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The Sultans of Swing

The greatest hitter of all time may be the most debated topic in American sports. But which slugger takes the prize? We run the numbers to find out.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

For as long as hitters have dug into the batter's box and pitchers have wound up and delivered home, debates have raged over which baseball players clubbed the ball the best. In short, a litany of legendary batsmen floods forth, hitters with names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams; Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx and Joe DiMaggio; Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle; Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt and Barry Bonds.

But who among them rises to the pinnacle? With so many ways to rate hitters statistically and numerous other factors to consider -- quality of pitching in different eras, size of ballparks and juiced baseballs, to name three -- it's virtually impossible to render a list of great hitters that is universally agreed upon. For many fans, it is a subjective argument that goes far beyond career statistics. To them, great hitters are defined not simply by numbers, but by such qualities as the ability to perform in clutch situations, longevity and consistency.

Nevertheless, statistics remain the basis for comparing players and simply cannot be ignored when attempting to list baseball's all-time greatest hitters. However, before we can answer the query of who is the best hitter ever, a formula must be in place. We must decide which rating method is best for comparing players from different eras.

One formula used more and more for comparing the greatest hitters ever is adding the on-base and slugging percentages, which produces a statistic called OPS. Agreed upon by baseball analysts and statisticians alike, OPS, which is also known as production, paints the most complete picture of how a hitter dominates his era. Calculated by adding a player's on-base percentage (the sum of hits, walks and hit-by-pitches divided by the sum of at bats, walks and hit-by-pitches) and slugging average (total bases divided by at bats), OPS weighs batting for average and slugging, but also factors in walks.

When we go a step further and calculate a hitter's rating in relation to the league norm or average, we call it OPS+. Not only is OPS+ determined by a hitter's achievement relative to the league average, it also includes his "park factor," which slightly raises or lowers his rating based on whether he played in a home park favorable or unfavorable to hitting. The league average for hitting in any given year is set at a constant of 100, so a player with an OPS+ of 200 is twice as productive as the league average, while a player posting an OPS+ of 50 is performing at only half the norm. Of more than 15,000 major league players since 1871, just one has doubled the league average for his career: Babe Ruth finished his career with an OPS+ of 207. In this article, we look at the players with the best career OPS+ ratings of all time and use them to compile a list of the greatest hitters of all time.

 

1. Babe Ruth OPS+207
Since Babe Ruth's retirement in 1935, many of his offensive records -- such as home runs, runs scored and walks -- have been surpassed by players such as Hank Aaron and Rickey Henderson. Yet, even though some of Ruth's records have been broken, the greatest hitter of all time remains the Babe. While it may seem like nostalgia for the 1920s boon or fondness for baseball lore, the statistics, including Ruth's otherworldly .690 career slugging average and 207 OPS+, show that it is disingenuous to come to any other conclusion.

In his book Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century, Allen Barra claims that people "start out assuming Ruth was the greatest." However, a close examination of the data does indeed support that Ruth is the greatest. Rarely was Ruth not at the top of the pile in on-base and slugging percentage, and, not surprisingly, over the course of his career, he led the league in OPS+ 13 times, with 11 of those years surpassing 200.

Of course, Babe Ruth is synonymous with home runs. The man essentially invented home run hitting. In 1919, Ruth's first full season as a hitter, he set the home run record with 29, breaking Ned Williamson's 1884 mark of 27. A year later, in his first season with the Yankees, Ruth belted 54 home runs, 35 more than the runner-up, St. Louis Browns first baseman George Sisler.

Attracted by his home runs, New York crowds came out as never before. In 1920, the Yankees drew 1,289,422 fans, doubling their mark of the previous year without Ruth and becoming the first team to pass one million in attendance. Large turnouts would continue through the 1920s, and Ruth knew what they wanted. "I try to hit a home run almost every time I go up to the plate," Ruth once told his teammate Frankie Crosetti, "because that's what the people come to see." And that's exactly what they saw.

From 1920 through 1929, Ruth hit 467 homers -- the most prolific 10-year period in history -- while runner-up Rogers Hornsby hit 250. Extend that period slightly, from 1919 through 1933, and Ruth hit 660 homers in a 15-year period -- 361 more than anyone else over that time. What's more, Ruth out-homered every other American League team in 1920 and 1927; and in his career out-homered 90 teams by himself and tied three others.

Today, Ruth's career numbers remain among the best ever. In 22 years, Ruth batted .342 (tied for 10th all-time), hit 714 homers (second all-time) and drove in 2,213 runs (second all-time). He is also second all-time in bases on balls (2,062), second in on-base percentage (.474) and third in runs scored (2,174). No need to assume anything: there is not now, never was and never will be a talent so outsized, so wildly disproportionate to the rest, as Ruth was to his peers.

 

2. Ted Williams OPS+190
When the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame opened in Hernando, Florida, in 1994, the Splendid Splinter picked who he believed were the Top 20 greatest hitters of all time, modestly omitting his own name from the list of legendary batsmen. But while Williams himself may not admit his place in the pecking order of great hitters, few rank Williams below second and many argue that he ranks first. A good argument, considering his career OPS+ of 190 is the second best ever.

Not to mention his other numbers. During 19 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Williams led the league in on-base percentage 12 times, in slugging eight times and in batting six times. He also led in runs scored six times, in home runs four times, in runs batted in four times and in walks and OPS+ eight times apiece.

Today, the mere mention of Williams's name evokes thoughts of his astute and measured approach to batting. In his book, The Science of Hitting, Williams detailed this approach, describing how he mentally divided the 16-inch width of home plate and the strike zone from knees to shoulders into a grid of 77 imaginary boxes. From this grid, Williams could pinpoint the best hitting zones. For example, a box inside and high was a .390 sweet spot, while a box outside and low was a .230 abyss.

Bringing theory and practice together, Williams had his first huge season in 1941. Williams was first in on base and slugging, and his OPS+ was a staggering 235. But his most impressive feat happened in a season-ending doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics when he stroked six hits in eight at bats to finish at .406. In 61 seasons since, no batter has reached .400.

The next year, Williams further proved his hitting was no fluke, winning the Triple Crown (.356, 36 HR, 137 RBI) and again leading the league in OPS+ (217). Before Williams had a chance to follow up his 1942 campaign, however, the 23 year old enlisted in the Navy air corps, spending the next three seasons in the military, primarily
training other pilots. Williams returned to baseball in 1946 but resumed his military career in 1952 as a Marine pilot in the Korean War. Despite missing all or parts of five seasons to military service, Williams continued to post excellent seasons upon his return to the Red Sox lineup. In the six seasons between the Second World War and Korea, Williams batted .339 with an OPS+ average of 184 and won the Triple Crown for a second time in 1947. His 1954 and 1957 seasons, at the ages of 35 and 38 respectively, rank among his best.

Williams retired after the 1960 season with a slugging average of .634, second only to Ruth, and a career .344 batting average. His career .482 on-base percentage is still the best ever.

 

3. Lou Gehrig OPS+179
Once asked about what it was like to play in Babe Ruth's shadow, Lou Gehrig said, "It's a pretty big shadow. It gives me plenty of room to spread myself." And spread himself he did, so much at times that he was never totally overshadowed by Ruth. During his 17 years with the Yankees, the ever-consistent Gehrig proved season after season that he was a hitter of Ruth's caliber.

Take 1927. Gehrig's season was so good that many, including those voting him Most Valuable Player, thought it more impressive than Ruth's 60-homer campaign. Gehrig hit "only" 47 homers that year, but he knocked in 175 (11 more than the Babe) and batted .373. Moreover, Gehrig was third in on-base percentage (.474) and slugged .765, a mere .007 behind Ruth. 1934 was also an impressive year for the Iron Horse. Gehrig not only won the Triple Crown with a line of 49 homers, 165 runs batted in and a .363 average, but he also led the league in on-base percentage (.465), slugging (.706) and OPS+ (208).

By the time he played his last game in 1939, Gehrig had set records like accumulating 400 total bases five times and getting 200 hits and 100 walks in the same season seven times. He led the league in RBI five times, in home runs three times and in on-base percentage five times. His career numbers include a .340 batting average and a .632 slugging percentage, the third highest of all time. His 23 career Grand Slams is yet another all-time record.

However, despite Gehrig's seamless consistency, few of his achievements, especially the 2,130-consecutive-game streak, came easily. Gehrig played every game for 13 years despite a broken thumb, a broken toe and back spasms. Later on, a doctor's X-rays revealed that Gehrig's hands had endured 17 fractures that had "healed" while he continued to play.

 

4. Barry Bonds OPS+177
Measured by OPS+, Barry Bonds's 2001 (262) and 2002 (275) seasons are the greatest ever, and his combination of walks and slugging has earned him a choice seat among the greatest hitters of all time.

In the last two seasons, Bonds has broken no fewer than four
significant single-season records. In 2001, he hit 73 homers, breaking Mark McGwire's record of 70, and his .863 slugging percentage eclipsed Babe Ruth's once insuperable .847 set in 1920. Bonds also broke Ruth's walk record of 170, being issued 177 free passes during the season. A year later, Bonds shattered his own mark, walking 198 times. Finally, his .582 on-base percentage in 2002 blew away Ted Williams's .553, set in his magical .406 season.

Yet, as loud as these impressive numbers are, the best way to understand Bonds's domination as a hitter is to see how his presence in the batter's box wreaks havoc on the opposition. During the 2002 World Series, for example, Anaheim Angels pitchers, fearing the consequences, repeatedly pitched around Bonds (he walked a record 13 times). When they finally did challenge him, however, they suffered the consequences. In one classic October confrontation, Anaheim closer Troy Percival came at Bonds with 95-mile-an-hour gas only to watch him belt the ball 480 feet.

At the start of the 2003 campaign, Bonds sits among the career leaders in several major offensive areas: eleventh in on-base percentage (.428), eighth in slugging (.595), fourth in walks (1,922), fourth in home runs (613). If the 38-year-old left fielder can remain healthy for two or three more years, he has a legitimate shot at breaking the records in these categories. As for OPS+, a statistic that is always in flux, it's difficult to gauge where Bonds will finish. But one thing is certain: Barry Bonds is far and away the most dominant hitter of his generation.

 

5. Rogers Hornsby OPS+175
Save for Rogers Hornsby, no middle infielder or third baseman lands in the top 10 among all-time hitters. Hornsby dominated the National League in the 1920s, and to this day -- 66 years after his retirement -- no second baseman has ever come close to producing his numbers.

Dedicated to physical conditioning and diet, Hornsby so believed in eating red meat that he often consumed blood-red steaks for all three meals. He eschewed smoking and drinking, and, for fear of damaging his eyes, refused to read newspapers or books, and never went to the movies. Whether Hornsby's idiosyncrasies benefited his hitting is debatable, but the results are irrefutable.

Hornsby flourishes in the "bold print test." Look up his career batting statistics in the player registry and you'll see just how often his figures appear in bold, indications that he led the league in that particular category. In 23 seasons, Hornsby topped the league in hitting seven times, in runs scored five times, and in hits and runs batted in four times. Yet, probably his most impressive stats are his on-base percentage and slugging average. During his career, Hornsby led the league nine times in on-base percentage and nine times in slugging. What's more, from 1917 through 1929, he led the league in OPS+ 11 times.

Hornsby's best streak of years was from 1921 to 1925. Incredibly, Hornsby's average during that time was .402 -- one of the most undersold records in baseball history -- and his .424 average in 1924 still sets the pace for any post-1900 season. During these five seasons, Hornsby led the league consecutively in on-base percentage and slugging, and won the Triple Crown twice, in 1922 (.401, 42 HR, 152 RBI) and 1925 (.403, 39 HR, 143 RBI).

After the 1937 season, Hornsby retired with a lifetime slugging average of .577, a National League record for more than 60 years. He batted .358 and slugged 301 home runs, numbers to which no second baseman -- not Napoleon Lajoie, Jackie Robinson, Eddie Collins or Rod Carew -- has come close.


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