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The 10 best pure hitters


Well ... there were a few people who were not too crazy about my 10 greatest hitters list last week. You come to expect a little bit of anger whenever you put together a list. However, in this case the anger came from rather unexpected sources. It came from:

• Very angry Tony Gwynn fans. • Very angry Pete Rose fans. • Very angry anti-Barry Bonds fans. Actually, yeah, that was expected.

I suppose those weren't the people I expected to hear from. I mean, hey, I sort of figured everyone here knows how I feel about Pete Rose as a player. And I've long been a huge fan of Tony Gwynn. But I don't see how anyone could make a legitimate argument for either one of them as one of the 10 best hitters ever -- in my mind it seems pretty clear they just did not hit with enough power and didn't get on base enough to be in that argument.

And then it occurred to me that what these folks craved -- what it seems so many people craved -- was a list of the 10 best PURE hitters. But what's the difference between "pure" hitter and "great" hitter? Hard to say. I can remember from a very young age hearing announcers talk about how someone is a "pure hitter."

Best I can tell, a pure hitter is someone who:

1. Has a high batting average. 2. Doesn't strike out much. 3. Has a remarkable ability, game after game, year after year, to hit the ball hard. 4. Has something extra, something subjective, something sort of artistic about them. You know art when you see it, right? You often would hear Tony Gwynn called an artist when he was a player. And you would never hear that about Frank Thomas. The fact that Frank Thomas was a better hitter -- 30 more points of on-base percentage, 100 points of slugging percentage, almost 400 more home runs, 200 more times on base, 100 more runs scored, 550 more RBIs -- doesn't change the image. Gwynn was the guy who didn't strike out, who waved the bat like a magician, who hit line drives to all fields, who won batting titles. Something "pure hitter" about all that -- sort of the way there is something "pure" about the way Fred Couples swings a golf club. Couples has not had a career nearly as good as, say, a non-artist like Vijay Singh. But Couples belongs high on a certain kind of list.

So, yeah, I put together a little "pure hitter" formula that considers hits, batting average, consistency, longevity and the ability to avoid strikeouts. And I threw a little subjectivity in there. I think this list will make more sense to those Tony Gwynn and Pete Rose fans -- and not only because they are prominent on the list.

I should add: This list is only from 1947 on. Two reasons for that, one being the obvious one.

1. Obvious: There's no way I could tell you that Rogers Hornsby was a better pure hitter than Buck Leonard, that Mel Ott was a better a pure hitter than Turkey Stearnes, that Ty Cobb was a better pure hitter than Josh Gibson.

I know there are people who think that we talk TOO MUCH about segregation in baseball, but when it comes to lists and discussions like this I think we actually talk about it way too little. Many of the best players of the 1950s and 1960s (all-time greats, really) would have played in the Negro Leagues 10 or 20 years earlier. When you see all the the names, it's pretty staggering: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Billy Williams, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin -- these are all Hall of Famers. And then you throw in Maury Willis and Don Newcombe and Dick Allen and Elston Howard and Jimmy Wynn and Vada Pinson and Minnie Minoso ...

... Right there you have 25 greats or near greats, all making their debut in the big leagues in about an 18-year period, 1947-64. And there are more, of course. It's a staggering assortment of talent. So we can only imagine how much talent was in the Negro Leagues in the 18-year period from 1930 through '47.

2. The pure hitters from before integration are already well known to baseball fans -- Cobb, Speaker, Sisler, Gehringer, Hornsby, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Waner, Simmons, on and on. They have been written about plenty already. But what remains unknown -- what simply cannot be known, in my opinion -- is how well those men would hit in today's game. It's fun to talk about, of course. But for a list like this, it just kind of clouds things. If you want to incorporate those guys into the discussion, feel free. You would have to put Cobb, Speaker, Hornsby and DiMaggio on the list for sure.

For this list, I started in 1947 -- and every player with 5,000 at-bats and a lifetime .290 average was eligible.

10. Roberto Clemente

Summary: Career .317 average in pitchers era. He struck out twice as much as he walked, but famously could hit a line drive on any pitch at any time.

From 1961 through 1972 Clemente hit .331, which was by far the best average over that time period. Only five players hit .300 in the 1960s (min. 4,000 plate appearances) -- Clemente, Rose, Aaron, Robinson, Mays. Clemente, of course, led the way. Of the five, only Robinson had a .400 on-base percentage (or anything even close). Clemente walked only 428 times in 6,231 plate appearances in the 1960s, which is staggering enough. It's even more staggering when you realize that 132 of those were intentional. Clemente came to the plate to hit.

9. Paul Molitor

Summary: .306 career average, one batting title, 3,319 career hits.

Molitor was a great old hitter, of course. This made him difficult for me to appreciate for a while. From age 20 through 29 he hit .291, he was injury plagued and he had the drug issue. Because of this, my picture of Paul Molitor was as a pretty good player, but nothing special: Sort of a rich man's Jim Gantner. That wasn't really fair -- he was a markedly better than Gantner even when he was young. He had very good years in 1979 and 1982. But it was the image in my mind.

And then at age 30, blammo, the guy hits .353, punches up a 161 OPS+, leads the league in doubles, steals 45 bases, wow. From 30 through 39 he hit .320 with power. He walked more than he struck out. He was a great hitter. But you know how once you get an image in your mind, it's hard to shake it -- especially because Molitor was almost exclusively a DH in his later years. So I remember being absolutely stunned when I first realized that Molitor was going to get 3,000 hits. It is true that we don't always appreciate players in their time. I think Jim Thome, Barry Larkin and Gary Sheffield are three guys who were a lot better than many people seemed to realize during their primes.

8. George Brett

Summary: .305 batting average, batting titles in three decades, last great run at .400.

In 1980 Brett hit .469 with runners in scoring position. He hit .425 when the score was within a run either way. He hit .534 when there was a man on third base. I know these are tiny sample sizes, but that's not my point: You know how seriously baseball people take such numbers.

Brett was intentionally walked 16 times all year.

That's it. He didn't even lead the league in intentional walks -- Ben Oglivie did. Now you tell me: How many intentional walks would THAT George Brett get in 2009? Albert Pujols, as a reference point, was intentionally walked 44 times this year. The stigma of the intentional walk is mostly gone. So let's say that in 2009 Brett would have been given 20 more free passes. Let's say 30 more. Heck, it could be 40 more when you think that for much of that year he had a struggling Darrell Porter and a young Willie Mays Aikens hitting behind him. What would those extra walks have done for Brett? Would that have helped or hurt his chances to hit .400? Discuss among yourselves.

7. Ted Williams

Summary: There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Teddy Ballgame would have been much higher on the list, of course, except I'm starting in 1947 -- and he only barely made the 5,000 at-bat cutoff after 1947. If you were doing a historic list of greatest pure hitters EVER, Williams and Cobb probably would be where you start.

Here's a fun Williams' stat: Take away his last three seasons, and he walked 1,796 times and struck out 592. That would be a better than 3-to-1 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

6. Hank Aaron

Summary: Quickest wrists going -- he hit .314 or better every year but one from 1955 through 1965.

From 1955 through '74 -- that's 20 seasons -- Aaron never hit fewer than 20 homers and never hit 50. He batted .300 14 times, never struck out 100 times, led the league in doubles four times, runs three times, RBIs four times, slugging percentage three times, batting average twice, hits twice and sac flies once. See this is the thing about Aaron: He was a great hitter. He is best known for breaking Ruth's career home run record, and that's good because it was an amazing achievement, especially when you consider the circumstances of his chase. But more than that, he was a great hitter with those remarkable wrists and the ability, year after year after year, to hit baseballs hard.

5. Pete Rose

Summary: "Tell Derek Jeter the first 3,000 hits are easy."

I just talked about how Hank Aaron is best known for the home run record and and in a weird way the rest of his game is underappreciated because of that. I think the same is true for Rose and the hit record. On the one hand, the hit record is his proudest achievement, the one that keeps him in the history books. He calls himself "The Hit King," and nobody would argue the point.

Thing is -- and I'll admit that I might be the only person in the world who sees it this way -- the hit record in some ways diminishes just how good a player Pete Rose was. Pete played until he was 45 years old so he could get the record, and he was not a particularly good player the last seven years of his career. I think that's the Rose people remember -- the chunky Rose who hit .274 and slugged .333 from 1980 through '86. Obviously he did win the World Series in 1980, and that helped solidify him in the minds of many as a true "winner," but if he had retired after the 1979 season, these would have been his career achievements:

.312 batting average, 3,372 hits, more than 1,700 runs scored, 126 OPS+, a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP, three batting titles, four times leading the league in runs scored, three times in doubles, six times in hits, a couple of Gold Gloves. That's an absolute slam dunk Hall of Famer -- probably 98 or 99 percent of the vote -- and that's the Pete Rose that people saw play in the 1960s and 1970s. That right there is one of the purest hitters in baseball history.

But then he faded to the finish line. And then, of course, we know what happened. Rose got the hit record, and it's a remarkable achievement. I suspect that record could stand for a long, long time. But in a weird way, he might have lost something with that record, too.

4. Rod Carew

Summary: Seven batting titles, a .328 career average, the first guy I ever heard called a magician with the bat.

Carew was famous for having a slightly different batting stance for every pitcher. And I love that the Minnesota Twins signed Tony Oliva as an amateur free agent in 1961 and Carew as an amateur free agent in 1964 -- somebody up there was doing some scouting.

From 1969 through '83, Carew hit .300 every year. He hit .338 for the entirety of the 15 seasons.

3. Wade Boggs

Summary: Five batting titles, including four in a row, a .328 lifetime average, chicken.

A player is a fool, obviously, if he does not take advantage of every gift he is given. Wade Boggs hit .369 in more than 3,000 at-bats at Fenway Park. In his career he hit .354 at home, .302 on the road. In his five batting-title years, he hit .397, .418, .357, .411 and .382 at Fenway Park. It would not be right to say that Boggs was a Fenway Park creation, but there seems no doubt that he used it to his full advantage.

So what does that say about Boggs? This is one of the tricky parts of context. How much differently would we view Boggs if he had signed with, say, the Oakland A's? (He hit .241/.338/.304 in 393 plate appearances in Oakland.) Would he have adjusted his game to the park? Would he have won those batting titles anyway because he had such a great eye, and because great players adapt to their environment? Or would we have an entirely different view of Wade Boggs?*

* I've asked before what Dave Kingman's career would have been like had he been with the Boston Red Sox. No way to know, of course, but worth noting again that Kingman hit long fly balls to left field, that was his entire game. And in 18 starts at Fenway Park, he hit 13 home runs.

2. Stan Musial

Summary: From 1947 on, The Man hit .326, won six batting titles and led the league in doubles six times and triples four times.

If you include his pre-1947 years... well, we're not including those. But if you do, he's a Top 5 pure hitter, I think. Here's a great stat: In 1943 Musial had 701 plate appearances and struck out 18 times. EIGHTEEN TIMES. I realize the competition level was a bit down, but 18 times... that's a bad week for Ryan Howard.

1. Tony Gwynn

Summary: Eight batting titles, hit .300 every year from 1983 through 2001.

Could Gwynn have hit .400 in 1994 had the strike not come along? I think it's certainly possible. He was absolutely at the top of his game -- from 1993 through 1997 he hit .368 in almost 2,500 at-bats. He won the next three batting titles. He hardly every struck out . He was hitting the ball hard -- he had a .568 slugging percentage when the season was shut down, the highest of his career.

Two amazing things about that season:

1. In 110 games Gwynn hit into TWENTY double plays. Only 12 men have hit into 30-plus double plays in a season -- Gwynn had a real shot at it.* How about a guy who hits .400 and hits into 30 double plays?

* Interesting: Of the 12 men who hit into 30-plus double plays in a season, six are in the Hall of Fame. There's Jim Rice, of course, who did it three times. Then there's Cal Ripken Jr., Dave Winfield, Bobby Doerr, Ernie Lombardi and Carl Yastrzemski. When Ivan Rodriguez goes into the Hall, that will make seven.

2. Gwynn finished SEVENTH in the MVP voting that year. I'm not a batting average guy, I think we all know that, but how about a guy who hit .394 finishing seventh in the MVP voting? To be fair, the Padres were terrible, and Jeff Bagwell was having one of the most remarkable seasons ever, and there was a strike which mucked up everything. But I mean... .394. Doesn't that get you ahead of Moises Alou?

Addendum: I should add the next few: 11. Richie Ashburn; 12. Ichiro Suzuki; 13. Nellie Fox; 14. Albert Pujols; 15. Willie Mays; 16. Todd Helton; 17. Al Oliver; 18. Al Kaline; 19. Vlad Guerrero; 20. Derek Jeter; 21. Don Mattingly; 22. Mark Grace; 23. George Kell; 24. Yaz; 25. Kirby Puckett; 26. Bill Buckner; 27. Harvey Kuenn; 28. Barry Bonds; 29. Roberto Alomar; 30. Bill Madlock.