Ten reasons Willie Mays is greatest ever

May, 6, 2011
5/06/11
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Willie MaysKidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesWillie Mays poses at the Polo Grounds during his rookie season in 1951.
Now, I understand that arguing for Willie Mays as the greatest baseball player of all time isn’t exactly like arguing for Chester A. Arthur as the greatest president.

But there are many who still fight the good fight for Babe Ruth, those who will argue for Barry Bonds or Ted Williams, others who remain steadfast that Hank Aaron is underappreciated, New Yorkers who cling to Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, and maybe a select few who side with Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner (although I suspect most of their supporters are long since dead).

So let’s do it ... as he turns 80 years old today, 10 reasons Willie is still the greatest:

1. Because Jim Murray once wrote this:

"The first thing to establish about Willie Mays is that there really is one."

2. Because he was better than Aaron, and Aaron was pretty freakin’ awesome.

Here’s one comparison with Aaron, using the number of runs created (the old Bill James stat) per season, starting with the best season of each player’s career, going to second-best, third-best and so on.




Aaron eventually passed Mays -- but it took him 13 seasons to do it. And remember that Mays missed nearly two full seasons while in the Army early in his career; the first year he returned he won the MVP Award. The point is: When you're a tad bit better than Hank Aaron and played one of the most important defensive positions and played 150-plus games 13 consecutive seasons ... well, Jim Murray had a good point.

3. Because he won two MVP Awards ... but should have won eight.

  • 1954: Won. Deservedly so.
  • 1955: Led NL in home runs, slugging and OPS while finishing second in batting average, runs and RBIs. Finished fourth in the voting behind Roy Campanella, whose Dodgers won the pennant.
  • 1958: Led NL in OPS, runs and stolen bases while ranking second in batting average and slugging. Finished second to Ernie Banks, primarily due to Banks’ 129 to 96 edge in RBIs. Was Mays not clutch that year? Hardly. He hit .325 with runners in scoring position, .371 with men on base and .408 in "late and close" situations. The problem was the Giants didn’t have many men on base in front of him: their leadoff and No. 2 hitters both had a .315 OBP.
  • 1960: Finished third behind Dick Groat and Don Hoak of the first-place Pirates. They were close to Mays in value. I mean, when added together.
  • 1962: Maury Wills edged Mays in the voting, a stunning result in retrospect. Wills scored 130 runs (the same as Mays) ... but drove in 93 fewer. Mays’ Giants even won the tiebreaker over Wills’ Dodgers, but Wills swiped the headlines by breaking Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen base record.
  • 1963: Finished fifth as Sandy Koufax went 25-5 to win. Dick Groat finished second in the vote with six home runs. Man, did the writers love Dick Groat or what? Koufax and Aaron had good cases, but I’d have given the nod to Mays.
  • 1964: Finished sixth in the voting even though Dick Allen was the only player within two wins of him in overall value. Led NL in home runs, OPS and scored 121 runs (second) and didn’t receive one first-place vote.
  • 1965: Finally won another trophy with maybe his best season, and it took him to tower over the rest of the league to do so. He was more than three wins better than the next-best position player and his OPS was 105 points higher than Aaron, who ranked second.

So that’s eight. You could also make strong cases for him in 1957, 1961 and 1966. So he could have won 11. But that would have been quite boring.

4. Because he was one of the best fielders of all time.

He won 13 Gold Gloves. Do I need to defend his fielding? The advanced fielding metrics back up the reputation. Baseball-Reference ranks him as having the eighth-most fielding runs saved of all time -- behind Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Andruw Jones, Ozzie Smith, Roberto Clemente, Bonds and Carl Yastrzemski. Other than Bonds, none are within 100 points of Mays in career OPS.

5. Because Roger Angell once wrote this in the New Yorker:
    "He may have lost a half-second or so in getting down to first base, but I doubt whether Willie Davis or Ralph Garr or any of the other new flashes can beat Mays from first to third, or can accelerate just as he does ... how much he resembles a marvelous skier in midturn down some steep pitch of fast powder. Nobody like him."

Here’s the thing: Angell wrote that in 1971, when Mays was 40 years old. And you know what? Angell’s observations were right; Baseball-Reference rates Mays as the top baserunner in the National League that year.

[+] EnlargeWillie Mays
Robert Riger/Getty ImagesWillie Mays is widely considered among the five best players ever.
6. Because he hit the best pitchers of his era.

Over 10 percent of Mays’ career plate appearances came against Hall of Famers. And these weren’t chump Hall of Famers: Spahn, Drysdale, Roberts, Koufax, Gibson, Bunning, Carlton, Jenkins, Sutton and Niekro (and, to a lesser extent, Seaver, Marichal, Wilhelm and Ryan). Against those pitchers he hit .286 with a .498 slugging percentage. He had a .978 OPS against Drysdale, .962 against Koufax and .955 against Spahn. (Gibson did own him, however.)

7. Because I don’t want to hear about Barry Bonds.

Bonds through age 35: 116.1 WAR
Mays through age 35: 127.0 WAR

And then came 2001. Look, Bonds has a strong case as the greatest ever. But he has one gigantic argument against him ... and it’s not necessarily PEDs. He played left field and played it beautifully. Willie played center and played it beautifully. Bonds took away doubles. Mays took away triples.

(By the way, this excludes Ted Williams from the discussion, because Bonds was better than Williams. And by that, I mean he was better even before his 2001 explosion.)

8. Because Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth played in a different era.

Here are B-R’s top 20 position players and the year they debuted in the majors:

1. Ruth 1914
2. Bonds 1986
3. Cobb 1905
4. Mays 1951
5. Aaron 1954
6. Wagner 1897
7. Speaker 1907
8. Hornsby 1915
9. Musial 1941
10. Collins 1906
11. Williams 1939
12. Mantle 1951
13. Gehrig 1923
14. Henderson 1979
15. Ott 1926
16. Schmidt 1972
17. Robinson 1956
18. Lajoie 1896
19. Morgan 1963
20. Rodriguez 1994

FanGraphs has the same 20, except Jimmie Foxx and Carl Yastrzemski instead of Nap Lajoie and Joe Morgan.

Do you see the problem here? Of that list of 20, nine debuted before Mays was even born. Do we really think nine of the 20 greatest players of all time began their careers before 1930 ... but only two have debuted in the past 30 years?

It’s a ridiculous assertion, and the problem comes in how players are statistically evaluated against their peers: Because the overall quality of play gets better over time, it was easier to dominate your league in the earlier days. Simply put, there weren’t as many good players, so the great players -- like Cobb and Ruth -- look even greater by comparison.

Look, you may not believe this. Just watch the old films: You don’t have to be a professional scout to see that pitchers throw harder than even 30 years ago, let alone 90 years ago. The quality of the athlete is better across the board. Mays dominated a more competitive era than Ruth played in -- an era after integration, mind you.

9. Because, yes, he’s better than Babe Ruth.

Here’s another Ruth issue. From the time he joined the Yankees in 1920, through his last season with them in 1934, there were nine Hall of Fame pitchers in the American League. Thing is ... four of them were Yankees (Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez). In an eight-team league, where you faced each club 22 times per season, the Yankees almost always had the best pitching. And Ruth didn't have to face it. Anyway, no offense to Red Faber or Ted Lyons or Stan Coveleski, but I’m not sure those guys were exactly Koufax, Gibson and Drysdale.

OK, Ruth does have the pitching thing. But Mays has the fielding and baserunning thing. And he wasn’t too shabby with the bat.

10. Because of this.

Which, you know, actually happened. Unlike, say, a certain called shot.

Follow David on Twitter: @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog: @espn_sweet_spot.

David Schoenfield | email

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