Where does one begin in making a list of the greatest hitters ever? Well, I put together a spreadsheet, and using my very special grading system that I only just invented, I came up with a Top 10 list of hitters. In fact, I have a Top 538 hitters -- those are the 538 hitters in baseball history who compiled more than 6,000 plate appearances. The bottom 10, in case you are curious:
10. Roy McMillan9. Aurelio Rodriguez (but what an arm)8. Alfredo Griffin6. George McBride5. Mickey Doolan4. Mark Belanger3. Everett Scott2. Tim Foli1. Ed Brinkman
Yes, Ed Brinkman. He hit .224/.280/.300 over a long All-Star career (well, he was an All-Star in 1973). He won a Gold Glove, twice got MVP votes, and he was a high school teammate of Pete Rose*. It is also mentioned on Brinkman's Wikipedia page that he holds the record for most seasons with more than 400 at-bats, a batting average lower than .230 and fewer than 15 home runs. That seems kind of like rubbing it in, no? He also holds the records for most seasons with 450 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 70 or lower. I'm sure he holds a lot of records like that. He had a good glove, though.
So, the 10 best hitters in baseball history. For the record, I incorporated all sorts of factors -- walk-to-strikeout, runs created, OPS+, length of career, their run-scoring environment, their production numbers and so on. I threw in a few personal factors, added 20 points to everyone on the 1975 Reds (for all the obvious reasons), added 20 points to Buddy Bell and Andre Thornton for being my heroes, subtracted 15 points from Ty Cobb because we couldn't stand the son of a bitch when we were alive so we told him to stick it! Well, you don't want to know how the sausage is made, so here are hitters 11 through 20, who just missed the list.
11. Joe DiMaggio12. Willie Mays13. Hank Aaron14. Frank Thomas15. Tris Speaker16. Manny Ramirez17. Mel Ott18. Johnny Mize19. Hank Greenberg20. Alex Rodriguez
And just below them: Frank Robinson, Edgar Martinez (!), Honus Wagner, Mike Schmidt, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Todd Helton, Ralph Kiner, Paul Waner, Vlad Guerrero.
Now remember, we're just talking about hitting here. So this comes down to the players who, though a combination of batting skill, patience, power and the ability to not make outs, are the best who ever lived. There's no way you can fairly rank the 10 best. But nobody said this would be fair. Here's the list:
In 1960 Mantle struck out 100 times for the fifth time in his career. That was a record and a very recent development. Up until the end of World War II, striking out 100 times in a season was an enormous embarrassment, and it had only happened 13 times. The strikeout pioneer was probably Dolph Camili, who first struck out 100 times in 1935 and then did it three more times before the World War II began.
But what interests me is that another player had done the dirty 100 K's four times as well ... Vince DiMaggio. Now, seriously, how does that happen? His brother Joe was famous for almost never striking out -- he had more homers than strikeouts six times and just missed pulling it off in 1950 at age 36. Dom was a moderate strikeout guy. And Vince, wow, he led the league in whiffs six times and he had more strikeouts than CAREER homers in 1938 and 1943.
Well, you can never tell about brothers. The only set of baseball brothers that really made sense to me were the Giambi brothers. You watched them play and you could ... both of them wanted to HIT when the family went out to play some ball. You have to figure whichever one wasn't hitting took a bat with him to the outfield.
I love that in 1922, at the age of 35, Cobb hit .401... and didn't even come CLOSE to winning the batting title. That was the year George Sisler hit .420. Sisler is a fascinating player in a lot of ways -- he hit .340 in his career, but as Bill James has pointed out, his career on-base percentage is lower than, among others, Alvin Davis, Mark Grace, Keith Hernandez, Gene Woodling, J.D. Drew, Merv Rettenmund, Tim Salmon, Bernie Carbo and Gene Tenace.
You might know that Foxx won the Triple Crown in 1933. He hit .356, hit 48 homers and drove in 163 runs. Yeah, a pretty nice year.
But here's an interesting tidbit: Foxx TWICE had near Triple Crowns. In 1932 he hit .364 with 58 homers and 169 RBIs -- he had the most homers and RBIs, but lost the batting title to the much-forgotten Dale Alexander, who hit .367. What's interesting is that Alexander had only 454 plate appearances that year -- if they had the rule then that a hitter needed 3.1 plate appearances per team games played, he would not have qualified for the title. So, we should give Foxx the Triple Crown retroactively that year.
In 1938 Foxx led the league with a .349 average and 175 RBIs. But he finished second with 50 home runs. This time it was legit though... Hank Greenberg hit 58.
I tried all I could to push Albert down because he only just crossed that 6,000-plate appearance limit. But no matter how many points I penalized him, he kept popping into the Top 10. He's that good. Though it should be noted that after he hit two home runs in Milwaukee in early September this year -- that gave him 47 for the season -- he was asked about being a home run hitter. And he adamantly said that he's NOT a home run hitter.
And, sure enough, he did not hit a home run for the rest of the season.
Bernie Miklasz, my good friend at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, tells a great story about Stan the Man. Pujols' very first game was April 2, 2001, in Colorado. And on that day, Musial just showed up at the park. He was in town for a card show or something, and for some reason he just decided to go to the ballpark. He did not call ahead or anything... he just showed up and said, "Hi, I'm Stan Musial. I was hoping I might get in to see the game." Of course, they treated Stan like the royalty he is -- asked him to throw out the first pitch and so on -- and he was happy to do it. And then he settled into his seat and watched the game.
Now what inspired Stan Musial to go out to the game? It could have been anything, of course. Maybe he just wanted to relax and watch a baseball game -- one of those things to do in Denver. But yeah, as much as I love the numbers and as much I try to stay based in reality, sure, I have a little Field of Dreams in me. And, sure, I can feel that maybe Stan the Man was meant to be there to see Albert Pujols start his career.
You might recall he was the one who calledTom Hanks a "talking pile of pig [bleep]" when his parents had drove all the way down from Michigan to see him play the game. From what I can tell about Hornsby's personality, that sounds about right. But, he was one amazing hitter. And he also might be a distant relative of Bruce Hornsby. The stuff you learn on Wikipedia.*
*Should there be an adjective called 'Truthiki?" We have truth, of course. And Stephen Colbert gave us truthiness. Well, what about truthiki -- and that is what you call any fact you learn on Wikipedia. It may be true. It may not. It's probably true. It kind of sounds true. Is Rogers Hornsby really related in some way to Bruce Hornsby? I don't know. But it sounds truthiki to me.
According to the official Lou Gehrig Web site, the Yankees offered to trade Gehrig to the Red Sox in 1925 for the unforgettable Phil Todt. The site says that this was, at least in part, to make up for the Babe Ruth trade. I fear this is something I should have already known, something everyone knows, but I don't recall ever hearing this. Seriously, isn't this in some ways WORSE than the Babe Ruth trade? Shouldn't it be the curse of Lou Gehrig? I mean, hey, the Ruth deal was awful, but there seem to be extenuating circumstances. And here was their chance to make up for it. This was like the Beatles going back to Pete Best and saying, "OK, look, we're not going to take you back, but we've put in a good word for you with this guy we know, Mick Jagger, who is in this band that might do pretty well, all you gotta do is call."
And the Red Sox said, "No thank you. We are quite happy with Phil Todt."
In case you're wondering, Barry Bonds from 1986 to 1999, before he, er, "bulked up," would have ranked somewhere around 14 -- on either side of Frank Thomas. And remember, that's just as a hitter. That Bonds was a great base stealer and perennial Gold Glove winner. When Bonds comes up for the Hall of Fame vote, I'm sure we'll try to break this down better, but I would say he was pretty close to a Top 10 player before 1999.
And so it's weird that his next five years -- and the 241 OPS+ he punched up in 3,000 plate appearances; nobody ever did anything quite like it -- are what, in the minds of many, will diminish him forever.
I do think there's a strong argument to be made for Ted Williams over Babe Ruth. He had the better on-base percentage. He missed three prime seasons because of World War II and most of two seasons in his young 30s when he went to Korea -- there seems little doubt that with those years his numbers would have been even better. He walked more than Ruth and struck out a lot less. The main thing that Ruth could do better than Williams was hit home runs. That's not a bad advantage to have -- especially because Ruth was so good at the things that Williams was good at (hitting for average, drawing walks, consistently putting up jaw-dropping numbers).
In the end, I could not quite put Ted at No. 1 -- at least not this time. The home run advantage has to count. And Ruth really invented a whole new way of hitting a baseball.
You have heard the various rumors about Babe Ruth corking his bat. Well, what would happen if tomorrow someone wrote a book proving that Ruth absolutely used a primitive form of steroids? I'm just wondering -- I remember that Leigh Montville, the author of the excellent Babe Ruth book The Big Bam. told me once that he thinks Ruth would have taken steroids in a heartbeat. Let's be honest: The Babe was not a man known for restraint or any romantic notions about fair play.
I'm pretty sure there were no steroids for Ruth to take. But my question is: If we found out that he did, would that change the way baseball fans everywhere view Babe Ruth's career? Would everyone say: Well, NO WONDER he put up those ridiculous numbers? I mean the guy hit more home runs than ENTIRE TEAMS for crying out loud. We should have known.
Or would a discovery like that just spark yawns of disinterest? Who cares? It was a long time ago. It was a different era.
I don't know. It's just something to think about. Then again, Babe Ruth on steroids (and with a better workout plan) might have hit 100 home runs in a season. And Josh Gibson, with no color barrier, might have hit 120. And Walter Johnson with a split-fingered fastball might have struck out 400 in a season. And Zack Greinke, transported to 1968 Detroit, might have had 30 wins and a 1.33 ERA. And Duane Kuiper, in Coors Field, might have hit .300. It's a great game, this baseball. So many possibilities.