It’s a never-ending debate among baseball circles: who is the best MLB player of all time? While it may be more difficult to figure out as the number of otherworldly players (think Mike Trout) in the game’s history grows with each passing generation, the advent of advanced statistics like WAR, which factor a variety of different things like home ballpark, competition, etc. have at least made it reasonable to compare players from the 1920s to those of today who fans and experts have watched play in person. Thus, we’ve compiled a list below of who we believe to be the five best Major League Baseball players of all time.
The Best MLB Players of All Time
The Say Hey Kid could truly do it all. As a player who not only stuffed a traditional stat sheet, finishing his career with 660 home runs and 1903 RBI – which as of this writing rank fifth and twelfth all-time – he was also (eventually) an advanced stats darling, as well, with numbers that back up the argument that he was also perhaps the greatest defensive outfielder of all time.
In his 22-year career with the New York/San Francisco Giants and a very brief stint with the New York Mets, he was named an All-Star an incredible 20 times, second only to another member of this list that we’ll get to in a bit. He was a two-time National League MVP, finished in the top 3 in voting an additional four times, and was 4th in two other seasons.
Mays ranks fifth all time in overall Wins Above Replacement (WAR), according to Baseball Reference, which aids our argument that he belongs on this list. While many of the game’s greatest hitters were subpar or even considered a defensive liability out in the field, Mays earned himself 12 Gold Glove awards during his illustrious career, which is tied with the Pirates‘ Roberto Clemente for the most ever among outfielders. One could argue that that number would have been higher, as Mays played a full five otherworldly seasons in the outfield before the award was even created back in 1957, and missed out on a sixth potential Gold Glove while serving in the military.
Not to mention, Mays made one of THE greatest plays in MLB history while the stakes were highest.
George Herman Ruth, aka Babe, aka The Great Bambino, aka The Sultan of Swat is without question the most legendary baseball player that the game has or will ever have known. It’s with good reason, as his performance level and statistics were so far ahead of his peers that it’s uncanny to go back and look at it. He posted a career 1.164 OPS (on base % plus slugging %), which would annually be among the league leaders during today’s live ball era. He retired with a then-MLB record 714 home runs, which was thought to be an unbreakable mark at the time. For good measure, the man won seven World Series championships during his career as the best player on his team, including headlining legendary lineups like the 1927 Yankees‘ Murderers’ Row.
He led the league in home runs 12 times in his career, and those in the know recognize his efforts as a pitcher, where he posted a 2.28 career earned run average (ERA), including a league leading 1.75 mark in 1916 that would have surely earned him a Cy Young award…if he didn’t put up those numbers 40 years prior to the award being created, when he was a few years separated from being one of Cy Young’s contemporaries.
Perhaps the fact that no current, living baseball expert has actually seen the man in person plays a big factor in baseball fans’ reverence towards Ruth. The fact that he played against white players only, while there was possibly some better competition out there that he never got to face before baseball was integrated in 1947, and wasn’t known for his defensive prowess in the outfield knocks him down a slight peg, but there’s no doubt that he was a behemoth in the sport who took the game to new heights and belongs on any all-time list that one could conjure up.
For some reason, Hammerin’ Hank doesn’t seem to get enough credit for just how good of a hitter the man was. While most know the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves legend as baseball’s long-time Home Run King before his then-record of 755 career home runs was broken by Barry Bonds in 2007, some overlook the fact that he was (and still is) also the game’s career leader in runs batted in (RBI) with 2297, as well as total bases, with 6856, that he was a lifetime .305 hitter, or that he was named to an All-Star roster an MLB record 21 times.
Those who think Aaron compiled most of these counting stats simply due to longevity: think again. He led the league in home runs four separate times, won two batting titles, led the league in OPS+, won one MVP award, and finished in the top 3 another six times. He even won three straight Gold Glove awards as an outfielder from 1958-1960 for good measure.
Hank Aaron somehow has ended up as one of the game’s most underrated transcendent talents despite all of the metrics suggesting he was among the all-time greats. We have no problem putting him in the top 5, and it could absolutely be argued that he’s the greatest player that ever played the game, as he performed at an absolutely incredible level for such a long period of time.
Stan “The Man” Musial is undoubtedly one of the game’s best hitters of all time. Owning a career .331 batting average at the time of his retirement in 1963 after a 22 year career, the numbers spoke for themselves. He just missed becoming a member of the 500 home run club back when it really meant something, and finished with 475 career home runs and 1951 RBI, to boot. He was a three-time National League MVP, and finished second another four times. His career WAR of 128.2 is the 11th-highest mark of all time, and he spent his entire decorated career in St. Louis, helping the Cardinals jump-start their days as an NL powerhouse while leading them to three World Series titles.
At a time when ballparks were cavernous, he took advantage and led the league in doubles eight times, triples five times, and OPS seven times. He was an incredible ambassador to the game and a 20-time All-Star. As the years pass and more superstar players come through the game, there may not be one that has as major an impact on a single franchise as Musial did on St. Louis.
There is no better pure hitter in baseball history than Ted Williams, aka Teddy Ballgame. After retiring in 1960 after a 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox and amassing a .344 batting average, which is the highest of any player in the modern era, he was unquestionably one of the game’s best players to have ever played the game. He finished his career with an On Base Percentage (OBP) of .482, which means that he made it on base in damn near half of all his plate appearances.
Of all of the career accolades that Williams earned, perhaps the one he’s most famous for is when he hit .406 in his third season in the bigs back in 1941, making him the last player in the majors to exceed a .400 batting average throughout an entire season. One thing we’ll never know is how much better his counting stats would have looked by the time he hung up the spikes if he hadn’t missed three full seasons in the prime of his career while serving in the military from 1943-1945.
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