 *1 CAL-BOS-CHW
3 Fred Rico 0.6 35 1969 1969 24-24 12 26 2 6 2 0 0 2 9 10 .231 .429 .308 .736 /*985 KCR
4 Babe Birrer 0.5 30 1955 1958 26-29 56 27 3 7 2 0 2 6 3 6 .259 .333 .556 .889 /*1 DET-BAL-LAD
5 Casper Wells 0.5 30 2010 2010 25-25 12 27 2 10 5 0 0 7 3 4 .370 .433 .556 .989 /*978 DET
6 Luis Silverio 0.5 14 1978 1978 21-21 8 11 7 6 2 1 0 3 2 3 .545 .615 .909 1.524 /*79 KCR
7 Lance Clemons 0.5 10 1971 1974 23-26 19 8 5 2 0 1 1 1 1 1 .250 .333 .875 1.208 /*1 KCR-STL-BOS
8 Don Durham 0.5 14 1972 1973 23-24 15 14 3 7 0 0 2 4 0 4 .500 .500 .929 1.429 /*1 STL-TEX
9 Cliff Dapper 0.5 19 1942 1942 22-22 8 17 2 8 1 0 1 9 2 2 .471 .526 .706 1.232 /*2 BRO
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/2/2010.

As you can see, Ruth is in a class all by himself. Despite the great achievements of many position players since Ruth, he remains the greatest of all time, in large part because of the enormous rate at which he homered compared to the rest of his contemporaries.

By dropping the WAR/PA requirement to 1.0%, we generate the list of players who, at first blush, deserve to be in the inner circle of the Hall of Fame:

Rk Player WAR/pos PA G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS Pos Tm
1 Babe Ruth 172.0 10617 2503 8399 2174 2873 506 136 714 2213 2062 1330 .342 .474 .690 1.164 971/83 BOS-NYY-BSN
2 Barry Bonds 171.8 12606 2986 9847 2227 2935 601 77 762 1996 2558 1539 .298 .444 .607 1.051 *78/D9 PIT-SFG
3 Ty Cobb 159.4 13068 3034 11434 2246 4189 724 295 117 1938 1249 357 .366 .433 .512 .945 *89/73145 DET-PHA
4 Willie Mays 154.7 12493 2992 10881 2062 3283 523 140 660 1903 1464 1526 .302 .384 .557 .941 *8/39765 NYG-SFG-TOT-NYM
5 Hank Aaron 141.6 13940 3298 12364 2174 3771 624 98 755 2297 1402 1383 .305 .374 .555 .928 *9783D/45 MLN-ATL-MIL
6 Honus Wagner 134.5 11748 2794 10439 1739 3420 643 252 101 1733 963 327 .328 .391 .467 .858 *6935/8471 LOU-PIT
7 Tris Speaker 133.0 11988 2789 10195 1882 3514 792 222 117 1529 1381 220 .345 .428 .500 .928 *8/3971 BOS-CLE-WSH-PHA
8 Stan Musial 127.8 12712 3026 10972 1949 3630 725 177 475 1951 1599 696 .331 .417 .559 .976 3798/1 STL
9 Rogers Hornsby 127.8 9475 2259 8173 1579 2930 541 169 301 1584 1038 679 .358 .434 .577 1.010 *465/3978 STL-NYG-BSN-CHC-TOT-SLB
10 Eddie Collins 126.7 12037 2826 9949 1821 3315 438 187 47 1300 1499 286 .333 .424 .429 .853 *4/69875 PHA-CHW
11 Ted Williams 125.3 9791 2292 7706 1798 2654 525 71 521 1839 2021 709 .344 .482 .634 1.116 *79/1 BOS
12 Mickey Mantle 120.2 9909 2401 8102 1677 2415 344 72 536 1509 1733 1710 .298 .421 .557 .977 *8397/645 NYY
13 Lou Gehrig 118.4 9660 2164 8001 1888 2721 534 163 493 1995 1508 790 .340 .447 .632 1.080 *3/976 NYY
14 Mike Schmidt 108.3 10062 2404 8352 1506 2234 408 59 548 1595 1507 1883 .267 .380 .527 .908 *53/64 PHI
15 Alex Rodriguez 101.5 10094 2278 8731 1741 2644 472 29 604 1803 1105 1816 .303 .387 .571 .958 *65/D SEA-TEX-NYY
16 Dan Brouthers 83.7 7676 1673 6711 1523 2296 460 205 106 1296 840 238 .342 .423 .519 .942 *3/7195 TRO-BUF-DTN-BSN-BOS-BRO-BLN-TOT-PHI-NYG
17 Joe DiMaggio 83.6 7671 1736 6821 1390 2214 389 131 361 1537 790 369 .325 .398 .579 .977 *8/793 NYY
18 Albert Pujols 82.0 6659 1529 5638 1163 1871 418 15 401 1207 891 631 .332 .425 .625 1.050 *37/59D64 STL
19 Jackie Robinson 63.2 5802 1382 4877 947 1518 273 54 137 734 740 291 .311 .409 .474 .883 *4537/69 BRO
20 Shoeless Joe Jackson 62.9 5690 1332 4981 873 1772 307 168 54 785 519 158 .356 .423 .517 .940 798/3 PHA-CLE-TOT-CHW
21 Joe Mauer 38.4 3505 817 3026 496 989 199 16 80 466 427 344 .327 .407 .482 .890 *2D MIN
22 Ross Barnes 33.1 2507 499 2391 698 860 146 47 6 346 116 65 .360 .389 .468 .857 *46/571 BOS-CHC-CIN-BSN
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/2/2010.

I carried the list to 22 because there is a significant drop-off in career WAR after that, with the next highest player after Barnes being, no kidding, Tim Lollar, with 3.0 WAR as a batter.

Anyway, the players on this list are in the so-called "1% club", having achieved a WAR that is at least 1% of their total career plate appearances. I feel, at least using this one statistic, that these are the most productive players over the course of their career. This measure definitely punishes players who hung on for a few less productive years at the end, but also drops guys who were very, very good for a long time but not necessarily an all-time great.

If you compare my list above with the all-time WAR leaders among position players, here are top WAR guys who did not make the 1% club: Rickey Henderson, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson,Nap Lajoie, and Joe Morgan. These 5 are all in the top 20 in career WAR but not the 1% club. Between A-rod and Dan Brouthers is a Who's Who of HOFers who also don't make the cut: Anson, Mathews, Foxx, Kaline, G Davis, Ripken, Boggs, Yaz, Connor, Brett, and Clemente.

After Joe DiMaggio is where it really starts getting interesting. Albert Pujols, in just his 10th season, has the next highest WAR total in the 1% club. His percentage is actually 1.23%, which is very impressive. A-Rod, by comparison, is at 1.01%.  Then come two guys with relatively short but super-productive careers in Jackie Robinson and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Jackson benefits from finishing at age 30 and never having the "opportunity" to fall out of the 1% club with the somewhat-lower productivity seasons that could reasonably have been expected after that year. Jackie Robinson benefits from coming to the majors as a well-seasoned ballplayer, having spent his years before the age of 28 segregated from MLB. (Just to be clear, I am using the word "benefits" in the previous sentence referring only to how his numbers look in this analysis--I'm not trying to suggest there was anything beneficial about segregation.)

Next up is Joe Mauer, just the 3rd active player in the 1% club at 1.10% currently. For Mauer, A-Rod, and Pujols alike, it's too soon to put them in the inner circle since there's a pretty good chance they will drop out before their career are over. I'd give Pujols the best shot of staying in since he's still pretty far above 1% with 10 years in the can. A-Rod is just hanging on, has a bunch of years left on his contract, and hasn't played anywhere close to his career standards this season.

This means that the only players in the 1% club appearing in the 1980s are Mike Schmidt and Barry Bonds, and Bonds is the only player to play in the 1990s and 2000s. The 1970s are represented by only Schmidt, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.

So, based on this pretty simple analysis, these are the guys I'd put in the inner circle of the HOF:

There are, of course, many other ways to make up this sort of list. I'm sure there will be many arguments with the one above. Let the debate begin.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 3rd, 2010 at 8:15 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

114 Responses to “The 20 greatest position players in baseball history”

  1. Michael E Sullivan Says:

    Abreu compares much better with peers if you examine all of his offensive performance. Garvey had a .324 OBP.

    Abreu's lifetime OPS+ is 130 to Garvey's 116. His lifetime Rbat is 365 to Garvey's 173. You can quibble with the details of how OPS+ or Rbat values walks vs. hits vs. other stuff, but no sane weighting is going to get their numbers anywhere close to each other. Garvey was a nice enough player, but Abreu is so much better that it's hard to believe they are in the same conversation. Abreu is a legit borderliner for the hall even if he does nothing more worth mentioning. Garvey is not, and should not be even close to consideration.

    The only thing that might make Garvey look better (and probably why he was perceived in his time as important) is BA relative to peers. Garvey's lifetime BA is .294 while Abreu's is .296, but of course, the overall league BA is around 10 points higher over Abreu's career. So if all you care about is BA, then Garvey looks slightly better. But Abreu is *75* points higher in raw OBP, which translates to around 50 points adjusted, and 44 points higher slugging (probably around 10-5 adjusted).

    That's just a huge difference. In terms of offense above average, Abreu is twice the player Garvey was.

  2. Mike Felber Says:

    Garvey also looked better than he was due to getting 200 + hits 6 times. But they were singles heavy, he did not walk or slug so much, so he was over valued by playing many games & getting many one baggers.

  3. #95:

    Jeff, I didn't intentionally list them in that order but, looking at the order that's how I would rank them. How would you rank them?

    #97:

    Flying, I can't speak for anyone else, but it was always obvious to me (at least by the mid-80s) while Schmidt was still active that he was the greatest 3Bman ever. I started appreciating the value of on-base percentage while playing Strat-o-Matic in the 1970s. All the high OBA guys had lots of things in capital letters on their cards (e.g., WALK, HOME RUN, DOUBLE, etc.), while the outmakers had lots of things in small letters (e.g., groundout 3B, flyout CF, etc.). It became pretty obvious who the good players were by just looking at the cards.

    Garvey:

    When I was growing up in the 1970s, Steve Garvey was regarded as a great player. As I began to learn more about how offense is created, it became obvious that he wasn't a great player, albeit he was a good one in his best years. Because he didn't walk much he never scored 100 runs in a season, almost unheard of for a premier 1Bman. He certainly had a career to be proud of, but as baseball fans and teams have begun to appreciate more what goes into making a successful offensive player, Garvey's stock has gradually fallen.

  4. WAR is a totally nonsensical statistic in this context. You cannot measure the relative talent of players based on WAR. WAR is, at best, a measure of the importance of a particular player to a particular team because of the weaknesses or strengths of the player compared to his replacement. If Babe Ruth's back up had been Barry Bonds, his WAR would be a lot less impressive but he'd have still been Babe Ruth.

  5. WarSucks (#104) brings to mind a few questions I have about WAR:

    How does the relative level of replacement-level players change throughout history? Are replacement-level players in the Deadball Era comparable to replacement-level WWII-era players? And, how do they match up against modern scrubs?

    The respective strength of teams and their leagues can be discerned by the won-lost differentials and the number of games in the standings separating the top from the bottom.

    But even that only measures the relative strength of the teams/league in that season (and maybe a few seasons on either side that have essentially the same player pool to compare).

    You can't judge the worthiness of the 1927 Yankees against the 2001 Mariners (for instance), without taking into consideration the comparative strength -- top to bottom -- of their respective leagues. And that is highly subjective, at best, since they never played against each other. Hence, the classic arguments of which team over time was really better.

    So, how does the WAR calculation take into consideration the difference between the top-to-bottom skill levels of different eras?

    Honus Wagner may have been (however much) better than a replacement-level player in his era, but how do we accurately compare the replacement-level players of those years and the 2000's to complete the comparison between Wagner and -- say -- Pujols? Especially in light of the way the game has changed over the intervening years.

    Also (specifically relating to someone like Wagner), how do you judge his replacement-level player, since he played so many games at so many different positions? Replacement-level skill sets are so different for the various positions, does that alter the formula?

  6. Andy (@4) -- It stands to reason that the gap between MLB star and "replacement player" is far smaller now than it was in Babe Ruth's heyday, which would skew the WAR results towards the pre-WWII decades. In 1920, the U.S. population was about 106 million; today it's about 308 million. In 1920, there were no black players in the major leagues, and virtually no Hispanics, Asians, or non-Americans; today, no one is barred, and talent is drawn from all over the world, especially Latin America. In 1920, scouting in the less populated states was limited and haphazard; today, scouting is generally much more pervasive and organized. So even though there are almost twice as many MLB teams today, the talent pool competing for each MLB roster spot is still much deeper.

  7. @94/97: Always love a Dave Parker reference. He was close to the best player in baseball there for a couple of years. Imagine if he doesn't run into that spot of trouble in the early 80s...

  8. @103 "Jeff, I didn't intentionally list them in that order but, looking at the order that's how I would rank them. How would you rank them?"

    You said "best CF". I'd think it would be

    Cobb
    Mays
    Speaker's career was better than Mantle
    but Mantle's peak was better than Speaker
    DiMaggio

  9. Michael E Sullivan Says:

    "If Babe Ruth's back up had been Barry Bonds, his WAR would be a lot less impressive but he'd have still been Babe Ruth."

    The concept of "replacement player" has nothing to do with who is backing you up. And that is made very clear if you read any of the information here about what the various sabermetric stats mean.

    A replacement player is the same for everyone. It is merely a description of a baseline level of play.

  10. Michael E Sullivan Says:

    The chances that Cobb was actually better than Mays are so small it's not even worth considering. The general player pool during Mays career was light years ahead of the pool during Cobb's career, and yet Mays's WAR/PA is slightly higher, and total WAR only slightly lower.

    My suspicion is that if we compare players to their own time's fair equivalent of a replacement player today, then Bonds is the best ever (if we ignore whatever PED's were worth to him), followed by Mays, Aaron and Mantle, with Ruth the only guy from pre-integration that really belongs in the conversation.

  11. Mike Felber Says:

    That is within the realm of possibility, it really depends on both how much replacement level has improved, & if the real elite could retain more/most all of their value, unlike the more average players. Many observers like Gould felt like they could. Also your scenario presumably allows no modern training, science, nutrition, technology, & presumes that the players were just reincarnated on a field of dreams.

    I tend to think that this is a fair way to compare absolutely how good the players WERE. There is a philosophical issue though re: whether if we want to see who is best, we should provide neutral training conditions, that this is similar to everyone using the same equipment & in the same era. Parenthetically, since these players all played modern baseball, to be scien-terrific about it, you would also need to send recent guys back decades & see how they did under those often rougher play & travel conditions.

  12. Lawrence Azrin Says:

    #91/ Todd Says: "Interesting observations. In general, I'm indifferent to the issue of PEDs as far as the HOF is concerned. I think the players should be ranked against their peers and judged accordingly, just like guys who played in the 30s have to be judged against their league and not by their raw numbers compared to, say, guys who played in the 60s."

    Todd, I wish more people felt that way, it would certainly simplify these sort of discussions

    #92/ Mike Felber: Yes, I remembered James' ranking of Rogers Hornsby ranking incorrectly, it was #22. If you added in the pitchers/Negro Players that we are not considering, my ranking of #15 would be about the same as Bill James.

  13. A few points on Ruth vs Bonds:
    1) Old timers defensive scores in WAR are not very reliable since there is no play by play data. Ruth is listed as +79 fielding runs in WAR, which seems to me like it could be high.
    2) Bonds lost time due to the strike and at the end of his career when he was still perhaps the best hitter in the league.
    3) Ruth's league excluded many of the best players in the world due to racism. The minor leagues were independent as well and did not always filter the best players to the majors.
    4) The enormous improvements in money, internationalization, scouting, training, and increase in world population of ball playing countries leaves little doubt the average quality of play is much better now than in the 1920s. If you can play MLB ball now, you're going to do it, unless you have some other means of making millions per year while being famous and beloved. Sloshing through the minors in the hopes of making it to the majors for a working man's salary where you still have to work a real job in the off season may not have been uniformly appealing to talented kids in the past.
    5) Ruth had an enormous edge over the rest of his league because he was an innovator. He was the first to swing as hard as he could with an uppercut, and since (A) no one else was trying to do that and (B) pitchers hadn't learned how to prevent home runs, Ruth could tower over the rest of the league. It took about 10 years for hitters to learn how to hit HRs in the AL -- hardly anyone but Ruth in the AL hit even 20-25 home runs in a season during the 1920s. If someone else had popularized home runs and Ruth had been just as good but come along 10 years later when other players were also using his hitting strategy, hypothetical Ruth would not have dominated the league nearly as much as he did in real life.

    Love or hate Bonds, I am confident his performance is by far the most impressive of any player ever. He dominated nearly as much as Ruth did in a fully developed game against extremely high competition quality.

  14. Josh,

    Yes, Bonds lost time to the lockout in '94. And at the end of his career, he was also breaking down physically.

    You fail to appreciate Ruth's performance in the context of plate appearances, and the fact that he lost so many years as an everyday player to having been a pitcher. Also, ballpark dimensions were more -- shall we say -- Ruthian.

    Babe Ruth, with proper weight and training regimens (not to mention a proper diet), might have hit 800 (or more) home runs, given the at bats that players like Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds had.

    Babe Ruth hit 40 or more home runs in a season 11 times! He hit at least 50 four times. He was a full-time pitcher the first three full seasons of his career (1915-'17). Then, he split pitching and position playing for two more years (though he was pretty-much a regular outfielder in 1919, he did pitch in 17 games, starting 15 times).

    As he appeared in 130 games that season, we'll use 1919 as his springboard to regular status. That means -- from 1919-1934 -- in a span of 16 years, Babe Ruth hit 688 home runs! That's an average of 43 homers per year. Over 16 seasons!

    Hank Aaron hit between 40-48 homers eight times...in 23 seasons. His high was 47. In just those eight cherry-picked years, his average was 43.5. Babe's cherry-picked eight best total an average of 46.12 (369 homers). Bonds hit 386, for an average of 48.25, but that includes his freak 73-homer year.

    Yes, I said "freak." Bonds never again came within 23 homers of that mark. Ruth came within six of his 60 three other times. Bonds never even hit 50, other than that one season. As I said earlier, Babe topped 50 four times.

    Bonds -- steroid-aided (do we still need to say "allegedly"?) -- hit a record 73 home runs in 2001. But just how legit is that? After that, his best was 46, done twice. He hit 40+ eight times, as did Aaron.

    Let's look at Bonds vs. his contemporaries. In the four-year period from 1998-2001, there were five other totals of 60+ homers, besides Bonds' 73.

    In the 10-year period from 1920-'29, when Ruth hit 50+ four times and 40+ eight times, there were just two other players who reached 40 even once: Lou Gehrig (47 in '27), and Rogers Hornsby (42 in '22). Ruth clearly far-outpaced his contemporaries, more so than Bonds could even dream.

    Let's see Barry, without his gladiator pads, with Burleigh Grimes or Lefty grove on the hill. How much diggin' in is Barry gonna do? Especially since he won't have all that protection from being brushed back/knocked down like he enjoyed in the modern era. They would go after him, knock him off the plate, take away the outside, and make him git that *&!%^!@^$!@^&!# elbow out of the strike zone!

    In his best 16 seasons, Bonds hit 648 home runs. Again, in the only 16 years Babe Ruth had as a full-time regular, he hit 688. Even against the cherry-picked best, the Babe busts all comers.

    Babe Ruth, extrapolated to the (second-highest career total) 12,364 at bats Aaron accumulated, would have hit 1,051 home runs! You see, Ruth had just 8,389 career at bats.

    But they may have been the best 8,389 at bats in Major League history.

    Eat your heart out, Bonds.

    And, as a defender, Ruth was good enough and athletic enough to play center field on 64 different occasions in his prime. His arm was strong.

    He also stole 17 bases in a season twice during the '20's, though his percentage was not particularly noteworthy (123 in 240 attempts for his career).

    For what it's worth, his Strat-o-Matic card has him rated as the Yankees' fastest baserunner (1-14) in 1920.