I will take a break from COVID, Jury Democracy, and the governor race to opine on this controversial topic.
Joe Posnanski is the best sportswriter in America. He recently wrote a great series online that he turned into a book called The Baseball 100, listing the 100 greatest baseball players in history, in his view. It is truly wonderful. But I have a bone to pick on his order. Here are his top 10.
1. Willie Mays
2. Babe Ruth
3. Barry Bonds
4. Henry Aaron
5. Oscar Charleston
6. Ted Williams
7. Walter Johnson
8. Ty Cobb
9. Stan Musial
10. Satchel Paige
My bone is Aaron vs. Mays. Barry Bonds would not be on my list because he cheated with PEDs. Charleston and Paige were from the negro leagues, and it is hard to compare them. And Ruth and Johnson were from a different era before integration, so it is hard to compare them. (Williams and Musial are also post-integration, mostly, and one could make a case for each of them being better than Aaron or Mays, but I and nearly everyone comes to the conclusion that Aaron and Mays both had better careers than Williams and Musial.)
But Aaron and Mays were both outfielders and almost exact contemporaries, and Aaron was the better player. You may have liked Mays style more, he may have had a nicer smile, and he was a slightly better fielder at a slightly more difficult position, Center Field versus Right Field. But Aaron has over 10% more home runs, hits, extra base hits, and RBIs and most importantly total bases, and he has more runs. He also has a higher batting average and the same career on-base plus slugging percentage when adjusted for park (OPS+). Aaron played in the most difficult hitting era in baseball history and mostly in bad hitting parks and still wound up with more than 10% more total bases than any player who ever played, even up to today. Total bases in particular I think is the best statistic to use for complete hitting, and he is ahead of everyone by a mile.
Here are the career total hitting comparisons of Aaron v. Mays.
Mays’s only edge is in stolen bases, but Aaron actually was successful in a higher percentage of his steal attempts, so May’s advantage there is small.
Here are the hitting rate comparisons.
Aaron has an advantage in batting average. Mays has a slight advantage in OBP and Slugging and OPS, but that disappears when adjusted for park to OPS+.
Where Mays has a fairly significant advantage is in fielding. Here are their games just as an outfielder. Aaron was a second baseman for some of his time and those games are not included in these fielding statistics.
Mays is considered one of the top 2 or 3 fielding Center Fielders in History. But Aaron was probably one of the top 10 or 20 fielding Right Fielders in history. Center Field is a somewhat more important defensive position than Right Field. But still, May’s advantage in fielding does not overcome the quite significant advantage Aaron has in hitting.
Their careers are over. We are not judging them on charisma or who has more athletic ability or who you would draft if they were both 18 and you drafted them based on potential and expectations. We are judging them on what they accomplished on the field and who contributed more to winning baseball games for his team. Aaron was the better player.