The Evolution of Greatness: Baseball's Best Since 1900
Who's the best player in baseball? That's easy, right? Albert Pujols. Albert Pujols could conceivably not win the MVP this season. It's possible.
He could have a slightly down year, and Chase Utley could have his best. Chase Utley could have a better 2010. But would that change the answer to the first question? No it wouldn't.
At most points in baseball history, there has been a clear-cut best player. No, they don't put up the best numbers every season.
No, they don't win every MVP. But at any point, you could ask "who's the best player in the game" and the correct answer would be that player.
At any point in baseball history, if you ask who the best player in the game is what would be a the correct answer? I decided to go back to 1900 and look.
1900-1909: Honus Wagner, SS
Before Cobb, before Ruth, before Mays, there was Wagner. A Pittsburgh native, and a coal miner from the age of 12 on, Wagner didn't play his first Major League game until the age of 23. By the age of 26, however, he was baseball's best player.
Before the 1900 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Wagner. Wagner was coming off a season in which he hit .341 with 37 steals. Still, he placed just 10th in the National League in batting average. He was not yet the best player in the league.
Wagner's first season as a Pirate was a tremendous success. He won his first batting title, hitting .381, and leading the league in doubles and triples. Wagner stole 38 bases, and his 1.007 OPS was 75% better than the league average.
Honus was a big man for his time, 5-11, 200 pounds, and very well built. Had he played in the 1930s, he would likely have hit quite a few home runs.
He was no Joe DiMaggio. He was not graceful. He ran awkwardly, but was very fast, and fielded his position better than anyone in the league.
The following season, Wagner hit .353, led the league in RBI at 128, and steals with 49. He again led the league in RBI and steals in 1902, and won his second batting title in 1903. He led the league in hitting five of the next six years.
Wagner's best season came in 1908, at 34 years old. "The Flying Dutchman" led the league in batting, on base, slugging, hits, doubles, triples, RBI, and steals.
Wagner was again the best player in baseball in 1909, but that would soon change. A 22-year-old centerfielder had just won his third straight American League batting title. The great Cobb would soon surpass Honus as the league's best player.
1910-1918: Ty Cobb, CF
Ty Cobb did not start off his Major League career in style. In August 1905, just three weeks after his mother shot his father dead, Cobb debuted for the Detroit Tigers. He hit .240 that season. Cobb would not hit under .300 ever again.
After a solid second season, Cobb flipped the switch. In 1907, 1908, and 1909, Cobb led the American League in batting. The debate over who was better (Cobb or Wagner) had been waged since Cobb hit .350 and stole 53 bases at 20 years old, but in 1910, with Wagner in decline, it became clear that Cobb was the best overall player in the game.
Cobb had one of baseball's most unique batting stances. He held one hand about an inch or two up the bat, another a couple of inches above that one.
This split grip gave Cobb optimal bat control. Cobb was also one of the best base runners in the game.
On the field, Cobb was at best determined, at worst psychopathic, regularly sliding into second spikes up.
Off it, he was a racist, an angry and violent man who claimed to have killed a man on a road trip with the Tigers, and who once beat a crippled fan in the stands. But he could hit.
The 1910 season would feature the most controversial batting title in Major League history. Going into the season, the Chalmers Company offered to give the batting champion a car.
Cobb was in a dead heat with Nap Lajoie going into the final week of the season. On the final day of the season, Lajoie collected 8 hits in a double header.
The opposing manager hated Cobb so much, he ordered his third baseman to play back, allowing Lajoie to bunt for 6 singles.
Cobb still won the title. Eventually it was found that one of Cobb's games was counted twice. He actually hit .383, Lajoie .384. Either way, Cobb got the car.
Cobb would hit over .400 the next two seasons, winning eight of the next nine batting titles. From 1911 to 1919, his lowest batting average was .368.
In 1915, Cobb set an American League record by stealing 96 bases. The record stood for 65 years, until Rickey Henderson stole 100 in 1980.
By the 1918 season, Cobb was far from done. Over the next decade, he would collect 1667 more hits, hit .360 over 10 seasons, and hit .400 for the third time in his career.
But that same year, the Boston Red Sox allowed their star left handed pitcher to play 72 games in the field. He responded by leading the league in home runs and OPS. Baseball's biggest star was just getting started.
1919-1932: Babe Ruth, RF
In 1914, George Herman Ruth, a 19 year old left handed pitcher, debuted for the Boston Red Sox. In 1915, Ruth won 18 games with a 2.44 ERA. The following season, he led the league in ERA and shutouts, winning 23 games.
The following season, he won 24 games with a 2.01 ERA. Ruth also hit .325 that season, and in 1918, the Red Sox decided to experiment. They would play Ruth in right, or at first, for games that he didn't pitch. That season he hit .300, led the league in homers with 11, and in OPS.
For the 1919 season, the Red Sox decided to make the switch full time. Ruth played 130 games in the field, hitting .322, walking 101 times, and leading the league in OBP, SLG, and OPS. The Red Sox slugger hit 29 homers that season, shattering the previous record.
After the 1919 season, Ruth was sold to the Yankees, and well, the rest is history. That season, 1920, Ruth hit .376, walked 150 times, and obliterated his own record, hitting 54 home runs.
The next year, he broke his record again. hitting 59 homers, driving in 171 runs, and batting .378. The Yankees made it to their first World Series, losing to the New York Giants in 9 games.
Ruth started the 1922 season suspended by Commissioner Landis after spending part of the off-season barnstorming. Ruth would hit just 35 home runs, and his average would drop to .315. The Yankees made the World Series that year, but again lost to their cross town rivals.
After a down season, some were questioning whether Ruth could ever recapture his dominance form the 1920 and 1921 seasons. Those questions would soon be answered. In his first season in "The House That Ruth Built," the Babe hit .393, walking 170 times, hitting 41 homers, and driving in 131 runs. He hit 46 the next season.
However, 1925 would be a down season for Ruth. Suffering from alcohol poisoning and various other ailments, he hit just .290, with 25 homers.
Again the same questions arose; was Ruth finished? Nope. In 1926, Ruth rebounded in style. He hit .372 with 47 homers and 144 RBI.
1927 was a storybook season for Ruth and the Yankees. New York, and their Murderers Row lineup, led by Ruth and Lou Gehrig, went 110-44.
Like in 1961, the baseball world watched as two teammates took a crack at history. At mid-season, Gehrig actually led Ruth in home runs. But Ruth hit 17 in the final month of the season, breaking his own record of 59 on the next-to-last day of the season.
Ruth hit 54, 46, 49, and 46 homers over the next four years, leading the league each season. In 1932, Ruth would post his final OPS of over 1.100. The next season, his last over 1.000.
All told, from 1919 to 1932, Ruth led the league in OPS 13 out of 15 years. His line .351/.485/.718 gave him an OPS 114% higher than the league average. Ruth hit 643 homers over those 15 seasons, an average of 43 a year.
In 1932, Ruth hit .341, smashed 41 homers, and finished with a 1.150 OPS. But Jimmie Foxx hit 58 homers, nearly breaking the Babe's record, and beat him in most major offensive categories.
By 1933, Ruth had lost the title of best player in baseball to a first baseman. That first baseman was not Jimmie Foxx.
1933-1936: Lou Gehrig, 1B
In 1933, Lou Gehrig was 30 years old. For the first decade of his career, The Iron Horse was overshadowed by Ruth, the greatest player who ever lived. But with Ruth in his final season in New York, and his production down, Gehrig grabbed the spotlight.
That season was not Gehrig's best. He hit .334, finished fourth in MVP voting, and drove in 139 runs. But Philadelphia's Jimmie Foxx outplayed him for the second straight year. That would change in 1934.
Gehrig hit .363 that season with 45 homers and 165 runs batter in. He won the triple crown, but finished fifth in MVP voting, as the Yankees slipped to second in their first year with the Babe.
Two years latter, Gehrig won his first MVP award, hitting 49 homers and driving in 152 runs. Gehrig led the league in OPS in 1936, and in 1937. Gehrig's played slipped sharply after that.
In 1938, he hit under .300 with just 29 homers. The next year would be his final season. He played just 8 games, and died from ALS two years latter.
Gehrig's time at the top was short. Ruth so dominated the baseball landscape during Gehrig's first 10 years, and by the time he was 35, he was suffering from a severely debilitating, eventually fatal disease.
But during the mid-1930s, no one was better. In 1936, a young centerfielder from San Francisco debuted for the Yankees. By 1937, Gehrig was again overshadowed by a teammate.
1937-1940: Joe DiMaggio, CF
Joe DiMaggio was the picture of grace on a baseball field. He had the perfect swing, and almost never struck out. He didn't steal many bases, but he ran well, and played center field like no one else.
The Yankee Clipper started off his professional career about as well as anyone can. In 1932, he signed with the San Fransisco Seals of the PCL, and went on to hit in 61 straight games, to set a PCL record.
A year later, he was one of the hottest prospects in baseball. Despite a torn ligament in DiMaggio's knee, the Yankees purchased DiMaggio for $100,000. He played the 1935 season in the PCL, hitting .398 with 34 homers and 158 RBI.
In 1933 he made his Major League debut. That season, he hit .323, smashed 29 homers, and led the league with 15 triples. The Yankees won their first of five straight World Series titles.
The following season, at just 22 years old, he led the league with 46 homers, a nearly impossible feat for a right hander in Yankee Stadium. He hit .346, and nearly won the MVP.
In 1939, DiMaggio won his first of two straight batting titles, hitting .381, and winning his first MVP award. He hit .352 the next season, and in 1941, set a Major League record that will likely never be broken, hitting in 56 straight games.
DiMaggio would win the MVP award that season, though he probably shouldn't have. The man who should have, Ted Williams, would begin a decade-long run as baseball's best player.
1941-1954: Ted Williams, LF
Ted Williams was a great baseball player, but also a highly controversial figure. Early in his career, Williams, who had a generally fantastic first couple of seasons, was booed by Boston fans. For the next 20 years, he would never tip his cap after hitting a home run.
Williams came into the league in 1939, making an immediate impact by hitting .327 and .344 his first two seasons. It wasn't until 1941, though, that he really became the best player in baseball.
That season, he hit .406, the last Major League player to hit over .400. At 22, he led the league in most offensive categories, but lost the MVP award to Joe DiMaggio.
The following season, he won the AL batting triple crown, and led the league in BA, OBP, and SLG. Still, he did not win an MVP. Williams would lose the next three seasons to World War II, but come back just as great a hitter.
In 1946, Williams hit .342 with 38 homers, and finally won his first MVP award. The following season, he won his second triple crown, but again finished second in voting.
One voter left Williams entirely off his top-10, despite the fact that Williams led the league in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, HR, and RBI. This was Williams' relationship with the press.
From '48 to '51, Williams hit .340, led the league in OBP, SLG, and OPS all but one season, and finished first, second, and third in MVP Voting. In 1951, Williams was still easily baseball's best hitter.
He would spend the next two years in the Korean war, but come back in 1954 to again lead the league in OPS.
Over the next four years, he would hit .355, win two batting titles, twice lead the league in OPS, and maintain an OPS over 1.00 each season.
As good as Williams was, the Yankees centerfielder, Joe D's replacement, was better.
1955-1962: Mickey Mantle, CF
In my mind, Mickey Mantle was probably the most naturally gifted player who ever lived. Plagued by injuries from High School on, Mantle entered the league as the fastest runner and the most powerful hitter in baseball.
The Mick was one of the better players in baseball over his first four seasons, but it wasn't until 1955 that he really hit his stride. That season, he hit .306, and led the league in OBP, SLG, HR, 3B, and BB.
The next year, he won the Triple Crown, and his first of two straight American League MVP awards. He hit .353, with 52 homers and 130 RBIs. The next year, .365 with 34 and 94.
In his HIstorical Baseball Abstract, Bill James calls Nelie Fox "the only man to legitimately take an MVP award way from Mickey Mantle." Mantle led the AL in Win Shares each season from 1954 to 1962.
The next three seasons, Mantle led the American League in OPS+ each year. He averaged 38 homers and 18 steals a season. In 1960, despite leading baseball in homers and OPS, he lost the MVP award to his teammate Roger Maris.
1961, like 1927, was just the Yankees year. Two star teammates (Mantle and Maris) vying for the home run record. This time, the greater of the two players clearly lost. Mantle dealt with injuries down the stretch, and ended the season with 54. Still, he led the league in slugging and OPS+, finishing second again to Maris in MVP voting.
In 1962, despite hitting just 30 homers, he won a much deserved MVP, leading the league in OPS again. He would do the same in 1964, but by then he was no longer the best player at his position in baseball. That was Willie Mays.
1963-1966: Willie Mays, CF
Mays came into the league around the same time as Mantle, and for the first half of their careers, Mantle was the slightly better player.
Mays was the best player in the NL, Mantle the best in the AL. But in their early 30s, Mantle dealt with injuries and decline. Mays posted the best seasons of his career.
By 1963, Mays was already an all-time great. A career .315 hitter, he had nearly 400 homers, six straight Gold Gloves, and nine straight All-Star appearances. He was just 31, and much like Mantle, had been the best player in his league, almost uninterrupted, since 1954.
That year, he hit .314, with 38 homers and another Gold Glove. He would lead the league in homers, slugging, and OPS the next two seasons, and win another two Gold Gloves.
He won the 1965 MVP award, and in 1966, despite hitting only .288, he hit 37 homers, posted a 149 OPS+ ,and won yet another Gold Glove.
He went on to have several more great seasons before falling off a cliff in his early 40s. In Boston, however, another left fielder was making his mark on the baseball world.
1967-1971: Carl Yastrzemski, LF
Yastrzemski replaced Ted Williams in left field for the Red Sox, so expectations were obviously quite high. While Yaz filled the spot admirably for several seasons, he reached another level in 1967 at 27 years old.
A .293 career hitter going into the '67 season, Yaz was a Gold Glove outfielder, and had already led the league in OPS, two years earlier in 1965. Up to that point, his career high in HR stood at 20.
That year, he won the Triple Crown, hitting .326 with 44 homers, 121 RBI, and a league leading 1.040 OPS. He won the MVP award.
The following season, the year of the pitcher, 1968, Yaz led the league in hitting with a .301 average, and in OPS with a .922 mark. He hit just 23 homers, but walked 119 times to lead the league.
While his average dropped to .255 in 1969, Yaz still hit 40 homers, and finished with an OPS+ of 135. In 1970, he regained his stroke, hitting .329, with another 40 homers, and a league leading 1.044 OPS.
After the age of 31, Yaz had almost as second career, as a perennial All-Star, collecting over 1,700 hits. He wasn't the same guy who won the Triple Crown, but he was still quite a good all-around player.
1972-1976: Joe Morgan, 2B
One of baseball's most underrated stars, Morgan dominated baseball in the mid-1970s.
Going into the 1972 season, Joe Morgan was 28 years old. He'd been a solid player for nearly a decade, and had made a coupe of All-Star teams in his time, but had yet to play an MVP level. That would change with his move to the Reds.
From 1972 to 1974, Morgan hit around .290 each season, walked well over 100 times, won two Gold Gloves, and led the league in OBP twice. He also stole 60 bases a season. He finished first or second in the league in Wins Above Replacement in all three seasons.
In 1975, Morgan again stepped up his game. He hit .327, led the league in OBP and OPS, stole 67 bases, and won his first MVP, and third Gold Glove.
The next year, he hit .320 with a career high 27 homers, led the league in OBP, SLG, and OPS, stole stole 60 bases, won a Gold Glove, and again won the MVP.
Morgan had a short prime. He had another great season in 1977, then spent the last part of his career as a good, but for the most part not elite, player.
1977-1986: Mike Schmidt, 3B
During the late 70s and early 80s, baseball lacked its usual number of elite offensive superstars. It had one though, and his name was Michael Jack Schmidt.
During the ten-year stretch listed, Schmidt won nine Gold Gloves. He led the league in OPS+ six times, averaged 36 homers a season, and walked 100 times a year.
In 1980, Schmidt hit 48 homers to pace the league. He also led in OPS, and saved 11 runs in the field. The following season, he hit just 30 homers in a strike-shortened season, but hit .316 and won his second straight MVP award.
His final MVP award came in 1986. Schmidt, 36, led the league in homers, RBI, SLG, and OPS. He won yet another Gold Glove.
Schmidt's combination of staggering offensive performance and elite play in the field makes him, at the moment, the best third baseman in baseball history by a massive margin. From 1977 to 1986, he was the best in baseball.
1987-1990: Rickey Henderson, LF
The greatest leadoff man of all time, Rickey was the best player in baseball during the late 80s. After setting Major League Baseball's single season stolen base record in Oakland, Rickey was sent to the Yankees in 1985.
His first season in New York was one of his best, but in 1986, his OBP slipped to .353. In 1987, despite playing just 95 games, Rickey stole 41 bases, got on base well over 42% of the time, and posted an OPS+ over 139.
The following season Rickey stole 93 bases, his most since 1983. He hit .291, with a OBP of .394, and an OPS+ of 124. His next two seasons would be arguably two of the best of his career.
Henderson started off the 1989 season poorly in New York, hitting under .250 at the time of his trade back to Oakland.
After the trade, however, Henderson hit .294, and stole 52 bases. He finished the season ninth in MVP voting, with the highest WAR in the American League.
1990 was Henderson's best year. In his first full year back in Oakland, he hit .325, leading the league in OBP, and OPS, with 28 homers and 65 steals.
He again led the league in WAR, and won the MVP award, beating out 51 homer Cecil Fielder.
Henderson would play another 13 years, set numerous records, and even steal 66 bases at the age of 39. But another left fielder was getting set to take the title of best player in baseball and run with it. His name was Barry Lamar Bonds.
1991-2004: Barry Bonds, LF
And now we get to Barry. Of course, Barry was the best player in the league from 2001 to 2004, but from '91 on? Bonds was, as Bill James put it, the most unappreciated superstar in our life time prior to 2001.
I like to compare early-90s Barry to Albert Pujols, with 40-steal speed, playing Gold Glove defense in the outfield. That's what Barry was.
In 1990, Bonds hit .301, stole 52 bases, lead the league in OPS, hit 33 homers, a won a Gold Glove. He won his first MVP award that season.
The following year, he hit .292, with a .410 OBP, and a .514 SLG. He led the league in OPS again, finished second in MVP voting, winning another GG, and stealing 43 bases.
In 1991, Bonds hit .311, with a .456 OBP, hit 34 homers, stole 39 bases, won a Gold Glove, won an MVP, and again led the league in OPS.
The next season, for the fourth straight year, he led the league in OPS. He hit 46 homers, drove in 123 runs, and stole 29 bases, with an average of .336. He won another Gold Glove, and another MVP, his third in four years.
Over the next five years, Bonds finished 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 3rd in OPS. He averaged 38 homers and 33 steals a season, won another four Gold Gloves, and finished top-5 in MVP voting three times.
1999 was the closest Bonds got to a down year. He only played 102 games, but maintained an OPS over 1.000 and hit 34 homers.
In 2000, Bonds hit .306, led the league in OPS+, and hit 49 homers. He probably should have won the MVP that year too, but finished second to teammate Jeff Kent.
The next four years, Bonds put on an offensive show we had never seen before and will never see again.
Over the four seasons, he averaged a .349 BA, an OBP of .559, and a SLG of .809. His OPS+ was 256, and he averaged 52 homers a year. In '01 he set the single season home run record with 73.
In 2004, he set the single season record by walking 232 times, and getting on base at a .609 clip.
Like him or not, Bonds was the best player in baseball, by far, in the early 90s, and the early 00s. In the late 90s too, it's hard to find someone better.
Injuries and old age finally hit Bonds in 2005, and while he had two more good seasons, he was never the same player.
2005-2010: Albert Pujols, 1B
You could potentially split this in two. Alex Rodriguez from 2005 to 2007, Pujols from 2008 to 2010. Given the relatively small length of those periods, I decided to simply go with Albert.
Since Bonds has retired, Pujols has filled the void as baseball's offensive super star. He's won three MVPs, and should have won four. Three times he's led the league in OPS, five time's in WAR.
Pujols has an extremely diverse skill set. In 2008, he hit .357. Last season, he hit 47 homers, and in 2006, 49. He's walked 100 or so times a year the last five seasons, and last year he even stole 16 bases.
Pujols will probably keep this title for the next few years. At some point, someone will pass him. It could Hanley Ramirez, or Ryan Braun. Maybe it's Jason Heyward. We'll have to wait and see.