The Best Player in MLB History, Position by Position
They say legends are born in October, but baseball's elite players are crafted like a fine wine, aging over time and becoming much more than a legend, but an icon.
Blasting that ninth inning, postseason home run will help you solidify your baseball lore in a particular town, and throwing that complete game in the World Series will be water-cooler conversation for years to come, but for how long?
Baseball's best have withstood the test of time. Walter Johnson threw the last pitch of his career more than 80 years ago, and Babe Ruth is the icon of many a baseball enthusiast, despite playing the prime of his career during the era of Prohibition in the United States.
That is the difference between baseball's elite players and those who are nothing but fodder in the path of Father Time. The elites are on an entirely different level, and in the midst of baseball's postseason, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the greatest player the game has ever seen at each position.
Starting Pitcher: Walter Johnson
In Game 7 of the World Series (today's format, of course), this is the guy that you want on the mound.
Pride and the spirit of competition will help the opposing team show up for the game, but for the sake of physical and mental health, they'd be better off staying home.
The last place you want to get caught is tied to the tracks when the "Big Train" is coming.
The greatest starting pitcher of all time—without a shadow of a doubt—is Walter Johnson.
Pitching in the major leagues for 21 seasons, all with the Washington Senators, Johnson averaged 19 wins a season, collecting 417 for his career.
The list of achievements is astounding, as the big right-hander took home two MVP awards, had the lowest ERA in baseball five times, and was the strikeout king for 12 seasons.
Johnson pitched more than 5,900 innings in his career, and the opposition hit just .235 against him. Only four men in the history of baseball have a better ERA+ than Johnson's 147, and those accomplishments are just the tip of the iceberg.
I think it goes without saying, however, that Walter Johnson is the greatest starting pitcher of all time.
Relief Pitcher: Mariano Rivera
Assuming that you can get eight quality innings out of the Big Train, any manager with half a brain would turn the ball over to this guy in the ninth inning.
With Metallica's Enter Sandman blaring over the sound system, Mariano Rivera takes the mound.
Has a pitcher ever been able to do more with different versions of a fastball than Rivera?
The model of consistency for relievers, for most traditionalists, Rivera recently, officially, became the greatest closer of all time when he surpassed Trevor Hoffman on the saves record list.
A five-time World Series Champion, Rivera's ERA+ of 206 is the greatest of all time, and his name sits alone atop the categories of saves, games finished and postseason saves.
For relievers trying to crack the bullpen today, a career half as good as Rivera's is well above average.
Designated Hitter: Edgar Martinez
The amount of time I spent on this decision is probably a tad crazy, but hey, baseball is a crazy sport.
To kick things off, allow me to lay the ground rules for a disclaimer of sorts.
For the designated hitter's spot on this slide, I only considered players that played the majority of their careers as a designated hitter. So while there are plenty of great first baseman that became above-average designated hitters late in their careers out there, we're considering career-long designated hitters for this spot.
With that in mind, is there really any better option than Edgar Martinez?
The first DH to have a legitimate case for enshrinement in baseball's Hall of Fame, the career-long Seattle Mariner was an anchor in the middle of the order for close to 18 seasons.
When he retired in 2004, he walked away with an OPS of .933 and 309 home runs, and was without a doubt one of the greatest players to ever dress in a Mariners uniform.
A Seattle and baseball legend, Martinez is our all-time designated hitter.
Honorable Mention: Frank Thomas
Catcher: Johnny Bench
To a lot of baseball fans, the catcher position is a historically weak crop for lists like this.
There are a few elite catchers in baseball's history at the very top, followed by names that are often blended and forgotten, like a fruit smoothie left on the counter for days (okay, that was a bit extreme).
The point I'm making here is that it was tough choosing a catcher—Johnny Bench or Ivan Rodriguez? I can make a strong argument for both, and neither is a bad choice.
In the end, I think it's only fair to go with the driving force behind the Big Red Machine.
Never again will we see a player quite like the Little General, who's unique style of defense and offensive adeptness made him one of baseball's most versatile players.
He was named Rookie of the Year in 1968, and that was just the first of 17 great seasons of his career.
Offensively, he posted an OPS of .817 for his career to go along with 389 home runs, helping him to nab two MVP Awards in the process.
Defensively, he was the best ever, taking home 10 Gold Gloves not only for his cannon arm, but ability to call a game as well.
Within a few seasons, Pudge may very well be the greatest catcher of all time, but for now, it's Bench.
Honorable Mention: Ivan Rodriguez
First Baseman: Lou Gehrig
When we think of baseball, we think of it as a sport. In all of its glory, baseball is a game of strategy, skill and unpredictability, and that hardly even quantifies as a basis.
But when we think of Lou Gehrig, any term of endearment and respect that our minds can generate fail to do him justice.
As a baseball player, he was a legend, but more importantly, in life, he is a man among men.
He battled the disease that would later bear his name until he couldn't play to the best of his ability, which in the case of the "Iron Horse," was every day.
Two times he was named the game's Most Valuable Player, and he walked away after 17 seasons with an OPS of 1.080 to go along with 493 home runs.
For a man that we thought would play forever, I often wonder what could have been.
Gehrig was a man that commanded respect both on the field and off of it, and even with the numerous great first basemen in the history of baseball behind him, none compare.
Gehrig was the greatest of all time, and in this legendary lineup, will help anchor the order.
Second Baseman: Rogers Hornsby
The second base position has been a historically weak position for elite players.
While there have been a handful of guys that can be labeled as well above average, only one can truly be called the best of the best, and that man is Rogers Hornsby.
Hornsby, who spent most of his 23-year career in the St. Louis region, was easily one of the most consistent hitters of his generation, leading the league in batting average an astounding seven times.
Of course, that was only the tip of the offensive iceberg. For his career, he posted an OPS of 1.010 to go along with 301 home runs, providing both contact and power to any order.
A two-time MVP, Hornsby is a welcome addition to this lineup of all-time elite players.
Shortstop: Honus Wagner
Rogers Hornsby's partner in crime in the middle infield will be none other than The Flying Dutchman.
The best of a position known for its flash and excitement, Honus Wagner did things the old-school way.
He played a hard-nosed, gritty style of baseball, and as a result, he propelled himself to become the greatest shortstop the world has ever seen.
Wagner's greatest accomplishment is having the most recognizable baseball card of all time.
I'm kidding, of course. Just take a look at some of the numbers. With a career OBP of .391, Wagner was just the guy you would want at the top of your batting order. He retired after 21 seasons with an OPS of .858, leading the league in a bevy of offensive categories several times.
A duo of Wagner and Hornsby would make for the greatest offensive, slick-fielding, entertaining middle infield of all time.
Third Baseman: Mike Schmidt
Third base is another position that I thought long and hard about.
From slick fielders to powerhouses at the plate, the third base position has changed over the years, so it was important to pick someone who represented both aspects of the game.
When you look at it from that perspective, there was no other choice than the career-long Philadelphia Phillie, Michael Jack Schmidt.
In 18 seasons with the Phils, Schmidt established himself as the greatest man to ever dress in red pinstripes. He launched 548 home runs for the Fightins, retiring with a career OPS of .908. A three time MVP, Schmidt was just as good at the plate as he was in the field.
A slick-fielding third baseman, he was awarded 10 Gold Gloves for his efforts. At the heart of a World Series title in 1980, Schmidt will go down as so much more than the greatest Phillie of all time, but the greatest third baseman of all time as well.
Left Fielder: Ted Williams
There are people out there who would argue that Ted Williams is the greatest hitter of all time, and that a title like "greatest left fielder" is nothing but a nice secondary honor.
He spent 19 seasons as a member of the Boston Red Sox, and when his country called his name to serve in the Korean War, he went without question, only fueling questions of the inquisitive baseball mind—those wondering how his career would have looked had he played two full seasons in 1952-53.
Regardless, Williams did enough in his career to build a strong case as the greatest hitter of all time. His career OBP of .482 is the greatest mark of all time, helping him to a career OPS of 1.116 to go along with 521 home runs.
A consistently great hitter, Williams won the MVP Award twice. In fact, the only time that he wasn't even ranked in the voting throughout his 19-year career was during those 1952-53 seasons, where he played in just six games before shipping out to Korea.
Center Fielder: Willie Mays
Plain and simple, with all of the great center fielders that have played the game of baseball in mind, there is no other option here—Willie Mays is the guy that I want playing center field (and you should, too).
The epitome of a "five-tool" player, there was nothing that Mays couldn't do, be it run, defend or throw up some crooked offensive numbers, he could do it all.
The "Say Hey Kid" broke onto the Major League scene in 1951, winning the Rookie of the Year Award. By the time his 22-year career had come to a close in 1973, he was, without a doubt, a Hall of Famer. More importantly, he had built his own case as the greatest hitter of all time.
A two-time MVP, Mays was the driving force behind the New York/San Francisco Giants. He led the league in home runs four times, contributing to 660 home runs for his career. He posted an OPS of .941 over the course of those 22 seasons, and he even stole 338 bases.
But his skill-set was not limited to offense.
He had an incredible, natural talent for playing the field, including a great throwing arm. He won 12 Gold Gloves during his career, and I'm sure that if there is an argument to be made for another center fielder for this spot, it won't last long.
Right Fielder: Babe Ruth
And then there was the Babe.
In the introduction slide, I alluded to Babe Ruth and how he played the prime of his career during the era known as Prohibition in the United States.
No alcohol, no problem for the New York Yankees right fielder.
He was able to slug his way into the hearts of Americans everywhere and became the man that every young fan of baseball wanted to be.
I'm sure he needs no introduction and a brief paragraph simply isn't enough room to talk about his achievements—but just in case, here is a primer.
After lackluster seasons and attitude concerns early in his career, the Boston Red Sox sent him to the Yanks. There, he became an American icon, blasting 714 home runs and posting an OPS 1.164—the greatest of all time—over his 22-season career.
He was an MVP and lead the league in more stats than I care to mention.
The only thing you really need to know here is that Ruth will anchor the middle of our order, and there isn't a right fielder that has come close to giving him a run for his money as the greatest of all time.
The Greatest Lineup in Baseball History
So now that I've listed the best player at each position throughout the history of Major League Baseball, I think it's time we took a shot at turning that into a lineup.
Turned into the umpire at home plate by the legendary manager Connie Mack, baseball's all time lineup would look something like this:
1. CF - Willie Mays
2. SS - Honus Wagner
3. LF - Ted Williams
4. RF - Babe Ruth
5. 1B - Lou Gehrig
6. 3B - Mike Schmidt
7. 2B - Rogers Hornsby
8. C - Johnny Bench
9. DH - Edgar Martinez
It's really kind of hard to go wrong with these nine guys, so I wanted to do something interesting here.
At the top of the order, I have Mays leading off. His speed, contact, and power dynamic make him an incredible threat at the top of the order, and having Wagner behind him, who was able to spray the ball all over the field and had a knack for reaching base, puts two runners on for a tremendous heart of the order.
Williams is hitting out of the third hole, because not only would he be able to drive in the first two guys, but would be more likely than any other to get on in front of those incredible powers hitters—Ruth, Gehrig and Schmidt.
At the bottom of the order, I shook things up a bit.
My original lineup had Hornsby hitting last, but in this set, he is tasked with getting on base in front of a couple of dynamic hitters in their own right—Bench and Martinez.
So, what's your all-time lineup?
Feedback and Suggestions
Now that you've seen my nominations and all-time lineup, what do you think?
As always, I'm sure that some of you are going to disagree with a few selections, but that's the greatest part about the game that we all hold near and dear.
So make sure to leave a comment/feedback below! I'm interested in hearing your opinions, and as always, thanks for reading!