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Few things in life are certain, but all my life I'd been pretty sure I knew who was the greatest living baseball player. Now of course, all is confusion.

It's been much more confusing in the past, of course. I know, for example, that the greatest major leaguers before 1947 were Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson. Almost certainly in that order. But I don't know, and I don't think anyone knows, how we can compare that trio to Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Satchel Paige. But 1947, thankfully, was a long time ago.The playing field is now open.

The greatest living baseball player in 1947 was Babe Ruth, of course. Before that, it's hard to be sure. Ruth was born in 1895, and one could make a technical argument that Ruth was the greatest living baseball player from that date forward until the day he died. But that would be silly. The greatest living baseball player from 1900 until some time in the 1920s was probably Honus Wagner. Ruth takes the crown away from him in the 1920s and - probably - wears it for the rest of his life. I say "probably" because it's hard to know just how great Josh Gibson - who was kind of a combination of Johnny Bench and Ruth himself - actually was. But Gibson died in January 1947, and Ruth is alone on the summit for the last year of his life. After Ruth was gone, Wagner briefly gets his title back. Wagner died in 1955, and at that moment the greatest living player was probably Ty Cobb. After Cobb's death in 1961, I nominate an active player, Mickey Mantle. Willie Mays overtakes Mantle in the 1960s, and holds the honour of Greatest Living Player for the next 60 years. Until today. Who is it now?

I posed this conundrum to Eephus, who instantly texted back a single name: "Shohei." 

Which is both tempting and intriguing. Shohei Ohtani is not just a great player - he is one of the most remarkable players in the history of the game, a true unicorn. We have never seen the like. In some ways, what he did from 2021 through 2023 (and, hopefully, may yet do again) is more impressive than anything Babe Ruth ever did. For three years, Ohtani took both his regular turn in the rotation and a regular turn in the batting order when he wasn't pitching. Ruth never did that. During the two seasons (1918-19) when Ruth was both a hitter and a pitcher he was more of a part time player at both jobs.

Of course, Ohtani hasn't had a season yet when he was the best pitcher in the league; he certainly never had a year when he made 40 starts and worked 323 IP with an ERA of 1.75 and an ERA+ of 158 (both figures leading the league.) He didn't set a World Series pitching record (consecutive scoreless innings) that lasted longer than his famous home run records.

These are mere quibbles, of course, if they are even that. Babe Ruth, like Willie Mays, isn't where we set the bar. But what is greatness as a baseball player? Helping his team win, surely.  This may be precisely the sort of thing that WAR (what is good for?) is suited to.

Shohei Ohtani, at the moment, is tied for 27th on the list of active players in WAR. Never mind all the retired greats who have yet to shuffle off this mortal coil. I don't think very much of WAR as a serious analytical tool, but it seems perfectly adequate at identifying the bleeding obvious. Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper - hell, Carlos Correa - have done more to help their teams win games than Shohei Ohtani. I submit that this makes them greater ball players.

Ohtani is one of the most amazing and most remarkable players any of us will ever see. The most remarkable, the most amazing baseball player I have ever seen in person was Bo Jackson. No one else comes close. But  "amazing" and "remarkable" is not the same as great (although Ohtani really is pretty damn great!) Greatness as a baseball player is helping your team win, and among other things, you have to be there. You have to be able to take the field.

So let's look at the candidates. Here is your Top 15, ranked by career WAR. (The top active player, Mike Trout, may yet return to the lineup in time to overtake George Brett this year. If not, he'll surely pass him next year.)

Barry Bonds      162.8
Roger Clemens 139.2
Alex Rodriguez 117.6
Rickey Henderson 111.1
Mike Schmidt 106.9

Greg Maddux 106.6
Albert Pujols 101.4
Randy Johnson 101.1
Carl Yastrzemski 96.5
Cal Ripken 95.9

Bert Blyleven 94.5
Adrian Beltre 93.5
Wade Boggs 91.4
Steve Carlton 90.2
George Brett 88.6

I think the baseball world remains pretty bitter about the first three names on this list, none of whom have been invited to Cooperstown despite being ridiculously over-qualified.

Well, let's not quarrel. Let us stipulate that Bonds and Clemens prolonged their peaks, and that Rodriguez boosted most of his career, using methods generally frowned upon.

No matter. I wish I could say the greatest living player is Adrian Beltre. Hey, who was more fun? But, like it or not, the greatest living baseball player for now has to be Barry Bonds. 

Bonds arrived as a great player at age 25, and from ages 26 to 34 he did his level best to match Lou Gehrig's production. Let me expound a little on what that means. Lou Gehrig in his far too brief time on earth may never have been the world's greatest living player (Ruth, Wagner, etc.) - nevertheless, more than 80 years after his death, Gehrig still has an excellent case as the greatest first baseman who ever lived. I reckon that if it hadn't been for ALS, Gehrig would have finished up with about 650 HRs and more than 3700 Hits. He also would have had more RBIs and more Runs Scored than anyone in the history of the game.

That's who Barry Bonds was doing a decent job of keeping up with in the first part of his career, before he grew all those muscles. He's not quite matching Gehrig's level of performance, but just being as close as he was is pretty remarkable.

I even made a chart back in the day that shows just how closely Bonds and Gehrig tracked each other during their careers, which I provide here for your amusement.

Gehrig had his last great season at age 34, the very age when Bonds first showed some signs of decline. In 1999, Bonds missed 60 games with injuries, and his BAVG plunged to .262.  But by then, along with his three MVPs, Bonds had already accumulated 103.7 WAR. He had 2010 Hits, 445 HRs, a career OPS+ of 163. I think if the remainder of Bonds' career had unfolded - uh, let's say "as expected" - he would have finished with some 2800 Hits, and more than 600 HRs.

How does Bonds compare to Willie? I thought you'd never ask. Through age 34:

          G    PA    AB    R      H    2B   3B   HR   RBI   SB   CS    BB    SO  BAVG   OBP   SLG   OPS  OPS+    TB  GDP  HBP 
Mays    2005  8641  7594  1497  2381  375  118  505  1402  276   86   949   893  .314  .389  .594  .982  163   4507  174   27 
Bonds   2000  8534  6976  1455  2010  423   65  445  1299  460  132  1430  1112  .288  .410  .559  .968  163   3898  116   53 

It doesn't get much closer than that. (Strictly as a hitter, Bonds is much, much closer to Mays than he was to Gehrig) Pretty well all the other elements of the game favour Willie, of course, but we don't seriously expect anyone to be a better all-around player than Willie Mays, do we? Bonds' only weakness as a player was a comparatively mediocre throwing arm, which is why he ended up in left field.

Mike Trout is the Wild Card. Through 2023, his age 31 season, Trout ranks ahead of both Mays and Bonds at the same age as hitters, and just behind Mays and just ahead of Bonds in overall value. Through his age 31 season, Trout's OPS+ was 173; Bonds was 161; Mays was 159. In overall value through age 31, Mays had 87.4 WAR; Trout had 85.2; Bonds had  83.6.  Trout hasn't provided as much value because he simply hasn't been able to stay on the field these last few years. If he somehow discovers the Secret of Good Health, and is able to start playing - oh, let's not get too carried away, let's settle for 140 games a season - he very clearly has a place in this argument.

Incidentally all three - Trout, Mays, Bonds - are significantly behind Mickey Mantle at the same age. The Mick did not age very well, but I think there was definitely a moment, for the first time since Babe Ruth was in his prime, when the world's greatest living ball player was an active player. Only to be overtaken by another active player.

Pitchers are a different breed, of course. I'm pretty comfortable with Walter Johnson as the greatest living pitcher from about 1915 until his death in 1946. This is partially because it's so difficult to know how Satchel Paige would have done had the playing field been level, although we can be certain it would have been pretty damn good. After Johnson was gone, Lefty Grove seems the obvious successor until his death in 1975. After Grove? Well, it's probably Tom Seaver, who's only been gone these last few years. So I think the argument now, for greatest living pitcher, comes down to a couple of very different right-handers from Texas, and Nolan Ryan definitely isn't one of them. I'm thinking, of course, of Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux.

I believe that if I don't use what few Excel skills I have that I will surely lose them, so I made the same sort of chart for Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, the two top pitchers. And then, of course, I started looking for reasons to place Maddux above Clemens. This is entirely an aesthetic choice, of course.(I may have a weakness for great athletes who don't look much like great athletes) It seemed as if Clemens wanted to dominate and humiliate hitters; he sometimes seemed just a little psychotic out there. That wasn't Maddux's way. Maddux just wanted the batter to pop out to the second baseman on the first pitch so he could get on to the next guy. Even so, Maddux was always the one that the other players told stories about, as if he was some kind of mythical creature. (My favourite is probably the time Maddux, watching the game, suddenly got up and moved to a different spot in the dugout. The very next pitch produced a screaming line drive to the very spot he had just vacated.) Just yesterday, I saw a random factoid on the internet (it's gotta be true, right?) - Maddux pitched 5,008 innings in the major leagues and he issued two bases on balls in none of them. (That's the kind of thing that can actually be checked, and you had better believe I will be able to confirm it or not before the day is done!)

Pitchers' careers generally don't unfold in as predictable a fashion as those of hitters. But Roger Clemens posted the best ERA+ of his career at age 42, which seems a tad unusual. You may be aware that Warren Spahn went 23-7, 2.60 in 1963 when he was 42, but Spahn's work in 1963 was nowhere near the level of his best seasons. And Spahn had roughly ten other seasons - most of them in his dotage as a player - that were more or less interchangeable with what he did when he was 42.

Through age 33, Clemens was 192-111, 3.06 in 382 starts, ERA+ of 144. Maddux was 221-126, 2.81 in 432 starts, ERA+ of - wait for it - 144.

That's when Clemens went to Toronto, and that's also when the rumours begin to swirl.

Over the next six years, covering the rest of their 30s, Maddux was really good - he went 97-63, 3.48 in 207 starts, ERA+ of 126. But Clemens was even better, almost as good as he'd ever been - he went 101-40, 3.36 in 191 starts, ERA+ of 137. Pitchers do age in different and unpredictable ways, and there is no doubt whatsoever that power pitchers age best of all. But still...

And once they turned 40, they're actually moving in different directions. Clemens somehow is better than ever - 61-33, 2.99 in 134 starts, ERA+ of 146. Maddux, a mere mortal, went 37-38, 4.19 in 101 starts, ERA+ of 100 before hanging them up.

The totality of Clemens' career clearly surpasses Maddux, but that's entirely because of the difference in their performance after age 34. Pitchers do age in different and unpredictable ways. But there's just something slightly fishy about Clemens in Toronto, and something very fishy about Clemens in Houston. If the greatest living baseball player isn't Barry Bonds, I want to say it's Greg Maddux.

But it's probably Barry.

The Greatest Living Baseball Player | 13 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Mike Green - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 10:53 AM EDT (#447916) #
it seems to me that Randy Johnson is in the conversation for the greatest living pitcher.  He might indeed be my choice. 

I have no idea who the greatest living player is.  It's a lot easier to be durable if you are playing left-field and have access to PEDs, and Bonds' peak was not as stupendous as one might think.  Bill James once said in the early 90s that Bonds was like Ted Williams, if Ted Williams could hit 46 homers in Candlestick, and run and play left-field very well.  Which wasn't exactly accurate.  Ted Williams was by far the better pure hitter and as a result got on base much more than Bonds did.  I don't think that Williams was better overall, but Bonds didn't achieve anything as impressive as Williams' 1957, in my opinion. 
AWeb - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 01:02 PM EDT (#447922) #
I agree on Randy's case for Greatest living pitcher. His long peak was arguably the greatest in baseball history...10 seasons with an era+ of 171. Of course Pedro should be on the radar too at that point. I do often forget how absurdly good Maddux was at his best. It's a tough call anywhere for the pitchers.

But yeah, it's Barry Bonds overall. The only player in my lifetime with a plausible Greatest Of All Time argument. I honestly care less and less about general steroid use as time's a bit grim, but it's not like these guys are dropping dead at young ages. It's simply not a safety issue like it was in the early days.
Leaside Cowboy - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 01:24 PM EDT (#447927) #
To ask the question in a slightly different way:

If starting a new team and selecting one living player (as a rookie) to build around, a good choice might be Ken Griffey Jr.
Magpie - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 04:15 PM EDT (#447942) #
[Randy's] long peak was arguably the greatest in baseball history...10 seasons with an era+ of 171.

Well, Maddux in the ten seasons from 1992-2001 had an ERA+ of 172, and pitched an extra 200 innings just for good measure!
Magpie - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 04:20 PM EDT (#447943) #
If starting a new team and selecting one living player (as a rookie) to build around, a good choice might be Ken Griffey Jr.

That is a good question, but it certainly wouldn't be Griffey. The first guy I thought of was Johnny Bench. I'd consider Mike Schmidt and Cal Ripken as well.
Mike Green - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 05:02 PM EDT (#447951) #
The analysis about Johnson vs. Maddux is complicated.  Atlanta's defence during that time was very, very good.  Tom Glavine often posted very good numbers while walking more than 3 per 9IP and striking out 5 or less per 9IP.  It takes a very good defence for a pitcher to be able to manage that.  Randy Johnson was striking out 12 per game and walking about 3 per game-  taking care of almost 1/2 the work on his own account means that one does have to give him more of the credit for his spectacular ERAs than one would for Maddux.   

greenfrog - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 06:21 PM EDT (#447953) #
Lots of good choices here.

Steve Carlton was pretty good, too.

For sheer single-season brilliance by one of the shortlisted pitchers, I thought of Pedro's 1999 (regular season 23-4, 2.07 ERA, 213.1 IP, 160 H, 37 BB, 313 K; postseason 2-0, 0.00 ERA, 17 IP, 5 H, 6 BB, 23 K).

But then I thought of Randy Johnson's 2001 (21-6, 2.49 ERA, 249.2 IP, 71 BB, 372 K in the regular season; 5-1, 1.52 ERA, 41.1 IP, 25 H, 8 BB, 47 K in the postseason, including 1.1 IP with 4 K to close out and win Game 7 of the World Series).

A good reminder that top SPs need to keep some fuel in the tank for the postseason!
Nigel - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 06:53 PM EDT (#447956) #
Hmmm, first overall draft pick? Johnny Bench would be a good choice but I'd take his Big Red Machine teammate Joe Morgan first in that draft - 1970's Morgan was a sight to behold. As to the original question, up to the age of 29 the answer would obviously have been Mike Trout.
greenfrog - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 08:25 PM EDT (#447960) #
By the end of his age-21 season, Trout had accumulated about 21 fWAR in the majors. That must be a record.
John Northey - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 09:52 PM EDT (#447961) #
Good call greenfrog - I downloaded all the data from FanGraphs (there are ways) and did a quick check in Access and got Trout 20.9 before his age 22 season, #2 is Mel Ott with 19.2, #3 Ty Cobb 16.1, #4 Al Kaline 14.999, #5 Rogers Hornsby 14.6, #6 Ken Griffey Jr. 14.4. 22 players had 10+ fWAR by age 22. Juan Soto the most recent (11.99), Sherry Magee the first (12.7, rookie year was 1904). The top 9 outside of Trout are in the HOF, with #10 being Alex Rodriguez. Bryce Harper is another recent one over 10. Ronald Acuña Jr. just missed at 9.48

For pitchers it is interesting. I expected it to be dominated by pre 1900 guys like #1 Silver King at 25.1, but #2 is Bob Feller 22.8, then #3 is Dwight Gooden 22.0, then 4 more 1800's guys (Amos Rusie, John Ward, Tommy Bond, Matt Kilroy) before you hit Bert Blyleven 16.95. Highest for this century is Félix Hernández (9.1 came up in 2005). For guys who reached in the 2000's only CC Sabathia, José Fernández, Madison Bumgarner, and Clayton Kershaw cracked 5 WAR before their age 22 seasons. Only 33 starters cracked 1 WAR pre age 22. Relievers for 2000+ are led by ex-Jay Roberto Osuna at 3.0, the only reliever at 2+. Only 2 relievers had more WAR pre age 22 than Osuna - Terry Forster at 5.9 (came up in 1971), and Billy McCool with 5.4 (came up in 1964). All time that's it for relief WAR over 2 before age 22 season. Just 20 all-time cracked 1. I think only Pedro Martinez made the HOF from that group of 20.

Thanks for brining that up greenfrog - it was interesting to dig into.
John Northey - Thursday, June 20 2024 @ 10:06 PM EDT (#447962) #
For first 6 seasons value (thus pre-free agency) without getting into 'did they miss enough of their first year to get a 7th' I get for hitters...
  1. Albert Pujols 53.496 of his 88.8 career fWAR
  2. Mike Trout 53.47 of his 85.1 career fWAR (pre 2024)
  3. Mickey Mantle 52.49 of his 112.3
  4. Joe DiMaggio 52.2 of his 82.6
  5. Wade Boggs 51.7 of his 88.3
  6. Barry Bonds 48.4 of his 164.4*
  7. Arky Vaughan 47.7 of his 72.4
  8. Ty Cobb 47.2 of his 149.1
  9. Rogers Hornsby 46.7 of his 129.1
  10. Eddie Mathews 45.2 of his 96.1
Surprised to see with 40 in their first 6 years - Chase Utley and Andrew McCutchen. Both with more than Lou Gehrig (39.9)! Go figure. Mookie Betts just behind Gehrig at 39.8 btw. Ken Griffey Jr. quite a bit down the list at #32 with 38.3 (what a bum), Bench had 35.6, Schmidt 42.5, Ripken 38.2. Bo Bichette is the highest current Jay at 15.7 coming into 2024, good for #694 all time. Russell Martin is the highest Canadian I think at #102 with 31.0.
Magpie - Friday, June 21 2024 @ 12:46 PM EDT (#447974) #
I'd take his Big Red Machine teammate Joe Morgan first in that draft

I might as well, but the cow fellow from Leaside did stipulate a living player, and Little Joe is on the other side now.
Nigel - Friday, June 21 2024 @ 01:21 PM EDT (#447976) #
Oh my. How could I have forgotten that:(
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