Ranking the greatest baseball players of all time is no easy feat. There will always be snubs, and there will always be arguments as you can never really compare players across generations. On top of this, baseball is made even more complex to compare when you consider pitchers and hitters. Pitching used to be more comparable in the early 20th century when pitchers pitched 40 games a year, but that is simply not how it works anymore.
Keep in mind that this list is all opinion. Of course, keeping into context the time period in which the player played is an important balancing act. Players are stronger and faster now, but that is due to technological advancements in nutrition, strength, conditioning, etc.
#5 Lou Gehrig
Number 5 on my list may lift a few eyebrows. Many argue that Ty Cobb or Hank Aaron should be in this spot, but I have to give it to the original iron man Lou Gehrig. Not only did Gehrig never miss a game until ALS stopped his body from physically being able to, but unlike Cal Ripkin Jr., he was always one of the best players in the entire league every season of his record. This is an MVP-worthy bat that was penciled-in the lineup for every game of every year for around 14 years.
Lou Gehrig took home two MVPs, and it could have easily been several more. Over the course of his career, he won 6 World Series titles and a triple crown. Gehrig ended his career with 493 home runs and 2,721 base hits. He would have easily crushed the 3,000 hit and 500 home run marks if his illness did not progress the way it did. He also ranks 4th in OPS+ for his career, absolutely dominating both Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb in this category.
However, the most damning stat to me is his batting average and on-base percentage. Through a 17-year career, he hit .340 and held an on-base percentage of .447. Basically, half the time Lou Gehrig came up to the plate, he ended up on-base. This stat, combined with the fact that he played 2,130 straight games, makes his talents both unbelievable and worthy of a top 5 spot.
#4 Ted Williams
In the number four slot is the best player ever to play the game when it came to getting on base. Ted Williams holds the MLB record with a .482 on-base percentage. Ted Williams had four seasons in which he reached base more times than he did not, sporting over a .500 on-base stat and several seasons just under that mark ranging between .497-.500. Simply put, no one has ever been, in the history of baseball, nearly as good as Ted Williams when it came to getting on base.
Ted Williams also collected 2 MVPs, 19 All-Star appearances, and 2 triple crowns. He sits second ever in OPS+, only behind Babe Ruth. When it came to volume stats, Williams tallied 521 home runs, 1,839 RBIs, and he collected 2,654 base hits. Williams was an incredible all-around hitter with above-average defensive skills.
#3 Babe Ruth
Maybe the most controversial slotting on this list, I am placing Babe Ruth at #3. He is the all-time slugging and On Base+Slugging leader, sitting with a .690 slugging percentage and a 1.164 OPS. While the Babe, simply put, was the most outstanding offensive player when looking at era-adjusted stats like OPS+, you also need to take into consideration that this is not the perfect measure.
Some things that make me rank Babe Ruth at #3 instead of #1 is first the fact that he had 123 stolen bags in his lifetime and was caught stealing 117 times. Obviously, a poor percentage. He also was not the greatest fielder, having several seasons with a ton of errors and a sub-par fielding percentage. When looking at Ruth as a position player, he was not the greatest of all time.
Now, what puts him over the top for many, but not this list, is the fact that he also had five seasons of dominant starting pitching performances. Between 1915 and 1919, he started 140 games and boasted an ERA of 2.16, good enough for an ERA+ of 127. He also has a FIP of 2.74. Clearly put, Ruth also dominated as a starter and had a fantastic mini-career as a pitcher. However, during that time, he was a good hitter, not a great one. When looking at complete performances, I rate two players above him.
#2 Barry Bonds
I get it; Barry Bonds played during the Steroid Era. However, Bonds had two Hall of Fame careers. The first is before his supposed roiding days. Between 1986 and 1999, Bonds hit 445 home runs and had 460 steals, only being caught stolen 132 times. On top of this, Bonds had an OPS+ of 162. However, during this time, it was not only his offense that was superb. He also received 8 Golden Gloves as an outfielder during those years as well.
While these stats would be good enough to add him to most top-10 lists in terms of positional players, it is then the controversial stage of his career that pushes him over the top. Between 2000 and 2004, Bonds recorded 5 silver sluggers, 4 MVPs, had an OPS+ of 241, hit 53 HRs/year, and walked 872 times. He had the greatest five-year stretch as a hitter that anyone will ever and has ever put together.
When you combine these two aspects of Barry Bonds, the 8 Gold Gloves, 7 MVPs, 14 All-star appearances, and 12 Silver Sluggers, there is little arguing that Bonds was the best hitter of all-time and the second-best player to ever play in the Majors. He now carries the all-time homerun lead at 762 and walk lead at 2558.
#1 Willie Mays
The greatest baseball player of all time is Willie Mays. No player has ever demonstrated top-5 all-time ability at all five facets of the game: hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding, and throwing, except for Willie Mays. First, the volume stats. Willie Mays was a 24x All-Star, 12x Gold Glover, 2x MVP winner, and Rookie of the Year recipient. Note that he could and should have won two to six more MVPs. Mays hit 660 home runs and finished his career with 338 steals, only being caught 103 times. This stat looks even better when you consider that oftentimes Mays had no reason to steal with who was batting behind him, Orlando Cepeda, or Willie McCovey.
First off, the hitting, Willie Mays finished his career with only a 156 OPS+ and ended his career with 3,283 hits. When speaking to pitchers of that era, no one was feared like Mays because he had power and contact like few had ever seen before. However, it is safe to say that Mays was not the best pure hitter of all time. He would rank top-10 at the very worst.
Then, you look at the fielding, and while there are little in the way of advanced metrics to support how good he was, you do have the 12 Gold Gloves to look at, “the catch”, or the testimonies of every all-time great to ever see him play. Nobody could run as fast or throw as far as Willie Mays. We cannot say for sure that he was the greatest outfielder of all time, but many people in baseball would put their money on Mays over anyone in history.
On top of all this, Mays played in an era where the best players were playing. According to ESPN.com, Mays tallied over 10% of his plate appearances in his career against Hall of Fame pitchers, a ridiculous amount. He had an OPS of .962 against Koufax and .955 against Spahn. Ty Cobb, Lou Gerig, Babe Ruth, and some of William’s career was in a game that did not have black atheltes. Some of the best talent in America was not in the majors due to segregation. Mays played against the best and was the best. He is the greatest player ever to play the game.