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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.


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