Any list of greatest athletes is likely to be an argument starter, especially if the subject is the Major League Baseball’s greatest players. Since the game, stadiums, equipment, rules, and even training have changed over the years, there is no single standard to rate a player from the 1920s against a player today.
How do you judge Babe Ruth’s raw talent for hitting home runs against a player with similar skills who may have used steroids to improve his power? Many fans want an asterisk next to records that are considered “questionable” due to the differences in the game.
When it comes to the greatest there are definitely areas of performance that will point to the superstars. Let’s break it down by various statistics.
Early 20th century pitchers were known to have amazing numbers of wins.
1. Cy Young 511
2. Walter Johnson 417
3. Grover Alexander 373
4. Christy Mathewson 373
5. Warren Spahn 353
In the last 60 years, any pitcher with more than 300 wins over his career was certain to make the Hall of Fame, including Greg Maddux with 355 (eighth on the all-time list) and Roger Clemens with 354 (ninth on the all-time list, although there are claims of steroid use.)
Pitching: Strike Outs
It’s interesting that early pitchers had the most wins, but the later pitchers by far have the most strikeouts. Cy Young had 511 wins but only 2,803 strikeouts, while Nolan Ryan had only 324 wins, but over twice as many strikeouts with 5,714. The game had obviously changed. Experts credit the change to the differences in baseball itself over the years, as the weight and hardness of baseballs changed.
1. Nolan Ryan 5,714
2. Randy Johnson 4,875
3. Roger Clemens 4,672
4. Steve Carlton 4,136
5. Bert Blyleven 3,701
Hitting: Batting Average
For the longest time, the batting average, or percentage of times a batter got a clean hit versus the number of times they came to bat, was the measuring stick of ability. These days, they also include any times the batter made it to a base whether by being walked, or by a defensive player’s error. This is called the On Base Percentage.
1. Ty Cobb .366
2. Rogers Hornsby .358
3. Joe Jackson (Shoeless Joe) .356
4. Ed Delahanty .346
5. Tris Speaker .345
6. Ted Williams .344
Note: Only Ted Williams played after WWII. And even after Major League Baseball changed the rules to make it easier for batters by shrinking the strike zone, the only batter with an average over .330 in the last 60 years was Tony Gwynn with a .338 average, and 17th all-time.
Hitting: Home Runs
Home run hitting was the measure of a hero in the early 20th century. With the exception of Babe Ruth hitting 714 and over 200 more than any player who played in his time, most of the top all-time home run hitters have played in the last 30 years. Experts will note that today’s professional baseball is harder, more active, and flies further than in Babe Ruth’s time. Some of the players hitting the most home runs have been accused of steroid use as well.
1. Barry Bonds 762
2. Hank Aaron 755
3. Babe Ruth 714
4. Alex Rodriguez 696
5. Willie Mays 660
6. Ken Griffey, Jr. 630
7. Albert Pujols 614
8. Jim Thome 612
9. Sammy Sosa 609
10. Frank Robinson 586
It’s been suggested that if all the other players on this list hit the ball Babe Ruth hit, they’d all have hit far fewer home runs, and Bonds, Rodriguez and Sosa faced serious allegations of steroid use.
Hitting: Most Hits
To make the top of the most hits list requires great hitting and a long playing career.
1. Pete Rose 4,256 (23 years)
2. Ty Cobb 4,189 (23 years)
3. Hank Aaron 3,771 (21 years)
4. Stan Musial 3,630 (22 years)
5. Tris Speaker 3,514 (21 years)
6. Derek Jeter 3,465 (20 years)
The Most Hits category is evenly spaced with players covering most of the 150+ years of Major League Baseball.
It’s wonderful that today’s MLB greats are being judged by more statistical factors than ever before. Experts are finding new ways to identify what makes a great player in order to show naturally talented athletes how to make the most of their gifts. And the rest of us get to watch.