Making a Case for Stan Musial as the Greatest Hitter in Baseball History

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Making a Case for Stan Musial as the Greatest Hitter in Baseball History
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A Nearly Perfect Ballplayer

"No man has ever been a perfect ballplayer. Stan Musial, however, is the closest to being perfect in the game today....He plays as hard when his club is away out in front of a game as he does when they're just a run or two behind."—Ty Cobb, Life Magazine, 1952

This is high praise from one of his fellow greats for Stan "The Man" Musial, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 92. 

In addition to being one of the greatest baseball players to walk the Earth, Musial will forever be remembered for his genuine kindness off the field. As the king of St. Louis—the baseball capital of the world—Musial was one of the most consistently dominant hitters of any generation.

He ranks first in nearly every offensive category in the storied history of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise. He's in the top 10 in games played, at-bats, doubles, RBI, runs, hits and total bases in MLB history. 

And while Musial may not have had the power of Babe Ruth or the batting average of Ty Cobb, a very strong case can—and should—be made for him as the greatest hitter in baseball history.

 

Statistically Elite

There is no doubt in any objective analyst's mind that Musial is one of the best hitters to ever live. But just how good, exactly?

The 1969 Hall of Fame inductee (93.2 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility) had a career batting average of .331, hit 475 home runs, drove in 1,951 runs, walked more than twice as much as he struck out, registered an on-base percentage (OBP) of .417 and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of .976.

Musial was a three-time MVP, three-time World Series champion (including a fourth win as a manager) and won the National League batting title a whopping seven times. He finished in the top 10 of the MVP vote in 14 seasons, including 10 straight in the middle of his career.

Perhaps most impressively, Musial shares a record 24 All-Star Game appearances with Willie Mays, even though he only played 22 seasons of professional ball (MLB held two All-Star Games for a few seasons).

 

Eternally Underrated

Despite everything you just read, perhaps no American athlete has ever been more underrated than Musial. For example, when Major League Baseball released its All-Century Team in 1999, it had to scramble to add Musial to the roster when he was originally snubbed by the fan vote.

In 2003, fellow players voted Musial the eighth-greatest living player in a Sports Illustrated poll, 11 percent behind Alex Rodriguez. Talk about disrespect; Musial only garnered 1.7 percent of that vote.

Elsa/Getty Images

There may be no single reason why Musial has been underrated for so many years. But I have theories. For one, the time frame in which he played was dominated by the media darlings in New York and Boston, players such as Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees.

But Musial also kept a low profile. He gave the media no reason to remember him aside from his actions on the diamond.

While Musial will always be a hero to the people of St. Louis and diehard baseball fans everywhere, he is by no means a known quantity to the casual fan. It's a shame, but it contributes to his anonymity. 

 

Digging Deeper

Let's take a longer look at the question I'm posing here. Does Musial have a case as the best hitter of all time? You saw the career statistics and his ranking among baseball's best. And nobody can deny the mind-boggling numbers Musial consistently put up over 22 seasons.

But when we dig deeper, the numbers get even more astonishing. Nine times, Musial finished with 40 or more doubles. Eight other times, he finished with 10 or more triples. 

Impressed? That's nothing.

In his most strikeout-prone season (as a 41-year-old in 1962), Musial whiffed just 46 times. To put that in perspective, Barry Bonds averaged 83 strikeouts per year, Cobb's career high was 54. and even the career on-base percentage leader, Ted Williams, racked up 50 K's in an average year. Adam Dunn, on the other hand, may reach 600 career home runs, yet he struck out 222 times in 2012 alone.

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That would have taken Musial nearly seven full seasons to accomplish. Simply put, Musial put the ball in play, and he hit it hard. And for my money, he did it more consistently than anybody else.

Check this out: Though it's nearly impossible to choose a "peak" of Musial's career, he did have an especially astounding run from 1943-1958 (not including 1945, the year he served in the military). In those 15 seasons, Musial never hit below .310, never hit fewer than 30 doubles and never had an OPS below .902. 

Also, from the year Musial won his third and final MVP award in 1948 through 1954, we see some of the most remarkable numbers in baseball history. In those age 27 through 33 seasons, Musial's lowest OPS was .970, his lowest average was .330, and he hit 30 homers and had 100 RBI five times. 

In normal peak years, as it's measured today, Musial had statistics that would top the league even now.

 

Sizing Up the Competition

Calling Musial the greatest hitter in baseball history is not something to take lightly. This means he is better than Ruth, Bonds, Cobb, Mantle, Mays, Williams, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron and many more legends who all have a horse in this race.

So how does Musial stack up in the most important offensive categories for determining greatness? Though home runs and runs scored are important factors, they can't be distributed evenly because there are so many different types of hitters. 

For the purposes of this article, I will use batting average, OBP, OPS, total bases and wins above replacement (WAR) to measure the differences between Musial and the rest of the field. I believe this gives a fair balance of a player's ability to make contact, get on base, hit for power and generate runs.

Among the players listed above, this is how they stack up against Stan the Man (category leaders in bold):

PLAYER

Average OBP  
OPS Total Bases WAR

Stan Musial

.331 .417 .976 6134 123.4
Babe Ruth .342 .474 1.164 5793 159.2
Barry Bonds .298 .444 1.051 5976 158.1
Ty Cobb .366 .433 .945 5854 144.9
Mickey Mantle .298 .421 .977 4511 105.5
Willie Mays .302 .384 .941 6066 150.8
Ted Williams .344 .482 1.116 4884 119.8
Lou Gehrig .340 .447 1.080 5060 108.5
Hank Aaron .305 .374 928 6856 137.3

 

As you can see, Musial is right in the thick of it in all five categories. Among these all-time greats, he ranks fifth in batting average, second in total bases and sixth in WAR.

While all the above players had legendary careers, not all can say they were as incredibly consistent or well-rounded a hitter as Musial. I hate to get into what-ifs, but if Musial doesn't miss one season for military duty, his career averages dictate another 25 or more homers, which would put him in the 500-home run club to boot. 

Ruth is the only one who had a streak of peak years that rival what Musial did in his late 20s and early 30s. Aaron is the only one on the list with more total bases (and only Cobb has more career hits). 

As one of two non-traditional power hitters on this list, Musial still comes in just one percentage point behind Mantle in a stat that takes into account one's slugging percentage, and he's well ahead of Aaron and Mays.

Williams had higher averages and percentages, but he accounted for fewer bases and was worth four fewer wins over his career than Musial. Even Cobb, the all-time hits leader for three quarters of a century, managed to account for about 250 fewer bases than Musial.

And even when measured against Ruth, the greatest slugger of them all, Musial accounted for more bases than Ruth and was in the top 10 of his league in important categories more often than the Sultan of Swat.

But I digress. Musial has a legitimate case as the greatest hitter who ever lived because in an era that saw so many Hall of Famers come through, Musial was a constant presence. He was always one of the best, if not the best, players in the league—and the production never seemed to wane.

Even today, Musial would regularly top the leaderboards in most offensive categories. And although it's impossible to tell for sure, you can bet on Musial putting up those numbers every single year, just like he did while wearing the birds on the bat for 22 years.

 

A Legendary Legacy

Forget all the stats, records, awards and recognition. Forget that Bill James ranks Musial as the third-best player ever by "Gray Ink" (a measure that compares and fairly ranks players from different eras against each other, based on top-10 finishes in "important" stat categories).

Or that James scores Musial as his most obvious Hall of Fame choice, three-and-a-half times the 130 score that determines a "virtual cinch" (at 540, Musial ranks first).

What is important is that Musial was one of the greatest people and players that baseball will ever see. The MLB family has lost someone very special. Musial was more than just a ballplayer. He was a hero, philanthropist, role model and warrior.

And no matter your verdict on whether Musial is the best hitter of all time, his legacy will flourish. Even if he stays under the radar, Stan the Man will forever be the embodiment of baseball. The perfect player, if ever there were such a thing. 

Elsa/Getty Images

Former MLB commissioner Ford C. Frick said it best:

"Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight." (Inscribed on a statue of Musial outside Busch Stadium.)

Never have truer words been uttered about such a magnificent player and human being—possibly the most magnificent player who ever lived. 

Rest in peace, Stan the Man.

 

Present your case for or against Musial as the best hitter of all time: You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.

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