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MLB Spring Training: Ranking the 3 Best Hitters of Each Decade, Since 1900

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMarch 5, 2012

MLB Spring Training: Ranking the 3 Best Hitters of Each Decade, Since 1900

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    Angels first baseman Albert Pujols might be the best right-handed hitter ever. It's hard to prove, but very possible. Unfortunately, there's just nothing productive to be done with such a debate. In that contest, Pujols would square off (primarily) with Hank Aaron, Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx. 

    Those players could not all be more dissimilar, but not only in their approaches or the composition of their numbers. If it were that easy, one could safely choose the one over the others. However, each man played in such different eras that no direct comparison is possible. 

    Pujols' prime came in an offense-friendly era, one of the best ever. Aaron played through three distinct phases of the historical run-scoring cycle. Hornsby dominated the National League in the 1920s unlike any player ha sever dominated any league, but by general acclaim, they were weak opponents upon whom he trod.

    Aaron had to deal directly with scrutiny based on the color of his skin, playing (as he did) shortly after baseball became an integrated game. Hornsby never had to face an African-American pitcher, but also never got to play regular night games.

    Comparisons across eras in baseball call into question variables utterly impossible to quantify. Lining up the best hitters of all-time is an exercise in vapid punditry, and no one needs it.

    It is possible, though, to figure out who were the best batters on individual eras, to find the proper order in which to place (say) Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, because those men performed under the same basic conditions and against essentially the same competition as one another.

    That's the exercise in which we now partake. Here are the three best hitters of each decade of MLB history, since 1900.

The 1900s: Ancient Times

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    The first decade of the 20th century was not terribly different from the last decade of the 19th, as far as hitters were concerned. The bats they swung still seemed big as railroad ties, so home runs were very few and far between. 

    Only those fielders confident enough to withstand jeers about their manhood wore gloves remotely akin to those in use today. Overflow spectators often took in games from behind rope lines in the deepest reaches of the outfield.

    In that environment, coordinated athletes won the day. Pure hitters who made superb contact thrived, so long as they didn't dully chop the ball. Speed was also key. For those reasons, the defensive positions we now consider premium were also (in those days) the most critical offensive slots.

3. Sam Crawford

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    Decade Stats: .307/.355/.447, 1,677 hits, 390 walks, 362 strikeouts, two home-run titles, two triples and one doubles title, 146 OPS+

    A Few Words: Crawford was as steady as could be found in the 1900s, a right fielder mostly who hit for power (relative to his time) and could run. He would go on to lead the league four more times in triples during the 1910s, and finished with 309. That remains the career record, and is unlikely to be threatened for years.

2. Nap Lajoie

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    Decade Stats: .346/.388/.487, 164 OPS+, four batting titles, three OPS+ titles, three doubles titles

    A Few Words: The above does not even tell the full story of Lajoie's dominance. He played mostly second base, shortstop and first base. In 1901, he hit .426/.463/.643, and led the league in all three categories. He would repeat that feat in 1904. In 1901. he also led the league in home runs, runs scored, doubles, RBI, hits, total bases and adjusted OPS+.

1. Honus Wagner

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    Decade Stats: .352/.417/.508, 487 stolen bases, 372 doubles, 175 OPS+

    A few words: Eternally famous because of a baseball card, Wagner lives most vibrantly in the minds of those who wish they had been alive to see him dominate as the league's best hitter and a stellar defensive shortstop. He led the league in batting seven times out of 10 seasons, the same number in which he led in doubles. He won four of the rate-stat Triple Crowns of which Lajoie won two. 

The 1910s: Ball's Dead, Party's over

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    In retrospect, it wasn't high technology, but advances certainly came for defenders after 19190. Gloves developed much faster than bats or balls, so although great hitters still found ways to dominate, run scoring absolutely plummeted. 

    President William Howard Taft inadvertently gave rise to the seventh-inning stretch during the Dead Ball Era, which leads one to wonder whether Taft (if alive today) would be among those insufferable baseball pseudo-fans who consider that "nothing happens" unless one team manages at least six runs. 

3. Shoeless Joe Jackson

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    Decade Stats: .354/.422/.510, 454 walks, 206 strikeouts, 170 OPS+, two triples titles, one OBP title, one slugging title, one OPS title

    A Few Words: Perhaps no historical ballplayer's story is more familiar. Jackson went down with the ship in the Black Sox scandal of 1919-20, but prior thereto (and even in his final year before being banned for life, 1920) he was one of the best hitters in baseball history to that point. His batting average stands third-best ever.

2. Tris Speaker

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    Decade Stats: .344/.428/.485, 166 OPS+, 367 doubles, 702 walks, 227 strikeouts, four doubles titles

    A Few Words: The presence of the man who looms next on the list kept Speaker from leading his league as often as he otherwise might have done, but in 1916, he hit .386/.470/.502, leading the league in each category. He won the 1912 MVP award after leading the league in doubles, home runs and on-base percentage.

1. Ty Cobb

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    Decade Stats: .387/.457/.541, 192 OPS+, eight batting titles, six on-base titles, five slugging titles, eight OPS+ titles

    A Few Words: Cobb's sheer dominance is remarkable. He performed sensationally in literally every possible aspect of offense. He was both an elite base-stealer and an elite power hitter. He both hit for average and drew walks. He seemed capable of making opponents wither in his sight.

The 1920s: Ruth Roars, Runs Rise

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    Babe Ruth's timing was impeccable. He converted from primary pitching duties to full-time outfield work just as the game turned as hitter-friendly as it had ever been, and then some. Part of Ruth's mystique has always been that he achieved 10 and 20 times more than player had before, and he did, but take note of the way the game swung and allowed him the chance to do so.

3. Harry Heilmann

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    Decade Stats: .364/.433/.558, 156 OPS+, 397 doubles, four batting titles

    A Few Words: In all four of his league-leading seasons, Heilmann hit north of .390. He fell just 76 hits shy of 2,000 for the decade, playing mostly right field, and exclusively for the Detroit Tigers. They called him 'Slug,' because he was big and strong (for that era) and played a more muscular sort of game than most in baseball at the time.

2. Rogers Hornsby

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    Decade Stats: .382/.460/.637, 250 home runs, 405 doubles, 2,085 hits, 1,195 runs, seven batting titles, eight OBP titles, eight slugging titles, nine OPS+ titles

    A Few Words: In October, 1871, Peshtigo, Wisc. bore the brunt of a firestorm started by small blazes and high, cold winds. Over 1,500 people died, making it the most deadly fire-related disaster in United States history, by a landslide. On the same day, Chicago burned. Few remember the Peshtigo Fire.

    Fifty years later, baseball made its answer to Chicago and Peshtigo. While Babe Ruth so thoroughly dominated the American League as to capture the very imagination of the nation, Rogers Hornsby carved out a clear case as the more dominant player in his league. He simply couldn't measure up to Ruth's fame, as Ruth did his damage in a more alluring way, and did it in New York.

    From 1920 through 1925, no player other than Hornsby led the National League in batting average, on-base percentage or slugging average. His cumulative line for that stretch was .397/.467/.666. He dominated every phase of offensive baseball in a way not even Ruth really matched, though certainly, Ruth was ultimately the better batter.

1. Babe Ruth

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    Decade Stats: .355/.488/.740, 467 home runs, six on-base titles, nine slugging titles, nine OPS+ titles, eight home-run titles

    A Few Words: Ruth joined the Yankees in 1920, gave up pitching nearly for good and became immediately the most dominant player of his generation. He eclipsed a .500 OBP four times in the 1920s alone. He was all about personality, charisma and carousal, of course, but the story in his stats is salacious enough.

The 1930s: Ruth Passes the Torch

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    In the 1920s, Babe Ruth defined baseball. He also meshed neatly into the fabric of a society run wild and cutting loose. When the decade ended in financial disaster and Ruth began to decline, the country needed a baseball star who could better meet the eye of the common man. Players drew admiration once again for that which they overcame en route to their success, not only for being rich, famous and successful. Before the decade was over, the whole league would learn to love a man who had happily labored without rest in Ruth's shadow for five or six years before he got his due.

3. Joe Medwick

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    Decade Stats: .338/.374/.552, 145 OPS+, three RBI and doubles titles (1936-38)

    A Few Words: Best remembered as the last NL player to win the standard Triple Crown, Medwick burned bright and hot during a brief peak in the late 1930s. He had an astounding 64 doubles in 1936, then won the Triple Crown in 1937 with a league-leading 180 OPS+. In total, he averaged 44 doubles per year for his 17-year career.

2. Lou Gehrig

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    Decade Stats: .343/.453/.638, 347 home runs, 180 OPS+, three home-run titles, four on-base titles, three OPS+ titles

    A Few Words: Gehrig became a legend through his remarkable comportment as his health deteriorated, and (in stark contrast with Ruth) for his earnest effort to show up every day in better shape and more ready to play than he had been the day before. He ought also to be remembered, though, for his amazing athleticism and baseball skill. He won the Triple Crown in 1934, and also led the league in OBP and slugging. On two occasions, he scored more than 160 runs in a single year.

1. Jimmie Foxx

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    Decade Stats: .336/.440/.652, 415 home runs, two batting titles, two on-base titles, five slugging titles, five OPS+ titles, 173 OPS+, four home-run titles

    A Few Words: Foxx was neither an athlete in league with Gehrig nor a pure talent the likes of Ruth, but blended the two aspects of baseball prowess as well as either Yankees icon. His occasional willingness to trade a strikeout or two for walks was well ahead of its time, but nonetheless, Foxx won three MVP awards during the decade.

The 1940s: War Baseball

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    World War II pulled the United States from its deep economic depression largely because the entire nation invested and involved itself in the war on some level. Baseball marched on, pursuant to Presidential request, but many players spent large chunks of the decade abroad, serving the country. Another reason not to compare players across eras is the inability to account for the 2,000 prime plate appearances Ted Williams gave to his country, or the 1,800 Joe DiMaggio gave, or the 700 Stan Musial gave.

3. Joe DiMaggio

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    Decade Stats: .3256/.404/.568, 162 OPS+, 180 home runs, two MVP awards

    A Few Words: DiMaggio's loss of service time due to actual service time hurt even worse than Williams', in a sense, because DiMaggio was never an especially healthy player, and the games he lost (though he must be projected to have lost fewer, in total) represented a larger slice of his career. His hitting streak in 1941, though, captivated the country like no player had done since Ruth chased down 60 home runs in a season.

2. Stan Musial

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    Decade Stats: .346/.428/.578, 172 OPS+, 302 doubles, four OBP titles, four slugging titles, four OPS+ titles, three batting titles, four triples titles, five doubles titles

    A Few Words: Musial lost the least time to the war of any of the decade's superstars, mostly because he was not initially approved as a draftee. He never played as though he had any physical restriction, though, simultaneously leading the league in doubles and triples four times. Consistency and preparation made up for any lack of athleticism Musial might have had.

1. Ted Williams

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    Decade Stats: .356/.496/.647, 234 home runs, 994 walks, 312 strikeouts, 200 OPS+, seven OBP titles, six slugging titles, six OPS+ titles, four batting titles, four home-run titles, two MVP awards

    A Few Words: Again, Williams gave away what (historically and statistically) ought to have been his very best years in order to fight in World War II. From 1941-48, his OBP never dipped below .497, though of course, he missed three of those campaigns. Other than 1940, his sophomore season and first as a regular, Williams was the best hitter (by far and away) in baseball every season he played during the decade.

The 1950s: More War, and a New Era

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    As the 1940s became the 1950s, things got hairy again. While the United States' citizenry insisted on settling into a normal rhythm and transitioning to new, suburban life, the government sent more troops away to war, this time in Korea. Williams gave more time up to serve; he was joined this time by the likes of Willie Mays and others.

    Therein was another, more welcome change. African-Americans flowed into the league fairly freely after about 1951, and for the following 25 years, they would largely outperform their white counterparts. Still, thanks the longevity of two true greats, the 1950s' top three hitters remained (narrowly) and all-white club. Hank Aaron, Mays, Ernie Banks and Roy Campanella all were magnificent, but as of the end of the decade, none had yet entered this strata from a purely offensive perspective. Still, change was afoot, and good change it was.

3. Stan Musial

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    Decade Stats: .330/.421/.568, 160 OPS+, four batting titles, two OBP titles, two OPS+ titles, two slugging titles, three doubles titles

    A Few Words: Musial became a legend in the 1940s, but an icon, and an ambassador for the game in the 1950s. For each of the first three years of the new decade, Musial led the league in batting average. Then, as age made him a bit less able to leg out hits and turn doubles to triples, he led the league in walks in 1953. Alas, if Musial had been a bit slower, he might have turned some 68 of his 177 career triples into doubles, and would hold the career doubles record as a result.

2. Mickey Mantle

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    Decade Stats: .311/.425/.569, 172+ OPS, 280 home runs, four OPS+ titles, three walks titles, three home-run titles, two MVP awards

    A Few Words: Almost from the first time Mantle stepped onto an MLB field, he was the best player there. He had no equal anywhere in the league when he was healthy, from his debut in 1951 until his retirement. He frequently struggled to stay healthy, but was by far the most polished and gifted baseball player of his era. He drew tons of walks despite not being the sort of genius at the bat that other players of his time worked hard to become. Pitchers simply feared him too much to throw many strikes.

1. Ted Williams

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    Decade Stats: .336/.476/.622, 227 home runs, 184 OPS+, three OPS+ titles, five OBP titles, three slugging titles, two batting titles

    A Few Words: Injuries and a second tour of military duty slowly sapped Williams of his gift, and made it hard for him to stay on the field at times. He still walked three times as often as he struck out, though, and still got on base roughly 48 percent of the time. His elevation over the heads of other hitters was dizzying. He earned three MVP awards in the 1950s, but received none. He also earned five in the 1940s, winning just twice. Hell hath no fury like a sportswriter disdained.

The 1960s: Power Up

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    Whereas all previous great hitters had been tremendous batters for average and/or on-base skills, the 1960s (in a fairly appropriate nod to the more vulgar, manic trends of popular culture at the time) saw the rise of the true power hitters. These were neither precise classical musicians (like Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx) nor jazz singers (like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Tris Speaker). These men played rock-and-roll.

    They may not have swung for the fences, per se, but they had little interest in singles. League-wide batting average fell from a local maximum of .266 in 1950 to .258 in 1961, but home runs per game rose from 0.84 to 0.95 in that span. Among the elite sluggers, it was even more noticeable: Contact remained important, but unlike Williams and Musial, this new breed of slugger wanted to mash the ball, and did not mind swinging and missing every now and then. Roger Maris briefly became their poster boy, but he faded quickly after 1961.

    Of course, the downward bend of offense after about 1964 makes it hard to measure who did best and when in the 1960s, but to be sure, Mays deserves a second straight honorable mention despite missing this list.

3. Mickey Mantle

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    Decade Stats: .282/.415/.542, 171 OPS+, 256 home runs, two OBP titles, two slugging titles, four OPS+ titles

    A Few Words: Mantle simply dominated the league until he could no longer stay on the field. Injuries beyond his control and wear and tear perfectly within it tore him apart, but even as he broke down, he put up better numbers than even most elite hitters could have hoped to have put up at their best. His patience and sheer strength served him well as his legs broke down and speed disappeared from his game. 

2. Hank Aaron

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    Decade Stats: .308/.376/.565, 375 home runs, 162 OPS+, three home-run titles, two slugging titles, five total bases titles

    A Few Words: Aaron repainted the picture of the consistent slugger. Stan Musial had blazed the trail of the impossibly steady featured hitter, but Musial never had homer-first power. Aaron hit home runs as consistently, smoothly and apparently easily as Musial hit doubles. He also stole 204 bases in the 1960s; speed was underrated as part of his game.

1. Frank Robinson

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    Decade Stats: .304/.402/.560, 166 OPS+, four OPS+ titles, four slugging titles, two OBP titles, full 1966 Triple Crown (average, OBP, slugging, homers, RBI), two MVP awards

    A Few Words: Some of the most telling statistics about Robinson are less traditional than those. He led the league in being hit by pitches five time in the decade in question, a testament to his position in the batter's box but also to his general attitude and to pitchers' unwillingness to relent against him.

    Robinson wore a total of 113 plunkings in the 1960s. He also drew 143 intentional walks during the decade, and led the league four times in a row 1961-64. Pitchers simply didn't want Frank Robinson at home plate, but they often found they could do nothing to stop him.

The 1970s: Power Down

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    Though the true nadir of pitching preeminence passed in the winter between 1968 and 1969, MLB teams continued to score and homer at lower rates than they had in the early 1960s as late as 1976. Great hitters of the 1970s didn't hit for power as a primary tool, but rather, to keep opposing pitchers honest. Contact became a valuable tool again, though speed and walks mattered more.

3. Joe Morgan

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    Decade Stats: .282/.404/.455, 140 OPS+, 488 stolen bases, two OPS+ titles, four OBP titles, two MVP awards

    A Few Words: Morgan drew walks, then wrought havoc on the bases. He hit home runs when they needed hitting, but preferred to slash and run. From 1972-77, his OBP was .429 on the strength of 118 walks per year, on average. He also averaged 60 steals over those six years.

2. Willie Stargell

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    Decade Stats: .287/.374/.555, 156 OPS+, 296 home runs, two OPS+ titles, two home-run titles

    A Few Words: This is the exception that proves the rule. The 1970s belonged to non-lumbering sluggers, and only Stargell (among all the star sluggers who played during that era, fro Johnny Bench to Tony Perez to Reggie Jackson and onward) was healthy enough and consistent enough to overcome that and put up a well-rounded stat line. He was nearly 40 when the decade ended, but he made the decade count. He earned two MVP awards during the decade, receiving neither, then got the 1979 award, which he did not deserve.

1. Rod Carew

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    Decade Stats: .343/.408/.454, 142 OPS+, six batting titles, four OBP titles, two triples titles

    A Few Words: Carew ranks among the best batters for average of the past 50 years in MLB. That's tepid praise, since he didn't draw many walks or have very much power, but it remains true. Carew simply succeeded by cranking out huge volumes of singles and doubles.

The 1980s: Individualism, Ho!

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    If the 1980s were all about individualism and the counter-culture, MLB's best hitters of the decade were strange fits to their time. They were largely clean-cut, not rebels, just smart and talented hitters. They never got along all that well with the press, though.

    However, they did buck a destructive day-to-day trend in baseball. The best hitters of the 1980s were third basemen who went about things their own way, playing plodding baseball at a time when the game prized speed more than ever before. In an AstroTurf world, these were natural-grass men, and their approaches to offense were much more methodical than chaotic or aggressive.

3. George Brett

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    Decade Stats: .311/.392/.521, 150 OPS+, three OPS+ titles, three slugging titles

    A Few Words: That 1980 season Brett had was pure magic. He hit .390/.454/.664 and ran away with the MVP award. That was the turning point of his career; Brett would emphasize power at the expense of some of his speed and batting average in ensuing years. It worked. He averaged 54 extra-base hits per year for the decade.

2. Wade Boggs

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    Decade Stats: .352/.443/.480, 150 OPS+, five batting titles, six OBP titles, two doubles titles

    A Few Words: His batting line over eight seasons in the decade looks like something out of the Dead Ball Era, and that's what it felt like when Boggs took the plate. He had modest power, even average power at times, but he made his living by simply slicing the ball the other way. His on-base skills were so good it didn't matter much whether he had real power. Even with a career high of 24 for home runs, he led the league in intentional walks six consecutive times.

1. Mike Schmidt

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    Decade Stats: .277/.385/.540, 153 OPS+, 313 home runs, six OPS+ titles, five home-run titles, three OBP titles, four slugging titles, three MVP awards

    A Few Words: Schmidt was a good player in the 1970s, but matured into a great one and even a legend only as the 1980s dawned. By cutting down his swing at certain pitches very slightly, he was able to strike out less often, make better contact and collect many more hits. 

The 1990s: Steroids!

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    The dark specter of steroid use began to take hold of the game in the 1980s, but it was drowned out by coverage of cocaine and other recreational drug use. That was sexier; audiences immediately understood it was wrong, illicit and interesting. It also spoke to a wider cultural problem. Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs did not seem to do so.

    For that reason, use of such drugs ran rampant throughout the 1990s. Home-run and runs per game rates spiked to historically anomalous levels. Things went crazy. The luxury afforded by this format, though, is to refuse to concern oneself with how a given player might have benefited from such drugs. Everyone had access to these things in the 1990s, so everyone gets equal treatment, whether they used or not.

3. Frank Thomas

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    Decade Stats: .320/.440/.573, 301 home runs, 169 OPS+, three OPS+ titles, four OBP titles, four walks titles, two MVP awards

    A Few Words: Big as a house and with a swing smoother than those of many smaller men, Thomas was completely intimidating in the batter's box. He could have hit more home runs, but chose to operate as a high-average, terrifying line-drive hitter.

2. Mark McGwire

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    Decade Stats: .268/.411/.615, 405 home runs, 172 OPS+, four home-run titles, two OBP titles, three slugging titles, four OPS+ titles

    A Few Words: The 1998 home-run race held the entire baseball world in its grip. McGwire struggled early on in the decade with injuries and strikeouts, but at a certain point, was simply too big and strong to be pitched to effectively, and began drawing walks where many of those strikeouts had been.

1. Barry Bonds

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    Decade Stats: .302/.434/.602, 179 OPS+, 361 home runs, 343 stolen bases, four OBP titles, three slugging titles, four OPS+ titles, three MVP awards

    A Few Words: This is the Bonds too few people remember. Prior to any suspicious bulk-up, he was already (by a fair margin) the best payer in baseball. He drew walks, hit for massive power, had devastating speed and could square up the ball regularly. For the entire decade, he averaged 36 home runs and 34 stolen bases per year.

The 2000s: No Steroids

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    When finally it all became too much, the story of MLB's sordid relationship with performance-enhancing drugs began to come out in the summer of 2002. It would unfold over most of the rest of that decade, and as Ryan Braun can tell you, it's still not over. However, the league did not suddenly stop scoring runs. Many great sluggers remained, even if they now carried with them a certain taint.

3. Manny Ramirez

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    Decade Stats: .317/.419/.599, 160 OPS+, 348 home runs, three OBP titles, two slugging titles

    A Few Words: Prior to the 2010 season, Ramirez was about as reliable as any slugger in baseball. He was certainly mercurial and often a distraction, but he prepared relentlessly, had an unmatched gift of a swing and consistently produced insane numbers.

2. Albert Pujols

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    Decade Stats: .334/.427/.628, 172 OPS+, 366 home runs, three slugging titles, three OPS+ titles, three MVP awards

    A Few Words: They don't call him "The Machine" for nothing. Pujols is a baseball batting supercomputer, his swing as efficient as humanly possible for a man as lean as he, his strike-zone judgment nearly perfect. His last two seasons have shown slight signs of decline, but he has a chance to rejuvenate his career and try to make the 2010s list someday with the Angels.

1. Barry Bonds

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    Decade Stats: .322/.517/.724, 221 OPS+, 317 home runs, 54 stolen bases, two batting titles, six OBP titles, four slugging titles, five OPS+ titles, four MVP awards

    A Few Words: It's important to remember that Bonds, though he probably cheated and used performance-enhancing drugs, was a baseball superhero already by the time he took his first dose of anything. He's not clean and his numbers are not to be taken completely at face value, but he was one of the best ever fully five years before anyone suspects he began using.

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