How we ranked the greatest players in baseball history
There are many ways to rank baseball players. Countless books have been written using a variety of methods. We used a method that made sense to us.
We did not rely solely on statistics, though stats were the framework by which we started our ranking process. Our raw statistical formula helped us identify the best 150-200 players at each position, and since we were interested in ranking the top 100 players at each position (and the best 100 overall), we started there and whittled them down.
The basis for our statistical formula is a stat called WAR. WAR (Wins Above Replacement), is generally accepted among the baseball stat community as the best single measurement of baseball players. Over at FanGraphs, a website dedicated to baseball statistical analysis, Steve Slowinski wrote that WAR:
Is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a players total contributions to their team in one statistic. WAR basically looks at a player and asks the question, If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?
We understand that there are many baseball fans who hate advanced statistical analysis. We don’t care. In order for our rankings to be taken seriously by serious baseball historians and statisticians we needed to use a method that was credible. If you think WAR is ridiculous, that’s fine. Start your own website and make your own rankings.
The Foundation of our Ratings System
Here’s an important reason we decided on WAR as the basis for our rankings: we looked at the best players at each position and noticed that WAR basically seemed to get things right. Where we expected a player to be in the top 10 or top 20, they usually were. There were some surprises, sure. But for the most part if we thought a player was great before we looked at WAR, he still was after. And where we were surprised, we investigated and it made sense. We didn’t always agree, which is why we added a subjective factor to our ratings formula.
We used a combination of Career WAR, WAR7 (the total of a player’s WAR in his best seven seasons), and WAR3 (the total of the player’s three best seasons). That served as the core of our ratings, but we wanted to weigh the career and peak value at different levels.
Our statistical formula started like this:
Jay Jaffe invented a stat called JAWS, which simply serves as the average of Career WAR and WAR7. In our method, it comes out to about 55 percent for peak value and 45 for career value for most players. There are some players with very high peaks and lower Career WAR who see that balance shift a bit, but not as much as you think. The 2x multiplier for Career WAR gives quite a head start to players who were good for a long stretch of time.
The system has a useful side effect: Babe Ruth ends up with a score of about 600. He’s one of only three players to top 500. We’re comfortable with The Babe being the greatest player of all-time. Conveniently, anyone with a score of 350 is a legendary player and 300-349 is in the next tier of greats. About 90 percent of the players who score 200+ are in the Hall of Fame, while many of the players who score between 100 and 199 were all-stars at least once and had decent careers. Of course within those ranges there are sub-ranges. A player at 150 is much better than one at 100. A player who scores 250 is almost certainly a Hall of Famer.
Impact on Team Success
We believe players who played a key role on pennant-winning teams should be awarded for that. As a result, we came up with something we call Championship WAR (CHWAR).
This is how CHWAR works: we add up all of the WAR accumulated by a player in seasons in which he was on a pennant-winning team. The player gets 10 percent of their CHWAR added to their total score. This resulted in helping players who had several good seasons for pennant-winning teams, such as Babe, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Collins. However, most of the players who got the biggest pennant adjustment, were already among the top players at their positions. It was players further down the list who were helped by the pennant adjustment, as it served to work as a tiebreaker with players who didn’t play for many pennant-winning teams. Among the notable players helped by the pennant adjustment are Roger Maris, Gil McDougald, Willie Randolph, Carl Furillo, Boog Powell, Jack Barry, Paul Blair, Chase Utley, and Sal Bando.
Timeline and Color Line Adjustment
We made an adjustment for players who played most of their careers in the late 19th Century and early part of the 20th Century, when the level of competition was lower and rules were also changing that made quite an impact. This impacted quite a few starting pitchers.
We simply don’t think it makes sense to have 10-15 pitchers who toiled during that era rank in the Top 100. Those pitchers were able to start 45-55 games a year in leagues where the competition was not well balanced, which increased their impact on the field. The game in the 19th century was much, much different than it is today.
You’ll notice the absence of players who played their entire careers prior to 1900. In our opinion, baseball was such a different game in the 19th century that it’s impossible to compare the stars of that era with those who played later. At a later date we intend to compile a list of the top players of the 19th century.
Our Timeline Adjustment was simple, based on the debut year of the player:
Debut Year – 1800 / 10
For example, Tris Speaker debuted in 1907, so his Timeline Adjustment was:
1907 – 1800 / 10 = 10.7
We add that 10.7 to Speaker’s total. Every player gets a Timeline Adjustment. By comparison, Mike Trout’s is 21.1, which gives him roughly a +10 on Speaker because the game is much better today. It’s not a large amount, but it can make a difference in the rankings.
We also made an adjustment for players who started their careers prior to integration, and thus only faced white players (for the most part). The adjustment was significant, because we believe that prior to the 1950s, Major League Baseball was not nearly as good or competitive as it would become when black and latino players were welcomed to the game. It was easier for Nap Lajoie and Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth to dominate their eras when the never had to face black players.
The Color Line Adjustment was significant, we did it this way: we subtracted the year the player debuted from 1951 and multiplied that number by .005. So, for a player who debuted in 1931, the number would be 20 or .20, which we multiplied by their career WAR and subtracted from their career WAR. In essence, a player lost 1% of their career WAR for every year they debuted before 1951.
This adjustment proved critical for players who debuted early in the 20th century or late in the 19th century. But we strongly believe the game has evolved and gotten much better since it integrated. This adjustment helped remove a bias toward “old time” players.
Without the Timeline and Color Line Adjustments, our lists would have had many more players who played from 1895 to 1925. That doesn’t make sense.
Loss of Playing Time for Reasons Beyond Player Control
We made major adjustments for those players who missed time for reasons beyond their control, such as World War I or World War II or the color barrier. This especially helped Bob Feller, Johnny Mize, Roy Campanella, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Sam Rice, Joe Harris, Charlie Keller, Joe Gordon, Enos Slaughter, Pee Wee Reese, Joe Gordon, and a few others. The player who was probably most helped by the “war time” adjustment was Ted Williams, who missed significant time in both WWII and the Korean War.
There were other reasons that some players were denied playing time that we needed to adjust for. Prior to 1950, many teams held hundreds of young players in large farm systems. With only 16 teams at the big league level, some players were stuck in the minors for years despite being skilled enough to play at the highest level. Some even chose to stay in minor leagues because they were paid well. A few players who benefited from this adjustment are Lefty Grove, George McQuinn, and an excellent pitcher named Curt Davis who probably ranks higher here than anyone has ever rated him.
Obviously, we felt we had to make adjustments for those players who were denied entry to the major leagues due to the color of their skin or other cultural barriers. This helped Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Monte Irvin, Bobby Avila, Ichiro Suzuki, and others.
We did not feel we could fairly judge the talent of players who played all or most of their careers in the negro leagues. We have no doubt that Oscar Chrleston, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige, and several other black players would have performed very well in the major leagues, but we cannot speculate on how well because their isn’t enough data to help us compare them to the talent level in MLB prior to 1947. If someone has a method for doing this and wants to share it with us, we’d love to rectify this omission.
A special note on labor stoppages: we gave credit to players who missed time due to strikes. There were essentially three seasons that were impacted: 1981, 1994, and 1995. For some players who were having a career year in 1981 or 1994 (when roughly 1/3 of the season was scrubbed), it made an impact, especially on their WAR3 and WAR7. For a small group of players, like Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn, and Greg Maddux, it made a difference.
Injuries and short careers
We did not make adjustments for players who retired early due to injury. Injuries are part of the game, and if a player was unable to perform because his body broke down, that’s part of how we rated them.
As a result of this approach we probably are going to take a lot of heat for how we rank Sandy Koufax. We acknowledge that at his very peak Koufax ranked among the greatest pitchers ever. But his peak was really only four seasons, and he had a fifth season where he was pretty good, but not at the level of his zenith.
We valued peak over career slightly , especially with starting pitchers, but 4-5 years alone is not enough to put Koufax in the upper echelon of pitchers. Sure, had he been able to pitch after the age of 30 he would have added to his resume, but he wasn’t able to. And it wouldn’t be fair to give him credit for doing something he didn’t do because of injury.
We made an exception for players who died during the middle of their careers, or suffered mental breakdowns or other tragic events that removed them from the game. Charlie Hollocher, Ray Chapman, and Thurman Munson are examples of this small group.
We used subjective opinion to discount players who were suspected of using performance enhancing drugs. We admit we may be wrong in some of our rankings in regards to PEDs, but we felt we had to penalize Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Alex Rodriguez. We also lowered Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and a few others. Your opinion may vary.
Any player who was ever suspended for using banned substances has been penalized, typically with a 5 to 15 percent subtraction from their overall score. The hit taken by ARod moved him from #1 to #2 at shortstop in our rankings. Bonds would have been the third greatest player ever in our rankings, but after an adjustment for steroid use, he’s still in the top ten.
For those players who merely had rumors swirling around them, such as Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, we did not pretend to know if they “cheated,” we simply rated them as if they did not use steroids.
Postseason Performance Adjustment
There’s a lot of debate about the consideration of postseason performance when rating players. It’s a dicey subject. On the one hand, postseason play is a result of opportunity, and some great players, like Ernie Banks, Rod Carew, and Ken Griffey Jr., had little opportunity to show what they could do in October baseball. Others, like Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Derek Jeter, were in the playoffs a hell of a lot.
We used a small scale of 0.5 to 4.0 for postseason performance. About 150 players got a score. A few even went backwards (Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, and Happy Felsch for obvious reasons). The only player who got a +4.0 was Reggie. Four players: Ruth, Mantle, Eddie Collins, and Home Run Baker, for a +3.0. Then you have dozens of players who got a 0.5, or 1.0 to 2.5 adjustments. When we’re talking about a final score between 100-400 for most players, this adjustment doesn’t make much of a difference in most cases.
We have a 0 to 5 scale for intangibles, which wasn’t used all that much, but it was useful. The Intangible Score was used for many different reasons. Jackie Robinson is the only man to get a +5 on this scale. Willie Stargell and a few others got a +1 for leadership.
We felt we had to reward players who served as player/managers and had success. That’s a unique role to fill and an important one. Tris Speaker, Frank Robinson, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Cochrane, Bucky Harris, and Lou Boudreau got a slight Intangible Score bump for being great at it, among a few others.
In some cases, the Intangible Score helped us make adjustments of the rankings. We couldn’t fathom Sandy Koufax ranking below Rick Reuschel, for example. But our formula says that’s so, mostly because Reuschel pitched a hell of a lot longer than Sandy. We used a slight Intangible Score adjustment to fix that.
Similarly, we really believe George Brett was a more valuable player than Adrian Beltre. Our rankings had Beltre slightly ahead, so we used Intangible Score tweaks to switch them. Quibble with that if you will, but it made sense to us.
The Intangible Score helped us penalize players who we thought needed it because they were overrated, or maybe just rotten people. This impacted Hal Chase, Dave Kingman, and Rafael Palmeiro, among a few others.
How we chose the primary position for players who played multiple positions
There are a few players who could have been ranked at multiple positions. How did we choose where to rate them? We used common sense and also looked at games played.
But games played wasn’t the defining criteria. For example, Rod Carew played more games at first base than second, but we ranked him at second. Similarly, Robin Yount played more in center field, but he ranks here at shortstop. Those two players were better suited for the position in which they started their careers, as was Ernie Banks, who actually played more games at first base than short. Joe Torre was the same way. For Pete Rose we settled on left field, though he played hundreds of games at second, third, first, and right field. Left field was where he ranks best.
Outfielders are special too: some of the players may have had a few more games in right or left, etc., but we placed players in the outfield spot that they were most associated with, for the most part. Dave Winfield and Andre Dawson, however, are players who put in a lot of time at two outfield spots, but we slotted them where they ranked the best.
(Career WAR x 2) + (WAR7 x 1.75) + (WAR3) +
CHWAR + Intangible Score + Postseason Adjustment +
Timeline Adjustment + Color Line Adjustment +
Steroid Adjustment + Adjustments for Length of Season*
= FINAL SCORE
*Prior to 1961 the season was 5 percent shorter. We need to give players from that era a bump to account for that, so their careers are measured fairly against those who came after them.
On relief pitchers
We’ve seen two “Top 100” lists that include relief pitchers. We simply can’t see how someone who pitches only 600 to 1,500 innings (the range for the best relievers in history) can be one of the Top 100 players in baseball history. That’s not enough playing time to make it. Even Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher of all-time, only faced about 5,000 batters in his career, and Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched when relievers often hurled multiple innings, only faced about 7,000 batters as a reliever.
Relief pitching has become more important, but a close examination of performance shows that most starting pitchers could go to the bullpen and do at least a passable job as a closer.
Five pitchers who spent all or part of their careers as relievers rated in our Top 100 Pitcher rankings (Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, John Smoltz, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Wilbur Wood). But only Rivera spent all of his time as a reliever, and he still rated in the middle of our all-time list for pitchers. Relievers simply do not play enough to make an impact on our lists, but if the usage trends change in the future (or if another Mo comes along), they may appear.