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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. [...] [...]

  2. Detroit Michael Says:

    Casper Wells hit a homer this week, so he's moving up the "Babe Ruth" chart!

    Hey, it's not often I get to play the role of the Tiger fanboy around here.

  3. Library Dave Says:

    Would a WAR/IP ratio be a good equivalent for pitchers? Maybe broken down between starters and relievers? I'd love to see that as a follow-up post. Thanks for this one. It really gives a neat perspective on just how great Ruth was.

  4. I thought about this post overnight, and I realized that the results seem heavy on players from a long time ago. (Maybe yes, maybe no..if the players were evenly distributed there really shouldn't be more than 1-2 per decade.)

    It makes me wonder, though, if players like Hornsby, Ruth, and Cobb really stick out because there was so much variation in player quality back when they played. These days, conditioning is so much better, and a lot of technology helps even things out. There are also very few defensive specialists--pretty much everybody can hit among full-time players. I wonder if this gives an edge to players of yore, for whom it was 'easier' to be statistically much better than average.

    Part of me feels that this argument supports the notion that Albert Pujols might actually be underrated. He's clearly the best position player in MLB right now and it isn't even close--but I don't think he gets full credit for that because the gap isn't as large as it might have been had he played in the 1950s, the 1920s, or pretty much anytime before the 1990s.

  5. #3 You better, you better, you bet that post is coming next week.

  6. When I say I love you, you say you better...

    Gotta love the Who

    But where is Yuniesky Betancourt on this list?

  7. It will be interesting to see if Barry is even voted in on the first ballot or if PEDs will douse that fire. What are PEDs worth to a career? Even if it's 10%, which I don't think they are, that still leaves Barry in the top 5 alltime. It'll be interesting. Personally (and I can't stand the guy) I don't see how he could be denied his place.

  8. I recently ran through some numbers for position players as well. I looked at the top 50 retired position players in terms of career WAR (so the list ended with Johnny Mize). I then calculated what their average WAR was per season.

    There are only 12 guys in history who averaged a WAR of 6+ per season by the time they hung up their spikes:

    1. Babe Ruth: 7.81 WAR/season (this INCLUDES his early years where he barely hit, since he was a pitcher...which is just insane)
    2. Barry Bonds: 7.80 WAR/season
    3. Willie Mays: 7.03 WAR/season
    4. Lou Gehrig: 6.96 WAR/season
    5. Mickey Mantle: 6.67 WAR/season
    6. Ty Cobb: 6.64 WAR/season
    7. Ted Williams: 6.59 WAR/season
    8. Joe DiMaggio: 6.43 WAR/season
    9. Honus Wagner: 6.40 WAR/season
    10. Hank Aaron: 6.15 WAR/season
    11. Tris Speaker: 6.04 WAR/season
    12. Mike Schmidt: 6.01 WAR/season

    This would make a pretty nice "inner circle" for the Hall of Fame IMO.

    This list hurts some guys who played many years past their prime and dropped out of the 6+ range because of that. But those guys are well-represented in overall career WAR lists, so I won't feel sorry for any them. This list helps Joe DiMaggio the most I'd say, as he retired after "only" 13 seasons and thus didn't face a possible decline phase similar to some other HOF'ers. Nonetheless, I think its pretty valuable to show that in the time he did play, very few were better than DiMaggio overall. And of course, Joe D would have likely played more seasons if not for WWII.

    Albert Pujols would actually be at the top of this list, if active players were included. But active players are likely to drop as they age, so I didn't look at them in my rankings.

  9. Very interesting. I started this kind of classification myself just last week. To me, there are eight (position) players above the others: Ruth, Wagner, Cobb, Aaron, Mays, Williams, Gehrig, and Bonds. Then you have the guys who were the best at their position, but not on the above list: Schmidt, Hornsby, and Bench. Then you have the truly great players, just a notch down: Musial, Frank Robinson, and I'm ready to put both Pujols and Arod in that category. Then you have what I call "the special players": Dimaggio, Jackie Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Pudge Rodriguez, Piazza, Molitor, Griffey Jr, Ozzie Smith. The closest I can come to defining a "special player" (in case you can't tell, this is a highly impressionistic list in only embryonic form) is a guy you'd want up there with a game on the line or a guy you want the ball hit to with the game on the line. I'm unsure whether, in some grand hierarchy, I would put the special players above or below the truly great players. Different measures, I suppose. Then you have the accumluators, guys like Thome, Killebrew, Gwynn and Boggs. And that's as far as I've gotten.

    N.B. that this isn't so much HOF specific, as I, personally, would keep all post-1993 guys out of the Hall, but just about performance on the field.

  10. I always thought that WAR was secretly rigged to put Ruth ahead of Bonds, because there would have been too much outrage otherwise. Though people could have still argued that Ruth won out when you also consider his pitching.

  11. Andy,

    Great post and great comment in #4. Yes, it was much easier to excel in an earlier age. Although as a Met fan, I must disagree that pretty much everyone can hit among full-time players.

    Given the quality of play in today's game, would Honus Wagner excel by the same rate as he did at the beginning of the 1900's?

    Also, while I love this list, you are defining greatest, or greatness by a career. When to paraphrase Bill James, no one really cares if Mickey Mantle in 1967-68 was greater than Willie Mays in 1971-72.

    Maybe we need a list of this sort that doesn't count the decline phase of a player's career? That would eliminate the "benefit" that Joe Jackson enjoys. It would also allow us to more fairly include the active players on this list. Who right now, like Jackson, have not yet experienced the entire decline phase of their career. Plus it would also allow us to see a catcher on this list, or at least one whose career is already over.

    I would love to see a "Best consecutive ten years" list of this type. Would it include Berra, Bench, Morgan, Brett and who knows who else?

  12. 1) I agree that as with most methods (e.g., Win Shares) that compares players to contemporaries, past generatioins had an advantage. It is not just that the variation of quality was higher 100 years ago, but the average quality has risen over time (nutrition, training, etc.). The way to correct would be to give a bonus that increased over time to reflect the growth in the skills of Replacement players, say .01 or .015 Wins per year since 1900 (to me it is ridiculous to think that Dan Brouthers was one of the best 17 players ever to play). Alex Rodriguez would then definitely make the list.
    2) I also think that WAR/PA or per season somewhat overvalues peak performance. Joe Morgan is undervalued. Career WAR seems to do just fine at identifying inner circle.
    3) There should also be a position adjustment for catcher. Catching destroys the body. An inner circle that includes no catchers because of that seems unfair. I would add 1.5 or 2 WAR/season for catchers.

  13. Mantle has to be in any such discussion: his peak was just as good as Ruth's or Bonds'.

  14. The whole point of my post is to look at entire careers and not peaks.

  15. Re: post # 9
    Gwynn (8 batting titles) and Boggs (5 batting titles) really shouldn't be considered to have had an "accumulator" type of career. They absolutely dominated their eras in terms of average, which is a rate stat. Thome and Killebrew were legitimate accumulators in terms of career home runs, much different from Gwynn and Boggs. Had both retired before 3,000 hits, their career averages would get them in the Hall of Fame, not even considering they were both excellent defenders.

  16. @12 Robinsong - "I also think that WAR/PA or per season somewhat overvalues peak performance. Joe Morgan is undervalued. Career WAR seems to do just fine at identifying inner circle.".

    WAR per season values ALL of their performance (just as career WAR does - but in a different way). If a guy's entire career (or almost their entire career) was spent at peak performance, then they can have a great WAR per season, as every season of their career is factored in.

    Career WAR ranks Al Kaline (amongst others) ahead of Joe DiMaggio. Now Kaline was a fine player...but he was no Joe DiMaggio. In fact, DiMaggio ranks at #32 amongst all retired players in career WAR...but when you look at WAR per season, he is 8th. Whether you agree that he is the 8th best position player or not, I think he is a lot closer to the #8 ranking than the #32 ranking (not to mention being better than Al Kaline). Just my opinion.

  17. Unfortunately I can't see an "inner circle of position players" without all of the positions represented. I don't know where the first Catcher is on the stat lists above (outside of Mauer), but I think there needs to be one in there.

    Also, since Jackie Robinson was so close on the above chart, I would include him (which would also provide Negro League representation to the inner circle - since it is the "Baseball Hall of Fame" and not the "MLB Hall of Fame" and that point would then probably bring us to Sadahara Oh to round out the top 20).

    I think your point about the disparity between the best and worst hitters being so large in the early decades of the 20th century is right on the money as to the smaller representation of post-1970 (I would really only consider Schmidt and Bonds in that category). I think it was more likely to have guys play 5+ years batting under .240 along with guys batting .340 in the early part of the century, whereas now the minimun you get is guys with longer careers at ranges from .270 to .320 (the disparity is about "half"). I think your point is very interesting.

  18. Re #s 11 and 14:

    Does a period of decline significantly affect our judgment of a player's career? Arod seems likely to go through such a phase, reducing his average WAR, for example, but should three or four years of below-average (for him) performance affect our evaluation of his career? It doesn't seem like it to me, or not very much. One quick and dirty way of looking not so much a peak as the prime years of a career is to look at the years between the first year a (position) player's OBP and SLG were above his career average, and the last year they were so above (must be above 3.1 PA/game, of course). So, for Schmidt, we have prime years of 1974 to 1987 @ 527/908 in an 18 year career @ 380/527. A very long prime not so different from his career numbers. But for Craig Biggio, say, the prime is 1993 to 2001 @ 394/465, nine years in a 20 year career that averaged 363/433.

    Now that I've said all this I'm not exactly sure what I was trying to show ...

  19. Excuse my ignorance but when did wins over replacement player suddenly become the be all and end all of rating players?

  20. It's not the be all and end all, Bill. As I say right at the top, this is just one way of making such a list, and I picked one number to use. There are lots of other ways to comprise such a list.

  21. Andy, at #14 you say the whole point of your post is to look at entire careers and not peaks.

    But the last line of your post says "So, based on this pretty simple analysis, these are the guys I'd put in the inner circle of the HOF:",

    So I thought the 22 player list was who you would put in the "Inner Circle" I was going to make my comments, because I didn't see the final part of your post, with just the 16 players on it. So working from your 16, personally I would drop Hornsby, in favor of Morgan. Dan Brouthers, in favor of Yogi Berra. For team balance, I would add an 17th player, Bench. I would also add a second 3rd Baseman, Brett, by eliminating one of the 5 center fielders on your list, probably DiMaggio.

  22. Didn't the first sentence of the post give away that this is just one way of making a list? Considering that's what he freaking said?

  23. Eddie Collins has to be one of the most underrated and overlooked elite stars in baseball history. When talk turns to the all-time greats, he is often overlooked and never mentioned, and it's a shame.

  24. Stephen, right, I'm saying I'd choose the guys with the greatest career value, which I've chosen to calculate on a rate basis by dividing WAR by PA. This method of analysis ignores peak value (and similarly punishes for extra subpar years at the end.)

    The earlier argument from another reader above about having all positions represented is a good one. Full-time catchers have pretty much no chance to make the 1% club (Joe Mauer notwithstanding...) because of the massive wear and tear they experience as compared to all other position players.

  25. #24 Mike---he IS on my list at #10

  26. #23 Mike, I don't know why Collins is so overlooked and undermentioned in talk of the all time greats. Was it because he career spanned the deadball era to the Rabbit ball? Does he somehow get pushed aside by talk of Cobb and Wagner? I don't know. BUT, I had some sort of table/dice baseball game in the mid 70's (not strat-o-matic, but something similar) and Collins kicked butt in that game. Maybe because he wasn't elected in the first mythical class of HOFamers? I don't know, but I would rather try and build a winning team around him than Hornsby.

  27. WAR already includes a positional adjustment for difficult positions, correct? Bench, Piazza, Mauer, etc. are already getting a bonus win or so per year in their totals - no need to further adjust it. Nor would I give a bonus to them in their declines just because their bodies tend to break down faster under the pounding, if the idea is to measure what they actually did. Any additional consideration should be mental, rather than in the actual data, so the data remains as objective as it can be.

  28. Good points, Nightfly.

  29. Dan Brouthers averaged around 40 errors a season at first base with a .971 fielding pct. for his career. Doesn't WAR figure in defense? He was also not quite as good a pitcher as "The Babe".

  30. Did Brouthers have to use his bare hands? :)

  31. Just comparing Eddie Collins with Rogers Hornsby in a few different methods:

    Hornsby had 8 seasons where he led his league in WAR. 2 seasons where he finished in 2nd.
    Collins had 1 season where he led his league in WAR. 2 seasons where he finished in 2nd.

    (granted one was AL and one was NL)

    Hornsby had a career 5.55 WAR/season. Collins had a 5.06 WAR/season. Collins' number is hurt by his last 3 seasons, where he barely played at all. His numbers still wouldn't hit the 6+ mark per season even if you take those seasons away.

    Meanwhile, Hornsby's last 7 seasons he barely played in (I guess because he was player/manager?). If those seasons were taken away, he would hit a mark well over 7+ WAR/season and rank in 3rd place as far as that goes, amongst all retired position players. Hornsby's final 7 seasons generated him a 1.5 total WAR and really hurt his seasonal average (probably more than any player in history, I'm guessing).

  32. "The whole point of my post is to look at entire careers and not peaks."

    I was mostly making a general statement (tho it was partially influenced by bureaucratist's #9 post, which omitted him)-Mantle often seems to get short shrift in these "all-time great" discussions, and by many observers past and present is often looked on as a disappointment. But by any reasonable measure his peak is fantastic (and he is #12 on the original list too).

  33. Thomas -you are a nasty so and so. He said in the first sentance "here's one take" which obviously could mean "my take" referring his own personal opinion. He then says clearly later on that WAR is the "best single statistic we have of measuring...." which I think is baloney.

  34. Bill--OK, you pick one statistic that's tell better and tell us why. I'm certainly willing to hear your argument, as I'm sure are most other readers here.

  35. Lawrence Azrin Says:

    Andy, great discussion topic. Nobody's submitted their own personal "Top-20 Position Players All-Time" list, so here goes... But first:

    - 19th CENTURY PLAYERS: Sorry, but I can't include anyone who played primarily in the 19th century, or at least pre-1893; the game was just too different, in many ways. I'd say the "modern era" started in 1901(AL - 1903), when foul balls (w/less than two strikes) were first called strikes. So sorry Dan Brouthers; if I'm picking a 19th century player, it's Ed Delahanty for his hitting dominance, even though Anson, George Davis, and Connor have better WAR's.

    - NEGRO LEAGUE PLAYERS - unfortunately, the lack of detailed player stats make it very difficult to have the kind of player-to-player comps requiring for this discussion. Reluctantly, I do not include Negro League-only stars, although Josh Gibson and especially Oscar Charleton would be on this list.

    - PEAK - WAR does not account for "peak" value separately; I am also adjusting my ratings for best peak

    - ACTIVE PLAYERS - left off, though ARod is probably on this list, and Pujols is getting closer by the day

    - CATCHERS - as several others have noted, this a puzzling omission. My theory is that the grueling physical demands of the position don't allow ANY catcher to be a truly dominant offensive performer, especially over a long career; therefore I am adding Johnny Bench to the list.

    OK, HERE'S my "TOP-20" LIST:
    1 Babe Ruth - the most DOMINANT player ever
    2 Willie Mays - the greatest ALL-AROUND player
    3 Honus Wagner - the most VERSATILE player ever
    4 Barry Bonds - time-line could place him even higher...
    5 Ty Cobb - usually rated #1 till well after Ruth retired...
    6 Tris Speaker - the most forgotten of the all-time greats
    7 Ted Williams - could be higher, depending on extra credit for military service-time missed
    8 Mickey Mantle - peak is underrated
    9 Hank Aaron
    10 Stan Musial
    11 Eddie Collins - underrated, period
    12 Lou Gehrig - most CONSISTENTLY great player ever
    13 Joe Morgan
    14 Mike Schmidt - defense underrated
    15 Rogers Hornsby
    16 Frank Robinson
    17 Mel Ott - see Speaker comment
    18 Johnny Bench - hard to evaluate catcher's defense properly
    19 Joe DiMaggio - hard to separate from "mystique"
    20 Rickey Henderson
    Honorable Mention: Oscar Charleton; Josh Gibson; Alex Rodriguez; Jimmy Foxx; Nap Lajoie

  36. They are also done this on baseball-fever.com

    http://www.baseball-fever.com/showthread.php?98399-The-Seven-Circles-of-Fame-Level-4-The-Upper-Hall

    Their immortals are (including pitchers and negor leaguers):
    Immortals
    Top 25%
    1) Babe Ruth
    2) Ty Cobb
    3) Honus Wagner
    4) Willie Mays
    Mid-level
    5) Ted Williams
    6) Walter Johnson
    7) Stan Musial
    8) Hank Aaron
    9) Mickey Mantle
    10) Lou Gehrig
    11) Tris Speaker
    Lower 25%
    12) Rogers Hornsby
    13) Cy Young
    14) Oscar Charleston
    15) Eddie Collins

  37. Lawrence Azrin Says:

    #36/ "Mike Says: They are also done this on baseball-fever.com
    http://www.baseball-fever.com/showthread.php?98399-The-Seven-Circles-of-Fame-Level-4-The-Upper-Hall"

    Mike, thanks for the list. Forgive me for being obvious,but:
    - only 2 out of the Top-15 are pitchers, neither whom pitched after 1927
    - only 4 out of the Top-21 are pitchers, none who pitched after 1941
    - only 8 out of the Top-33 are pitchers
    Draw your own conclusions...

  38. Appears you are penalizing Ted Williams and others who lost time fighting for our country.

  39. Jack, that's true in the sense that Williams and other missed some prime seasons when they likely would have put up very high WAR totals and boosted themselves higher (or into) this 1% club. However, this list only measures actual productivity, insomuch as WAR is a good measure of that. So, yes, they are being penalized. Such things happen with a stats-only approach.

  40. Wow, a big suprise. An article written by Andy using WAR as the metric to compare players? That has to be a first.

  41. Don't worry, Al. WAR is a shiny fun new toy...I'm sure I'll get sick of it soon enough.

  42. Lawrence Azrin Says:

    #38/ "Jack Says: Appears you are penalizing Ted Williams and others who lost time fighting for our country."

    Jack, I commented on Ted Williams in #35:
    7 Ted Williams - could be higher, depending on extra credit for military service-time missed

    Ok, let's say we credit him 10 WAR a year for 4.5 years; he gets another 45 WAR or so, in the Ruth/Bonds range of best ever. It's also quite possible that with more games played, he would've worn down at a younger age, playing less later in his career, or even retiring years earlier. You may also need to adjust the ranking of Mays (would rank with Ruth), Musial and DiMaggio for time missed due to military service. I've already kinda done that for DiMaggio. The "what if" game is a tricky one to play; it should probably be done for military service and the color line, but not for injuries.

  43. Some of these posts are underrating Rogers Hornsby. He had six straight years leading the NL in BA, OBP, LG, and OPS+, as well as 10 years leading the NL in WAR. How could he not be top ten all-time? He's probably top 5 for me.

  44. Frank Clingenpeel Says:

    I am surprised that Pete Rose -- suspended or not -- has yet to be mentioned here

  45. One thing I still don't get about WAR is the values here are different from some other sites. Why is that?

  46. That's a pretty good way to look at this type of question. You could also do something like WAR/per 100 plate appearances to make it a little easier conceptualize it. Something like this gives proper respect for players who had their career cut short by race, illness, war or suspension, i.e, J. Robinson, Gehrig, Williams, Dimaggio, and Jackson. The only problem with something like this is it skews the result to players with shorter careers because they lack the "decline" phase players with longer career lengths have, i.e, Ott, Henderson, Morgan, Lajoie and F. Robinson.

    I like to look at any of these question with a simple formula of Career+Best 7 Seasons/2. This way you get a decent mix of both career and peak value.

    Here's a list of the top 20 (Career WAR + Best 7 Seasons)/2. The first number is their career WAR, the second their best 7 seasons of WAR and their third the sum of the first two numbers divided by 2.

    1--Babe Ruth--172--102.6--137.3
    2--Barry Bonds--171.8--78.8--125.3
    3--Ty Cobb--159.4--74.9--117.15
    4--Willie Mays--154.7--72.3--113.5
    5--Rogers Hornsby--127.8--76.6--102.2
    6--Hank Aaron--141.6--61.7--101.65
    7--Honus Wagner--134.5--68.7--101.6
    8--Ted Williams--125.3--72.7--99
    9--Tris Speaker--133--64.2--98.6
    10--Eddie Collins--126.7--68.2--97.45
    11--Stan Musial--127.8--64.4--96.1
    12--Mickey Mantle--120.2--71.5--95.85
    13--Lou Gehrig--118.4--71.5--94.95
    14--Rickey Henderson--113.1--59--86.05
    15--Mike Schmidt--108.3--60.9--84.6
    16--Joe Morgan--103.5--62.7--83.1
    17--Alex Rodriguez--101.2--62.8--82
    18--Mel Ott--109.3--54.7--82
    19--Nap Lajoie--104.2--59.4--81.8
    20--Frank Robinson--107.4--51.6--79.5

    This list doesn't give any credit for lost time because of WW2 otherwise Joe D. would be in the top 20, Williams would be in the top 5. What's kind of forgotten in Joe D's career is that he would have had a relatively short career even with WW2 service added to it.

  47. flyingelbowsmash Says:

    Stats like WAR and other SABR values sure shine a bright light on Mike Schmidt - wondering if he was underrated in his day. People might laugh, but was he really thought of as being in this crowd? This guy truly was amazing, really no one in his era touches him.

  48. Lawrence Azrin Says:

    #43/" JGov05 Says: Some of these posts are underrating Rogers Hornsby. He had six straight years leading the NL in BA, OBP, LG, and OPS+, as well as 10 years leading the NL in WAR. How could he not be top ten all-time? He's probably top 5 for me."

    Well, there's serious questions about how good defensively he was as a second baseman; some historians (notably Bill James - ranked him #33 in his Abstract) believe he was on balance well below-average, and deduct a large penalty from his awesome offensive value. Some people also believe second base was more of an offense-first position then, and hence had less defensive value(fewer double plays were turned).

    There's also questions about his (supposedly) bad attitude, and why such a great player was on four teams in four years in the middle of his career. Taken all together, these negatives frequently lower his career rating from what it would be using just offensive stats (9th all-time in Batting Wins).

  49. I like how people hate WAR but still read the blog.

    I mostly agree with the list but I am biased against players from a long time ago. We refer to the modern era of baseball as having begun in 1901 but I think that the truly mature version of the game has existed only since somewhere around the end of segregation.

  50. As far as a lot of the players on Andy's original list being older players. Steven Jay Gould spoke about this in terms of evolution. Basically in the early stages of evolution the disparity of the top and the bottom are quite great. As time goes on, whatever system you're talking about tends to even out.

  51. I find the anti-WAR comments that don't cite any other stats or arguments very strange. It's one thing to hate a team because you're a fan of another team--what are these people who hate WAR fans of? Those who cite something different I get, but those don't (such as #33 above) boggle my mind.

  52. I couldn't agree more with Gould (whose work, incidentally, is a lot closer to my day job than the work I do here). The longer any of these professional sports leagues exist, the better the talent gets and the less variation there is in skill level. There are outliers, sure, but the overall distributions are getting tighter and tighter all the time, centered around a higher average ability. Cobb, Wagner, Hornsby, etc, are the outliers from an earlier era, and their numbers are sky high because they were so much better than league average at the time.

    I'll just put this out there--I am willing to bet that Albert Pujols has top-5 ability all time. It's not measurable or provable, but that's my point. He would have been at least as good as Babe Ruth had he played back then, but these days he's "only" a superstar.

  53. flyingelbowsmash,

    You're right about Schmidt, he was underrated. If you look back honestly he really could have won 5-6 MVP awards. On base percentage was underrated back then which was one of Schmidt's strengths. His defense is kind of underrated as well. He won all those gold gloves but that kind of defense + offense is extremely rare in players.

    He basically carried the Phillies into the playoffs 6 times in 8 seasons. If Schmidt hadn't been on those teams they might have made the playoffs once or twice.

  54. @ Bill #19/#33:

    You didn't offer up any evidence, or opposing thought.. you just came in and asked a loaded question thats based entriely on personal belief. How is that relevant or even non-argumentative? I just get angry when people come on here and post a comment about nothing, not bringing anything to the table, just because they don't like stat x or what it says about favorite player x. Have some evidence, have something besides a personal belief question, have any type of intelligent discussion... just don't come on here and post something stupid to start an argument.

  55. Thank you, flyingelbowsmah and John Q! My favorite all-time player, and devastatingly underrated. I would even say that George Brett as the superior third baseman of the era is almost the most-common argument on the subject, when the reality is that Schmidt is the best third baseman ever and it's not really close.

  56. Andy,

    People hate things like "WAR" because they contradict the perceptions they have over time about what's valuable and not valuable about a baseball player and who's better, Player X or Player Y. The baseball media/establishment also perpetuate this thinking so it's ingrained in the way people follow the game.

    If War shows that Kenny Lofton was a solid HOF candidate but Kenny Lofton does not measure up to my perception of what a HOFer is or baseball's perception of what a HOF is then "WAR" by extension must be wrong. If "WAR" is not wrong then my perception of him and baseball's perception of him as a player must be wrong. I don't think people want to make the mental leap that their perception of something or baseball's perception of a something is wrong.

    I think people follow baseball because it's something pleasant that brings back memories of when they were a child when life seemed less complex. The world of an 11 year old is pretty comforting when you're looking at the back of a baseball card. A .300 average meant something, a 100 RBI season meant something a 30 HR season meant something, a 20 win season meant something, a sub 3.00 era meant something. If you come back 30 years later and say that .300 average wasn't really that great because the guy only had a .325 on base percentage and that the guy with the .265 average with a .385 on base percentage was the better player, well that could really shake you up.

    If you come back and say something like Dwight Evans was a much better player than Jim Rice...Well that could really shatter this nice sweet nostalgic memory you have of your childhood in the late 70's early 80's. Because if your perception of Rice is wrong then what else is wrong about your memory? It's much easier to dismiss it all together and say the "WAR" is BS.

    I've had to drastically change the way I view the game from when I was 11. Bobby Grich is a player that I had to do an about face in the way I perceived him from when I was a kid.

    There's also an anti-intellectual attitude in this country that's kind of odd for an industrialized nation so things kind of bog down into a Geeks vs. Jocks attitude.

    There may also be a dislike/distrust in a computerized systems like WAR compared to the human endeavor of playing baseball. Maybe thing's like "WAR" reminds people of things like "Credit Scores" or those numbers that spew out of your credit card statements that suddenly raise your interest rates.

  57. Lawrence Azrin Says:

    #49/Fireworks Says: I mostly agree with the list but I am biased against players from a long time ago. We refer to the modern era of baseball as having begun in 1901 but I think that the truly mature version of the game has existed only since somewhere around the end of segregation."

    Fireworks, yes 1901 is a bit arbitrary, but if you used for example 1947 (end of segregation), you'd be eliminating a large number of truly great players entirely (eight on my list). I mean, you could use:
    - 1893 (sixty foot six inch pitching distance to home plate)
    - 1901/1903 (foul ball is strike + start of AL)
    - 1920/1921 (live-ball era, trick pitches banned)
    1920s? (larger fielding gloves)
    1930s - (most teams own farm systems - pehaps the biggest change in the talent level)
    - 1947 (end of segregation)
    1950s? (night games are common)
    -early 60s? (game in practice is mostly integrated)
    70s/80s (balance of power and speed)
    1990s (specialized use of relief pitchers)

    OK, so where do YOU draw the line?? I see no obvious point better than 1901, so I'll stick with that. I also think the greatest players from circa 100 years ago (such as Wagner/ Lajoie/ Cobb/ Speaker) would've adapted to the modern game, and still been amongst the best around, although they wouldn't dominate to the same extent (as several others have noted - the Stephen Jay Gould premise).

  58. 57,

    among your major rule changes you have to include intro of the dh, at least when talking about pitchers. if you want to divide into "eras" that reflect real evolution of the game's talent level, the only fair divisions are the major rule changes, i.e. 1893, 1901, 1920, 1947, 1974 since you can't do intro of gloves as it was gradual. that's the only way you can back things up with hard data. you can introduce a subjective roids penalty or whatever.

    all the people suggesting a metric to functionalize overall talent level over time, you still need the league+ metrics ie ERA+ variance, WHIP+ variance, OPS+ variance, lg unearned runs/runs ratio, lg fldpct, etc which would be able to be modeled mathematically. perhaps combining them in a way parallel to war is appropriate. very tedious but doable i guess.

  59. Lawrence Azrin Says:

    #58/ "Jason Says: 57,among your major rule changes you have to include intro of the dh, at least when talking about pitchers. if you want to divide into "eras" that reflect real evolution of the game's talent level, the only fair divisions are the major rule changes, i.e. 1893, 1901, 1920, 1947, 1974 since you can't do intro of gloves as it was gradual."

    Yeah, you're right, I thought of the DH but forgot to type it up. I do think glove size and improved field conditions are important, but as you say, it was very gradual, and can't really be quantified. As for how to measure this change: several people have come up with a "Competitive Index", but that's not quite the same as time-line adjustment.

    I also think the specialization of relief pitchers has changed the game in a fundamental way - one basic change is that there are fewer bench/utility players, and the third string catcher has pretty much disappered. Pitching staffs have gone from 9/10 players to 11/12 players.

  60. John Q @56, I've been following advanced baseball statistics since James' Baseball Abstracts 30 years back. I've seen some new stats come and stick, others go away. In fact, I've seen far more go away than stay. Why? The ones that failed were flawed. Yet each and every one had their very vocal supporters who insisted they were correct, and anyone who disagreed was old school. I'm a big believer, yet some of the most heated discussions I've had over the years are not with fans of traditional stats, it's with the fans of more advanced statistics who many ways are as blind and inflexible as the traditional stat fans. I'll leave it at that.

  61. "It makes me wonder, though, if players like Hornsby, Ruth, and Cobb really stick out because there was so much variation in player quality back when they played. These days, conditioning is so much better, and a lot of technology helps even things out. There are also very few defensive specialists--pretty much everybody can hit among full-time players. I wonder if this gives an edge to players of yore, for whom it was 'easier' to be statistically much better than average."

    This is spot on, and probably the biggest problem I have with WAR. Part of Ruth's WAR, and a lot of historically contextualized stats, is they imply that the whole of baseball was lesser than. Babe Ruth might have been a 60-HR hitter in every era no matter what (unlikely, but let's go with it). He had WARs over 14, when Bonds never surpassed the low 12s. It's not necessarily that Ruth was 2 wins better than Bonds, only that Ruth had a lesser replacement level he was being compared to. I realize there are other factors and this is oversimplified, but I think the logic holds. Ruth might have possessed the biggest gap between himself and other players (which is REALLY what WAR is telling us), but that only makes him the best relatively, not absolutely.

    I realize there are a million reasons we can't compare eras and that WAR probably gives us the closest approximation of being able to do so, but it still seems to fail when we get into the uber elite. I also realize we're splitting hairs, but if we assume that the elite level of baseball playing ability is somewhat static, than we should not be surprised to find that gap between elite level and replacement level to vary with replacement level and that guys playing in eras of lower replacement level who approached peak level would have exaggerated stats.

    Also, you have Shoeless Joe on the list, who unfortunately will not be in any circle of the HoF.

  62. "Andy Says:
    September 3rd, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Jack, that's true in the sense that Williams and other missed some prime seasons when they likely would have put up very high WAR totals and boosted themselves higher (or into) this 1% club. However, this list only measures actual productivity, insomuch as WAR is a good measure of that. So, yes, they are being penalized. Such things happen with a stats-only approach."

    Andy, I think this indicates that you are looking at what positional players had the greatest careers as opposed to who are the greatest position players. I realize to some that may mean the same thing, but to others they are different things, and I think that is why you are seeing some dissension. I'm not quite sure where I lie personally, but I think the way you are defining "greatest" may be what people are quibbling with. With the definition you chose, I think you found a really sound way of identifying it. I'm just saying others might define "greatest" differently, which is why such subjective value terms are so hard to use.

  63. MIke D,

    Those are valid points, I remember reading those Palmer TPR rating from the late 80's and the early 90's and there was an over-reliance on the double play so it made Bill Mazerowski one of the top 40 players in BB history.

    I was just referring to Andy's point about people ruling out WAR by a knee jerk reaction for no specific reason.

  64. @10 "I always thought that WAR was secretly rigged to put Ruth ahead of Bonds, because there would have been too much outrage otherwise."

    I love Bonds, but do you actually think that WAR *needs* to be rigged to put Ruth ahead?

  65. @13 "Mantle has to be in any such discussion: his peak was just as good as Ruth's or Bonds'."

    Having mostly LH batting opportunites in Yankee Stadium and NOT playing in the same league that had Mays / Aaron / Frank Robinson sure didn't hurt

  66. Joe Mauer and not Jimmie Foxx, REALLY?
    I'll take your dare, I rate by a combination of OPS+/PA, EqA, WARP3, and overall Win Shares (although I've seen some apparent problems with defensive Win Shares)

  67. John DiFool Says:

    "Having mostly LH batting opportunites in Yankee Stadium and NOT playing in the same league that had Mays / Aaron / Frank Robinson sure didn't hurt"

    I don't know about the league differences (there was no interleague back then), but Mantle slugged 28 points higher as a righty.

  68. @9 "Then you have what I call "the special players": Dimaggio, Jackie Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Pudge Rodriguez, Piazza, Molitor, Griffey Jr, Ozzie Smith. The closest I can come to defining a "special player" (in case you can't tell, this is a highly impressionistic list in only embryonic form) is a guy you'd want up there with a game on the line or a guy you want the ball hit to with the game on the line."

    Which one is Molitor?

  69. @37 "Mike, thanks for the list. Forgive me for being obvious,but:
    - only 2 out of the Top-15 are pitchers, neither whom pitched after 1927
    - only 4 out of the Top-21 are pitchers, none who pitched after 1941
    - only 8 out of the Top-33 are pitchers
    Draw your own conclusions..."

    My conclusion is that it's a bad idea to evaluate pitchers and position players in the same list.

  70. It's a pretty good list but you have to take out the guy who cheated and replace him with either Jackie or Shoeless Joe who did what they did without PI drugs...Also alot of people are basing their judgements on statistics and nothing more ( i know numbers don't lie) but they also cannot incorporate the human factor and what some players did just by playing ie: Cobbs cletes first style of running the bases , Ruth and Foxx's itimidation factor, Ryans fastball fear factor, Mantles power from either side of the plate, Aarons incredible consistency and Roses intensity just to name a few. All of the things and many more like them are what makes a player great not just his numbers.

  71. @67 "I don't know about the league differences (there was no interleague back then), but Mantle slugged 28 points higher as a righty."

    Too bad that didn't work for DiMaggio

  72. @70 "It's a pretty good list but you have to take out the guy who cheated"

    OK, consider A-Rod removed ;-)

  73. @71
    I bet if Dimaggio had tried to bat left-handed, he might have slugged 28 points lower doing so.

  74. "OK, so where do YOU draw the line?? I see no obvious point better than 1901, so I'll stick with that. I also think the greatest players from circa 100 years ago (such as Wagner/ Lajoie/ Cobb/ Speaker) would've adapted to the modern game, and still been amongst the best around, although they wouldn't dominate to the same extent (as several others have noted - the Stephen Jay Gould premise)."

    You're comparing strategic changes (reliever usage), technological advances (gloves), rule changes (pitching mound, foul balls), and accessibility of the same (segregation). Those things are so far apart, both in meaning and in impact that it's a bit absurd to lump them together as you did.

    I, too, struggle at times to give honest consideration to guys who played before the leagues were segregated. A whole subset of the population was denied the opportunity to play the game. We have absolutely no way of saying with certainty that Babe Ruth was the best baseball player alive in the 20s, let alone whether he was the best ballplayer ever. We can start to make those considerations once the leagues were desegregated (or maybe even when they were fully integrated), but not before. That doesn't mean we throw out everything that happened before, but it makes it really hard to put into any sort of perspective. So we can conclude that Ruth was the best white ballplayer alive, but how useful is that if we don't know how good the best black or Latino ballplayers of the same time were? Maybe he would have dominated a integrated league, or maybe he would have been overshadowed by others. I suppose the likely answer is the former, but there is simply no objective way of knowing.

  75. You don't have to buy into WAR to love the discussion. (I have my issues, but think it is mostly on the right track.) The point is to foment lively, informed talk and to use, when possible, stats to do that. If you think WAR is great, this is a perfect usage of it. If you think it sucks... well, that doesn't invalidate the discussion. Come up with something better and share it.

    I still love 20 wins, 100 RBI and .300 -- but if you show me context that indicates a particular 15 wins, 85 RBI or .285 are just as good or where the first set of numbers is deceiving, I'm all ears. I don't see why we have to be entirely geek or jock.

  76. For my money, Andy's list and approach are pretty close to my own views on this one.

  77. Jeff James @65 -- Having mostly LH batting opportunites in Yankee Stadium and NOT playing in the same league that had Mays / Aaron / Frank Robinson sure didn't hurt
    --------------------------------------

    The NL was overall stronger at that point, just as the AL today has been the stronger league for about two decades now, so does that mean Bonds and Pujols are not great hitters today? How much do we downgrade them, and on the other side, how much do we upgrade AL hitters? While I do believe that there are cycles and one league will be superior to the other, the differences aren't that extraordinary when we break it down to the individualo hitter where I would start downgrading the accomplishments of specific players. And if you're going to point out that Mantle batted lefthanded at Yankee Stadium with the short porch in right, then you have to acknowledge when batting right he had a totally ridiculous hitting enviornment, yet still had a higher slugging average. Yankee Stadium during those years was rated as a pitchers' park.

  78. Bonds and A-Rod do not count. I can't understand how people make excuses for guys on steroids, especially Bonds or just pretend nothing ever happened. Guys who took PEDs should never be considered the greatest players.

  79. OutsideTime Says:

    This really is a fascinating debate, but I have a question about WAR. Is the basis for its benchmark to use all players from all time, to normalise a singular, "historically-based" replacement-level player, or is the standard for a replacement level player from that season?

    Babe Ruth's WAR is compared against players who played in his day. The quality of competition could have been nothing like it is today. Sports in general have from sport, to a business, to a science. So my question is, if Babe Ruth was playing today, would he still produce that type of WAR? Just for argument's sake, if he would still be able to produce that type of WAR in the 1990s and 2000s, those numbers would be insanely huge.

  80. #61 BSK:

    Having thought about what you wrote, I'm guessing that your fundamental issue with WAR is that it doesn't bridge the gap between now and then in a way that you find believable. I understand that thinking---when comparing a 14 WAR season for Ruth and a 12 WAR season for Bonds, it's hard to know if those numbers are correct. I think most folks would agree that Ruth was better compared to his own era than Bonds was compared to HIS own era, but both were such good players that's it's tough to judge if Ruth really deserved higher peak WAR.

    Here's why I don't have a problem with it, though. If we plucked 1920s Babe Ruth out of space time and made him a player in, say, 2001 when Bonds was at his peak, I'm willing to bet that Ruth would have trouble cutting it as an everyday major-leaguer. In 2001, pitchers threw harder, there were more games with a more rigorous schedule, players were much stronger, and there was much more scrutiny from media and fans. I have serious doubts that Ruth, simply plucked out of his time and plopped into 2001, would hit many home runs at all. Now, if Ruth had been born in 1974 and been 27 years old in 2001, things might have been a lot different. If Ruth grew up as a youngster in the 1980s with a dad who had been a star player, had access to the strength and conditioning programs, faced modern-day pitchers, etc, I really wonder what he would have hit like. Based on his natural ability, and given a lifetime of modern training, my gut instinct is that he would have been the best player in history anyway, and might have had even better seasons than he had in the 1920s. Given the opportunity the evolve himself with all the modern benefits, I simply believe Ruth would have evolved into an even greater player than everybody else did, given the actual time that passed.

    Also, BSK, in a few of your comments, you don't seem to distinguish between talent vs. fact. Both are reasonable things to look at. For example my above paragraph has to do with talent--who had more talent, how would that talent translate given different circumstances, etc. But facts are facts. The main list in my post addresses fact--it doesn't attempt to give credit for seasons lost to war, or era in which somebody played and overall talent level. It simply looks at what happened and compares facts as best we can. I feel pretty good about WAR's ability to do this.

  81. Andy-

    Working backwards, I recognize precisely the difference between talent and fact. That is what I got at in my second post, where I think some people were looking at "talent" and you (and others) were looking at "fact" and essentially you were talking past each other. To use a football analogy, some people think Bo Jackson was one of the best football players ever, even though nothing in the stats would really demonstrate that, owing to injury and other issues. But on his best day, Jackson might have been better than anyone else on their best day. His talent was remarkable, but the facts of his career were not. Some people use the former to judge "greatest" and some use the latter. I don't think there is a "right" answer, as "greatest" is subjective. You clearly were looking at facts and, as I said, I think you did a great job of showing what the "facts" said about what players had the greatest careers.

    To Ruth and Bonds, I realize that we can't just pick Ruth out of the 20's and drop him here today. In almost every sport, the worst players now are "better" than the best players of 50 years ago, owing to advances in training and health and equipment and such. If Rey Ordonez time traveled back to the 20's, he probably would hit 50 HRs. If Babe Ruth time traveled to now, he'd probably be Jeremy Giambi. As you point out though, the "time travel" approach is useless. Had Ruth followed Bonds' circumstances, he would probably have been a remarkable player now just as he was then.

    Looking at the historical single-season leaderboard, it's pretty clear that WAR favors earlier players. The highest WAR for a guy after 1950 (arbitrary cut off) is Mickey Mantle in 1956 at 12.90, 26th all time. Ruth had 2 seasons superior to that (14.0 and 14.7) and two roughly equal (12.9 and 12.8). For Ruth to do that today, in Bonds' era, what would he have had to do? Hit 80 HRs? OBP of .700? SLUG of 1.000? That is what I'm trying to figure out. For Ruth to put up a WAR of 14.7 nowadays, giving him both the pros and cons of playing in this era, what would his numbers look like. And, once we figure that out, we have to look at whether we could reasonably expect that to be possible. My guess is we would quickly conclude it is unlikely he would have done so, and rather than be a 14 WAR player, he likely would have been similar to Bonds with several 12 WAR seasons. Now, maybe he would have played longer or not had a few years "lost" to pitching and still ended up in the same place.

    My only point is that when looking at the best of the best of the best, WAR might get a little iffy at the extremes. I think it probably works in 99% of cases, but the upper limits might throw it off. As we see from the single-season leaderboard, guys in the 1800's put up WARs approaching (and even reaching) 20. Is that even possible today? If it's not, if it would require a pitcher to throw more shut-out innings than there are in a season, we need to recognize that those extreme WARs are probably a bit exaggerated.

  82. Andy-

    My point at 62 was intended to defend your approach, though I see now it doesn't necessarily read that way. My point was that folks arguing for "high peaks" or "lost years" were simply using a different criteria for "greatest". There are many ways to assess the "greatness" of a player. You chose one way (greatest career slightly adjusted for concentration of greatness) and I think did as good a job as possible creating that list. But if other folks are looking for, "If I needed one guy for one at bat, who would I want?" they are going to come to very different conclusions, since they are really looking much more at talent.

    I don't think there is a "right" answer, since it is so subjective. But if you are talking about what you are talking about and others are talking about something very different, than the better conversation is, "How do we define greatness?" rather than, "Who is the greatest?" since you haven't agreed on the criteria.

  83. We're on the same page, BSK. Certainly if a metric like WAR fails, it fails at the edges such as the greatest seasons that are out of range as compared to most of the data.

  84. My response at 83 was addressing 81 but applies just as well as 82. Didn't think you were arguing with me. My comment about not drawing a distinction between talent and fact was really meant to apply more to the general audience than to you specifically.

  85. Andy-

    I think that is why we should avoid terms like "greatest", because "greatest" isn't really a fact and is too abstract and nebulous a concept. I'm not sure what term of phrase your specific query satisfies... maybe "effective"? I mean, anything will have a level of subjectivity to it, unless we are talking about basic stats like "Most strike outs" or "Most wins".

    Language is key. A guy can have the most Ks and not be the most unhittable pitcher. Likewise, a pitcher can have the most Ws without necessarily being the winningest or a batter the most HRs without being the best HR hitter. It's why these debates are both so fun and so frustrating (at times). I'd probably go with something like "most effective" for this query, since (in my mind at least) effectiveness deals with the two criteria you looked at, namely who accomplished the most without requiring too long/too much to accomplish it. I realize it doesn't have the same cache as "greatest", but when has BBRef been about cache? :-p

    Note: I also think some people bristle at attempts like yours because they don't want the question of who is the greatest to be settled. They want it to be an endless debate. They don't want some computer telling them, 'Here's the answer.' That is probably not generally the case here, but I'm sure some of those folks slip in. If we DID have an objective way of determining the 'greatest' and saying, "Yep, it's player X, no doubt about it," some people would feel something was lost. I always lean towards knowing more than less, and think there will always bee plenty to debate even if we settle some arguments, but others don't. So you'll naturally always get push back on that front.

  86. And, yes, I do think we are closer than we are further apart here. Even if we disagree on whether or not the Bionic Babe (sounds sexy!) would hit 85 HRs had he been born in 1980.

  87. And to the issue at hand, I, for the most part, agree with your list. I'm inclined to put Jackie Robinson in the inner circle because of the impact of his career. I realize that potentially opens up other candidates (Tommy John's name gets thrown around a lot for things like that, as well as the first crew of modern relievers, etc.) but I don't think any of them can hold a candle to what Jackie really meant to the game. It would obviously be noted on his bronze monument (if we're creating an inner-circle, we're making statues, right???) that his inclusion was partly based on his impact and legacy. But given that we might not see the #2 and #4 guys on this list at all if it hadn't been for him, I think that's damn important. And, yes, I realize that the last statement was a bit hyperbolic because the color barrier would have EVENTUALLY been broken and Mays and Bonds probably would have followed the same career path whether Jackie had HoF career or flamed out in a year, but I don't think we can say that with certainty, since Robinson's success transcended a simple changing of the rules and demonstrated the possibility for black ballplayers to make a career for themselves in the major leagues. If Robinson failed and full integration was pushed back a few years, we might never have seen Mays and the status of blacks in baseball might have suffered to the point that Bonds played a different sport. Who knows, really. But the fact that the question can be asked tells me that Robinson is about as important to the game as anyone else, even if that doesn't show up in the stats. And, yes, this is more a sociological argument than a baseball one, but I'm okay with that.

  88. To be honest, BSK, I think you're seeing a lot more controversy than really exists in this thread. I think we all get that there are a lot of different ways to define "greatest". I use the term position players only to separate the players from pitchers. I don't see a lot of the bristling that you refer to.

    This post by me was not an attempt to write this list and get everyone to agree. The point was just to show a method of producing one such list and open things up for debate, which is exactly what's happened.

  89. [...] The 20 greatest position players in baseball history » Baseball ... [...]

  90. Without the PED spike, and assuming no catastrophic injury, Bonds career WAR still gets 120-140ish. Truly remarkable. Because of all the crap with him, it's easy to disregard what kind of career he was already having when he allegedly started PED'ing.

    (A-Rod, much harder to say, since we have no idea when PEDs started or ended, if at all.)

    Wonderful thread. Love these esoteric discussions. Well done.

  91. Interesting observations.

    I don't really like to rank players other than to say that Ruth is #1. Bonds may be #2 all-time in WAR but PEDs had a lot to do with that. I'm not saying he wasn't a great player before the PEDs, but his established level of performance prior to 2000 was somewhat short of Mantle's, so I can't see ranking him ahead of Mickey. For example, from 1986 through 1999, Bonds posted a career adjusted OPS of 163. He turned 35 that season (1999). After 1999, however, Bonds posted an adjusted OPS of 221 for the years 2000-2007. Perhaps Barry was just like wine and got better with age. Yeah, sure.

    If I had to come up with the Top 5, it would probably be something like Ruth, Mantle, Wagner, Mays and Cobb. Perhaps Bonds would be in there instead of Cobb. I would put Mickey at #2 because his peak was so high and he played on teams that did really well without a lot of great players. Wagner could also be #2. I believe Bill James had them Ruth-Wagner-Mantle for peak value. As I said, it's hard for me to rank them precisely, especially when you get past #1.

    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. But when we are comparing the all-time greats I think we have to consider the context in which they played, and I think it's safe to say that a Mickey Mantle using steroids and HGH might have killed a few players, and not just pitchers. I think some 1Bman and 3Bman might have been taken down as well. And a Willie Mays on steroids would probably have passed 60 HRs once or twice.

    So, in my view, Sammy Sosa shouldn't be in the HOF not because he used steroids, but because he wasn't a great player for more than 1 or 2 years. He's a corner OFer with a career adjusted OPS of 130. Not HOF worthy, IMO. I'm not a counting stats guy as much because otherwise standards like 3,000 hits put guys like Lou Brock into the Hall. Ugh.

    So the bottom line, to me, is that Barry Bonds was NOT in the conversation for greatest player of all time prior to the last decade, although he certainly was in the conversation for greatest active player and was on a bee line to the Hall of Fame. Greatest LFer? Possibly, but Williams and Musial certainly have a case, too.

    Here's my rough approximation of the best position players. I'm including guys who are in the Hall or currently eligible for it:

    C Bench, Berra
    1B Gehrig, Foxx
    2B Morgan, E. Collins, J. Robinson, Hornsby
    SS Wagner
    3B Schmidt, Mathews
    RF Ruth, Aaron, F. Robinson
    CF Mantle, Mays, Cobb, Speaker, Dimaggio
    LF Williams, Musial

    I believe that's 21 players, and Bonds and A-Rod will later be added to make 23. I'd also add that Piazza is going to have to go in because he's the best-hitting C ever. So I guess I have 24 total with at least 2 players at every position.

    (As an aside, I'm surprised that Edwin Lee has received so little mention here, because he and Michael Jack are basically the same player.)

  92. My thoughts on a # of issues, from Philosophical to factual:

    Greatness is subjective, though that is part of the fun of it. My case is that if you discuss greatness, it is most reasonable to consider what someone did. And unavoidably how good you are at peak value. John's formula is good, splitting career & best 7. Though if anything, I would have some smaller consideration for the things Bill James considered-best 5, 5 straight, 3 & 1. Each one adding a bit, because how can you avoid considering best in a very few years as a measure of greatness? Anything under a year leaves too much weight for random factors, not true Greatness. But all together I would have these years weigh less than best career or best 7.

    Losing years when you COULD have been the best but could not perform due to segregation or WAR are relevant for who was how good. Some value should be added. It was said that w/no military service Mays would rate w/Ruth-no, he would still not come close. He likely would be #4 just behind Williams in WAR. About WAR: it seems to be generally good, but I have seen NO case made that it is better than a measure like VORP or others, except that Win Shares gives credit for below replacement value play. I do not see that being very relevant, 'cause these guys at least have very limited time in negative WARP: someone like Micky always was creating value. So how do they give value for poor play? And there since James balances those "accumulating" years w/all those measures of peak value, how is it deficient?

    Lastly, there is tremendous uncertainty about the defensive metrics of WAR, & I am confused about its different versions. So when a player either plays a more important position, or there is controversy about what WAR shows-can we have any confidence that WAR does not throw us far off the truth? I really do not know, but am asking skeptically.

    I though James rated Hornsby about 10 places higher than 33, but either way he was underrated. Could Hornsby have been so bad, & the damage of playing 2nd poorly so big, that he is downgraded that much mediocre fielders & SB guys like Ruth & Williams are rated much higher? He COULD, but I doubt he was that bad. Also, if a pitcher threw anything like shutout innings on all starts, he would have a WAR larger than anyone in the 19th Century! Just take the best modern WAR pitcher performances & double their innings to reach about 20 or more.

    But the point that outliers are less common due to evolution of competitive skills developed & athleticism is well taken. James, Gould, most accept it. However, they also say that the greatest would be much closer in value if transplanted across time. Since baseball is much more about things like hand eye coordination than raw athleticism-though it helps a lot-it has been fairly argued that even absent modern training & nutrition, a Ruth would still be great. I do NOT think he would struggle to make a ML roster! I cannot see how even before modern training he would not be a star slugger. Players developed physical ability skills through farm work & practice too. Great baseball historian wrote "The year Babe Ruth hit 104 Home Runs". Postulating that given the distance he struck them & modern ball parks, Ruth could have done this today. I think he is overstating the matter significantly, but he DOES make fair points: while it was before integration, most of the greatest athletes came to baseball. Ruth faced relief specialists/attention others did noit get, a far more grueling travel/train schedule, etc...

    Last but far from least: I do not think greatness should be about something like integration, since this is a completely different realm that playing ability, & should be separately credited re: character, courage-the question implies clearly best players. But I WOULD consider the top Negro League players. Yes, there is more uncertainty, & the quality of play they encountered less consistent. But IF we can show it was highly likely they were amongst the best ever, we owe it to them to put them in. My logic:

    They played against major League teams, & many expert baseball players saw the best & affirmed their greatness. And not long removed from the peak of some players who were black or came from the Negro Leagues, all time greats Mays & Aaron came up. Oscar Charleston was a Mays-like 5 tool player, fiercely competitive, who played forever, widely considered their best all around player. Josh Gibson was the greatest slugger, & at least a good catcher, which is extremely valuable. So I would not put in Robinson, Berra, Bench almost certainly would have been more dominant.

    If it was very close I would put in all positions, but unless we are qualifying it as best by position, we should put in the greatest all around, & the position adjustment does this for position value. But what catcher reincarnated would have been as dominant at the bat, as Gibson? Let alone good defensively.

    Yes, I would detract value from players who added value through cheating that transformed their talents & bodies dramatically. That is not real greatness-just as if a batter or pitcher was found to have added a lot through equipment tampering (though corked bats, unlike altered balls, do not help).

  93. I haven{t participated in one of these debates in a while, so it s a pleasure to be back.

    I think the list of the greatest 20 position players in history is pretty much set....And to me Babe Ruth os still the greatest player who ever lived. whether he could succeed in todays modern game, I am not sure, but at the same time, there has never been another player in the history of the game who so totlaly dominated as a hitter AND a pitcher, he wonr the equvalent of 2 Cy Youngs among his 92 wins before he went to the outfield as an every day regular. And no one has ever done that!!!!!

    Just some personal comments, i saw both Mays and Aaron play....Aaron was a slightly better hitter and Mays a flashy fielder who routinely made spectacular plays, It might be that many of those spectacular plays were based on his penchant for playing such a shallow center. I personally don t think there is very much difference between the two players.

    We can talk about the mystique of Dimaggio....his teams won 10 pwennants in his 13 years and 9 World Series. And I ve heard the but he played for the yankees argument.....He played with many great players including Berra and Gehrig, but the Yankees would not have wobn all those pennants without the Dago. He was the indespensable player......

    What I admire most about both T williams and DiMaggio was that they knew when to retire, they didnt hang on and hang on....William s 1960 season vindicated his injury plagued .254 season of 1959 and he had the dramatic home run in his last AB, DiMaggio quit after his first bad season (1951). Very few player know when to quit.....without hanging on and hanging on.....certianly Cobb, I cant really think of any other great position HOF players who quit at the right time, perhaps Schmidt who had declined and quit mid season ......Clemente s carrer was terminated by his tragic death and Gehrig by his terminal illness.

    Some time ago Andy made a post asking for our views of players who had consistent careers so he could gnerate a new stat. And by conistent, I assume a player who turns in numers without much variation from year to eyar, but very good to great numbers for a lot of years.

    Let me suggest these players as having very long consistnet periods of superior to high production....
    Lou Gehrig (not much watering down of stats)
    Jimmie Foxx not very far from Genrig for 12 or 13 years....
    Henry Aaron, three declining years (74 75 and 76)
    Barry Bonds (even before steroids, he was a conistent HOF player
    Stan Musial ( a virtual machine between 1942 and 1957 and then a 255 to 288 hitter for 6 years with the exception of 1962 (19, 82, .330)
    Of course, Albert Pujols with 10 great years in a row and counting
    Alex Rodriguez who has slipped over the last three years, but at the close of this year will be the ONLY player in MLB history to generate 14 seasons of 100 RBIs or more, 13 of those in a row, and equal to Gehrig and Foxx.

    Eddie Murray, just another machine

    and...

    Steve Garvey
    Billy Williams
    both exceptionally consistent year to year players.

  94. flyingelbowsmash Says:

    Interesting you mention Steve Garvey, he was one of my favorite players as a kid. He doesn't have the stats to sniff the HOF, but it got me thinking of a few polls we have done recently. Do people really think Kenny Lofton and Bobby Abreu have been more significant superstar players and contributors to the games both in their time and in the scope of baseball history than Steve Garvey? Don't throw stats at me!!! Just stop and think. How about Dave Parker? I'm not making a HOF case for Garvey or Parker but I would say they achieved more "FAME" than Lofton or Abreu regardless of stats. I like the WAR stat and it frames players in some interesting ways, but we shouldn't let it take on a life of its own, and acknowledge that, rightly or wrongly, it emphasizes players who walk and homer a lot.

    Back to this post, I think without looking at the WAR stat, and just sitting down and coming up with the 20 best position players, I don't think the list would be much different.

  95. @91 "CF Mantle, Mays, Cobb, Speaker, Dimaggio"

    I trust these are in no particular order?

  96. Garvey was overrated. Due to having many hits, overwhelmingly singles, & walking seldom. WAR seems to handle power & BBs reasonably: Abreu also did not hit many HRs, but doubled & walked much more than Garvey, better OPS +/hitter. Garvey also did not add value on the base paths, & did not field well at an important position. Playing a bunch of full years & getting to 200 hits mad him seem better than he was.

    He just did not do as much to create or save runs as many others with a similar renown. Not that he was without value, but he did not have great career or peak value.

  97. flyingelbowsmash Says:

    But wouldn't you agree that Garvey was more of a significant player in the 70's and 80's than Abreu has been this past decade (whatever it is called)? Garvey led his team to the world series multiple times, multiple clutch performances, and a constant on the All-Star team. And, I am not even saying he should be a HOFer, but you can't say the above about Abreu. If you look at Garvey's stats, yes, underwhelming, but in the day he was important. I can see young and future fans looking back at George Brett's stats and not be overly impressed, but those of us who watched him play never second guessed his first ballot selection without needing to look at stats.

    But back to this post, it will be interesting to see, when all is said and done, if A-Rod and Pujols crack this top 20. Since A-Rod is so disliked, it might take another generation to evaluate his place. Just as now we are placing Mike Schmidt at a higher level than when he retired. In his day, though beloved, I am sure many looked at his below .300 batting average and high strike outs as negatives, both of which are no longer major categories of importance.

    Interesting, as I am rereading this I appear to contradict myself: On the one hand perhaps only contemporaries can truly appreciate the importance of a George Brett or even lesser players like Parker, Garvey, and Dale Murphy, as the stats don't tell the whole story. On the other, a player like Schmidt is being re-evaluated at a higher level after time has past and his stats seem to tell a bigger story. The same may be true for A-Rod. Abreu, nah, the stats tell of a bigger story that didn't happen. Not a contradiction but an example of the complexity of evaluating greatness or value, which requires more than numbers.

  98. Mike Felber Says:

    Stats correctly perceived & understood tell the vast majority of the story of value. Though being there, or learning the narrative after the facts, helps appreciate players for historical significance & color. Garvey more significant? Depends on how that is defined. Since part of it is often interpreted as impact due to something like team, it is true that being on a better team, he was able to be in the championships, have the opportunity to produce well, & this + B.A. & any kind of hits over-rated, more likely to be put on an All Star team. Brett can be appreciated well through looking at his stats intelligently, & you are right that doing so makes folks now realize how good Schmidt was.

  99. It's interesting people are comparing (or contrasting?) Garvey and Abreu. I just had a look at the stats. Abreu outranks Garvey in every single offensive category (bar sacrifices and intentional walks), despite the fact he has had less PAs/ABs. Yet people are suggesting Garvey had more value or acclaim in his day. This makes an interesting subject - was Garvey overrated? Is Abreu underrated? Perhaps a bit of both? Maybe it is a sign of the increase in offense we've seen in the 90s and 2000s versus the 70s and 80s? In other words, Abreu has put up better numbers, but does not compare as well with his peers?

  100. Personal thanks for this post/debate as it reminded me that someone *dominated* (statistically) his league despite only playing 117 games (1980), someone won an MVP with 112 hits (1981) and then I was born (1982)!

  101. 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.

  102. 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.

  103. #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.

  104. 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.

  105. 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?

  106. 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.

  107. @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...

  108. @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

  109. 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.

  110. 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.

  111. 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.

  112. 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.

  113. 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.

  114. 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.