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Now that our list of the top 100 MLB players of all time has been revealed, it’s time to have some fun.
More than 20,000 votes were cast to put together these rankings, from representatives from across ESPN’s MLB platforms. Now, we’re asking our baseball experts to break down what they saw.
You probably had some opinions of your own as you read through our ranking: He is too high! Why is he all the way down there!? And how could he possibly be behind THAT player?
Well, you’re not alone. We asked Buster Olney, Jeff Passan, Bradford Doolittle, Tim Keown, Alden Gonzalez and David Schoenfield to sound off on what stood out most, who is too high, who is too low and the players they would swap on our list.
The List: 100-51 | 50-26 | 25-1
Key links: Full rankings | Snubs | Debating our selections
Doolittle: The difficult case of Oscar Charleston
What is the No. 1 thing that stands out to you when looking at our top 100?
Olney: That there are too many players from past eras dominating this list — which is a function of how well baseball statistics translate over generations. That’s fun … but there are too many George Mikans mixed in with the LeBrons, so to speak, in a sport that has evolved just as much as the NBA or the NFL.
Doolittle: Pre-integration Negro Leaguers are really underrated on our list, both among those who did make it (Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson) and in terms of overall representation.
Think of it like this: There are 18 players on our list who were born between 1880 and 1911. (Gibson was born in 1911, so that’s why I use that cutoff.) Three of those were the aforementioned greats from the Negro Leagues. There should be more. I don’t know that we need more overall representation from that era, but just a better mix. Like drop Hank Greenberg and add Buck Leonard, for example.
I guess it’s hard to make this observation without also pointing out that I don’t agree with Buster’s viewpoint at all. Today’s players are the product of accumulated knowledge and scientific advances over time, to be sure. But we’re not talking about dropping Mike Trout into 1923 or Babe Ruth in 2019. We’re making observations about the greatness of players within the context in which they played.
Keown: That’s what makes this list an impossible exercise. Fun, of course, but impossible. Do we rate by impact on a specific era? If so, Ruth at No. 1 is right where he belongs, with one massive caveat: He didn’t play against all of the best players of his generation. Do we attempt to envision Mike Trout facing Walter Johnson? If so, I would suggest there shouldn’t be a pre-1960s player in the top 100. The mix of the Mikans and the LeBrons is what creates the conversation, something baseball does better than any other sport. That said, there are not seven players in baseball history better than Barry Bonds.
Passan: No, there aren’t, Tim, and that’s what I take away: That when you get a group of people who love baseball and know it intimately, there are still bound to be guys who simply look out of place. Is Pedro Martinez really the second-best pitcher in baseball history? In what world is Tris Speaker, he of the ninth-most rWAR in history, the 36th-best player? Ichiro, great as he was, does not belong above Nap Lajoie, who’s closer in WAR to Honus Wagner. David Ortiz is a deserving Hall of Famer. He ain’t the 63rd-best major leaguer ever. And, like Brad said, where are all the Negro Leaguers?
Schoenfield: Well, Bryce Harper at No. 94 is a little silly (if you want to put an active right fielder on the list, it should have been Mookie Betts, who trumps Harper — so far — in both career value and peak value). But what also stands out, despite our addiction to history and stats, is that we just love the players we love: Mickey Mantle (great in his 20s), Ken Griffey Jr. (great in his 20s), Derek Jeter (overrated defender), Mariano Rivera (reliever), Sandy Koufax (short career), Pete Rose (hung on way too long just to break records), Nolan Ryan (one of a kind), Tony Gwynn (singles hitter), Ichiro Suzuki (one-of-a-kind singles hitter) are probably all ranked too high … but these are some of the most beloved players in history — or in Rose’s case, simultaneously beloved and despised — and they loom a little larger in our memories.
Gonzalez: The reason why a list like this is so difficult is because baseball history is too long. On the front end, a clear decision needs to be made: Are we judging players based on how they performed relative to their era? (For example: Was Sandy Koufax more dominant in the 1960s than Pedro Martinez was in the 2000s?) Or are we simply deciding who was a better baseball player? (Like: Was Barry Bonds better than Babe Ruth?) There are hints of the former approach, as evidenced by The Babe being No. 1. But there are also hints of the latter approach, which is why someone like Lefty Grove didn’t finish within the top 50. And no, I don’t know the right answer.
Which one player’s spot on the list jumps out to you most as being TOO HIGH?
Olney: Babe Ruth. He’s not the greatest ever. Other than Jackie Robinson, he is the most transformative player in baseball history in how he changed the sport. But Adam Ottavino is right: He would strike out vintage Babe Ruth repeatedly. The sport evolves.
Doolittle: When I dove into the issue of greatest shortstops ever a couple of years back, I ended up with Derek Jeter at No. 4. So it’s not like I don’t think he was a great player; he’s certainly in the top 100. But I probably wouldn’t put him in the top 50, much less at No. 28. Just to list some of the infielders he’s ranked ahead of: Joe Morgan, Jackie Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., George Brett, Nap Lajoie, Pop Lloyd and Eddie Collins. Too high.
Keown: Even in a totally subjective exercise like this one, it feels like there should be something sacred about the top 10. I envision it as the ultimate VIP lounge, and if I’m handling security, Mickey Mantle is standing outside the ropes. He was great, of course, probably top 20, but seeing him come in at No. 7 — ahead of Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. and Honus Wagner — is not only wrong but one of many examples of Yankees being rated too highly.
Passan: Did I miss my invitation to the Yankee-bashing festival? Was I left out of the sacred-cow sacrifice for any particular reason, guys? I demand answers. In lieu of them, I suppose I’ll contribute my version of sacrilege, which is to call Ken Griffey Jr. overrated. Much as it pains me to slight my childhood hero in such a manner, the undeniable greatness of the first half of Junior’s career is tempered enough by his injury-riddled back half that to suggest he had the 13th-best career in history is to ignore those of his superiors. There are a few peak-over-longevity cases — one is two spots ahead of him — but too many players with a combination of both find themselves behind Junior.
Oh, almost forgot. Mariano Rivera at 31 is absurd.
Schoenfield: Flags fly forever, Passan. Anyway, I’ll go with Nolan Ryan at No. 42. I get that his career was an incredible show of epic uniqueness, but here’s a fun little fact: For much of his career, Ryan wasn’t even the best starter on his team. Frank Tanana was better for a few seasons with the Angels, J.R. Richard and then Joe Niekro and then Mike Scott were all better at various times with the Astros, Kevin Brown was better one year in Texas (of course, Ryan was 45 by then). Ryan is understandably a legend, but also a legend who twice walked 200 batters in a season.
Gonzalez: Recency bias is a real thing. So is a prevailing narrative. And that seemed to show up on our list, particularly when it comes to David Ortiz and Derek Jeter. Ortiz (No. 62) and Jeter (No. 28) are simply listed too high. This isn’t a ranking of players who most resonated with their respective cities; this is the 100 Greatest Players of All Time, for crying out loud. Ortiz, a one-dimensional player throughout his career, is listed ahead of Brooks Robinson and Max Scherzer? Jeter, beloved largely for intangibles, is ranked ahead of Albert Pujols and Sandy Koufax? Come on now.
Which one player’s spot on the list jumps out to you most as being TOO LOW?
Olney: I have felt for years that Rickey Henderson is not given his due in the all-time rankings. The object of the game is to score as many runs as possible, and nobody did that better than Rickey. He’s not a top-five player, but top 20? Hell yes. It’s still incredible to me that 28 voters left him off their Hall of Fame ballots.
Doolittle: Oscar Charleston is one of the best five to 10 players ever, and we’ve got him at No. 53. To me, that’s the biggest miss, though Gibson is also too low and, for that matter, so is Collins. We’re shining a light on Charleston this week because he has been overlooked for more than 100 years and it’s still — obviously — happening.
Keown: Bob Gibson at No. 33. There have not been eight right-handed pitchers in the history of the game better than Gibson. Tom Seaver was not better than Gibson. Is there any GM/manager ever who would choose peak Mariano Rivera over peak Gibson? Somehow, Rivera is one spot higher in the rankings. Pedro Martinez at No. 11 and Bob Gibson at No. 33? If Pedro is No. 11 — and fine, go ahead — Gibson is either No. 10 or No. 12, and I’d vote for No. 10. Gibson was so good in 1968 — 13 shutouts! — that MLB shrank the strike zone and lowered the mound five inches. Utterly shaken by the Gibson Rules, the next season he won 20 games and had a 2.18 ERA. (Also, I repeat, there are not seven players in baseball history better than Barry Bonds.)
Passan: In his career, Greg Maddux started 740 games, good for fourth all time. Cy Young threw 749 complete games — more than all but two pitchers in the rest of the annals of the game even started. Yes, Pedro (11th) and Maddux (14th) and Roger Clemens (17th), all ahead of Young (21st), had better stuff than a guy who spent half his career pitching in the 1800s and the other half in the deadball era. A guy who pitched before integration, before the home run revolution, before the modern game we now know evolved. And yet for all the shade my comrades want to throw at bygone times, Young threw 7,356 innings, 1,352? more than anyone in history. Or, put another way, the difference between him and second best amounts to more innings than Jacob deGrom has thrown in his entire career. Have Rickey, have Oscar, have Gibby. Give me the Cy Young.
Voting results for the Class of 2022 are in. Here’s what you need to know.
Ortiz in, Bonds and Clemens miss out »
Ortiz stories from those who know him »
Winners and losers of 2022 voting »
Passan: What about Barry Bonds? »
Class of 2022 Hall of Fame coverage »
Schoenfield: Adrian Beltre at No. 97. His career was a little strange in that he was better in his 30s than his 20s (except for that absurd 2004 season with the Dodgers), but he’s 40th all time in WAR — and 24th among players who played primarily after integration. He didn’t have as many high-peak seasons as some other all-time greats, but he was a fantastic two-way player for 20 years.
Gonzalez: Since we’re clearly not penalizing for steroid use — which would only heighten the difficulty of a list that is already borderline impossible — I don’t see how Alex Rodriguez doesn’t crack our top 25. He would’ve probably gone down as the best shortstop of all time had he not moved to third base in his late 20s. Only 15 players have put up a higher career bWAR than A-Rod, and nine of them played before the sport even integrated. We’re talking about a three-time MVP and a two-time Gold Glover — at shortstop — who accumulated nearly 700 home runs and hit for nearly a .300 batting average.
Joon Lee makes the case that Mike Trout should be ranked higher than 15 on the top 100 list.
Which two players would you swap on our list?
Olney: Two Texans, Clayton Kershaw (No. 52) and Nolan Ryan (No. 42). The Express is unlike any other player in history, in how he compiled innings, walks and strikeouts, but Kershaw has been demonstrably better at preventing runs. Isn’t that the primary responsibility of pitching?
Doolittle: I think swapping Jeter (No. 28) with Ripken (No. 66) improves the list considerably. How did we end up with Ripken Jr. at No. 66? Anyway, Ripken was at least as good a hitter in terms of career value and was a vastly superior defender, more than enough to account for the fact that he eventually moved off of shortstop and Jeter didn’t. And while Jeter had the most prodigious postseason career of anyone, on a rate basis, Ripken was better there, too. Jeter just had a lot more October opportunities.
Keown: I’ll stay with Brad’s theme here but add a twist. I know the rules say two players, but I propose a three-way trade: Ripken jumps from 66 to 37, replacing Joe Morgan, who jumps to Jeter’s spot at 28, with Jeter dropping to 66.
Passan: Of course Keown has to show off with the triple jump. I’ll keep it simple and avoid dropping Mo and Ichiro and all the other overrateds we covered earlier. How about a right field-for-right field swap: Drop Tony Gwynn to 62nd and bump Mel Ott to 44th. Ott probably should be higher, truth be told. He ranks 20th among all players in rWAR and 19th in fWAR, compared to Gwynn’s 109th and 131st, respectively.
The difference in productivity is staggering. Flipping them still honors Gwynn’s unique skill set — we just can’t get over batting average, it seems — while giving Ott his due credit for a career .304/.414/.533 line and 155 OPS+ that has some pretty good company: Henry Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Negro Leagues slugger Jud “Boojum” Wilson.
Schoenfield: Ripken and Jeter jumped out to me as well, but here’s my swap: Roger Clemens (No. 17) and Walter Johnson (No. 9), which, yes, would make Clemens the No. 1 pitcher of all time. Johnson has 25 more career WAR — pitching 1,000 more innings in an era when pitching more innings was a lot easier — but I think we have to make a timeline adjustment here, or, as others have pointed out, we end up with too many of the greatest players of all time born in the 19th century. What Clemens accomplished (seven Cy Young Award, seven ERA titles) in his era is more impressive than Johnson’s numbers in the deadball era.
Gonzalez: We’re doing this list in 2022, not 2032, and while I think eventually Mike Trout will find his way into the top 10 (perhaps even the top five), I think we have him ahead of players he hasn’t truly surpassed yet. This is not what I consider to be the most egregious error on the list (see: Ortiz, Jeter), but I think swapping Trout at 15 and A-Rod at 26 makes a lot of sense.
Source: ESPN MLB