Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Best-Ever Player: Mays v. Ruth--Do Championships Make the Difference?

Historical player legacies--especially in debates about the best--often come down to championships. In the days after the Broncos debacle at the hands of the Seahawks, for example, sports talk radio was crackling with debate about whether Peyton Manning, with still only one Super Bowl win, should be in the discussion about the best quarterback in NFL history.  This causes me to ask: might Willie Mays (instead of Babe Ruth) be considered the best player in MLB history if he had a few World Series rings--rather than just one--in his safety deposit box?

Best-Ever Player:  Mays v. Ruth--Do Championships Make the Difference?
A strong argument can be made that Willie Mays is major league baseball’s best player ever, ahead of even the Babe.  According to the wins above replacement (WAR) metric for measuring player value, Ruth tops Mays 163 to 156 over the course of their full careers--22 years on big league diamonds for both men, the last season for each an embarrassing imitation of when they were the real deal.  (Ruth's 163 WAR is as a hitter and outfielder; he earned another 20.8 as one of the best pitchers in baseball during his Red Sox years.)  If we were to bookend their best years by the baseline player value of 5 wins above replacement that denotes an All-Star quality season, and allow a season or two of relative mediocrity below 5 WAR within that stretch, Ruth's consecutive best years were from 1916 (when he starred on the mound) to his final season in a Yankee uniform in 1934, and Mays's from 1954 (after he returned from two years of military service) to his last full season in a Giants uniform in 1971.   

Over the course of their best years bracketed by a WAR of at least 5, Ruth had an average annual player value of 9.4, compared to 8.3 for Mays.  Mays, however, went 13 consecutive seasons in which his player value never dipped below All-Star level, and only twice was slightly below the 8 wins above replacement that is defined as an MVP-quality season.  After his 1951 rookie season (3.9 WAR), it was not until Mays was 36 years old in 1967 that his player value again slipped below 5 WAR, but he still played at an All-Star level of 5 wins above replacement in three of the four years after that. Ruth, on the other hand, had an uncharacteristically very poor season (at least by his standards) in the middle of his career with a 3.5 WAR in 1925.  At least there was a good reason for his anomalous poor season: the Babe played in only 98 games that year.  Well, actually, there were two bad reasons for that:  the Babe missed all of April and May with a mystery ailment said at the time to be a colossal bellyache from indulging in too many hot dogs, and also the first week of September when he was suspended by his manager for insubordination until he apologized.  The Ruth-less Yankees plunged to seventh in 1925, after which the storied franchise in the Bronx would not have another losing season for 40 years.

Both Mays, from 1960 to 1966, and Ruth, from 1926 to 1932, had a stretch of seven straight years in which their player value exceeded the 8 WAR standard for an MVP-level of performance, each averaging 10.1 for those years.  Mays had a 10+ WAR four years running from 1962 to 1965; Ruth in his career never went more that three years in a row with such a high player value, although he almost certainly would have were it not for his infamous bellyache.  Taking account the entirety of both their careers, but based on Mays's best consecutive years from 1960 to 1966, I believe that Willie Mays--not the Babe--was the best player the game has ever seen.  He excelled in every facet of the game.  Mays finished his career with 660 home runs, only 54 shy of Ruth’s mark, and most likely would have shattered that record had he not lost two years of his young prime to military service during the Korean War, and not been robbed of some indefinable but almost certainly significant number of home runs by the swirling, often gale-force incoming winds at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park--as close to a torture arena for right-handed power hitters as there could possibly be.

Undeniably (although some might argue for Mays's godson Barry Bonds in the first half of the 2000s), Babe Ruth in the 1920s was the most impressive offensive force in MLB history, particularly in the first half of that decade when the rest of baseball was just catching on to how he was revolutionizing the game.  Unlike the Babe, however, who played in a hitters’ era that he had no small role in establishing, Mays’s very best consecutive years in the 1960s came in a pitchers’ era, when he had to hit against the likes of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson and Jim Maloney and Jim Bunning (but happily not against his teammate Juan Marichal).  And even if Mays does not approach Ruth for league-leading black ink in the record books, consider that he was part of what could arguably be called Major League Baseball’s Greatest Generation of Players with peers by the names of Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson and Eddie Mathews and Pete Rose and Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and Billy Williams and Roberto Clemente and Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, not to mention the aforementioned pitchers.  And that's just in the National League. Finally, Willie Mays played a much more demanding and defensively important position, and by all accounts was one of the very best defensive center fielders in baseball history.  Ruth was a good-enough, but not great, defensive outfielder.  (Babe Ruth, of course, was also a great pitcher before he became the “greatest player there ever was”—but I’m not persuaded that makes him the best player ever; he was a pitcher for only four years, 1915 through 1918, before playing the outfield became his full-time vocation so that his prodigiously productive bat would be in the line-up every day.) 

Of course, what Ruth has that Mays does not are 10 World Series appearances with his team winning seven. That includes seven Fall Classics and four World Series triumphs with the Yankees.  Moreover, the Babe was a clutch performer in World Series play, first setting a record by throwing 29-2/3 consecutive shutout innings as the southpaw ace of the Red Sox in the 1916 and 1918 Series, and then setting a record with 15 World Series home runs in 36 games for the Yankees--both records since broken.   If the measure of any single player's greatness is the number of times his team was the only one to walk off as the proven best in the sport, then Ruth truly trumps Mays.  

The Say Hey Kid played in only four World Series, three with the Giants and one with the Mets--and he cannot be said to have been a leader in the Mets' improbable drive to the 1973 World Series because by then he was 42 years old, way over the hill, and in fact in his last major league season.  Mays of course made the most iconic catch in World Series history which sparked the 1954 Giants--then in New York--to their sweep of the heavily-favored 111-win Cleveland Indians, but hit only .239 in 20 World Series games with only three of his 17 hits for extra-bases, none of them home runs.  Unlike the Babe, who (along with Gehrig beginning in 1926) was the driving force behind the Yankees' perennial success, Mays was unable to drive the San Francisco Giants to dynastic mode.  

This is a significant point because Willie's five best consecutive years--1962 to 1966, during which his average annual player value was 10.5 wins above replacement--coincided with the years the Giants had their best team in San Francisco.  The 1962-66 Giants, especially in retrospect but even at the time, seemed a more imposing team than their direct contemporary 1962-66 Dodgers.  The Giants' core regulars included five future Hall of Fame players--Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, and Gaylord Perry--while the Dodgers had only two future Hall of Famers, Koufax and Drysdale, among their core regulars.  San Francisco was competitive every year (except for 1963), yet won only one pennant (in 1962) and lost three pennants by three games or less.  Los Angeles, meanwhile, went to three World Series in those five years.  (See the following link on my website,
Ruth, without doubt, is the most historically significant player in major league history.  He was the driver of revolutionary change—the home run.  He was the foundation piece of the New York Yankee dynasty.  By virtue of his outsized personality, prodigious production, revolutionizing how baseball was played, and historical timing on the heels of the Black Sox scandal, Babe Ruth had bestowed upon him a cult of personality that none, even in these much more irreverent and deconstructionist times, has ever dared challenge.  He is, simply, the greatest player ever.  

But that doesn’t necessarily make him the best ever.  I would argue that Willie Mays was the best.

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