How We Ranked the Greatest Players in Baseball History


I. Introduction

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 (which we call the Player Ratings System) helped us identify the best 150-200 players at each position, and since we were interested in ranking the top 100 players, we started there and whittled them down.

II. The Foundation of the Player Ratings System: Wins Above Replacement

The basis for our Player Ratings System is a stat called WAR.

WAR (Wins Above Replacement), is generally accepted among the baseball stat community as the best single measurement of player contribution. 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 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.

There’s a 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 WAR’s assessment made sense. We didn’t always agree, which is why we added a Subjective Adjustment to our system.

III. The Player Ratings System Formula

We used a combination of Career WAR, WAR7 (the total of a player’s WAR in his best seven seasons), prime performance, 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.

For a player’s prime years, we counted their WAR for their five best CONSECUTIVE seasons. We call this WAR5C.

The Player Ratings System formala:

(Career WAR x 2) + (WAR7 x 1.75) + (WAR5C x 2) + (WAR3) + CHWAR + Intangible Score + Postseason Adjustment + Timeline Adjustment + Color Line Adjustment + Illegal Substance Adjustment + Adjustments for Length of Season* = FINAL SCORE

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 a head start to players who were good for a long stretch of time. The 2x multiplier on the five best consecutive seasons rewards players who had a great career “prime.”

*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.

IV. Introducing Championship WAR (CHWAR)

We believe players who play a key role on pennant-winning teams should be rewarded 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 ten percent of their CHWAR added to their total score. (Note: negative WAR totals in pennant-winning seasons are treated as zero.)

For example, if a second baseman plays on two pennant winning teams and has two 4 WAR seasons, that’s a total of 8 CHWAR. He gets ten percent of that added to his total (or .8 WAR).

The players with the highest CHWAR are those who had several good seasons for pennant-winning teams, such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Collins. 

Most of the players who got the biggest boost from CHWAR, were already among the top players at their positions. It was players lower on the list who were helped by the CHWAR 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 CHWAR in our ratings are Roger Maris, Gil McDougald, Willie Randolph, Carl Furillo, Boog Powell, Jack Barry, Paul Blair, Chase Utley, and Sal Bando.

V. Timeline Adjustment 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 changing frequently. This impacted quite a few starting pitchers, the guys who started 55-60 games per season back in the Victorian Era.

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 many 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.

Our Timeline Adjustment is based on a study by Bill James, noted baseball statistician and historian. James devised a system he called QUOC (Quality Of Competition). I won’t go into his entire study here, but the gist is this: James assigned a QUOC score to every season in baseball history. He based it on the quality of the players in the league. In seasons when the quality of players was low, the QUOC lowered or stayed flat, like during World War II. It rose steadily after integration, stagnated when MLB expanded, and so on.

The overall quality of baseball has improved decade-after-decade throughout history. Baseball in 1975 was better than it was in 1955. And it was better in 1998 than it was in 1978, and it’s much better in 2019 than it was in 1969, and so on.

Clearly, professional baseball today is far superior to what they were playing in the Major Leagues in 1919, for example. In 1919, there were no black players, few Latin players at all, and many good baseball players were unheard of because they remained hidden in leagues around the country. Also, the quality of the athletes has vastly improved. If we had a time machine and we could send Brett Gardner back to 1927, I have no doubt he would out-homer Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He would be a freak compared to most players who earned a living playing baseball even 60 years ago. Things get better with time, that’s the way the human body works.

Here’s how we made our Timeline Adjustment: we averaged the QUOC score for every player’s career. For example, for Babe Ruth it’s 562. What the number represents doesn’t matter, it only matters how it relates to other eras. Miguel Cabrera’s average QUOC for his career (through 2019) is 658. That means that Major League Baseball during Cabrera’s career has been roughly 15 percent better than when the Babe played.

To make our Timeline Adjustment, we subtract the percentage of difference of a player’s average QUOC score from his Career Wins Above Replacement. For Ruth, he loses 28.3 points on his Career WAR. That still leaves him way ahead of Cabrera and practically everyone in history, but it serves as an equalizer across eras.

Every player gets a Timeline Adjustment, but recent players will lose less off their WAR total, and as we move into the future, that number will increase as baseball gets better.

A single Timeline Adjustment was not enough. We also made an adjustment for players who started their careers prior to integration. The adjustment was significant, because we believe that prior to the 1950s, Major League Baseball was not nearly as competitive as it would become when black and Latino players were welcomed to the game. It was easier for Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth to dominate their eras when they never had to face black players.

The Color Line Adjustment works this way: we subtracted the year the player debuted from 1951 and multiplied that number by .005 (one-half of one percent). So, for a player who debuted in 1931 (20 years before 1951) their multiplier would be .10 (ten percent), which we multiplied by their career WAR (and subtracted that amount from their career WAR). In essence, a player lost 0.5% of their career value for every year they debuted before 1951.

This adjustment proved critical for players who debuted early in the 20th century. But we strongly believe the game has evolved and gotten much better since integration. This adjustment helped remove a bias toward “old time” players, which is one of our peeves with other “all-time baseball rankings” lists.

Without the Timeline and Color Line Adjustments, our lists would have had many more players who played from 1895 to 1925 in top positions. With athletes improving over time, that doesn’t make sense.

VI. A Note About Missed Seasons for Good Reasons

Our Player Ratings System makes adjustments for those players who missed time for reasons beyond their control, such as wars, other military service, and missed time during labor stoppages or a health crisis (such as the 2020 season). 

We also adjusted for those players whose entry into Major League Baseball was delayed due to the color barrier, which was finally broken in 1947.

Many significant players missed playing time due to World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam War. Adjustments in this area 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 this adjustment was Ted Williams, who missed significant time in both WWII and the Korean War.

To make an adjustment for a player who missed time beyond his control, we used his prior three big league seasons and/or his two best seasons after returning, and averaged that performance. The player received credit for that performance for his missed time.

There were other reasons that players were denied playing time that we adjusted 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. We chose to adjust for this, and reward players who missed out on being in Major League Baseball sooner. A few players who benefited from this adjustment are Lefty Grove, George McQuinn, Maury Wills, 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 whose entry to the major leagues was put on hold 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 Charleston, 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 a small group of players, like Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn, Harold Baines, and Greg Maddux, they got a small boost for having missed time due to strikes or lockouts.

VII. Injuries and Shortened 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 (about 55/45), especially with starting pitchers, but 4 or 5 years alone is not enough to put Koufax in the upper echelon of pitchers. Had he been able to pitch after the age of 30 he would have added to his resume, but he wasn’t able to.

VIII. A Note About Performance-Enhancing Substances

We penalized players who were caught 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 his pal Jose Canseco, As well as Slammin’ Sammy Sosa, Ryan Braun, Miguel Tejada, Brady Anderson and about two dozen others. Your opinion may vary, but this is our list.

How did we penalize players for PEDs? We subtracted 12.5% of their career value and peak value from their Player Score. Bonds (-20), ARod (-14), Palmeiro (-9), Manny Ramirez (-8), Robbie Cano (-8), and McGwire (-8) had the biggest penalties.

Any player who was ever suspended for using banned substances has been penalized. The adjustment for 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.

IX. Post-Season Performance Bonus

Some folks don’t think postseason performance should factor in 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 Post-Season Performance Bonus scale of 0.5 to 4.5. About 180 players got a bonus score. A few even went backwards (Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, and Happy Felsch for scandalous reasons).

The only player who got a +4.5 was Eddie Collins. Two players (Reggie Jackson and Frank Chance) got a +4. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Home Run Baker, and Madison Bumgarner received a +3. Then you have dozens of players who got between +2.5 to +0.5 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, but it could break a close tie in the rankings.

X. Intangibles Score

We established a -5 to +5 scale for intangibles, which wasn’t used all that much, but it was useful. The Intangibles Score was used for multiple 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, and so on.

We felt we had to reward players who were successful as player-managers. Tris Speaker, Frank Robinson, Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, Mickey Cochrane, Bucky Harris, Bill Terry, and Lou Boudreau got +3 for being great at it, among a few others.

The Intangibles Score helped us penalize players who we thought needed it because they were rotten teammates or had a hand in unsavory incidents. This impacted Hal Chase, Dave Kingman, and Rafael Palmeiro, among a few others.

XI. Subjective Adjustment Option

In order to rank the Top 100 at each position, we used our Player Ratings System and arrived at Player Score, as outlined above. However, we also wanted to have the option to shift players within the rating system if necessary. Especially if the ratings resulted in a close match with another player.

For example: at first base the ratings system placed Frank “Big Hurt” Thomas at 322.7 and Hank Greenberg at 320.3, both elite scores. That placed Thomas 6th and Greenberg 7th at the position. But I felt Greenberg deserved to rank higher than Thomas because (1) Greenberg played first base and never got to focus solely as a designated hitter like Thomas did; (2) defensive statistics show Greenberg was a better defensive player; (3) Greenberg had far more impact on pennant races; (4) as great as Thomas was, Hank was an extremely important player in baseball history. He was baseball’s first great Jewish star, and a war hero.

So I flipped Greenberg and Thomas, making The Hammer #6 at first base. I think it’s easy to defend that decision.

I used the subjective adjustment maybe four or five times for each position, but it rarely impacted the top ten players. Usually it was a way to sneak a player a notch or two higher, where I thought the numbers got it wrong.

XII. Choosing a Primary Position

There are many 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 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, as was Stan Musial. 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.

XIII. A Note About Relief Pitchers

We’ve seen a few “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.

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 all of them except Rivera had several years as starting pitchers. Relievers simply do not play enough to make an impact on the Top 100 Pitcher list or to appear on the Top 100 Player list.

XIV. A Note About Negro Leaguers and 19th Century Players

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 Charleston, 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.

We realize we open ourselves for criticism for excluding negro league stars, some of whom are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But we wanted to have lists we were confident in, and the inclusion of players from leagues where we have scarce competitive balance data or statistics, prompted us to make this problematic decision. 

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. For that reason, we DID NOT INCLUDE PLAYERS who spent all or more than 75 percent of their career playing prior to 1901. We are fairly certain, that the stars of the 19th century, like Sam Thompson and Pud Galvin, were skilled players. But if we judged them fairly against modern players, they would pale in comparison. Your mileage may vary.

XV. Player Rating Example

Let’s run through a player to show how the Player Ratings System works.

Tim Raines
69.4 Career WAR
42.4 WAR7
32.3 WAR in five best consecutive seasons
20.3 WAR3
0.9 WAR in pennant-winning seasons (CHWAR)

Now for adjustments:
Raines missed games in 1981, 1987, 1994, and 1995 due to labor or collusion. We estimate he deserves to have 2.5 WAR added for his career, 2.0 WAR for his WAR7, and 0.8 for his WAR3.

His career spanned from 1979 to 2002, and his QUOC score is .925. We multiply his Career WAR by that and he loses 5.4 WAR. He does not lose anything for Era Adjustment (Color Line) because he played after 1951. He also does not receive any adjustments for post-season performance or intangibles.

Raines’ new numbers are:

71.9 Career WAR
44.4 WAR7
32.3 WAR in five best consecutive seasons
21.1 WAR3
0.1 CHWAR (ten percent of WAR in pennant-winning seasons)
-5.4 Timeline Adjustment

Here’s the math:

(71.9 x 2) + (44.7 x 1.75) + (32.2 x 2) + (21.3) + (0.1) + (-5.4)

Which results in 301.9 as a Player Score for Tim Raines.

A Player Score of 301.9 is exceptional. Only 65 position players have recorded a Player Score of 300 or higher. All but 13 of those players are in the Hall of Fame.

Raines’ score of 301.9 places him seventh among left fielders all-time. Overall among position players, his score is higher than Derek Jeter, Carlos Beltran, Tony Gwynn, and Harry Heilmann. Clearly, Tim Raines was one of the best players in history.

XV. Top 50 Position Players by Player Score

Here are the top 50 position players in Player Score according to our Player Ratings System, through the 2019 season. 

Of the top 50 position players ranked by our system, 34 of them (68 percent) played at least part of their career after 1960. We think that matches the improvement in quality of play over baseball history. By comparison, according to Win Shares (the statistic of choice for Bill James), 29 of the top 50 played after 1960. According to bWAR (Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement), only half of the top 50 played after 1960.

1. Willie Mays … 588.1
2. Babe Ruth … 582.6
3. Ted Williams … 562.5
4. Barry Bonds … 517.2
5. Hank Aaron … 497.7
6. Ty Cobb … 492.3
7. Stan Musial … 480.5
8. Joe Morgan … 478.4
9. Rogers Hornsby … 478.3
10. Mickey Mantle … 461.9
11. Tris Speaker … 450.1
12. Lou Gehrig … 446.8
13. Eddie Collins … 437.1
14. Rickey Henderson … 436.2
15. Mike Schmidt … 435.7
16. Albert Pujols … 424.9
17. Carl Yastrzemski … 406.8
18. Frank Robinson … 401.3
19. Joe DiMaggio … 391.1
20. Wade Boggs … 390.8
21. Mel Ott … 389.0
22. Ken Griffey Jr. … 386.5
23. Cal Ripken Jr. … 385.5
24. Mike Trout … 384.7
25. Roberto Clemente … 382.4

26. Alex Rodriguez … 381.5
27. Honus Wagner … 380.5
28. Jimmie Foxx … 378.6
29. Eddie Mathews … 376.7
30. George Brett … 374.1
31. Adrian Beltre … 359.4
32. Al Kaline … 354.6
33. Jeff Bagwell … 350.3
34. Jackie Robinson … 350.1
35. Charlie Gehringer … 349.2
36. Nap Lajoie … 348.8 
37. Rod Carew … 348.7
38. Ron Santo … 343.5
39. Ernie Banks … 339.0
40. Johnny Mize … 337.9
41. Robin Yount … 334.7
42. Chipper Jones … 333.6
43. Pete Rose … 326.9
44. Arky Vaughan … 326.7
45. Brooks Robinson … 326.1
46. Hank Greenberg … 323.3
47. Frank Thomas … 322.7
48. Bobby Grich … 321.5
49. Johnny Bench … 321.3
50. Reggie Jackson … 320.8