Who Is the Michael Jordan of MLB? Ranking Candidates from the Last 40 Years

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2020

Who Is the Michael Jordan of MLB? Ranking Candidates from the Last 40 Years

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    Masterpress/Getty Images

    If The Last Dance has taught us anything, it's that Michael Jordan is basketball's undisputed GOAT. 

    Yes, he put up otherworldly numbers and won a handful of rings plus one. More than that, though, His Airness is still able to transfix fans nearly two decades after he took his last shot in the NBA.

    There is no direct equivalent to Jordan in baseball or any other sport. He is truly one of a kind.

    But we can break down what made Jordan so special and identify players in modern MLB history (meaning guys who played all or most of their games after 1980) who embody one or more of those MJ-esque attributes.

    That eliminates all-time greats such as Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. And this isn't a list of top players of the last 40 years by WAR or anything like that.

    Rather, we're looking for guys who combined exemplary stats with the subjective, know-it-when-we-see-it qualities that made MJ, well, MJ.

Waiting in the Wings

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The following age-25-and-under players don't have enough big league experience to crack the list yet. But they have the talent, marketability and early results to indicate they could soon be in the conversation:

    • 1B/OF Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
    • OF Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves
    • OF Juan Soto, Washington Nationals
    • INF Yoan Moncada, Chicago White Sox
    • INF Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres
    • INF/DH Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

No. 9: LHP Madison Bumgarner

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    Jordan-esque quality: Legendary postseason dominance

    Other pitchers of the past 40 years have put up better regular-season numbers than Madison Bumgarner. Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Clayton Kershaw immediately spring to mind.

    But Bumgarner has channeled MJ's dominance and unflappable winning spirit on the postseason stage with a lifetime 2.11 ERA and 0.899 WHIP in 102.1 playoff innings, and he has three rings to show for it.

    His performance in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, during which he threw five scoreless innings out of the bullpen to seal the San Francisco's Giants' third championship in five seasons on two days' rest, is on par with Jordan's iconic Game 6 showing in the '98 NBA Finals.

    If you're going to hand the ball to a guy with the season on the line, you want it to be Michael or MadBum.

No. 8: 1B Albert Pujols

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Jordan-esque quality: Sustained excellence

    A 10-time All-Star and three-time National League MVP, Albert Pujols was one of the most dominant players in the game during his 11-season run with the St. Louis Cardinals between 2001 and 2011.

    He also won two rings during that period, and while he was never the undisputed face of the sport the way Jordan was during his tenure in the NBA, his on-field excellence was undeniable.

    Pujols' numbers have tailed off since he signed a mega-deal with the Los Angeles Angels prior to the 2012 campaign, and he's now an aging shell of his former self. But at his peak, he stuffed the stat sheet like few others.

No. 7: SS Cal Ripken Jr.

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Jordan-esque quality: Beloved status

    After the 1994 strike wiped out the World Series, baseball needed a player to bring fans back into the fold. 

    Enter Cal Ripken Jr.

    A 19-time All-Star and two-time American League MVP, Ripken will best be remembered for playing in a record-setting 2,632 consecutive games, a mark that vaulted him past Lou Gehrig on the all-time list.

    Ripken was never the undisputed best player in the game, though his combination of power and exemplary defense at a premium position made him consistently valuable.

    Rather, what set Ripken apart was his iconic, beloved status among fans who appreciated his iron-man pursuit at a time when the game required a hero.

No. 6: SS/3B Alex Rodriguez

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Jordan-esque qualities: Sustained excellence, name recognition

    Between 2001 and 2007, Alex Rodriguez hit more than 50 home runs three times and won a trio of AL MVP Awards. Over the course of his career, he made 14 All-Star teams.

    He was also one of the most well-known and recognizable players of his generation. 

    His fame curdled into infamy when he was suspended for the entire 2014 season under MLB's performance-enhancing drug policy, and his legacy will forever be stained by PEDs. But there's no denying that for an extended period in the 2000s, Rodriguez held a preeminent, Jordan-like position in MLB's firmament of stars.

No. 5: CF Mike Trout

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Jordan-esque quality: Undisputed best player in the game

    By basically any statistical measure, Mike Trout is the best player in the game. He's an above-average defensive center fielder who can hit, hit for power, run and do all the other things that make one excellent at baseball.

    He's also in the midst of his prime at age 28.

    "It's like watching Mike Trout now," his teammate, Albert Pujols, said. "Every night he does something special. That's how Jordan was."

    Two things keep Trout from being exactly like the other Mike: star wattage and championships won.

    Trout, for all his skills, is a low-key personality. In 2019, he ranked ninth in baseball on the list of top-selling jerseys, to cite one telling metric. And he has never won a title.

    The second part could change. Jordan was also 28 when he got his first ring. For now, though, there's a chasm in championships and recognizability between the two.

No. 4: LF Rickey Henderson

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Jordan-esque qualities: Statistical greatness, never-say-quit attitude

    Rickey Henderson dominated statistically like few players in MLB history. He holds a number of all-time records, including career stolen bases (1,406) and runs scored (2,295).

    But Rickey was unforgettable because of his singular self-confidence and never-say-quit attitude.

    "Rickey Henderson has the swagger," Tracy Ringolsby of the Dallas Morning News wrote in 1991. "Confidence or cockiness, it's impossible to ignore. His style simply won't allow it."

    Remind you of anyone?

    Henderson played until his age-44 season and even hinted he might like to make an MLB comeback during his Hall of Fame induction speech.

    Again we ask: Remind you of anyone?

No. 3: LF Barry Bonds

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    Ron Vesely/Getty Images

    Jordan-esque quality: Sheer dominance

    Barry Bonds will never be a beloved sports figure. His accomplishments are tainted by performance-enhancing drug suspicion, and he had a notoriously prickly relationship with the media.

    But when it comes to dominating his era, he was absolutely Jordan-like.

    Bonds won seven career NL MVPs to Jordan's five NBA MVPs and finished with career records for home runs in a season (73) and career (762), among countless other eye-popping statistical accomplishments.

    And while Bonds never won a title and wasn't the marketing juggernaut or widely popular player Jordan was, there is a parallel in the confidence, bordering on arrogance, for which both men were known.

No. 2: SS Derek Jeter

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Jordan-esque qualities: Championship pedigree, clutch reputation

    Derek Jeter didn't put up the same cartoonish numbers as some of his contemporaries, but the 14-time All-Star won five championships and will be remembered as one of the game's brightest stars.

    Jeter never got dragged into the performance-enhancing drug scandals that defined his era and instead developed a reputation for clutch performances while serving as the face of the New York Yankees, baseball's most iconic franchise.

    Jeter and Jordan have a well-documented friendship, and in May 2017, MJ penned a tribute to The Captain in The Players' Tribune:

    "Derek, a legacy is built by more than what is seen. It is not given, it is earned. Beyond your 20 years in the majors and an endless list of accolades, it was your love and respect for the game that set you apart. Your pursuit of greatness on and off the field has set the standard for others to follow. Much RE2PECT on cementing your legacy and having your No. 2 jersey retired. Congratulations. Your friend, Michael."

No. 1: CF Ken Griffey Jr.

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Jordan-esque quality: Performance meets marketability

    Ken Griffey Jr. was the closest thing MLB had to an MJ: a truly great, generational talent with seemingly limitless marketability.

    With his charming grin, sweet swing and backwards cap, The Kid inspired countless commercial spin-offs, including his own line of Nike Air sneakers.

    He also made 13 All-Star teams, won an AL MVP Award and finished his career with 630 home runs and nary a credible PED accusation.

    He never won a championship, which hurts the Jordan comp. But as we said, there is no perfect MLB analog to MJ.

    When it comes to being the complete package on and off the field, Griffey is as close as it gets in recent memory.

                    

    All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.