Welcome to our community

Be apart of something great, join today!

Best Players in History

Topnotchsy

Featured Contributor, The best players in history?
Aug 7, 2008
9,369
There are many ways to try to figure out who the best players are in baseball history. One basic approach is to look at who won the MVP awards the most times. In theory the MVP award is the best player in each league but historically that has not been the case. In the early days, precursors to the MVP award had really strange voting guidelines, which resulted in Babe Ruth only winning the award once. Plus voters have shown over the years that if the same player is the best each year, they will not keep voting for him (see Mike Trout and Willie Mays). Finally, we now recognize that certain stats (such as RBI) have historically been overvalued in determining how good a player is (since they are more a function of who is batting in front of you) and others (such as OBP) have been undervalued.

To take another look I decided to ask a basic question: Who was the best player in each league each season? I chose to use Baseball-Reference.com's WAR, a composite stat that, while not perfect, does a decent job of capturing all other stats into one number. (It's definitely not perfect, but I don't think there is a better stat.

Looking back to the 1870's, there were only 23 players who lead the league in WAR 3 times or more throughout their career:

Babe Ruth 10
Willie Mays 9
Walter Johnson 8
Rogers Hornsby 7
Ted Williams 6
Barry Bonds 6
Cy Young 6
Alex Rodriguez 5
Mickey Mantle 5
Mike Trout 5
Pete Alexander 5
Roger Clemens 4
Albert Pujols 4
Honus Wagner 4
Stan Musial 4
Cal Ripken 3
Carl Yastrzemski 3
Jimmie Foxx 3
Bob Gibson 3
Christy Mathewson3
Greg Maddux 3
John Clarkson 3
Kid Nichols 3



There are a number of interesting insights that this, and an expanded list reveal:

  • 9 pitchers made the list (out of 23 total). Given that pitchers rarely win the MVP, and the fact that many of these pitchers played before MVP awards were given out, it is not surprising to see more names on this list than a list of the players who won the most MVP awards. It is also not surprising that many of the pitchers played at the dawn of professional baseball since it is easier to lead the league when pitching 50 games and 400+ innings, than 32 games and 225 innings. It is perhaps more surprising that Maddux and Clemens made the list. And possibly most remarkable modern player is Mike Trout, who took exactly 5 seasons to accumulate 5 league-leading seasons and enter the top 11 all-time in this stat.
  • Any big surprise inclusions? No one in the list above much of a surprise. Looking at the list it is pretty much a list of inner circle Hall of Famers with a couple of players still playing and guys like Bonds and Clemens who would be inner circle Hall of Famers if judged by numbers alone. Maybe the first surprise was Camilo Pascual who led the AL in WAR twice (and finished 3rd one other time). Largely a forgotten name, Pascual had a very impressive peak, assisted by the fact that he pitched close to 17-18 complete games in his best seasons. Interestingly, Pascual never got a single Cy Young vote.
  • Who is missing? 3 players in ESPN’s top 10 all-time did not make this list. Ty Cobb (8 on ESPN list) only lead the league twice, largely thanks to a career that overlapped with the top pitcher (Walter Johnson) and hitter (Babe Ruth) on our list. Lou Gehrig (7 on ESPN list) led the league just once. He too overlapped with Ruth (obviously), and later in his career, Jimmie Foxx took the honors 3 times. Finally, Hank Aaron (3 on ESPN list) only won once. Aaron’s tally is a combination of playing at the same time as Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, and the fact that his career represented an overall body of work that may be more impressive for its sustained excellence, than for a few incredible seasons
 
Last edited:

Austin

Active member
Aug 7, 2008
5,639
Oahu, Hawaii
Although WAR may be considered the "best" judge of players' greatness, I think it's too flawed to make definitive lists.

The fact that the list leaves out Cobb, Gehrig and Aaron because their careers just happened to overlap Ruth, Johnson and Mays/Gibson invalidates it immediately.

As for the measure of WAR itself, among the players who led their league in WAR are Ben Zobrist in 2011, Nick Markakis in 2008 and Lonnie Smith in 1989.
No one even considered those seasons anything special, but somehow WAR proclaims them the greatest those years.
 

Topnotchsy

Featured Contributor, The best players in history?
Aug 7, 2008
9,369
Although WAR may be considered the "best" judge of players' greatness, I think it's too flawed to make definitive lists.

The fact that the list leaves out Cobb, Gehrig and Aaron because their careers just happened to overlap Ruth, Johnson and Mays/Mantle invalidates it immediately.

As for the measure of WAR itself, among the players who led their league in WAR are Ben Zobrist in 2011, Nick Markakis in 2008 and Lonnie Smith in 1989.
No one even considered those seasons anything special, but somehow WAR proclaims them the greatest those years.
Definitely not looking to make any sort of definitive claims, and using "seasons leading either the AL or NL in WAR" is a funny way to even think about the best players of all-time, but I do think that compared to MVP awards, this list does arguably a much better job. It also highlights some really interesting and forgotten players and eras (such as during WWII etc). It is also a reminder of how incredibly good guys like Ruth, Mays and Hornsby were as hitters, and why Walter Johnson was in a league of his own on the mound.
 

Jjoey52

New member
Feb 12, 2017
80
I guess Koufax's earlier years when he was a mop up man and spot starter killed his WAR. If just his 6 great years were counted he would be a shoo in.


Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk
 

Topnotchsy

Featured Contributor, The best players in history?
Aug 7, 2008
9,369
I guess Koufax's earlier years when he was a mop up man and spot starter killed his WAR. If just his 6 great years were counted he would be a shoo in.


Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk
The list is based on individual seasons. Koufax had 4 transcendent seasons (1963-1966). In each he could have theoretically lead the NL in WAR. His problem was that Willie Mays was in the prime of his career, putting up 10+ WAR seasons. Mays lead the league in 63, 64 and 65. Koufax led the league in his final season.
 

JVHaste

New member
Jun 22, 2015
3,828
Vancouver WA
my top 10 in some order would be-

Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Mickey Mantle, Mike Trout, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron.










.....and for all those angry that your favorite player didn't make the list, he was number 11.. I swear. :)
 

AnthonyCorona

Active member
Oct 6, 2014
9,465
Modesto, CA
For the record, I think Barry is the only player with a hip hop song named after him....I think that should count

Bring me your Bickford, Ryan McMahon, Senzatela and Peter Lambert cards
 

Topnotchsy

Featured Contributor, The best players in history?
Aug 7, 2008
9,369
Was I the only one who had never heard of Camilo Pascual before?
 

RStadlerASU22

New member
Jan 2, 2013
8,873
Was I the only one who had never heard of Camilo Pascual before?
I am not familiar with him and probably should be ashamed that I don't recall much of Pete Alexander , John Clarkson and Kid Nichols.

Ryan
Will Clark / Mike Brown Collector
 

WCTYSON

Active member
Nov 3, 2014
7,123
[*] Any big surprise inclusions? No one in the list above much of a surprise.
John Clarkson was a surprise to me before taking the time to look into his career.

Although WAR may be considered the "best" judge of players' greatness, I think it's too flawed to make definitive lists.

The fact that the list leaves out Cobb, Gehrig and Aaron because their careers just happened to overlap Ruth, Johnson and Mays/Gibson invalidates it immediately.
I don't think it invalidates the list at all. I think it opens the discussion more about who the best players in the game were/are.
 

Jjoey52

New member
Feb 12, 2017
80
Was I the only one who had never heard of Camilo Pascual before?
Nope, him and Pedro Ramos were the guns before they made move to Minnesota. Speaking of Senators, I worked for awhile with Bennie Daniels after he was done pitching, nice guy.


Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk
 

smapdi

Active member
Aug 7, 2008
4,140
I kind of don't agree with the premise of using only league-leading one stat with greatness so directly. As an example, who was the better home run hitter, Hank Aaron or Ralph Kiner? Hank Aaron only led his league in homers 4 times and never broke 50. Ralph Kiner led the league 7 times in a row and broke 50 twice. Like a mirror-image of Koufax, Kiner's career was abbreviated due to injury, but it was his first half that was stellar rather than the back half. If he had his career in reverse order he'd be up there as a true luminary. You could reasonably argue for Kiner but 99% of people would say Aaron without a thought.
 

goobmcnasty

Active member
Apr 4, 2014
1,568
I kind of don't agree with the premise of using only league-leading one stat with greatness so directly. As an example, who was the better home run hitter, Hank Aaron or Ralph Kiner? Hank Aaron only led his league in homers 4 times and never broke 50. Ralph Kiner led the league 7 times in a row and broke 50 twice. Like a mirror-image of Koufax, Kiner's career was abbreviated due to injury, but it was his first half that was stellar rather than the back half. If he had his career in reverse order he'd be up there as a true luminary. You could reasonably argue for Kiner but 99% of people would say Aaron without a thought.
I like looking at Baseball Reference's "162 Game Average" in addition to the cumulative totals. (Kiner vs Aaron is very interesting)
 

Topnotchsy

Featured Contributor, The best players in history?
Aug 7, 2008
9,369
I kind of don't agree with the premise of using only league-leading one stat with greatness so directly. As an example, who was the better home run hitter, Hank Aaron or Ralph Kiner? Hank Aaron only led his league in homers 4 times and never broke 50. Ralph Kiner led the league 7 times in a row and broke 50 twice. Like a mirror-image of Koufax, Kiner's career was abbreviated due to injury, but it was his first half that was stellar rather than the back half. If he had his career in reverse order he'd be up there as a true luminary. You could reasonably argue for Kiner but 99% of people would say Aaron without a thought.
I think there's a huge difference between using a stat like home runs and a stat like WAR which is a composite of a wide range of other stats. WAR is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it considers many factors...
 

smapdi

Active member
Aug 7, 2008
4,140
Yes, but my point is the "one against the field" approach is a narrow route to answer to a broad question and can lead to unexpected results. If the question is "who was a better home run hitter, Kiner or Aaron?" and I decided to settle it by seeing who led the league most, then the answer is obviously Kiner. This takes into account nothing to do with longevity, consistency, or other aspects that might make one player better than another, because what does "better" mean? Nothing intrinsically in comparative discussions like this.
 

Topnotchsy

Featured Contributor, The best players in history?
Aug 7, 2008
9,369
why isn't Ty Cobb on that list?
Who is missing? 3 players in ESPN’s top 10 all-time did not make this list. Ty Cobb (8 on ESPN list) only lead the league twice, largely thanks to a career that overlapped with the top pitcher (Walter Johnson) and hitter (Babe Ruth) on our list. Lou Gehrig (7 on ESPN list) led the league just once. He too overlapped with Gehrig, and later in his career, Jimmie Foxx took the honors 3 times. Finally, Hank Aaron (3 on ESPN list) only won once. Aaron’s tally is a combination of playing at the same time as Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, and the fact that his career represented an overall body of work that may be more impressive for its sustained excellence, than for a few incredible seasons
 

Topnotchsy

Featured Contributor, The best players in history?
Aug 7, 2008
9,369
Yes, but my point is the "one against the field" approach is a narrow route to answer to a broad question and can lead to unexpected results. If the question is "who was a better home run hitter, Kiner or Aaron?" and I decided to settle it by seeing who led the league most, then the answer is obviously Kiner. This takes into account nothing to do with longevity, consistency, or other aspects that might make one player better than another, because what does "better" mean? Nothing intrinsically in comparative discussions like this.
For sure. My point is that we do that currently when we discuss the number MVP awards or Cy Young Awards a player has won. I feel like this approach improves on that metric, despite being a very flawed metric for truly making a list of all-time greats. As my final bullet notes, 3 of ESPN's top 10 all time were left off this list (of players who lead the league 3 times or more). At the same time, I do think it helps highlight the sheer dominance of players like Ruth, Mays and Johnson...
 

Members online

No members online now.

Latest posts

Top