Ranking the 25 Best Baseball Players of All Time
MLB has gifted fans an unprecedented crop of young stars capable of etching their names among baseball royalty. Perhaps history will one day prop these burgeoning studs alongside the game's all-time greats.
Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard all have the potential to write Hall of Fame legacies with another 10-15 years of dominance. If Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw continue along their current trajectories, they will eventually merit prominent billing among the best ever to play the game.
For now, none of these young pups have accomplished enough to join iconic names like Ruth, Mays, Aaron and Cobb. They also have a long road ahead before catching up to underappreciated superstars from the early 20th century, who substituted fence-clearing pop with elite contact, plate discipline, baserunning, gap power and defense.
Of course, boiling down a full catalog of baseball folklore to 25 players will never yield perfect agreement. Everyone has their personal preferences and varying standards of greatness. This list, however, cares more about results than reputation.
Before diving into the rankings, let's take a look at the thought process used to select baseball's best.
Counting numbers are nice, but popular benchmarks for evaluating greatness (3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins) are only part of the puzzle. Advanced stats like weighted on-base average (wOBA) weighted runs created plus (wRC+), adjusted OPS (OPS+), adjusted ERA (ERA+) and fielding independent pitching (FIP) matter as much, if not more.
WAR from FanGraphs (fWAR) and Baseball-Reference.com (rWAR) were both heavily considered, but not as a definitive gauge. Both sites particularly differ on grading pitchers, with the former preferring superior strikeout and walk rates and the latter focusing on run prevention.
Per the "best baseball players" label, the search wasn't limited to MLB talent. Negro League legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were seriously considered, but both fell short due to an inability to properly compare the leagues' talent levels.
Since no international league is deemed an equal competitor to MLB, other foreign stars—most notably Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh—also fell short of inclusion.
Are Steroid-Era Stars Eligible?
If their numbers merited inclusion, players with ties to performance-enhancing drugs were included. Otherwise, the procedure would fall down a rabbit hole of older generations using amphetamines and even older players participating in a segregated league.
Peak vs. Longevity
Both matter, and it took an elite blend to make the top 25. Players with transcendent but shorter primes (Ken Griffey Jr., Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Joe Jackson) missed the cut alongside durable studs (Pud Galvin, Phil Niekro, Cal Ripken Jr., Pete Rose and Carl Yastrzemski) whose rate stats don't quite pop enough.
Those who missed time to serve with the military were typically given a larger pass than players derailed by injuries.
Individual over Team Performance
We're looking for the best individual players, not the guys who benefited from competing alongside superstar teammates. With apologies to Derek Jeter, those six rings—although awfully impressive—couldn't carry a 115 OPS+ and debatable defense into the super-elite tier.
There are a lot more than 25 great baseball players. These honorable mentions—listed in alphabetical order—proved especially tough to exclude.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Cal Ripken Jr.
25. Grover Cleveland Alexander
Of the seven pitchers highlighted, four hail from a bygone era where managers would laugh at the phrase "pitch count" and say rest is for the weak. This led to workhorse aces such as Grover Cleveland "Old Pete" Alexander, one of 13 hurlers to exceed 5,000 career innings.
He completed 436 of his 600 starts and posted a 2.56 ERA adjusted to a 135 ERA+. From 1915 to 1920—he missed nearly the entire 1918 campaign serving the military—Alexander notched an ERA under 2.00 each season.
There are plenty of pitchers one would prefer in a must-win game, but Alexander's thorough volume gives him the nod on this list.
24. Jimmie Foxx
Despite joining the Philadelphia Athletics at age 17, Jimmie Foxx didn't earn his playing time until turning a ripe 20 in 1928. He promptly hit .328/.416/.548 and never looked back.
Spending most of his time at first base, which cost him a few spot in the rankings, Foxx scorched American League pitching to a tune of .325/.428/.609. He played his last full season in 1941—amounting to a 14-year window, which is shorter than other top-tier peers—and still pounded 534 long balls.
Each of his three MVP campaigns featured a slugging percentage above .700. Two of them included a top-10 RBI tally for a single season in MLB history.
So yes, Foxx was really good at hitting baseballs.
23. Mel Ott
Of all the hitters listed, Mel Ott is the only one to never snag MVP honors. Voters didn't often select the best candidate before the internet or sabermetrics existed, so consider that more of a fun tidbit than damning evidence against his inclusion.
Even though Ott never batted .400 or swatted 50 home runs, he registered an OPS above 1.000 in seven of his 22 seasons with the New York Giants. The consistently superb slugger retired with a .304/.414/.533 slash line, 511 home runs and a 155 OPS+.
The lefty fully utilized Polo Grounds' short right-field porch with 323 home runs, but Ott was far from a product of his surroundings. Maybe he's not flashy enough to share the spotlight with other all-time legends, but the numbers support his standing on that level.
22. Rickey Henderson
Rickey Henderson holds the lowest batting average (.279) and slugging percentage (.419) of anyone on this list, making him a difficult inclusion over Mike Schmidt, Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey Jr. Yet a leadoff hitter with a .401 on-base percentage and 1,406 stolen bases walked and ran his way into a spot.
At his best, he also provided pop. The Man of Steal most notably brandished power over five seasons with the Yankees, for whom he notched a .455 slugging percentage.
Sticking around until age 44 helped his counting numbers but sapped some points from his rate statistics. From 1996 to 2003, he batted .247 with a .357 slugging percentage. He still, however, maintained an above-average 108 wRC+ due to a keen batting eye.
Henderson's lethal combination of first-class plate patience and baserunning acumen has set an unreachable bar for every leadoff hitter who has followed.
21. Eddie Collins
And this is where readers angrily storm off and prepare angry comments. You left Jeter and Griffey off the list for Eddie Collins? Who's Eddie Collins??
Likely the least recognizable name from the bunch, the second baseman retired with 47 home runs over 12,037 plate appearances. Many highlighted hitters smacked more long balls in a single season.
He also, however, batted .333 with a .424 on-base percentage. A manager's dream leadoff hitter, "Cocky" amazingly drew 1,499 walks while submitting a minuscule 286 strikeouts. He stole 744 bases (seventh all-time) with an 81.1 percent success rate.
Despite his non-existent power, Collins' .409 wOBA ties with the marks of Willie Mays and Mike Trout. (In 20 years, Trout probably makes this list.) Considering his No. 13 all-time WAR ranking on both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com, perhaps this spot actually sells him short.
20. Alex Rodriguez
Go ahead and remember Alex Rodriguez for using performance-enhancing drugs. Remember him as the guy who kissed his reflection in the mirror, slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove and got abruptly pushed into retirement by a franchise that had recently hosted two season-long farewell tours.
Remember him for choking in the postseason, even though he batted a respectable .259/.365/.457 in 76 career playoff games and led the New York Yankees to the 2009 title with six home runs.
Just don't forget the three-time MVP who exceeded 50 home runs in three separate seasons after commanding an unprecedented 10-year, $252 million contract from the Texas Rangers. Remember that he stepped away four home runs shy of 700 with a .295/.380/.550 slash line.
Remember that Rodriguez won two Gold Gloves at shortstop before shifting to third base when joining the Yankees in 2004. If not for the change of position and PED drama, he may have went down as the game's greatest shortstop.
19. Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson didn't truly get started until his late 20's.
A solid, yet wildly erratic starter early in his career, the Big Unit finally lowered his walk rate to a passable 3.49 per nine in 1999, his age-29 season. He also produced a 3.24 ERA and 308 strikeouts in a career-defining season which signaled his maturation into an all-time ace.
From 1993 to 2008's last hurrah, Johnson spun a 3.15 ERA, 3.00 FIP and 100.5 fWAR with a much-improved 2.65 BB/9. He won four ERA titles, five Cy Young Awards—including four in a row from 1999 to 2002—and shared 2001 World Series MVP honors with Curt Schilling for beating the Yankees three times.
Those Cy Young Award seasons are arguably the most dominant four-year stretch ever. He averaged a mind-boggling 354 strikeouts per season while yielding a cumulative 2.49 ERA. He did this all during the Steroid ERA after turning 35.
No starting pitcher with at least 1,000 innings amassed racked up more strikeouts per nine innings than Johnson (10.57 K/9), who trails Nolan Ryan for the all-time mark. If not such a late bloomer, he would belong in the top 10 as the highest-rated hurler.
18. Christy Mathewson
Pitching during a powerless era, Christy Mathewson's 2.13 ERA may oversell his dominance. His 135 ERA+ equals that of Chris Sale, who owns a 3.00 ERA.
His longevity, however, still deserves recognition. The Giants ace worked at least 266 innings in 14 consecutive seasons, six of which he earned an ERA of 2.00 or lower. Having tossed 435 complete games, he can claim authorship of those 373 victories.
Mathewson personified the workhorse role by tossing complete-game shutouts in Games 1, 3 and 5 of the Giants' World Series triumph over the Philadelphia Athletics in 1905. Despite authoring a career 0.97 postseason ERA, the Giants fell short in three straight championships from 1911 to 1913.
Pedro Martinez and Sandy Koufax were both transcendent aces whose surreal primes beckoned for inclusion, but they combined to pitch only 363 more frames than Mathewson.
17. Joe DiMaggio
In pursuit of the fullest careers, Joe DiMaggio almost missed the cut. A list of all-time great baseball players, however, didn't feel complete without him.
Besides, Joltin' Joe has quite the excuse for his depreciated counting numbers; he spent three of his peak years serving in the U.S. military during World War II.
In seven seasons before enlisting in the Army, DiMaggio averaged 193 hits, 31 home runs and 7.5 fWAR. Had he maintained that production from 1943-1945, his age 28-30 seasons, the iconic Yankees outfielder would have 2,793 hits, 454 homers and 105.6 fWAR to accompany a .325/.398/.579 slash line and .439 wOBA, which ranks ninth among all hitters.
That takes liberties in assuming he'd keep hitting like an MVP contender, but it's also worth wondering if the physical and mental toll of Army service cost DiMaggio his peak production upon returning to baseball.
16. Greg Maddux
In eight of his final 14 seasons, Greg Maddux recorded fewer or as many walks as games started.
The command king issued a stellar 1.80 BB/9 over a brilliant career in which he worked 5,008.1 frames. Such pinpoint strike tossers usually get hit hard, a reality which he met during his later years as a solid innings-eater.
Yet despite issuing an ERA north of 4.00 in all five of his final seasons, Maddux retired with a 3.16 ERA and 132 ERA+. The Atlanta Braves ace snatched four NL Cy Young Awards and four ERA titles, buoyed by magnificent marks of 1.56 and 1.63 in 1994 and 1995, respectively.
His legacy lives on as a hallmark of efficiency. Any hurler who achieves the increasingly rare feat of tossing a complete-game shutout in under 100 pitches is unofficially credited with pitching a Maddux, coined by Jason Lukehart. Maddux fittingly leads all pitchers with 13 Madduxes since Lukehart started recording them in 1988.
15. Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens posted ERAs below 2.00 in two seasons separated by 15 years. The first and last of his record seven Cy Young Awards came in 1986 and 2004. Despite the steroid accusations and ensuing legal battle, his portfolio is too hefty to ignore.
Third in all-time strikeouts behind Ryan and Johnson, "The Rocket" earned MLB's highest pitching honor at least once at all four stops (Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Yankees and Houston Astros). For the old-school readers, he garnered six 20-win seasons and 354 over a durably dominant career.
He also threw the barrel of a broken bat at Mike Piazza—which clearly was not a baseball—during the 2000 World Series. Most of his Fall Classic memories are fonder, as he carved out a 2.37 ERA in eight World Series starts.
His career 143 ERA+ finished just outside of the top 10 in MLB history, but his 3.09 FIP in 4,916.2 innings give him FanGraphs' highest WAR among all pitchers. Since it's unfair to punish older contemporaries for stockpiling fewer strikeouts in an era which didn't prioritize them, he falls behind two early-20th century studs.
14. Tris Speaker
Everyone's infatuation with power has once again manufactured an underrated legend.
Despite clocking 117 career home runs, Tris Speaker submitted a .500 slugging percentage with an MLB-record 792 doubles. The .345 hitter ties Dan Brouthers for 10th in wOBA (.436), just trailing Joe DiMaggio and a tick above Mickey Mantle.
Among FanGraphs' top-200 position players sorted by WAR, only Willie Keeler (144th with a 55.7 WAR) has a lower strikeout percentage (1.7) than Speaker's 2.3. He accumulated 222 triples and more stolen bases (436) than strikeouts (394) throughout his 22-year career.
The outfielder has a strong case for top-10 inclusion, as he ranks in the top nine in both fWAR and rWAR. Putting him at No. 14 isn't a slight nearly on par with ESPN.com placing him No. 41 in its top-100 list.
13. Mickey Mantle
Of the older all-time legends, Mantle feels most like a modern superstar.
Back when strikeouts were still viewed as a cardinal sin, he whiffed or got rung up in 17.3 percent of his plate appearances. Yet he did so in order to foster a 17.5 walk percentage and elite power.
The Mick blasted 290 of his 536 career home runs from 1955 to 1961, a superb peak consisting of three double-digit WAR campaigns from both cited models. Amazingly, these didn't all align with his three MVP trophies. When Yankees teammate Roger Maris hit a then-record-setting 61 home runs in 1961, Mantle finished second in MVP voting despite sporting a 10.5 rWAR.
The following year, he won MVP with a 5.9 rWAR diminished because of defense. Metrics are not as kind to the center fielder's glovework as tales of his rousing athleticism, but this only cost him a spot or two.
12. Honus Wagner
Commonly known for the iconic T206 card sold for more than $3 million, Honus Wagner is also the greatest shortstop of all time.
Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs are not in complete sync with the career stats of the star, who retired a century ago. The former gives him five more hits, bumping him above Yastrzemski to eighth on the all-time hits leaderboard with 3,420.
He's one of 10 players with over 700 stolen bases, and although he never belted more than 10 home runs in a single season, he offered plenty of power, socking 643 doubles (640 according to FanGraphs) and 252 triples.
Adjusting his Dead Ball Era stats, Wagner wields a 151 OPS+ and is the only qualified shortstop with a career wOBA (.408) above .400. If playing today, the eight-time batting champ would have probably converted that gap power into fence-clearing pop, but that adjustment wasn't necessary to cement his legacy as an all-time great player.
11. Stan Musial
Stan Musial won seven batting titles over 22 glorious years with the St. Louis Cardinals, but don't overlook his power.
Alongside the lefty's 475 home runs, he accrued MLB's third-most doubles (725) behind Rose and Speaker. He retired a .331/.417/.559 batter who would likely reside third on the all-time hits leaderboard if not for missing the 1945 season to serve in the military.
A fun fact noted noted by ESPN.com's Mark Simon: Musial evenly split his 3,630 knocks at home and on the road.
He reached new heights in 1948, batting an astounding .376/.450/.702 with a career-high 39 home runs and 11.1 fWAR and rWAR. Having never reached 20 long balls before the MVP campaign, he proceeded to do so 10 straight times in a legendary prime.
10. Rogers Hornsby
To borrow a bit from John Oliver, Roger Horsnby is a legend you think about so little that you may not have realized his actual name is Rogers Hornsby.
Among all hitters who amassed at least 3,000 plate appearances, only Ty Cobb had a higher batting average than Hornsby, who surpassed .400 in three seasons on his way to a career .358 clip. Some of his best power occurred while simultaneously displaying superb contact.
In 1922, the second baseman batted .401 with a career-high 42 home runs. Three years later, he hit .403/.489/.756 with 39 homers and a .540 wOBA. He somehow didn't receive MVP honors the previous year despite sporting an unfathomable .424/.507/.696 slash line and 12.1 rWAR.
9. Cy Young
The thought of any pitcher hurling 7,356 innings is far-fetched now, but Cy Young was still an incomparable workhorse in the late 1890s and early 1900s. He tossed over 1,000 frames more than runner-up Pud Galvin, who narrowly eclipsed 6,000.
As a result, the namesake for an award honoring pitching excellence accrued the most wins and losses. He did so with a 2.63 ERA and 138 ERA+, so he hardly just ate up empty innings.
In 22 strenuous seasons, his ERA never hovered above 4.00. Yet it slid below 2.00 six times, including twice during his 40s.
For better or worse, it's virtually impossible to compare him to any modern pitcher. Still, only one other ace from Young's era maintained such elite results with that arduous responsibility.
8. Walter Johnson
From 1907 to 1919, Walter Johnson posted a 1.65 ERA and 1.86 FIP. With eight seasons left in his Hall of Fame career, the Washington Senators ace had already compiled 297 victories.
Had the Cy Young Award existed, he would have won plenty. After all, he accrued at least 320 innings with an ERA of 1.90 or lower in seven-straight seasons, a streak ended by 1917's bloated 2.21 ERA.
The two-time MVP—called the Chalmers Award when he first won in 1913—also joined Rube Waddell as the second pitcher to tally 300 strikeouts in a single season. Among long-term starters, only Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Martinez and Lefty Grove notched a better ERA+ than his 147.
Choosing the premier pitcher between Young and Johnson was a tough call, but Johnson provided enough longevity to receive the slight edge with his superior rates.
7. Lou Gehrig
Lou Gehrig is unfortunately not firstly synonymous with his .340/.447/.632 slash line and 493 home runs. Instead, even young fans hear the echo reverberating across Yankee Stadium as he calls himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Gehrig, who made the famous retirement speech on July 4, 1939, due to an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) diagnosis, died on June 2, 1941. He was 37.
Only the condition—which is now often called Lou Gehrig's disease after his diagnosis raised awareness—could have slowed the Iron Horse down. In his last full season, he hit .295/.410/.523 with 29 home runs. He had played in 2,130 consecutive games, a record Cal Ripken Jr. broke in 1998.
Although playoff performance was rarely considered in these rankings, Gehrig received a few bonus points for hitting .361/.483/.731 in seven World Series appearances, six of which the Yankees won. Third in wRC+ and fourth in adjusted OPS, he belongs in the top 10 despite ALS tragically cutting his career and life short.
6. Ty Cobb
Despite losing his all-time hits record to Rose, Ty Cobb still sports the game's best batting average at .366. Also second in triples (295) and fourth in stolen bases (897), he's a top-10 lock.
After debuting with a .240 average in 41 games, he never batted below .316 through 23 seasons. Along the way he topped .400 three times and won a dozen batting titles.
Yet it's impossible to discuss Cobb without rehashing stories of a bitter, racist man who allegedly sharpened his spikes to hurt opponents on slides. In the classic cinematic ode to baseball, Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson joked about not letting him play because nobody could stand him.
Charles Leerhsen, author of Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, found no evidence to back most of these claims against Cobb's character. If his findings are to be believed, a generation has spent decades villainizing him based on myths perpetuated by autobiographer Al Stump.
"It's unique that all the really bad stuff about Cobb started in 1961," Leerhsen told Detroit Free Press' Anna Clark in 2005. "That's when he died. And it was all based on 'new evidence.' One sportswriter started an avalanche of lies."
Without enough certainty to tackle the moral conundrum of celebrating the bad person Cobb has been portrayed as, let's simply honor Baseball Hall of Fame's first member with prominent positioning.
5. Hank Aaron
Home runs aren't everything, but hitting 755 of them is a surefire way to join the conversation of best hitters ever.
Until 2007, Hank Aaron held the all-time mark for dingers while sporting a career .305 batting average and 155 OPS+. Of the 19 players with 534 or more long balls, he's the only one with a strikeout percentage (9.9) below 10.0.
Longevity takes him this far up the leaderboard. His single-season homer tally plateaued at 47, but he collected no fewer than 24 from 1955 to 1973. Don't mistake that for a lack of peak dominance, as the 1957 National League MVP finished third on the ballot six times.
Often a popularity contest and acknowledgement of past achievements, All-Star bids are a flawed measure of a player's greatness. Even so, representing the NL for 25 straight years—only the final two amounted to lifetime-achievement awards—speaks volumes of Aaron's remarkable consistency as an elite slugger.
4. Ted Williams
As a hitter, you're doing something right when ranking second behind Ruth.
That's where Ted Williams resides in slugging percentage OPS+, wOBA and wRC+. He even eclipses Ruth in batting average (.344 to Ruth's .342) while boasting the best on-base percentage (.482) ever. For that, the Red Sox legend can credit a 20.6 walk rate elite even by modern standards in an era preaching more plate discipline.
Like DiMaggio, Williams left baseball in his prime for three years in the U.S. military. He also missed most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons due to the Korean War.
If not for lending his services to the Navy and Marine Corps, he would have easily eclipsed 3,000 hits and 600 home runs.
The six-time batting champion and two-time Triple Crown recipient never fell short of .315/.435/.550 rates until his age-40 season. And he even redeemed that blemish, riding into a sunset with a .316/.451/.645 end-of-career performance in 1960.
3. Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds broke Aaron's record in part by belting 73 home runs in 2001. He was even better in 2002.
His homer tally dipped to 46, but he encored the historic season by hitting .370/.582/.799. Fearful pitchers walked him 198 times, 68 intentionally. Those numbers pale in comparison to the 232 walks, 120 intentional, he yielded in 2004.
In terms of adjusted OPS, those are the three best offensive seasons of all time:
Again, the season where he smacked 73 dingers ranks third on this list.
The all-time leader in homers also holds exclusive membership to the 500-homer, 500-steal club. A stout defender during his younger, slimmer years, Bonds has eight Gold Gloves to accompany his seven MVP awards.
And yes, he probably had some help, but he was an elite baseball player before transforming into a mountainous slugger. If not for the PED cloud, Bonds may rank second.
2. Willie Mays
The game's most well-rounded player, Willie Mays molded elite contact, power and defense to become the greatest center fielder ever.
Fifth with 660 home runs, Mays also delivered a .302 average and 156 OPS+. Yet his glove vaulted him to the second spot.
Upon returning from the military in 1954, the Say Hey Kid didn't have a bad season until 1967, when he still recorded a 124 OPS+ and 4.3 rWAR at age 36. He didn't give the New York Mets much in his final two seasons beyond 40, but nobody should hold that against a durable star who played in 2,992 games.
Even if fans are now witnessing the second coming of Mays, he was a truly special talent who earned real estate on baseball's Mount Rushmore.
1. Babe Ruth
Expecting anyone else to occupy the top spot?
Ned Williamson held the record for most home runs in a season at 27 before Babe Ruth belted 29 in 1919. When he shattered that milestone with 54 the following year, nobody else reached 20.
From 1918 to 1931, he led or tied the AL in home runs 12 times. The Sultan of Swat smacked 602 long balls during that timeframe. Nobody else hit 300.
The .342/.474/.690 outlier ranks first in wOBA, wRC+, OPS+ and WAR (from both sites) by considerable margins. That doesn't even factor in his 2.28 ERA over 1,221.1 innings on the mound. Before transitioning into a full-time outfielder, he tossed 650 innings in 1916 and 1917 combined, earning 47 wins and a 1.88 ERA.
Could the greatest hitter in the history of the sport have made this list if he never swung a bat? Luckily for the Yankees, that's only a fun what-if for a player whose dominance will never be matched.