ESPN Ranked the 100 Best Baseball Players Ever. We Have 10 Takeaways.

Did the game's modern stars get snubbed?

February 3, 2022 5:37 pm
Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays inspect a baseball bat.
Did ESPN's voters get it right? We have some thoughts.
Diamond Images/Getty Images

If you head to right now, you’ll find a homepage populated with recircs of zany evergreen stories. Here are some of the headlines:

  • The night Satchel helicoptered to the mound
  • How did a mascot get ejected from a game?
  • Summer of ’76: America’s bicentennial — and Reggie with the O’s

It’s looked like that for a minute, and it will continue to for as long as Commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB Players Association continue their collective bargaining discussions. Until this lockout (which is owner-imposed, for those who’ve tuned the whole saga out) reaches a resolution, all the players on MLB-affiliated sites will have blacked-out “create a player” icon photos, instead of team portraits, and all the content has to be completely unrelated to the modern game.

After a session earlier this week, Jeff Passan reported that “little progress was made.” He even predicted a doomsday scenario — a delay to spring training. “The on-time opening of spring training at this point is in grave danger and frankly, would take a miraculous deal coming together to rescue. A delay feels inevitable.”

Fortunately for the world baseball, there’s a lot of history to sort through at any given time. To that end, ESPN has actually spent the last week taking on the herculean task of power ranking the top 100 best to ever play the game of baseball. The list was released in piecemeal fashion, with the final 25 dropping today.

The ranking reminded us how much we miss the game, while also stirring up some good old-fashioned debate between our editorial office’s baseball nuts. Someday soon, the owners and union will come to an agreement on the nuances of “Super 2” arbitration, service time manipulation and the luxury tax reset, but until then, we can subsist on arguments over who was the greatest to ever patrol center field.

Below, find our 10 takeaways from ESPN’s ambitious, fascinating, problematic list.

Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

1. Mike Trout should be even higher

ESPN put Mike Trout at #15, one spot ahead of Joe DiMaggio. For some, that might feel like sacrilege. After all, Trout has never won a playoff game. He’s played more than 130 games just twice in the last five seasons. He’s only 30 years old. And yet, that’s sort of the point — he’s only 30 years old. Trout already has three MVP awards, had a real case for two others and is an advanced stats darling at the exact time that the game’s statisticians have come to prize figures like WAR and OPS+. In an age where the league office needs to fiddle with the balls year after year to make sure balls are leaving the ballpark, and most batters are struggling to keep up with the shift, or high-heat middle relievers, Trout (when healthy) is a paradigm of excellence. He’s got Mickey Mantle’s skillset, but he’s displaying in it the most competitive era of baseball we’ve ever seen. He could be in the top 10 right now — he’ll definitely be there in a few years.

2. So should Barry Bonds

Bonds lost out on the Hall of Fame last week, through conventional BBWAA voting at least, which was a true shame. But future students of the game will look at his Baseball Reference page in absolute disbelief. The site uses “black ink” to indicate a statistic where the player led the league. Bonds has an absurd amount of it. His numbers are what happens when a sixth grader creates himself in a video game. Many will continue to make the case that his connections to BALCO nullify those final four MVP awards (2001-2004), but there’s little doubt that Bonds is the most feared hitter ever, and the most lethal combination of speed and power we’ve ever seen. (People forget that he swiped over 500 bases in his career!) The Giants great is top three all time. Period.

3. Pete Rose didn’t get snubbed

Sorry, but ESPN’s voters got this one right. Not to pile on Charlie Hustle here, another notable Hall of Fame snub, but #34 is a generous ranking. While he is the hit king (he passed Ty Cobb in 1985, his penultimate year in the league), he hung on for ages to reach the mark, hurting his team in the process. Rose retired at the same age as Tom Brady. One of those men left at the peak of his powers, the other was posting slugging percentages lower than his career batting average. The anonymity of a mid-thirties ranking feels right for a man who truly was spectacular to watch, and won an MVP and won three World Series rings, but left a complex, unsavory legacy in his wake.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

4. We’re obsessed with the past

A quick word on ESPN’s methodology here: the publication started with 200 players (chosen for relevance in “career WAR, Hall of Fame status, peak performance and overall contributions to the game”) then had dozens of voters pick players in head-to-head matchups over and over again. They basically balloted the games best players thousands of times and then ranked them based on who most consistently won those matchups. It’s a pretty decent system, but it left what we’re going to call a sizable “legends bias.” The tippy top of these rankings is heavy with players not one of us was alive to watch — men like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby and Christy Mathewson all made the top 25. That list includes every member of the original Hall of Fame class, that was elected in 1936. These were era-defining ballplayers, all, who revolutionized and popularized the game, turning it into the pastime it is today. But the blind support they receive whenever one of these rankings rolls around — despite playing in a segregated league, where curveballs didn’t exist and many players had second jobs — probes at the game’s obsession with its own myths, and the very definition of what it means to be a “top” player. Does “top” mean best? Or does it mean culturally significant? It’s the Hall of Fame’s job to celebrate the latter. Why can’t these lists put more weight into the former?

5. NBA 75 did a slightly better job

There was some controversy when “NBA 75” dropped earlier this year, ahead of the league’s 75th season, because a variety of modern stars were snubbed from the latest list. Guys like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson were all deemed too insignificant to supplant Bob Cousy from the ranking of the greatest basketball players ever. This was met with deserving Twitter outrage, and many pundits criticized the NBA’s decision to automatically retain the 50 players who’d made the original NBA 50 ranking, instead of supplanting them accordingly with players from the ’90s and early aughts. What’s interesting here is that it isn’t especially contentious to point out how much the NBA game has changed — guys are bigger, they shoot from farther away, there’s now international competition for the league. We all agree the modern product is better. NBA 75 seemed to account for this by adding 25 new players to its list, many of them active, and the central controversy hinges on why they should’ve added more. It’s a relatively sane conversation overall, if imperfect. For the MLB, though, today’s pitchers have to go on apology tours after claiming they could strike out Babe Ruth. Why? These lists should be constructed backwards. Start with players from the last 50 years, and you can fill in yesteryear’s greats after.

Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

6. Ichiro was a top 25 player

A total of 32 players have tallied 3,000 hits in MLB. Only one of them did so as his second act. Ichiro Suzuki arrived with the Seattle Mariners at the age of 27, after a successful career in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, and spent the next 17 years playing an entirely different sport than everyone else around him. While the game’s other All-Stars were hitting balls into the upper deck, he sprayed and slapped them all over the field. His 2001 (Rookie of the Year, MVP, the Mariners won a record 116 games) is one of the greatest seasons of all time. His defense was perfect. His love for the game was — and remains — unmatched. He probably wouldn’t agree with the take that he should be top 25 all time (Ichiro has an otherwordly reverence for the game’s legends, once laying flowers on George Sisler’s grave after he broke his single-season hitting record) but it’s difficult to think of many who were this athletic, creative and prepared, day in and day out, on the diamond.

7. Some other active players have a case

Here are the only active players ESPN included on its top 100 ranking, in order of appearance:

94. Bryce Harper
72. Justin Verlander
65. Max Scherzer
59. Miguel Cabrera
52. Clayton Kershaw
30. Albert Pujols
15. Mike Trout

All worthy names. As you can see, they put extra stock into accumulated stats here. Bryce Harper is the youngest, at 29, currently fresh off his second MVP. The rest are stalwarts, still making at least a mild impact on the game (Verlander and Scherzer haven’t lost a step). The fact that ESPN was willing to include Harper, though, albeit as an afterthought at #94, seems to suggest he’s done enough before the age of 30 to warrant consideration. It also implies he’s one of the best baseball players alive, which … season to season, that’s kind of debatable. Where does a guy like Mookie Betts figure here? Or Freddie Freeman? Or Jacob deGrom? Are we absolutely certain that Shoeless Joe Jackson is a harder out than the 6’6″, 245-pound Giancarlo Stanton? It’s our default setting to criticize these guys because we’re familiar with their strikeout totals, their injuries, the games they blew, their bloated contracts, etc. But an aversion to recency bias can sometimes go too far. The good news: reason is on the way. It’s impossible to watch the exploits of Fernando Tatis Jr., Shohei Ohtani or Juan Soto and not feel that you’re watching greatness in real time.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

8. The Negro Leagues are major leagues

It’s about damn time. Baseball Reference now officially catalogues the Negro Leagues as a major league on par with the American and National Leagues, and has been working with statisticians at the Seamheads Negro League Database, and researchers at the Society for American Baseball Research to properly publish records of the thousands of games that were undocumented or unappreciated for far too long. ESPN included some Negro Leagues legends in its ranking, including Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, the catcher who may or may not have hit a combined 800 home runs during his tenure. They provide extra context on Charleston here, who might be the best baseball player you’ve never heard of. If you’re interested in learning more about the Negro Leagues, consider checking out the museum in Kansas City, which is a can’t-miss for any baseball fan.

9. God hates A-Rod

The greatest New York Post headline ever. Of course ESPN, A-Rod’s current employer, decided to keep him one slot out of the top 25. Does he deserve to be higher? Yep. He’s likely top 10. But that’ll have to wait for another list. At the very least, Rodriguez can quietly celebrate coming in just ahead of Jeter.

10. The throne is apparently Babe’s to lose

No, it’s probably not right that a man born the year the radio was invented is still considered the untouchable number one of the sport. Until Joey Chestnut came along, there’d never been such reverence for a man who ate so many hot dogs. But Babe Ruth is baseball’s Michael Jordan until enough people agree that he isn’t. It’s affirming to see some of the hate die down a bit (Maris took hell for taking down Ruth’s single-season home run record, then Hank Aaron caught a disgusting brand of racial hell for breaking the career mark.) Society has gotten a bit more civil. Still, though, these rankings continue to insist that Ruth was the best to ever do it. His numbers do suggest he was some sort of time traveler gone back to end the deadball era and hit moonshots off guys who fixed toilets in their spare time. But we’ll never have any clue how he’d stack up to players who attend baseball academies, fuel properly and analyze iPads in the middle of games. Hopefully, we’ll one day feel comfortable enough honoring what he did for the game, while anointing a new GOAT.

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