My buddy Jayson Stark put up a fun poll on Twitter.
In case you don’t click on that, he gave these four fantastic options:
We can talk those four about other right-handed hitters in a minute, but let’s begin with a different point.
It occurs to me, that we — maybe it’s me — rarely talk about hitters ONLY as hitters. Instinctively, I don’t think about players that way. If I see a list of, let’s say, these players …
— Joe Morgan
— David Ortiz
— Miguel Cabrera
— Edgar Martinez
… I immediately think: OK, Joe Morgan is the best player. That would be my automatic response, and while I suppose you could argue for one of the others (they are all, after all, all-time great players), I would take Morgan every time for his speed, his talent for getting on on base, his ability to play a rare position (and play it well), etc. Morgan would be my automatic choice.
WAR — the current statistic of choice among many hyper fans — would back that up.
But was Joe Morgan the best hitter in that group?
Well, suddenly, I’d have to think about that. I’d have to look up some numbers. And what I’d find is that if you take position out, if you take defense out, if you take baser unning out, no, he was not the best hitter of the group.
He was probably the FOURTH best hitter of the group.
It’s just a whole different way of looking at things.
That’s what makes this greatest right-handed hitter ever question interesting.* I could tell you, pretty automatically, that (for me), Willie Mays is the best player of the four. Aaron would be close, and I love, love, love Henry Aaron. But Mays was a revolution. He was a combination of skills and talents and genius that was new to the Major Leagues when he arrived. He brought with him Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell; he showed America — in even a different way from Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby — what the country had been missing in the national pastime.
But was he a better HITTER than Aaron? Hornsby? Pujols? What about A-Rod or MannyBManny or Miggy or the Franks, Robinson and Thomas? Where do you put Clemente and DiMaggio and Foxx and, well, you know who else belongs somewhere on this list? Gary Sheffield.
Who WAS the best right-handed hitter of all time?
*The greatest left-handed hitter question is interesting but more as a personality quiz. There really are three candidates: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds. And the one you choose probably says more about you than it does about them.
If you are a baseball dreamer, you will choose Ruth, who played so long ago but dominated baseball like no one else.
If you’re a hard-edged romantic, you will choose Williams, who turned hitting into science and kept hitting through two wars, three if you count his war with sportswriters.
And if you look past PEDs and believe baseball is a much better game now, you’ll pick Bonds, who hit with such breathtaking authority that he broke the game and left managers with no choice but to walk him again and again and again.
I should add you might choose Ty Cobb or Lou Gehrig one of the pure hitters like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn or Rod Carew. It would be a hard sell, but one of the joys of baseball is making an argument.
Let’s do this simply — we’ll take three offensive numbers: Runs created, OPS+ and Fangraph’s Runs Above Average.
By Runs Created, it looks like this:
Henry Aaron, 2,549
Willie Mays, 2,366
Alex Rodriguez, 2,274
Albert Pujols, 2,167
Rickey Henderson, 2,164
Jimmie Foxx, 2,129
Frank Robinson, 2,128
Rogers Hornsby, 2,045
Oh, it’s easy to forget just how good Rickey was.
By OPS+ it looks like this:
176: Mike Trout (!!)
175: Rogers Hornsby
163: Jimmie Foxx, Mark McGwire
158: Hank Greenberg
156: Willie Mays, Frank Thomas, Dick Allen
155: Henry Aaron, Joe DiMaggio
154: Frank Robinson, Manny Ramirez, Honus Wagner
And by Fangraphs Runs Above Average:
Henry Aaron, 882
Rogers Hornsby, 862
Willie Mays, 838
Jimmie Foxx, 762
Frank Robinson, 732
Honus Wagner, 705
Alex Rodriguez, 665
We can immediately take some things from this. Aaron is the undisputed and undefeated champion at extended awesomeness. No hitter in Major League history can match his record of simply being great year after year after year after year — I mean, the guy has 700 more total bases than any player ever.
But when it comes to peak hitter — who was the very best when at his best — it’s hard to choose Aaron over several others.
Aaron’s best offensive year was probably 1959. That year he hit .355/401/.636 with 39 homers, 116 runs, 123 RBIs, etc. It’s a fantastic year. But what makes Aaron Aaron is not that season. It’s that he had four or five years that were pretty much just like it, and another four or five that were just a touch below.
What about Mays? His best year was probably 1965. That year he hit .317/.398/.645 with 52 homers, 118 runs, 112 RBIs. It’s every bit as good as Aaron’s best, but again what made him Willie Mays was that he was just as good in ‘54, and ‘63 and ‘55 and so on (and as fun as it is to look at baseball simply through the prism of hitting, come on, how can you talk about Mays without taking about him in centerfield and running the bases and …).
But the truth is, neither of those years based on pure performance matches Rogers Hornsby’s best SIX seasons. I mean, in 1924 he hit .424/.507/.796 and that wasn’t even his triple crown season when he hit .401 with 42 homers and 152 RBIs.
In 1932, Jimmie Foxx hit .364 with 58 home runs.
We all know that McGwire hit 70 homers one year, 66 another.
I would say that Albert Pujols had multiple seasons were better than any season Henry Aaron ever had. I mean, in 2003 he hit .359 with 51 doubles, 43 homers, just insane numbers, and he had three or four other seasons more or less the same.
Edgar Martinez in 1995 probably had a better season than Aaron ever did.
Sheffield in 1996, Frank Thomas two or three times, Frank Robinson when he won the Triple Crown, I mean if we are only talking about absolute peaks, about that summit moment, I don’t think you can pick Aaron or Mays as the greatest right-handed hitters ever.
But is that a fair way to look at things? If it was, Dwight Gooden might have been the greatest National League pitcher ever. You need more than one or two or even three seasons to be the greatest ever, right?
What about counting the number of great seasons? Let’s use Baseball Reference offensive runs above average. A 50 run season is amazing. Which of the right-handers had the most 50 run seasons?
It’s a tie.
9 seasons: Rogers Hornsby and Albert Pujols
8 seasons: Frank Thomas, Willie Mays and Jimmie Foxx
7 seasons: Mike Trout and Henry Aaron
6 seasons: Alex Rodriguez
Whew. I think you know where this is going. If you want a right-handed hitter for the next 20 years, I will take Aaron with Mays in a virtual tie. If you want a 10-year peak of awesomeness, I will take Pujols (you might prefer Hornsby, and that’s cool too).
And all of this probably moot anyway.
Because in 10 years, I think that Mike Trout will be the right answer.