OK, I know ranking the top 100 baseball players since expansion in 1961 is a daunting, tricky exercise wrought with endless debate. Yeah, but it’s what I do. There’s no doubt in my mind that 100 leading baseball experts would rank this list 100 different ways.
First of all, I have to set a few boundaries. Well, one anyway. How do I account for players who crossed over the 1961 season? Stan Musial played until 1963. Mickey Mantle until 1968. Warren Spahn was still pitching in 1965. Ernie Banks was asking to play two at Wrigley as late as 1971.
I ruled players who played an overwhelming portion of their productive seasons prior to 1961 ineligible. So the above list of players is not included. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are included because they were extremely productive throughout the 1960s.
And the final caveat is that the ranking is based on the player’s entire body of work. So, yeah, it may seem a bit inconsistent to include Mays’ and Aaron’s time before 1961, but this is my list and those are my rules.
Also the list of criteria is endless. I considered raw numbers, sabermetrics, the eye test, peak performance during prime seasons, postseason success, longevity, and, yes, character issues. Enjoy. I included current players as if their careers ended today. There are no assumptions or guesses as to how good Mike Trout might be over the next 15 years, or even Miguel Cabrera over the next five, for that matter. One of the questions I kept asking over and over was, “If I were a GM, would I rather have Player A or Player B on my team for their entire career?”
Here goes, let the debate commence!
100. Lee Smith
The big fella walked to the mound from the bullpen like he was on his last leg then blew away hitters for 478 saves.
99. Andruw Jones
The Curacao native burst onto the scene with back-to-back homers in his first two World Series at-bats as a 19-year old in 1996.
98. Joe Torre
Torre earned the NL MVP in 1971 with a .363 average as a third baseman for St. Louis.
97. David Ortiz
Somewhat of a late bloomer, Ortiz was released by the Twins after the 2002 season. His first 11 seasons in Boston produced a 148 OPS+.
96. Edgar Martinez
The quiet Martinez never did great work with the glove and couldn’t outrun most catchers, but man could he rake.
95. Jack Morris
A real workhorse in the 1980s, Morris was the ace of three World Series winners with three different organizations.
94. Sammy Sosa
Three times Sosa clouted more than 60 home runs, but either Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire hit more in those seasons. He does have a pair of home run titles, but no slugging or OPS crowns.
93. Omar Vizquel
This ranking proves that I’m a fan of defense and small ball. And what’s wrong with that?
92. Carlos Beltran
The fluid Beltran plays the game effortlessly, which some mistake for effort-less play. His numbers in 51 postseason games project to 48 homers, 120 RBIs, 135 runs and 33 stolen bases over a full season.
91. Larry Walker
His numbers suffered in Montreal, then benefitted from rare air in Denver.
90. Rafael Palmeiro
Somehow his magnificent numbers — and they are magnificent — seem a bit hollow.
89. Mark McGwire
Big Mac burst onto the scene with 49 homers as a rookie in 1987. Then his forearms burst onto the scene when he bashed 70 homers in an epic home run chase in 1998.
88. Justin Verlander
Detroit’s current ace will certainly move up this list, possibly into the top 30 eventually. After two starts in 2014, he has 100 more strikeouts than hits allowed in his career.
87. Kirby Puckett
Few players had more fun than Puckett, but several players yet to be elected to the Hall of Fame had better numbers than his 2,304 hits, 1,071 runs and 1,085 RBIs.
86. Dale Murphy
From 1982-87, Murph was outstanding, including back-to-back MVPs, otherwise he was just an average outfielder hitting below .250.
85. Jim Edmonds
The highlight reel with the glove also had a .989 OPS from 2000 to 2005. He was productive when healthy, but staying on the field proved to be a challenge.
84. Gary Sheffield
Sheffield won a batting title in 1992 and OPS crown in ’96. He enjoyed seven seasons of 100 or more runs and eight 100-plus RBI campaigns.
83. Mike Piazza
The 62nd-round draft pick made 12 All-Star teams, batted .308 with 427 home runs and was a two-time MVP runner-up.
82. Lou Whitaker
Sweet Lou teamed with Alan Trammell for 18 years in Detroit. Whitaker has a higher WAR (Wins Above Replacement) than Hall of Famers Robbie Alomar and Ryne Sandberg.
81. Alan Trammell
It’s difficult to separate Trammell from his long-time double-play partner. From 1980-90, the second sacker received four Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers.
80. Tony Perez
His trade to Montreal at the end of the 1976 season spelled the end of the Big Red Machine. He was never THE best in the league, but for 15 years he was certainly among the best.
79. Orlando Cepeda
Cha Cha, aka the Baby Bull, won an MVP in 1967 for the world champs in St. Louis. He was runner-up to Frank Robinson in 1961.
78. Ichiro Suzuki
He came to the U.S. in 2001 after a solid career in Japan that included 1,278 hits. He has since added 2,742 knocks as of the start of his 14th season stateside.
77. Andy Pettitte
The most indelible memory of his final season last year is when Pettitte went to the mound with Derek Jeter to tell Mariano Rivera, “It’s time to go.”
76. Tim Raines
After the 1986 season, Rock had just completed six All-Star campaigns, won a batting title and finished sixth in MVP voting. Yet, he received no significant offers in free agency, which forced him to re-sign with Montreal on May 1. He, along with Andre Dawson, were the most affected victims of the owners’ collusion. Although he missed the first month of the 1987 season, he still led the NL with 123 runs.
75. Gary Carter
The 11-time All-Star finished second in MVP voting in 1980 and third in '86. He won an RBI title in 1984 with a scant 106 ribbies.
74. Harmon Killebrew
The Killer’s .256 batting average is a bit pedestrian, but his career .376 OBP and .509 slugging give his .884 OPS a 143 OPS+. He won six home run titles and swatted 40-plus twice more in seasons he didn’t take the crown.
73. Barry Larkin
Larkin won three Gold Gloves when Ozzie Smith was still in the league. I would like to have seen him play more. He took the field for 140 or more games just seven seasons and had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title just 10 times.
72. Miguel Cabrera
Miggy is one of only three Triple Crown winners on this list. He has potential to hit his way into the top 20.
71. Manny Ramirez
Arguably the best hitter of his generation, Manny put together a 12-year run from 1995-2006 when he averaged 1.021 OPS (159 OPS+). But getting busted twice for PED use clouds his entire career.
70. Roy Halladay
Prior to 2012, he had a four-year average of 19-9, 2.59 ERA and 242 innings. He led his league in complete games seven times in nine years, winning two Cy Young awards.
69. Billy Williams
The Hall of Famer played in 2,488 games, but no World Series. The Whistler, Ala., native is among seven players to amass 400 doubles and 400 homers between 1950 and 1980.
68. Jim Thome
The owner of 612 home runs, Thome’s favorite targets were Rick Reed (9), Roger Clemens (8) and Justin Verlander (7).
67. Paul Molitor
Owns a .418 batting average in World Series games. Molitor also stroked 2,160 hits after his 30th birthday.
66. Bert Blyleven
His devastating curveball led to 3,701 whiffs and 60 shutouts. He topped 265 innings in a season nine times.
65. Mike Mussina
Moose retired following the only 20-win season of his classy career. He won 18 or more games six times.
64. Ron Santo
Fan favorite in Chicago was one of the best defensive third basemen in game. He hit for power and drew walks in a pitcher-dominated era.
63. Lou Brock
The speedster is the only player with as many as 12 hits in a single World Series twice. Stealing bases at a record pace is his primary claim to fame, but he totaled more than 3,000 hits and 1,600 runs.
62. Todd Helton
Once started at quarterback at the University of Tennessee ahead of Peyton Manning while doubling as closer for R.A. Dickey while being the best hitter in a lineup that played in the College World Series. Chuck Klein, Lou Gehrig and Helton are the only players ever with two seasons of 100 extra-base hits. And Helton is the only one to pull it off in back-to-back seasons.
61. Vladimir Guerrero
The strong-armed right fielder left the anonymity of Montreal for an MVP season in Anaheim in 2004. He wasn’t exactly a league leader, as the only categories he ever led were runs once, hits once, total bases twice, caught stealing once and grounded into double plays once. But from 1998-2005 he posted an impressive 153 OPS+.
60. Don Sutton
Threw at least 200 innings in every non-strike season from 1966-86. He earns this ranking more due to his longevity and durability than he does with spectacular exploits. He was very, very good for a long, long time.
59. Craig Biggio
Made the All-Star team as catcher and second baseman. No one else can claim that. He also had more than 3,000 hits, 650 doubles and 400 stolen bases. Only Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb can claim that.
58. Andre Dawson
The Hawk spent his best seasons in Montreal, but received much more notoriety in Chicago. He finished second in MVP voting in 1981 and ’83 while with the Expos before winning the award with the Cubs in '87.
57. Rollie Fingers
Amassed more than 300 saves during an era when long relief and closers were one in the same.
56. Ryne Sandberg
The Hall of Famer was a 10-time All-Star, who won nine Gold Gloves, and an MVP in 1984. From 1989-93, he averaged .300-26-82 with 98 runs — not bad for a Gold Glove second baseman.
55. Robbie Alomar
Hey, spit happens. But seriously, he made 12 straight All-Star teams and hit an even .300 for his career.
54. Rich Gossage
The versatile Goose had 26 saves in 1975, made 29 starts in '76, then had 26 saves again in '77. He intimidated hitters for more than an inning at a time. From 1975-80, 42 percent of his 180 saves covered two innings or more. He once threw 7.1 shutout innings in relief, after pitching the previous day.
53. Dave Winfield
The talented athlete was drafted out of the University of Minnesota in the ABA, NBA and NFL as well as No. 4 overall by the Padres. Winfield did not play basketball and football in college, and explained his decision to stick with baseball by claiming he “could be a big man in baseball, a little man in basketball, and a broken man in football.”
52. Trevor Hoffman
One of two members of the 600-save club (Mariano Rivera), Hoffman finished second in NL Cy Young voting twice (1998, 2006). He averaged 34.5 saves over his 16 seasons in San Diego.
51. Phil Niekro
Sabermetricians would bestow a couple of Cy Youngs on Knucksie and even an MVP. The knuckleballer seem to improve with age. He earned 121 wins after turning 40 and had only 31 before his 30th birthday.
50. Gaylord Perry
Whether he actually had Vaseline on his cap or uniform, every distracted hitter (and manager) in the league thought he did. It may seem like he hung around way too long, but he tossed a six-hit shutout at Texas for the Royals 12 days shy of his 45th birthday.
49. Juan Marichal
Made 36 or more starts seven times. The Dominican Dandy had 10 shutouts and a save in 1965.
48. Jeff Bagwell
Haunted by PED innuendo, Bagwell put together 12 straight seasons not shortened by labor issues of more than 600 plate appearances. Only 20 players from this era have 1,500 runs and RBIs, and Bagwell has fewer plate appearances than any of them.
47. Tony Gwynn
We all remember the batting titles and 3,000 hits, but he won five Gold Gloves and once stole 56 bases. His batting average is 10 points better than any other player during this era with as many as 5,000 plate appearances.
46. Wade Boggs
The Hall of Famer won five batting titles within the first six seasons in which he had enough qualifying plate appearances. He regressed to a .312 average and .400 OBP over his next eight seasons.
45. Pedro Martinez
Martinez, the only pitcher in history with 3,000 strikeouts, a 4.0 K/BB ratio and a .680 winning percentage, was as good as anyone when he was at his best. It’s just that his best didn’t last long enough. His 2000 season may have been the best ever. The AL batted .276 with a .792 OPS and pitchers had a combined 4.91 ERA and 1.490 WHIP. Pedro’s numbers in those categories? .167, .473, 1.74 and 0.737.
44. Willie Stargell
After three near misses in his early 30s, Pops shared his only MVP award at age 39. His best effort was his .299/.392/.646, 44-homer 1973 season when he finished second to Pete Rose for NL MVP honors.
43. Willie McCovey
Stretch protected Willie Mays in the Giants’ lineup in the 1960s. McCovey batted .336 and slugged .680 in 128 at-bats off of Hall of Famer Don Drysdale.
42. Rod Carew
Carew chased .400 in 1977 to end at .388 with an MVP trophy. The second baseman-turned-first baseman made 18 consecutive All-Star teams.
41. Robin Yount
Yount won an MVP at short and center. From 1974-84, he played shortstop exclusively. From 1985-93, he played in 1,307 games, none of them at short.
40. Ferguson Jenkins
The righthander struck out 3,192 and walked just 997. Jenkins was in the top three in voting for the Cy Young award five times.
39. Tom Glavine
The beloved Brave should never have left Atlanta for New York. Over a 10-year period from 1991-2000, he won two Cy Young awards, finished second twice and third twice.
38. Al Kaline
Eclipsed 3,000 hits, but missed 400 homers by one. The right fielder had his best season — and 1,200 hits — prior to the Expansion Era, but had a better career — and 1,807 hits — afterwards. The consistent Kaline’s career monthly splits, April through September: .292, .295, .295, .296, .298 and .307.
37. Frank Thomas
Only Barry Bonds with 10 had more 100-run, 100-RBI, 100-walk seasons than Thomas’ nine during this era. Big Hurt, a former tight end at Auburn, hit .330 with a 182 OPS+ over his first eight seasons with the Sox before turning 30.
36. John Smoltz
Lost a full season to Tommy John surgery, but the ultimate team player turned into a dominant closer for three years before returning to a starting role. His success as both a starter and closer certainly factor into this ranking.
35. Nolan Ryan
The Ryan Express has 839 more strikeouts than anyone. Ever. His 3,270 strikeouts at home alone would rank 12th all-time.
34. Eddie Murray
Steady Eddie never captured an MVP, but he is one of four players with 3,000 knocks and 500 big flies.
33. Reggie Jackson
In Oakland, Baltimore, New York and California, he was the straw that stirred the drink. From 1971-86, his teams missed the playoffs just twice.
32. Chipper Jones
Jones is one of 13 players during the era with 1,600 runs and RBIs. During his first nine seasons in the majors, he averaged .309-31-105 with a .404 OBP and 142 OPS+.
31. Dennis Eckersley
The righthander is one of two pitchers with as many as 150 wins and saves. After 12 seasons and 359 starts, Eck reinvented himself as a dominant closer that earned him a Cy Young and MVP in 1992. Haunted by his walk to Mike Davis that set up Kirk Gibson’s famous home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, the righthander walked just 12 unintentionally in 207 innings over the next three seasons.
30. Ivan Rodriguez
Pudge II is widely considered the best throwing catcher ever, although Yadier Molina is a threat to that title. I-Rod owns the record for most doubles in a season (47) by a catcher.
29. Carlton Fisk
There is an indelible memory of Pudge waving that walk-off homer fair in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Fisk tied Joe Rudi with nine triples to lead the AL in 1972. The only other catcher to lead his league during this era was Tim McCarver with 13 in 1966.
28. Ozzie Smith
By most any metric — and especially the naked eye — he remains the gold standard for saving runs for pitchers. The question becomes how to rank superior glove work against superior offense.
27. Pete Rose
The Hall of Fame has yet to welcome the all-time hit king who was Rookie of the Year in 1963 and MVP 10 years later. In 1989, I was completely supportive of Rose’s lifetime ban. Now? I think he’s paid the price.
26. Brooks Robinson
He showed the world how skilled he was with the glove during the 1970 World Series when he also hit .429 to earn MVP honors.
25. Jim Palmer
At age 20, he shut out the Dodgers against Sandy Koufax in the 1966 World Series. At age 37, he was the winning pitcher in relief of Mike Flanagan in Game 3 of the 1983 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies and Steve Carlton.
24. Roberto Clemente
A beloved player throughout baseball, Clemente collected his 3,000th hit in his final regular-season at-bat before a tragic plane crash took his life. His final appearance in uniform came in Game 5 of the 1972 NLCS. Tom Hall of the Reds issued an intentional walk to Clemente to bring up Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.
23. George Brett
The Hall of Fame third baseman had an OPS+ of at least 120 for 16 consecutive seasons. Left off just nine of 497 HOF ballots in 1999. His 298 total bases led the American League in 1976, but three years later his total of 363 did not.
22. Carl Yastrzemski
Yaz became an all-time favorite in Boston after replacing the great Ted Williams in left field. Over a five-year period from 1966-70 that included his Triple Crown season of 1967, Yaz averaged 33 homers, 98 ribbies and 101 runs with a 159 OPS+.
21. Mariano Rivera
The Sandman was perhaps the best at his job — as well as the classiest — of anyone who has ever put on a uniform. He owns at least two wins or two saves against 29 teams.
20. Bob Gibson
Hoot made nine World Series starts and logged 81 innings. In 1968-69, 12 of the 23 homers Gibson gave up were to Hall of Famers (52 percent).
19. Rickey Henderson
No one stole bases (1,406) or scored runs (2,295) like Rickey did. And oh by the way, he stroked more than 3,000 hits and drove home more than 1,100 as well. During his prime, he was twice traded in deals involving Eric Plunk.
18. Cal Ripken
Breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak in 1995 brought fans back to baseball after the disastrous labor dispute in '94. The Iron Man is one of only eight players with 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, but he’s the only non-first baseman/outfielder on that elite list.
17. Derek Jeter
Perhaps a tad overrated defensively, the Yankee Captain has been a hitting machine his entire career. Only eight men have more hits, and that list is dwindling.
16. Randy Johnson
Joins Greg Maddux as the only pitchers to win four consecutive Cy Young awards. The Big Unit is 5-0 against the Yankees in the postseason, with three of the wins coming in the 2001 World Series.
15. Steve Carlton
Lefty dominated the National League in the '70s winning 27 for the 59-win Phillies in 1972 with a sub-2.00 ERA. He completed 19 of his 38 starts with six shutouts at age 37. So, why did the Cardinals trade him for Rick Wise?
14. Mike Schmidt
Won 10 Gold Gloves, back-to-back MVPs and played on six division winners. He won eight home run titles and had seasons of 38 and 45 in which he wasn’t first.
13. Joe Morgan
An All-Star in Houston before he arrived in Cincinnati, his first five seasons with the Reds produced back-to-back MVPs, four of his five Gold Gloves, and these five-year averages: .303 average, .431 OBP, 22 homers, 62 steals, 113 runs, 118 walks and a 163 OPS+.
12. Albert Pujols
The game’s best hitter for about a decade looked like one of the best ever from 2001-11. Since then, he’s looked, well, rather average. His career OPS+ of 165 ranks 10th all-time.
11. Johnny Bench
Perhaps the greatest catcher of all-time, and certainly of this era, Bench retired at age 35. He caught in 154 games at age 20. Due to his short career, the back of his baseball card is rather modest. One stat you won’t see is that he nabbed 46 percent of basestealers during his first 11 seasons behind the plate.
10. Sandy Koufax
From 1962-66, Koufax was as good as any pitcher to ever toe the rubber. Evaluating just those five seasons might be enough to garner the No.1 spot. But, Koufax was 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA six years into the big leagues. A painful left elbow that probably could have been fixed given today's medical advancements, prematurely ended his brilliant career.
9. Roger Clemens
It must be a different set of writers voting for the Hall of Fame now than the group that voted to give Clemens seven Cy Young awards. His seven Cys are spread over a 19-year span.
8. Alex Rodriguez
His lingering legacy will most likely be that of whiny, overpaid PED user. But on the field, A-Rod produced as a shortstop and third baseman for three different franchises. He won his only batting title as a 20-year-old shortstop in Seattle with a .358 average, 36 bombs and 54 doubles.
7. Frank Robinson
It appears he wasn’t an “old 30” after all as the Reds suspected when they traded him in 1965. Best known for winning MVPs in both leagues and for being the first African-American manager, Robinson was much more than that. From 1960-62 he led the National League in slugging and OPS, and that was at the height of Aaron, Mays, Clemente, et al. He followed his first MVP season in 1961 with an even more spectacular year in ’62.
6. Greg Maddux
The Professor won one more game than Roger Clemens, ranking eighth all-time and first in this era. At the height of the Steroid Era when offensive numbers were shooting through the roof, Maddux won four consecutive Cy Young awards from 1992-95 and averaged 19 wins and a 1.98 ERA and 0.953 WHIP. In 1994, the league average ERA was 4.21, Mad Dog posted an unbelievable 1.56.
5. Tom Seaver
Tom Terrific was left off of just five Hall of Fame ballots out of 430 in 1992. He won three Cy Young awards, and probably deserved a fourth when he posted an ERA a run better than Ferguson Jenkins in 1971. Fearing the club would lose its prized starter to free agency, New York traded the ace to the Reds at the deadline in 1977 for Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman and Pat Zachry. Seaver was 14-3 in 20 starts for the Big Red Machine that season.
4. Ken Griffey Jr.
Junior hit 398 home runs before his 30th birthday, but injuries and age limited him to just 232 afterwards. Still, 630 is not a bad total. Seattle is a better baseball town because of Ken Griffey Jr.
3. Barry Bonds
For those wondering why Bonds ranks below Mays and Aaron, the two icons that top this list never disrespected the game, teammates, opponents or fans. Bonds was a tremendous talent and produced tremendous results. Like him or not, believe he juiced or not, but Bonds electrified crowds on the way to four straight MVPs and 700-something home runs.
2. Hank Aaron
Retired as the all-time home run king and second all-time in hits. He now ranks second and third. Consistent at an elite level, over a 15-year period from 1957-71, Aaron averaged 38 home runs, 113 RBIs, 109 runs and a .314 average during a pitching-dominant era. His OPS+ during that stretch was 164.
1. Willie Mays
Arguably the best player in baseball in the 1950s, the Say Hey Kid also won an MVP in 1965. With power, speed, defense and a little flair, Mays brought a level of excitement to the game that had rarely been seen.
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