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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.
By Kenneth Shouler | From Cuban Models, May/June 03
The Sultans of Swing

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.


6. Mickey Mantle OPS+172
When Mickey Mantle broke into the major leagues in 1951, Casey Stengel, the wily manager of the Yankees, said of the rookie, "With his combination of speed and power, he should win the Triple Crown every year." Mantle won it only once; even so, his place at the table of great hitters is undeniable.

In his first five seasons, Mantle put up decent numbers, batting .295 with 121 homers and 445 runs batted in. In 1955, he led the majors in on-base percentage (.431), slugging (.611) and OPS+ (181), but it wasn't until 1956, the year he won the Triple Crown, that Mantle had his first truly dominant season. Along with belting 52 homers, knocking in 130 runs and hitting .353, Mantle led the league in OPS+ with a remarkable 210.

By this time, Mantle was established as a hitter and a producer, and from 1956 to 1964, Mantle led the major leagues in OPS+ seven times, including the historic 1961 season when he hit a career high 54 homers and drove in 128 runs. He was also champion of the tape-measure homer. In 1953, Mantle smashed a 565-footer off Washington Senators pitcher Chuck Stobbs at Griffith Stadium. In 1955, he became the first player to reach the center-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium with a 486-foot shot that cleared the 20-foot hitter's background screen above the 461-foot marker. He bettered that in 1964 with a 502-footer off Chicago White Sox right-hander Ray Herbert.

Mantle's last good year came in 1964, at the age of 32. It was the last season he would bat over .300 or lead the league in any offensive category. During spring training in 1969, Mantle announced his retirement. "I can't play anymore," he said. "I can't hit the ball when I need to. I have to quit."

Today, Mantle is recognized as having possessed one of the greatest packages of speed and power the game has ever seen. Over 18 seasons, the Mick scattered 2,415 hits (952 of them for extra bases), hit 536 home runs, collected 1,509 RBI and walked 1,733 times. Although his career batting average was just short of .300 (.298), his career OPS+ of 172 comfortably lands him in the top 10 among baseball's greatest.


7. (tie) Dan Brouthers OPS+170
"Big Dan" Brouthers is the only nineteenth-century hitter to make our top 10. Born in Sylvan Lake, New York, in 1858, Brouthers played from 1879 through 1896 and was the most renowned slugger of his time, hitting 106 home runs and notching a career slugging mark of .519, highest of anyone who played a majority of his career before 1900.

After two seasons with the Troy Trojans, Brouthers blossomed with the Buffalo Bisons in 1881, leading the league with eight homers and a .541 slugging average. He continued to lead the league in slugging over the next four years. Before the 1886 season, the Detroit Wolverines purchased the entire Bisons roster for $7,000. Brouthers, playing for his third of eleven teams, hit .370, with 40 doubles and 11 homers, and led the league in slugging for the sixth straight season.

Brouthers slugged over .500 11 times during his 19 seasons (he made a brief comeback in 1904 when he played two games with the New York Giants), often topping the league average by 200 points. He led leagues (the National League, Players League and American Association) in slugging a total of seven times, in on-base average and batting five times, and in total hits four times. What makes Brouthers stand out, however, is his relative dominance. Brouthers led the league in the OPS+ category eight times, his highest being 206 in 1886.


7.(tie) Joe Jackson OPS+170
Kids consumed with remembering record books know that Joe Jackson finished with the third highest average of all time, a gaudy .356 mark surpassed by only Ty Cobb (.366) and Rogers Hornsby (.358). Like Cobb, "Shoeless Joe" posted high on-base (.423) and slugging marks (.517), the latter achieved by logging loads of doubles and triples in baseball's "Dead Ball Era."

Jackson's lasting reputation isn't based merely on hitting. In 1919, while making just $6,000 a year playing for the White Sox and their tightwad owner, Charles Comiskey, Jackson's .351 batting average propelled Chicago to the World Series. The Sox, having won the Series two years before, were heavy favorites to beat Cincinnati. But Chicago's play was ragged and it lost a best-of-nine affair, five games to three. Stories were rampant about a fix, and before a Chicago grand jury, Jackson admitted that he'd been promised $20,000 to dump games. Jackson only received $5,000, while he conceded to not hustling after balls in left field, throwing the ball weakly, and striking out in key situations.

Jackson's final season was 1920, a year in which he batted .382, slugged .589 and led the league in triples (20). In August 1921, Jackson and seven other Chicago players were banned from baseball for life. At 31, Shoeless Joe had played his final game.


9. Ty Cobb OPS+167
Remembered for aggressive baserunning and spraying 4,189 hits during his 24-year career, Ty Cobb was not just the game's best player before 1920, but its most dominant slugger as well. He won 11 batting titles in 13 years, eight slugging titles, and was OPS+ leader 11 times.

No doubt Cobb's unrelenting intensity, even meanness, carried him a long way. "When I began playing the game, baseball was about as gentlemanly as a kick in the crotch," Cobb said. "I was like a steel spring with a growing and dangerous flaw in it. If it is wound too tight or has the slightest weak point, the spring will fly apart; then it is done for."

For the hypercompetitive Georgian every year was a peach, but 1911 can be argued as his best overall year, even better than 1909 when he won the Triple Crown. Cobb led the league in 1911 with a .420 batting average, in addition to just about every other major offensive category, including runs scored (147), hits (248), doubles (47), triples (24), slugging (.621) and OPS+ (196). Cobb also hit eight home runs that year and, though he didn't lead the league in on-base percentage, he got on base at a .467 clip.

By the time he finished his career in 1928, Cobb's career batting average was .366, his on-base percentage .433 and his slugging percentage .512. Among center fielders, his OPS+ is second only to Mickey Mantle.


10.(tie) Jimmie Foxx OPS+163
Nicknamed the Beast, Jimmie Foxx was such an imposing and muscular figure that Yankees hurler Lefty Gomez once said that even Foxx's "hair had muscles." During the 1930s, he played for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox, combining his brawn with natural hitting ability to challenge Lou Gehrig as the most dominant hitter of the decade.

In 1932, five years after Ruth's 60-homer season, Foxx made an assault on the Babe's record, finishing with 58. He knocked in 169 runs and slugged .749, also league bests. In 1933, Foxx won the Triple Crown (.356, 48 HR, 163 RBI), but Athletics owner Connie Mack, who could no longer afford to pay his stars during the Depression, tried to cut his salary from $16,333 to $12,000. The easygoing Foxx protested, and eventually only gave up $333.

Three seasons later, Foxx joined the Boston Red Sox and continued to post impressive numbers, including 1938, when he led the league in batting (.349), RBI (175), on-base percentage (.462) and slugging (.704). Foxx also hit 50 home runs that year, but failed to win the Triple Crown, as Hank Greenberg hit 58 homers for the Detroit Tigers.

Like McGwire in the 1990s, Foxx posted his best numbers in a decade known for robust offense. But OPS+ measures relative dominance, and dominating an offensive era is every bit as impressive as dominating a pitching era. Foxx did that, finishing in the top five for OPS+ eleven times, leading the leagues five times and placing second twice.


10.(tie) Mark McGwire OPS+163
Mark McGwire's inclusion on the all-time best OPS+ list was helped considerably by his career slugging percentage. At .588, McGwire broke Rogers Hornsby's long-standing National League record of .577 when he retired in 2001, a mark later surpassed by Barry Bonds, who began 2003 at .595.

In McGwire's 16-year big-league career, he led the league in slugging four times and in OPS+ four times, but he will forever be associated with the long-balling era of the 1990s. McGwire not only shattered Roger Maris's 37-year record when he hit 70 homers in 1998, but the chain of bashing he set off rendered Maris's total a kind of museum piece. That same year Sammy Sosa smacked 66 home runs; in 1999, 63; and in 2001, 64. McGwire followed up his own potency with 65 homers in 1999; then, only two years later, Bonds clubbed 73. In sum, the first 90 years of professional baseball saw two men reach the forbiddingly difficult total of 60 homers. Now 60 was mocked six times in four years.

McGwire not only retired as the career National League slugging leader, but with another record that probably will stand for a long time in both leagues. From 1986 to 2001, McGwire belted 583 home runs in 6,187 at bats. That's one home run in every 10.61 at bats, breaking Ruth's record of one every 11.76 at bats.


Kenneth Shouler, of Harrison, New York, is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado. Steven Shouler helped analyze the data for this story.