Who’s the Gretzky of baseball?

There was a conversation on the radio the other day saying that we are lucky to have lived in a time where we’ve seen some of the best athletes in their prime — Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer are or were all far and away the best players in their respective sports in their primes, and are frequently mentioned as possibly the greatest players in their sports of all time. I don’t follow football so I can’t comment on that, but it made me wonder who that player would be in baseball.

Warning: lots of sports stats to follow. A lot of people hate baseball because of all the stats, but that’s one of the reasons I love baseball.

Babe Ruth his 60 home runs in 1927, a record that was not broken until 1961. The second-highest total that year was 47, third was 30. Only three teams in baseball had totals higher than 60. He had over 130 RBIs ten times, including seven years in a row. His career batting average is .342, and slugging is an amazing .690. Oh, and as a pitcher he even won 20 games twice. Ruth arguably falls into this category (though amazingly, he only won the MVP award once)… but that was 70 years ago.

I don’t think there’s been one single baseball player since then that has dominated his sport to the same extent as Ruth, Gretzky, or Jordan. First of all, it’s basically impossible to compare pitchers with non-pitchers — was Roger Clemens in his prime more important to his team than Alex Rodriguez in his? — so we’ll have to come up with two.

For hitters, you’d have to say that ARod is the best player playing right now, and probably for most of the last 10 years. But think of how much better Wayne Gretzky was in his prime than the second best NHL player at the time, or how much better Tiger is than the second best golfer around today, and then think about the second best MLB player, whoever that is (Ichiro? Ordonez? Tejada?) — is Rodriguez that much better than second place? Not to the same extent. Think of previous best hitters in the game: Boggs, Brett, Rose, Williams, Mantle, Molitor, Sosa, McGwire, Bonds. Were they significantly better than second place at any time, and if so, was it for several consecutive years like Gretzky or Jordan? No. Also, most of these players were very good at some things and not so much at others. Some like Sosa and Bonds could hit for a high average and with some power, but Rose and Boggs were pure hitters who didn’t hit the home runs. For a player to be comparable to a Gretzky, he’d have to hit .375 with 50 HRs, 50 stolen bases, and a Gold Glove every year for ten years. Some players have two or even three of these, but rarely all four at the same time, and when they do it’s for a season or two and then they fall off.

How about pitchers? There are certainly a few candidates here. I would argue that Roger Clemens is the best pitcher of the past 20 years — he won back-to-back Cy Young’s in ’86 and ’87 and then did it again 11 years later. He won another in between those two sets and he’s won twice more since. But he wasn’t the most dominant pitcher in the game the entire time. Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson each won the Cy Young four years in a row, and Maddux has won at least 13 games in each of the last twenty seasons. But he’s only won 20 twice. Both Maddux and Johnson have been very good for a long time, but not head and shoulders above everyone else. It could be argued that Eric Gagné was far and away the best reliever in the game from 2002 to 2004, but missed most of the next two seasons because of injury and was just “pretty good” with Boston last year.

As much as I dislike him, Barry Bonds would have to be the best baseball candidate. He won 7 MVP awards including four in a row, he hit almost .300 for his career (including over .320 four years in a row), has the single-season and career records for home runs, led the league in walks many times, and was a legitimate base-stealer for the first half of his career. He’s the only player with both 400 career home runs and 400 career stolen bases — in fact, he’s got over 500 of each. And he won eight Gold Gloves in nine years in the 1990’s. However, he never won a World Series, and even when he was winning all those MVP awards, only once was he the unanimous choice. And of course, there are the allegations that he was juiced for the last six years.

I wonder what it is about baseball that it hasn’t produced any single player that is head and shoulders above the rest in 70 years?

Thanks to Wikipedia for all the stats.


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