Predicting Posnanski’s Top 7 Players of All-Time
Last Friday, Joe Posnanski published the then-latest in his series of the Top 100 players of all-time: #8, Ty Cobb. We have covered the countdown extensively. But I want to predict how the rest of this list will fall. I was able to figure out five of the remaining seven players off the top of my head easily. They are the biggest names in the history of the sport:
Ruth. Mays. Williams. Aaron. Bonds. That left two. After quickly looking at Baseball-Reference’s all-time career WAR list, I quickly picked up Walter Johnson, who is second on that list. But the final name in the Top 7 presently eludes me. I went through the Top 50 WAR, and couldn’t find anyone. So I’ll take it from 6, and will probably slap my forehead when I see who I missed.
6. Walter Johnson.
I didn’t know what to do about the Big Train. I don’t know enough about him. He played so long ago. Comparing him to other pitchers on Posnasnki’s list, it’s hard to see why he’s so much higher than everyone else. For example, Cy Young comes in at 33rd on the list, and their numbers are very similar. While Cy played entirely during the Dead Ball Era, Johnson’s numbers trail off from their incredible heights in 1920, right as the Dead Ball Era ended. I could see Posnanski putting him as low as 7th or as high as 4th, but I think this is about right.
(Note: Since I wrote this, Posnanski put Walter Johnson at 7. WHO IS THE MISSING GUY FROM MY LIST?)
5. Ted Williams.
In his intro to the series, Posnanski specifically calls out Williams for getting credit in his mind for the numbers he would have amassed when he served during WWII. He’s one of the greatest players of all-time. But we’re splitting hairs here: He only won two MVP awards, finishing 2nd four times. If you give him credit for the three years he missed, he’d have amassed approximately 630 home runs, still below every hitter above him on this list, including behind Mays at 660. Mays, of course, missed two years during the Korean War, himself. Glancing at their numbers, Williams was probably the better hitter: .344 career BA vs. .302 for Mays; OPS+ of 190 to 156; OPS of 1.116 to .941; .634 SLG to .557.
I’m almost talking myself out of this one. But defense counts, too. Mays amassed an additional 18.2 WAR in the field, playing the all-important centerfield. Meanwhile, Williams was a net-negative in left field, posting a -13.3 over his career. I think that is a big enough swing to put Mays over Williams.
4. Hank Aaron.
Personally, I’d have Hank behind Williams. But he’s more of a longevity/counting stats guy, and I think those counting stats will sway Posnanski (I think he may even put Aaron over Mays).
Aaron’s claim to fame of course is home runs, where he is second behind Bonds (though he’s first in MLB history in RBI). But while he accumulated 755 home runs, he played 23 years and never hit over 45 in a season. He only led the majors twice. He only led the National League four times. That’s kinda surprising. Like Williams, he was a net-negative in left field – posting a -4.6 for his career. I think brilliance tops consistency, so that’s why I’ve got Hank behind the guys atop this list (and why I’d put him behind Williams).
3. Willie Mays.
See above. But also, Joe likes a story, and Willie’s love of baseball, and the greatest and most iconic photograph in baseball history, gives him the edge over Hank and Ted.
Over the weekend, my kids and I were watching Willie Mays clips on YouTube. It’s a great wormhole to get into, including the old Home Run Derby series. But one video caught my oldest’s eye:
“Overrated? What’s that mean? Let’s watch it.”
“Nothing. What? No.”
I couldn’t let his mind be poisoned by hearing that Mays’ catch was overrated, so I needed to first see what the video concluded. That night, after he went to bed, I watched. Folks, I am happy to report that the video is a really fun, informative, and glowing review of The Catch. They use multiple camera angles to determine how far he ran in how long, and and than ran MLB Statcast on those numbers. Comparing it to a catch Lorenzo Cain made a few years ago with a 2% catch probability, but Mays had a much more difficult route to the ball, having to run straight back. This pleased me, and I can’t wait to let the boys watch it this weekend.
2. Barry Bonds.
Bonds vs. Ruth is difficult. From a numbers standpoint, this is very close.
Bonds has the record for most home runs in a career (762) and a season (73). Ruth’s numbers are 714 and 60, respectively. Neither got to 3,000 hits (Bonds was very close). Bonds had 95 more doubles, but wildly, Ruth had 59 more triples. Bonds also stole almost 400 more bases than Ruth – 514 to 123. Bonds is the only member of the 500 homer, 500 steal club. For perspective, Bonds is also the only member of the 400 homer, 400 steal club. While Ruth’s batting average was significantly better at .342 to .298, Bonds nearly made it all back by walking 496 more times than Ruth – 2,558 to 2,062. Ultimately, Ruth edges Bonds on On Base Percentage by 3%: .474 to .444. Ruth also gets Bonds in slugging, at .690 to .607. One knock against Ruth is he had an insanely high .340 batting average on balls in play, compared to a relatively unlucky .285 for Bonds, which suggests fielders were not as good in Ruth’s day (and, it must be said: Ruth did not play against the all the best players in the world, because MLB was segregated during the entirety of his career).
But it’s not all about career totals. For one, Ruth had 8 fewer games per season. What about who was best at their best? Here’s each of Ruth and Bonds’ numbers at their 13-year peak (I chose this number not arbitrarily, but because they both seemed to have exactly 13-year peaks when looking at their numbers.
OPS+ is a great equalizer. It takes a player’s on-base plus slugging percentage and normalizes the number across the entire league for that season, accounting for factors like the stadium they play in, etc. It then normalizes the score, where 100 is league average, and each number above or below that is a percent above or below league average. Unsurprisingly, OPS+ has Ruth and Bonds as each better than twice as good as league average. Other than Bonds and Ruth, only 16 players ever had a single season OPS+ of at least 205. Only 8 players ever had a single season OPS+ of at least 215. Bonds holds the top three single seasons ever (268 in 2002, 263 in 2004, and 259 in 2001). Ruth has numbers 5, 6, and 7 (255 in 1920; 239 in 1923; 238 in 1921); together they have 9 of the top 13.
In thinking about this, it seems Bonds at his best was the best there ever was. His stretch from 2001 to 2004 is incomparable. In fact, it’s so far out in front of anyone else it’s unfathomable. But Ruth better for longer; plus he was a darn good pitcher early on. Bonds was the better player, but Ruth had the better career. When taking into consideration PEDs, I think Posnanski goes Ruth over Bonds.
1. Babe Ruth.
The Colossus of Clout. The Sultan of Swat. The GOAT. -TOB.
7. I actually had Mike Trout up here (didn’t check list of players already mentioned). My thinking was that A) A little controversy is not a bad thing on list like this. B) There’s a delay to appreciating historically great players when they are still performing in their prime. Only after LeBron won the title with Cleveland were people putting him in the top 5 players conversation, even when his trajectory would say he was already damn near there. Also, Trout has had 8 full seasons already, and he’s been incredible right from the start.
6. Walter Johnson. Wouldn’t ever have guessed it outright. Almost thought Maddux. I got no feel for pitchers on this list.
5. Barry Bonds. So much better than any of his contemporaries. The gap between him at the plate the next best player seemed wide enough to drive a semi through.
4. Ted Williams. Not only is .400 (Williams hit .406 when he was 22) a magic number in baseball – one of the few that remain – the dude hit .344 over 19 years. He’s a player where the stats and the legend and the magic make him a folk hero much like Babe Ruth.
3. Hank Aaron. That’s pretty, pretty, pretty good for a very long time. Greatest in the form of consistency and longevity. Very impressive, but not so inspiring.
2. Willie Mays. The numbers, but also, the iconic highlight. The bi-coastal hero. It’s incredible to think we see him pretty regularly at ball games.
1. Babe Ruth. Bonds before Bonds. Made power a weapon, and was the face of the game that became the national pastime. I am always impressed by the fact that he hit more home runs than any other team twice in his career.
And then this one, per MLB.com, for the new-ish stats folks (which also makes my Trout selection seem even funnier).
“According to Baseball Reference, Ruth’s 183.7 career WAR is the highest all time, well ahead of Cy Young’s second-best 170.3 WAR. For reference, the highest mark among active players is Alex Rodriguez’s 118.9 career WAR. To further put that into perspective, even if Mike Trout — who has averaged a 9.3 WAR over his first four full seasons — maintains that level of production over each of the next 15 seasons, he would still have only a 177.6 career WAR.”
TOB: That last trivia is wild. Although it’s a little outdated. At this point, Trout has averaged 9.0 WAR per year for 8 years, for a total of 72.3. Ruth is almost as good as ARod PLUS Trout. WHAT. To catch Ruth, Trout would need to average 9.0 WAR for the next 13 seasons – until he’s 40 (and that’s if they play at all in 2020). Wow.
How about you? How do you think Posnanski’s list will finish? Who are your top 7 baseball players of all-time?
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