Jim Thome is not what an average baseball fan might call a pure hitter. His career batting average is under .280, and he ranks second all-time in batter strikeouts. But Thome also boasts 601 career home runs and a .403 on-base percentage.
Like so many left-handed sluggers, Thome has a satin-smooth swing, almost artistic in its swoop. Science has never sufficiently explained why, but left-handed swings invariably please the eye more than right-handed ones. Thome is in great company among power hitters, but some of history's best batters for speed and average—Ty Cobb, Rod Carew and Ichiro, to name a few—also put the right foot forward in the box. Thome's milestone home run last week solidified his place in history, but does it put him among the elite left-handed hitters of baseball lore?
Nailing down the 20 best left-handed hitters of all time is a tall task, if for no other reason than that many players who fall under that umbrella bear only that one-in-10 resemblance to one another. Tony Gwynn and Reggie Jackson scarcely deserve to be compared and contrasted directly, since they could not possibly have been more different hitters.
Yet, to ignore or work around those differences in approach is to overlook the difference in absolute value different kinds of players inherently provide. A singles hitter is better than a power hitter only if that hitter gets on base overwhelmingly more often than the guy who threatens regular visits to the cheap seats. As difficult as it is to decide whether Tris Speaker or Willie McCovey was the better overall hitter, making the decision helps us decide which skill set is more valuable.
It's also a good way to start an argument, which is a good way to have some old-fashioned baseball fun. Therefore, this list will endeavor to encompass all the critical skills of hitting: reaching base, hitting for power, making contact, and being generally fun to watch. In cases of near-ties, things like bat control, special skills and clutch ability will come into play.
Start your arguments... now.
Williams won two MVP awards and deserved three more. He gave away his ages 24-26 seasons to military duty in World War II, yet hit 521 career home runs and 525 doubles. His .482 OBP is the best ever, and he did it all so quietly and fiercely as to stir the soul.
Sportswriters hated Williams, but the best single piece of baseball literature ever penned was John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," an homage to Williams and a thrilling account of his final game—capped by a last at-bat home run not to be forgotten. Updike wrote about the game neither before nor after that essay, but the few words he spared for America's pastime sum up its best left-handed batter perfectly:
"Williams is the classic player of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."
When it comes to sheer dominance in baseball, the name will always be Ruth. Choose your favorite example of his monopoly on home runs: They all work. Ruth hit his 700th homer before anyone else in baseball history had collected even 400. He won 10 on-base and 13 slugging average titles. Ruth was and is an embodiment of the game, all its glory and mythology and all its flaws and indiscretions, rolled into one remarkable package.
Startling though it is to hear, history chronically underrates Cobb. He was a despicable human being, but perhaps the best all-around position player of all time, and certainly the best of the dead ball era. He won a home run title and, much more tellingly in that time of so few long balls, eight slugging crowns. He ran well enough to consistently leg out infield hits to the left side, but insisted upon shooting outfield gaps for doubles and triples, of which he accumulated over 1,000 combined.
His head swelled in more ways than one, and in more than just the latter years of his career, but Bonds was an historical talent regardless of his on- or off-field transgressions. He won three MVPs in four years from 1990 to 1993, when he was a svelte and speedy slasher. His swing wasted not a twitch, and he swung only at very good pitches. Those early Giants years were magic; Bonds was a thoroughly complete offensive threat.
It's perfectly natural, but factually perverse, that Gehrig's name is synonymous with baseball durability. The disease that claimed his body at such a young age tore him away at a hideously inopportune moment, such that his legacy—couched as it is in the everyday ethos he brought to the game—never grew to full fruition.
Gehrig deserves to be remembered, not as Ruth's sidekick, but as one of his nearest competitors and peers. Consider:
- Gehrig's stunted career ended seven home runs shy of the mystical 500 plateau.
- The same abrupt halt left him five RBI short of 2,000.
- He twice hit 49 home runs, but never the hero's 50.
- His 1934 Triple Crown was also a rate-stats Triple Crown, an exceedingly rare double-dip even Ruth never matched.
Gehrig was almost as good as Ruth, but cruelly, an untimely demise puts him perpetually on a second tier for most baseball fans when they ponder the game's greatest sluggers.
Albert Pujols' achievements over the last decade are enough to make a good baseball dog break his leash, but in St. Louis, those dogs lie close beside Musial even now. Musial was the definitive entertainer at the plate, not because he strutted after home runs or hammed it up with the catcher, but because he could do anything with the bat in his hands. He led the league eight times in doubles and five times in triples, and he swatted 20 or more home runs in 10 different seasons. He was fun because he had electric legs, hands and upper body strength.
Speaker was, in the wide view, a better overall player than Cobb. His defensive prowess in center field remains a part of his legend. He could run, but he often hit the ball too hard to allow the sort of long rolls and short bounces needed for triples, so he settled for setting what remains the all-time doubles record with 792.
Forget 100 walks. For six straight seasons in the 1970s, Morgan drew at least 111 free passes, despite batting primarily ahead of Johnny Bench. Morgan worked pitchers like interrogators work prisoners of war. He extracted information from them throughout games and series, drawing walks after 15-pitch at-bats. Each time, he would steal a base or two (in those six aforementioned years, he swiped an average of 60 bags per annum) just to sting them further. Then, at a moment seemingly of his choosing, he would wallop a pitch for a home run (22 of those per year, 1972-77) or a double and leave the opponent, broken and befuddled, to bleed out.
At 5'7", on a good day, Morgan did not even physically intimidate. He merely overmatched pitchers with his athleticism and his will. His peculiar brand of torment was as savagely enjoyable as any 500-foot home run or line drive to the chest. The Reds won the 1975 and 1976 World Series. Morgan won the 1975 and 1976 NL MVP awards. And he damn well deserved them.
Collins was Morgan before Morgan was born. He played the same position, brought the same skill set to the park and caused the same conundrum for opposing pitchers. Collins lacked Morgan's pop, but knew how to place a ball on the diamond perhaps as well as anyone in the history of the game. He also had the benefit of Morgan's psychological edge, although perhaps Collins' advantage is more rightly described as mental: He was a Columbia College graduate, long before most big leaguers had any post-secondary education at all. His wits, and his team-high salary, helped him survive the ugly Black Sox scandal of 1919.
That Collins was judged to have played fair, and Jackson was banished, is the only reason for the order in which these teammates appear on this list. Had Jackson gone on to a full career (he was banned after the 1920 season, at age 32), who knows how many more hits he would have accrued. He would probably be in the 3,000-hit club. He also had power, as power went in those days, having led the league in doubles once and triples thrice. In his final season, he hit .382 and socked a career-high 12 home runs. His .423 lifetime OBP speaks for itself.
For sheer numerical, historical weight, Ott timed his career rather badly. He came along at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties, and as both the United States and baseball's run scoring fell into a Depression in the 1930s, Ott's power seemed diminished. He never matched the 42 bombs he hit at age 20 (at age 20!) in 1929, though he did lead the league in round trips six times and rack up 511 career bombs. He was not a mere slugger, though, as his .304/.414/.533 line suggest. Ott had such a good eye at the plate, that in that terrific 1929 campaign, he walked a league-leading 113 times while fanning just 38.
Sabermetricians are somewhat split on the issue of when, exactly, a hitter reaches his peak. Some say it happens most often at age 26; others peg the median at age 27. Either way, Ichiro Suzuki (whose profile always insisted he would be on an earlier development curve) probably played his best baseball in Japan. Major League Baseball never saw Ichiro's blend of balance, timing, bat control and whipsaw-quick wrists translate into both plus power and remarkable hitting ability.
Yet, he managed fully a decade of dominance in which his batting average never fell below .303 in a single year, and during which he stole over 350 bases and notched over 2,000 hits. Even now, as the end comes swiftly and painfully, it's easy to see, sometimes, what once made Suzuki one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. Walks and home runs be damned, Ichiro is a joy to watch at the plate, and big-league clubs have thrown away nearly a dozen years since trying to find what does not remotely exist: the next Ichiro.
Thome might go down as the underrated lefty basher of all time, although his general affability and humongous heart have helped some see his light more clearly of late.
Refusing to punish him for the fact that he was not asked to play the field much over the last six years of his career, Thome objectively edges out most others. His longevity and the magic of launching over 600 home runs help break ties. So, too, do his remarkable peak years: A .277 career hitter, Thome managed to hit .297 combined in 2001 and 2002 for the Cleveland Indians. He also happened to tally 101 homers and a .430 OBP in those two years. Thome's graceful uppercut, which produced such soaring drives, lends a pleasant aesthetic to his legacy.
Like Williams, Mize gave up three full seasons to serve in the War. His lost years were at the very productive ages of 30-32, and he still managed to hit 51 homers in 1947 and 40 more in 1948, leading the NL each year. Mize had something of a strange and disjointed career, and is often overlooked in discussions of this sort, but he was as good at times as contemporaries like Musial and Ott. He could be higher on this list, in fact.
Mathews is like Thome, had Thome been able to stick at third base. While not quite the hitter Thome is, Mathews was more than a mere opening act for Hank Aaron on the great Milwaukee Braves teams of the late 1950s. Mathews himself won two home-run crowns and a quartet of walks titles, though like Thome, he will be remembered for striking out more than the typical slugger, too. Mathews hit 30 or more bombs in nine straight seasons, and in what would have been the 10th, he had 29.
Contact hitters exist today only as a relative term. Being difficult to strike out now means fanning in fewer than 10 percent of one's at-bats. Gwynn struck out less than one time in every 20 at-bats, an unimaginable figure today. He also hit .350 or better seven times, including a five-year run wherein his collective average was .368. Gwynn's career batting average, .338, is 10 points better than any active player, while that strikeout rate (one every 21.4 AB) outruns Juan Pierre's active leadership (one whiff every 16.01 AB) by an even more staggering margin.
With a bit more meat out on the edges of his career, Rod Carew might have cracked the top 10 of this list. But the benefit of a bone with too much meat in the middle is that those few bites are awfully good, and Carew—with six batting and four on-base titles over a seven-year span—had peak years to make any fan drool. He stole bases only inefficiently, but defined gap power, and ended up being only very slightly behind Gwynn in the annals of this specific sort of left-handed hitter.
Speaking of the peaky, McCovey scuffled both early and late in his career, but he always found ways to hit for power and his swing terrified opponents even as Candlestick Park swallowed untold dozens of would-be homers. McCovey's true talents are captured in this six-year average line, accumulated 1965-70: .291/.405/.578, 94 walks, 90 strikeouts, 38 HR. At his best, he was very, very good.
The peak parade continues: Snider stumbled out of the league after age 35, but not before accruing several seasons that made him fully worthy of inclusion in the great debate: Mantle, Mays or Snider?
The Duke of Flatbush (nicknames have lost their cachet in the modern game) hit 40 or more home runs in five straight years, 1953-57, an unheard-of feat in that era. He struck out rather more than he might ought to have, but he also drew his share of walks. Snider was a stud, if only for a while.
To compare and contrast Thome and Griffey, rough contemporaries with over 600 homers each, is to perform a fascinating case study in how perception and sexy numbers can lead anyone awry. Griffey, a tremendous center fielder in his youth on top of being a great hitter, was clearly a better player than Thome overall. But at the plate, he elected never to draw walks with the same profligacy as Thome did, and the trade off became an issue as injuries robbed him of some athleticism. Overall, Thome's all-or-nothing approach netted better, and not much uglier results than Griffey's more balanced one. Thome's edge in career OPS is a daunting 53 points.
It's difficult to put together lists like these, and like the result of any honest and difficult labor, the list is therefore imperfect. Here are 10 guys who narrowly missed inclusion:
- Dan Brouthers, whose numbers (even after usual adjustments) merit a top 10 placement, but with whom I know not what to do because he played in the 1870s and 1880s.
- Reggie Jackson, who was such a huge personality it was easy to forget guys like McCovey were better.
- Willie Stargell, the happy kind of medium between McCovey and Jackson.
- Wade Boggs, who collected 3,000-plus hits from the left side but wasn't quite good enough to bump similar guys like Gwynn or Carew from the list. His best case is that he was better than is Ichiro.
- Charlie Keller, whose career was neither long nor explosive but who had several great years with the Yankees.
- Joe Mauer, who has every chance to be on this list a year from now if he gets and stays healthy and finds his power.
- Mickey Cochrane, whose skill-set (.419 career OBP as a catcher) is a not-bad model for Mauer.
- Chuck Klein, who won a dazzling 1933 Triple Crown at age 28, and thereafter fizzled badly.
- Larry Walker, who on top of consideration for this list deserves a much better Hall of Fame push: He got just over 20 percent in his first year on the ballot in 2011.
- Arky Vaughan, a great great hitter from the Golden Years of offense in the 1930s who really and truly did just miss.