Willie Mays: GOAT candidate.
When it comes to ballplayers, "the greatest of all time" is a touchy subject. There have been many great ones, and trying to whittle the list down to one definitive GOAT is an exercise that will give you brain aches.
If only there was an easier way...And to this end, I have an idea.
Well, to be honest, college basketball has an idea that I'm stealing. To determine who's the best among many, college basketball rounds up the top 68 contestants, seeds them, puts them in a bracket and then goes until "One Shining Moment" starts playing.
If there was to be a bracket of the 68 greatest ballplayers of all time, it would look a little something like this...
The NCAA Tournament has regions. In lieu of regions, what baseball has are eras, and these eras do nicely as regions for a bracket of the greatest ballplayers ever.
I only went as far back as 1901 for a starting point, for that's when the American League and National league first joined up. From there, the following "regions" came together.
This region consists of players who starred or were in their prime before integration in 1947. That's a big chunk of time, to be sure, but the league was smaller in those days. There was only so much room for star players to emerge.
This is just what it sounds like: The period of time immediately following integration in 1947. I put the cutoff point at around the late 1960s and early 1970s, making this a roughly 20-25 year period of star players.
Next Wave Region
This region consists of the players who starred after the first post-integration stars had either hung up their spikes or were past their primes. There will be some players in here who began their careers in the 1960s, but for the most part, it consists of players who were in their primes in the 1970s and 1980s (and in some cases, parts of the 1990s as well).
The starting point for this period is right around 1990 up until today. It consists of active stars, players who came and went in the 1990s and 2000s and some players whose careers began in the 1980s and then stretched deep into the 1990s and/or early 2000s.
Note: Stats and fun facts within are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
Babe Ruth's likeness
Old-Timers: Babe Ruth (1914-1935)
Babe Ruth is the power hitter from whom all other power hitters are descended. He led the league in homers 12 times, topping out at 60 in 1927, and retired with 714 career homers. Many years later, he's still the all-time leader in slugging, OPS and OPS+. Oh, and he could also pitch a bit, because he was a showoff like that.
Post-Integration: Willie Mays (1951-1973)
The greatest center fielder of all time and baseball's greatest living player, Willie Mays retired with a career line of .302/.384/.557, with 523 doubles and 660 home runs. He led the league in OPS five times and in stolen bases four times, and he's also arguably the best defender ever to roam center field.
Next Wave: Rickey Henderson (1979-2003)
Rickey Henderson stands alone as baseball's all-time greatest leadoff man. He stole a record 1,406 bases, and his 130 steals in 1982 still stand as a modern baseball record. He also hit 297 home runs and retired with a career OBP of .401. He's also the GOAT at speaking in the third person.
Modern: Barry Bonds (1986-2007)
Yeah, yeah. Needles and stuff. All the same, there's a limit to how much chemicals can help one pile up 762 career home runs and a career 1.051 OPS. Barry Bonds is also the only player in history to hit 500 homers and steal 500 bases. There were chemicals at work, sure, but also talent. Lots of it.
Old-Timers: Ty Cobb (1905-1928)
The Georgia Peach wasn't very sweet, but he could hit. Ty Cobb is baseball's all-time leader with a .366 career batting average. He led the league in hitting nine years in a row between 1907 and 1915, and is the only AL/NL-era player to hit .400 three times. To boot, his 897 career steals rank fourth all time.
Post-Integration: Hank Aaron (1954-1976)
Hank Aaron's 755 home runs were the most in major league history up until Barry Bonds passed him in 2007. No matter. Hammerin' Hank is still baseball's all-time leader in RBI and total bases, and he also leads all right-handed hitters in hits with 3,771.
Next Wave: Mike Schmidt (1972-1989)
Relatively few elite third basemen have come along over the years, but Mike Schmidt is the best there's ever been at the position. He hit 548 home runs in his career and led the league in OPS five times and in OPS+ six times. He was an excellent fielder as well.
Modern: Alex Rodriguez (1994-2012)
Yes, another boo-hiss needle guy. But like with Bonds' numbers, there's a limit to how much one can downplay 647 career homers, 318 career stolen bases and a career 143 OPS+. A-Rod also holds the distinction of being the youngest player ever to 300, 400, 500 and 600 homers.
Old-Timers: Walter Johnson (1907-1927)
Walter Johnson is high in the running for the title of the greatest pitcher of all time. He won 417 games and racked up a 2.17 ERA and a 147 ERA+ that ranks fifth all time. He's also baseball's all-time leader with 110 shutouts and is the only player ever to lead the league in strikeouts 12 times.
Post-Integration: Ted Williams (1939-1960)
The greatest hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams retired with a career line of .344/.482/634 and 521 career homers. He's baseball's all-time leader in on-base percentage, and he would have hit many more than 521 home runs had he not lost three prime seasons to military service in the 1940s.
Next Wave: Tom Seaver (1967-1986)
The greatest pitcher of the 1970s, Tom Seaver won 311 games and compiled a career 2.86 ERA and 127 ERA+. He led the league in ERA three times and in strikeouts five times. Of his first 381 career starts, 180 were complete games.
Modern: Roger Clemens (1984-2007)
Yet another played linked to PEDs, Roger Clemens' claim to the greatest-pitcher-of-all-time label time is about as strong as Johnson's. Clemens led the league in ERA seven times and in strikeouts five times. He's the only pitcher in history with over 350 career wins and 4,000 career strikeouts.
Old-Timers: Lou Gehrig (1923-1939)
The Iron Horse ended his career with an insane .340/.447/.632 slash line and 493 home runs. His 1.080 OPS is good for third all time, and his 179 OPS+ is good for fourth. He could have kept on producing had he not come down with ALS and been forced out of baseball at the age of 36.
Post-Integration: Stan Musial (1941-1963)
The recently departed Stan Musial ranks among the best hitters who ever lived. He racked up a .331 career batting average and led the league in hitting and OPS seven times. He and Hank Aaron are the only hitters in history with over 3,600 career hits and over 400 career home runs.
Next Wave: Joe Morgan (1963-1984)
Joe Morgan led the league in OBP four times and retired with a .392 career OBP, 268 homers and 689 stolen bases. He was the MVP of the National League two years in a row in 1975 and 1976. Terrible color commentator, sure, but a great all-around player.
Modern: Randy Johnson (1988-2009)
There may be better lefties than Randy Johnson, but there will never be a more frightening lefty. The Big Unit is the all-time lefty leader in strikeouts with 4,875 and he led the league in strikeouts a staggering nine times. He won five Cy Young awards, including four straight between 1999 and 2002.
The Mick's plaque at the old Yankee Stadium
Old-Timers: Honus Wagner (1901-1917)
Honus Wagner is generally considered the greatest shortstop of all time, and for good reason. He led the league in batting eight times, and his career 153 OPS+ as a shortstop is tops among all shortstops with at least 5,000 career plate appearances.
Post-Integration: Mickey Mantle (1951-1968)
There will never be another switch-hitter as great as Mickey Mantle. The Mick hit 536 home runs in his career and racked up a .977 OPS and a 172 OPS+. Though he only led the league in OPS four times, he compiled an OPS over 1.000 eight times in his career. He also apparently hit a home run that landed and bounced on Frank Gifford's foot once. Probably the only player ever to do that.
Next Wave: Willie McCovey (1959-1980)
Willie McCovey is one of the more overlooked sluggers in baseball history. He hit 521 home runs in his 22-year career and led the league in OPS and OPS+ three seasons in a row between 1968 and 1970. About 42 percent of his 2,211 career hits went for extra bases.
Modern: Greg Maddux (1986-2008)
Greg Maddux may not be the greatest pitcher of all time, but he may be the greatest control pitcher the game has ever seen. He led the league in BB/9 nine times in 23 years, and between 1992 and 1998, the highest ERA he posted was 2.72. He won four straight Cy Youngs between 1992 and 1995.
Old-Timers: Tris Speaker (1907-1928)
Tris Speaker is the greatest doubles hitter in major league history, and he was none too shabby in other departments as well. He racked up a .345/428/.500 career line with 117 homers and 436 stolen bases, and he's the all-time leader in outfield assists with 449. Nobody else even has over 400.
Post-Integration: Bob Gibson (1959-1975)
Perhaps the greatest pitcher of the 1960s, Bob Gibson racked up a 2.91 career ERA and a 127 ERA+. He was the National League MVP and Cy Young winner in 1968, the year he posted a 1.12 ERA that ranks as the third-lowest single-season ERA in the AL/NL era.
Next Wave: Reggie Jackson (1967-1987)
One of Reggie Jackson's claims to fame is his all-time record strikeout total of 2,597. Beyond that, he also hit 563 home runs and compiled a 139 career OPS+. He was a four-time league leader in OPS+ and a three-time league leader in slugging. He was also hitting three homers in a single World Series game before it was cool.
Modern: Albert Pujols (2001-2012)
Albert Pujols may go down as the best right-handed hitter in history when his career is done. He's already up to 475 homers, and he owns a career line of .325/.414/.608 that qualifies him as baseball's active leader in batting and slugging. He's declining, but he should have some good years left.
Old-Timers: Rogers Hornsby (1915-1937)
Rogers Hornsby was the dominant hitting force in the National League between 1920 and 1925, leading the league in batting, on-base percentage and slugging each year. His .358 career batting average is second only to Ty Cobb, and he also owns a 1.010 career OPS and a 175 OPS+.
Post-Integration: Frank Robinson (1956-1976)
Frank Robinson was as steady as they came. He hit at least 20 home runs in each of the first dozen seasons of his career and retired with 586 career big flies in the end. He also led the league in OPS and OPS+ four times and was a Rookie of the Year and two-time MVP award winner.
Next Wave: Carl Yastrzemski (1961-1983)
Carl Yastrzemski was a three-time batting champ and a four-time OPS and OPS+ leader. His Triple Crown season in 1967 was the last before Miguel Cabrera ended the drought last year. Yaz can be proud knowing that he had a better OBP and slugging percentage in his Triple Crown season.
Modern: Cal Ripken Jr. (1981-2001)
Cal Ripken Jr. set the mold for big, powerful shortstops when he broke into the league and immediately collected a Rookie of the Year and an MVP in his first two seasons. Many years later in 1995, he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. He ultimately retired with 431 career homers, including a record 345 as a shortstop.
Old-Timers: Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951)
The Yankee Clipper is iconic due in part to his record 56-game hit streak in 1941 and in part due to his off-the-field life. Joe DiMaggio's career totals are no joke, though, as he hit .325/.398/.579 with 361 home runs in only 13 seasons. He lost three prime years to military service in the 1940s.
Post-Integration: Sandy Koufax (1955-1966)
Sandy Koufax enjoyed one of the greatest runs of pitching ever between 1962 and 1966. He led the National League in ERA each year and racked up a 111-34 record, a 1.95 ERA and 33 shutouts. And then he called it quits due to an arthritic condition, which is still a huge bummer decades later.
Next Wave: Nolan Ryan (1966-1993)
Nolan Ryan holds the distinction of being the wildest pitcher in history with a record 2,795 career walks. But of course, Ryan is also the greatest strikeout pitcher of all time, with 5,714 of those to his name. Between his walks, his strikeouts and his record-seven no-hitters, it's no wonder Ryan allowed only 6.6 hits per nine innings, another all-time record.
Modern: Chipper Jones (1993-2012)
Mickey Mantle may be the greatest switch-hitter in baseball history, but Chipper Jones is certainly the greatest switch-hitter in National League history. He compiled a .303/.401/.529 slash line with 468 homers and a career 141 OPS+, winning one batting title and leading the league in OPS another time.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Old-Timers: Lefty Grove (1925-1941)
Lefty Grove was one of the dominant pitchers of his era, winning nine ERA titles and leading the league in strikeouts seven times. He won 300 games in 17 seasons and walked away with a 3.06 ERA and a 148 ERA+. They used to say he could throw a lamb chop past a wolf. For all we know, he did.
Post-Integration: Warren Spahn (1942-1965)
Among workhorses, no other lefty is Warren Spahn's equal. His 5,243.2 career innings are a record for a left-handed pitcher. It helps that he led the league in complete games nine times, including seven years in a row between 1957 and 1963. In the end, Spahn compiled 363 wins, another lefty record.
Next Wave: Willie Stargell (1962-1982)
Willie Stargell led the league in home runs twice in the 1970s, ultimately retiring with 475 career big flies. He led the league in OPS and OPS+ in 1973 and 1974 and finished his career with a rock-solid 147 OPS+. It's also my opinion that "Pops" is one of baseball's more underrated nicknames.
Modern: Ken Griffey Jr. (1989-2010)
No player in the 1990s could match Ken Griffey Jr.'s all-around greatness. He hit 398 home runs in his first 11 seasons and collected 10 very well-deserved Gold Gloves. He was beset by health woes in the final 10 years of his career, but he still managed to retire with 630 career homers.
Old-Timers: Christy Mathewson (1901-1916)
Christy Mathewson's 2.13 career ERA is one of the lowest in baseball history, and on top of that, he won 373 career games and led the league in strikeouts five times. Though he only led the league in innings once, he topped 300 innings 11 times.
Post-Integration: Eddie Mathews (1952-1968)
Eddie Mathews twice led the league in home runs in 1953 and 1959 and retired with a grand total of 512. He led the league in walks four times, helping him to retire with an .885 career OPS and a 143 OPS+. He's also the only player who played for the Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves.
Next Wave: Steve Carlton (1965-1988)
Steve Carlton hung around for 24 seasons and racked up 329 wins and a 3.22 ERA along the way. He was a league leader in innings and strikeouts five times. In the latter category, he ranks fourth all time with 4,136.
Modern: Jeff Bagwell (1991-2005)
Jeff Bagwell should be in the Hall of Fame. He hit 449 home runs in only 15 seasons, one of which was the strike-shortened year in 1994 in which he hit 39 homers in 110 games. His 149 career OPS+ is good for seventh all time among first basemen with at least 5,000 plate appearances.
Old-Timers: Jimmie Foxx (1925-1945)
Maybe the best right-handed power hitter in history, Jimmie Foxx won four home run titles en route to hitting a total of 534. He led the league in slugging and OPS five times, and he still stands as the all-time leader among right-handed batters in slugging and OPS.
Post-Integration: Roberto Clemente (1955-1972)
Roberto Clemente won four batting titles and racked up exactly 3,000 career hits in an 18-year career. He was also one of the best right fielders the game has ever seen, winning 12 Gold Gloves and racking up 266 outfield assists. He was still a .300 hitter at the time he passed away in a plane crash in 1972.
Next Wave: Rod Carew (1967-1985)
Rod Carew was a hitting machine in his day, collecting seven batting titles and hitting over .300 15 years in a row between 1969 and 1983. He was also a four-time OBP leader, and he won the American League MVP the year he led the league in hitting, OBP and OPS. To my knowledge, he's the only ballplayer ever referenced in a Beastie Boys song.
Modern: Wade Boggs (1982-1999)
Wade Boggs won batting titles four years in a row and five years out of six in the 1980s, and he also led the league in OBP six times to boot. In 1987, he started a stretch in which he led the league in intentional walks six years in a row, because pitchers were just plain chicken (sorry, had to say it).
Old-Timers: Grover Cleveland Alexander (1911-1930)
Grover Cleveland Alexander owned National League hitters between 1911 and 1920, racking up 235 wins, winning five ERA titles and six strikeout titles. He was once portrayed on film by Ronald Reagan, who had a successful career doing other things after he was finished acting.
Post-Integration: Harmon Killebrew (1954-1975)
Harmon Killebrew won six home run titles between 1959 and 1969, ultimately finishing with 573 long balls for his career. Amazingly, he only led the league in slugging and OBP once apiece, the latter despite also being a four-time league leader in walks.
Next Wave: Bert Blyleven (1970-1992)
Bert Blyleven had a hard time standing out in his career, as he rarely led the league in anything and only retired with a record of 287-250. However, he did enough in his career to become a WAR hero. Blyleven ranks 10th all time in Baseball-Reference.com WAR and seventh in FanGraphs WAR.
Modern: Derek Jeter (1995-2012)
Derek Jeter's not a power hitter or an elite stolen base threat, and he's never even won a batting title. Yet he's still one of the great hitting shortstops of all time with a career average of .313 and 255 career homers, and he gets my vote as the best line-drive-to-right hitter the game has ever known.
Old-Timers: Eddie Collins (1906-1930)
Eddie Collins holds one noteworthy all-time record: He's the all-time leader in sacrifices with 512. When he wasn't laying down bunts, he was working on his .333 career average and piling up 741 career stolen bases. That puts him at eighth on the all-time list.
Post-Integration: Al Kaline (1967-1987)
Along with Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline is another of the great two-way right fielders in baseball history. He hit .297 with 399 career homers and compiled a 134 OPS+, and he was a 10-time Gold Glove winner with 170 outfield assists.
Next Wave: Gaylord Perry (1962-1983)
Gaylord Perry stuck around for 22 years and won 314 games with a 3.11 ERA and a 117 ERA+. He led the league in innings in back-to-back years in 1969 and 1970, topping 300 innings six times in his career. He won Cy Youngs in 1972 and 1978. All because he cheated (I kid, I kid...but no, seriously).
Modern: Pedro Martinez (1992-2009)
No pitcher of the late 1990s and early 2000s was as dominant as Pedro Martinez. Between 1997 and 2003, he won five ERA titles, three strikeout titles and three Cy Young awards. His 0.74 WHIP in 2000 is the lowest ever for a single season, and his career ERA+ of 154 is the best ever for a starting pitcher.
Old-Timers: Cy Young (1890-1911)
Cy Young is known for his record 511 career wins, but the majority of those came before the AL/NL era began in 1901. Nonetheless, he was the league leader in wins three years in a row starting in 1901, compiling a 1.95 ERA, pitching 113 complete games and racking up 1,097.2 innings.
Post-Integration: Don Drysdale (1956-1969)
Don Drysdale did quite a bit in what was just a 14-year career, winning 209 games with a 2.95 ERA and a 121 ERA+. He led the league in innings pitched and in strikeouts three times, winning his lone Cy Young in 1962. His 2.95 postseason ERA is a mirror image of his career regular-season ERA.
Next Wave: Johnny Bench (1967-1983)
Johnny Bench is the greatest all-around catcher in baseball history, and to this end, there can be no argument. Bench hit 389 homers and racked up a 126 OPS+ in his career. Defensively, he threw out 43 percent of would-be base stealers and compiled a 3.53 catcher's ERA.
Modern: Manny Ramirez (1993-2011)
We know for a fact that he needed help to get there, but Manny Ramirez is still high in the ranks of the greatest right-handed hitters ever. He hit 555 home runs and compiled a .996 OPS and a 154 OPS+. He led the league in OPS and OPS+ three times each—and in weird antics more than a couple times.
Old-Timers: Mel Ott (1926-1947)
The most homers he ever hit in a season was 42, but Mel Ott still won six home run titles and collected a total of 511 homers in a 22-year career. All these years later, he's still the youngest player ever to 100 home runs, getting there in his age-22 season in 1931.
Post-Integration: Yogi Berra (1946-1965)
Yogi Berra once said...well, he once said all the witty things we like to borrow when we want to sound clever. Berra also hit 358 homers and compiled a 125 OPS+ and threw out 49 percent of would-be base stealers with a 3.40 catcher's ERA. Half of his legacy is 90 percent what he did on the field.
Next Wave: Pete Rose (1963-1986)
Pete Rose is not the greatest hitter ever, but he's certainly the greatest volume hitter ever. In addition to being the all-time leader in hits with 4,256, Rose is the all-time leader in games played, plate appearances and at-bats. Charlie Hustle will be in the Hall of Fame eventually. You can b...er, count on it.
Modern: Frank Thomas (1993-2011)
Frank Thomas was one of baseball's most feared sluggers in the 1990s, hitting 250 home runs and compiling a 1.056 OPS and 182 OPS+ between 1991 and 1997. The Big Hurt also led the league in OPS four times and won back-to-back MVPs in 1993 and 1994. Now he brews beer. Or something.
Old-Timers: Shoeless Joe Jackson (1908-1920)
Shoeless Joe Jackson ranks behind only Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby in career batting average at .356. He hit .408 in 1911 and over .380 in 1910, 1912 and 1920. That was his last season, as he was banned from baseball over the Black Sox scandal of 1919. He was only in his early 30s.
Post-Integration: Jackie Robinson (1947-1956)
Jackie Robinson did a lot in a very short amount of time after breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947. He won a batting title in 1949 and hit .311 with a 132 OPS+ in 10 seasons, racking up 137 homers and 197 steals. Among hitters with fewer than 6,000 career plate appearances, Robinson ranks seventh in runs batting.
Next Wave: Phil Niekro (1964-1987)
Phil Niekro played for something like a million years and started something like two million games. In reality, he played 24 years and logged 19 seasons in which he pitched over 200 innings. His 5,404 career innings are good for fourth all time, and he owns a respectable career ERA of 3.35.
Modern: Tony Gwynn (1982-2001)
It's saying something about how deep the modern field is that Tony Gwynn only barely made the cut. He retired with a .338 career average and eight batting titles to his name. His .394 average in 1994 may be the last legit run at a .400 average baseball ever sees.
Old-Timers: Bob Feller (1936-1956)
Bob Feller had a very good career, winning 266 games and leading the league in strikeouts seven times. But alas, three years of military service took away his age 23-25 seasons, keeping him from putting together an even more brilliant career.
Post-Integration: Juan Marichal (1960-1975)
Juan Marichal was one of the league's dominant pitchers between 1963 and 1969, compiling a 2.34 ERA and a 146 ERA+. He ultimately retired with a 2.89 ERA and a 123 ERA+, and he still holds the distinction of having the coolest delivery in baseball history.
Next Wave: Tim Raines (1979-2002)
Tim Raines won a single batting title in 1986 and retired with a modest .294 average, but he still had a career worthy of the Hall of Fame. Only three players in history own an OBP of .385 or better and over 800 career steals. Raines is one. The other two are Rickey Henderson and Ty Cobb.
Modern: Mariano Rivera (1995-2012)
There are relief pitchers, and then there is Mariano Rivera. He's the all-time leader with saves with 608 and he owns a 2.21 career ERA and a 206 career ERA+ that actually ranks as the best all time. Not just among relievers. Among all pitchers.
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