7:02 PM UTC
David SchoenfieldESPN Senior Writer
Miguel Cabrera just became the 28th member of the 500-home run club. While that group has swelled in numbers in the past two decades, it remains a rare company, with fewer members than the 3,000-hit club.
Let's rank the 28 members of this exclusive club as hitters only. Defense doesn't matter. Position doesn't matter. WAR doesn't matter. Just their bat.
I ranked each player in five categories:
1. Career home runs. This is the 500-homer club, after all.
2. Career adjusted batting runs. How many runs a player was estimated to have created compared with an average hitter over his career (via Baseball Reference).
3. Weighted runs created (wRC+). A rate statistic that measures offensive value, controlling for park effects and run environment (via FanGraphs).
4. Adjusted batting average. The player's career batting average compared with the league average over his career.
5. Best five seasons. Sometimes we just want to know how dominant a player was at his very best, so I calculated the five best seasons of his career, using adjusted batting runs (via Baseball Reference).
With the five categories, we get a mix of counting stats, rate stats, career value and peak value. As for PEDs, we're ignoring the implications and complications they present. Make your own mental readjustments as you desire. The list ...
Best category: Batting runs (1), wRC+ (1), peak seasons (1)
Adam Ottavino might not agree with this ranking, but it's hard to deny Ruth his place as the greatest hitter of all time. He ranks first in three categories, second in adjusted batting average and third in career home runs. When Ruth changed the game with his power hitting in 1920, others eventually started putting up some big numbers as well -- but, really, it wasn't until 1932 that somebody other than Rogers Hornsby or Lou Gehrig challenged him as the best hitter in the game. Here is Ruth's lead in adjusted batting runs each season:
1920: +42 over George Sisler 1921: +42 over Hornsby 1922: Played just 96 games after suspension for attacking an umpire and a fan 1923: +47 over Harry Heilmann and Tris Speaker 1924: +6 over Hornsby 1925: Missed time with his famous "bellyache" 1926: +55 over Gehrig 1927: Gehrig led by 1 1928: +7 over Hornsby 1929: Hornsby led by 9 1930: +1 over Gehrig 1931: +13 over Gehrig 1932: Jimmie Foxx led by 19
Best category: Home runs (1)
Bonds' other rankings: second in batting runs and best five seasons, third in wRC+, and ninth in adjusted batting average.
If Bonds had retired after the 2000 season -- before his 73-homer season, four straight MVP Awards or ridiculous four straight .500 OBP seasons -- he would still rank somewhere in the middle of this list:
Home runs: 28th (he had 494 at the time) Batting runs: 13th wRC+: 5th Adjusted BA: 13th Best five seasons: 7th
Note, in particular, that he still ranked seventh overall in his five-year peak, even though his four best seasons were yet to come.
Best category: Adjusted BA (1)
There are reasonable arguments to rank Williams ahead of Ruth or Bonds or both, namely:
1. Ruth and Williams are neck-and-neck in a stat called offensive winning percentage, which is exactly what it sounds like: Ruth at .858, Williams at .857.
2. Williams, of course, missed three full seasons -- at the peak of his career -- to World War II and then two more full ones while serving in the Korean War.
3. Williams, at least in the second half of his career, faced an integrated league, unlike Ruth (although the AL of the 1950s lagged behind the NL).
4. Unlike Bonds, he didn't use "the cream" or "the clear."
If we credit Williams for those missing seasons, I can get him to about 686 home runs, which places him fifth. He almost certainly would pass Ruth and Bonds in career batting runs. He's already second to Ruth in wRC+, but he might move ahead of him given the level of his 1941-1942-1946 performance. He's already first in adjusted batting average. He likely would remain third in peak seasons behind Ruth and Bonds (he's 50 runs behind Bonds and more than 100 behind Ruth).
I still end up with Ruth barely edging Williams, but subjectively I would move Williams up to No. 2 -- and maybe he was the best damn hitter who ever lived.
Best category: Home runs (2)
The three 1950s/1960s superstars battle it out for the next three spots: Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. I would have guessed Mays would rank higher than Aaron, but Aaron aged a little better than Mays and holds the edge not only in career home runs but also in adjusted batting average (fourth versus seventh) and peak seasons (11th versus 12th). Mantle lacked their longevity but, due to his higher OBP, had the best seasons. The top 10 seasons in adjusted batting runs among the three:
Mantle, 1956 (+84) Mantle, 1957 (+84) Mantle, 1961 (+81) Mantle, 1958 (+64) Aaron, 1959 (+64) Mays, 1965 (+63) Aaron, 1963 (+61) Mays, 1954 (+60) Mays, 1955 (+59) Aaron, 1971 (+59)
Best category: wRC+ (4)
Mantle ranks in the top five of four of our five categories -- fourth in wRC+, but also fifth in batting runs, adjusted batting average and peak seasons. His soft spot is that he's 18th in career home runs. Finishing high in batting runs was the surprise since that's a cumulative stat and Mantle is just 21st in plate appearances, but that speaks to his dominance. Mantle finished with a career .298 average, but the league average during his career was just .256, so he was 16.4% better than average.
Best category: Home runs (6), Batting runs (6)
In doing research on Aaron after his death, I was surprised to find that as Aaron was closing in on Ruth's career home run record, Mays was, well, a little grumpy about the whole thing, grumbling that Aaron had the advantage of playing in Atlanta while Mays had to deal with the swirling winds at Candlestick much of his career.
It was a reasonable point, with Mays' ultimate issue being that he might have got there first, not just because of Candlestick but because he lost nearly two full seasons early in his career while in the Army. Would he have broken Ruth's record of 714 before Aaron? Mays finished with 660 home runs in 1973 (Aaron broke the mark in 1974), including four in 34 games in his truncated 1952 season. Would he have hit 59 home runs over the rest of 1952 and 1953? It seems reasonable, if not quite a lock. He hit 41 in 1954 when he returned, so give him 40 in 1953 and 19 more in 1952 and he's at 715.
Best category: Home runs (5)
He has hung around long enough to climb way up the career leaderboard in home runs, without really being a productive hitter in a long time. Still, let's not forget how great he was at his peak. His career batting average has dropped from .328 during his Cardinals years to .297 as his last .300 season came back in 2010. Still, he ranks sixth in adjusted batting average, 14.7% better than the league norm. He was more than 23% better than average through 2011, which would be second only to Williams. He also ranks sixth in peak seasons, with his 2003 campaign (.359/.439/.667, 43 home runs) ranking as his best.
Best category: Peak seasons (4)
As Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez once said of Foxx, "He has muscles in his hair." Yankees catcher Bill Dickey said, "If I were catching blindfolded, I'd always know when it was Foxx who connected. He hit the ball harder than anyone else." One of his nicknames was "The Maryland Strong Boy." Another: "The Beast." Foxx hit 58 home runs in his greatest season, but he wasn't just a slugger, winning two batting titles. As Bill James once wrote, his best seasons would fit comfortably alongside those of Ruth and Gehrig. Foxx had 500 home runs through his age-32 season but just 34 after. Drinking problems are often cited as the primary cause for his early decline, but he also suffered vision and sinus problems, perhaps the result of getting beaned in the head earlier in his career.
Best category: Batting runs (9)
Robinson hit 40 home runs just once -- 49 in 1966, his Triple Crown season -- but he hit 30 a bunch of times; hit .300 nine times, including a best of .342; and finished with a higher career OBP than Mays and Aaron, his more famous contemporaries. He's also one of just three members of the 500-homer club to manage -- Ott and Williams were the others -- and the most successful of the three. I never realized this before, but Robinson would have reached 3,000 hits (he finished with 2,943) if he had played himself more often. When he became the player/manager for Cleveland in 1975, he could still hit. His OPS+ in 1974 was 141, and he finished with 117 hits. Playing sparingly in 1975, he still had a 153 OPS+, but he collected just 28 hits (and had 15 more in 1976).
Best category: Peak seasons (7)
Thomas is tied for 20th in home runs (521), but ranks no lower than 12th in the other four categories. If we extended the definition of "peak" to more than five seasons, he might climb even higher, as his No. 6 season is tied with his fifth best, and his No. 7 and 8 seasons are just a couple of runs worse. Remarkably, his best season, at +72 runs, was the 1994 strike year, when he played just 113 games (and hit .353/.487/.729). He could have had the rare +100 season.
Best category: Home runs (4)
The ironic aspect to A-Rod's career is that it generally followed a typical aging pattern (other than being so good at age 20 in 1996). His top five home run seasons all came between ages 25 and 31. His last .300 season came at age 32. He hit 40 home runs eight times, but the last time also at 32. His OPS+ in five-year blocks: 143 (20 to 24), 154 (25 to 29), 145 (30 to 34), 112 (35 to 40). My favorite Rodriguez season will always be that 1996 season, however, when he hit .358 with 36 home runs and 54 doubles, and was so good at such a young age that his future was unlimited.
Best category: Adjusted BA (8)
Manny ranks well across the board, with his weakest category being five-year peak. Even that is a little misleading because in his best season -- 61 runs above average in 2000 -- he played just 118 games. In his third-best season in 2002, he played just 120 games. In his fifth-best season in 2006, he played 130 games. If he had aligned his most productive seasons with his healthiest seasons, he might have climbed up a couple spots on this list.
Best category: Batting runs (7), wRC+ (7)
The star of the New York Giants in the late 1920s and 1930s, Ott had an unusual batting style that would look out of place in today's game. He started with a high leg kick, would drop his hands way below his belt and rock back to get his momentum going, a tricky balancing mechanism. It was somewhat similar to what Anthony Rizzo does at times, but even more exaggerated in the leg lick and the dropping of the hands. I have no idea if it would work in today's game -- not that he would get out of Little League hitting like that.
Ott hit 40 home runs just once -- with 42 as a 20-year-old in 1929 -- but did lead the NL six times between 1932 and 1942 (home run totals in the NL in the 1930s weren't as impressive as in the AL, which used a different, livelier baseball). He benefited greatly from the odd configurations of the Polo Grounds, where the right-field line was just 258 feet from home plate, hitting 157 more home runs at home, which is the biggest home/road split on the list. (He actually was nearly as productive overall on the road, just hitting for a higher average and more doubles.)
Best category: wRC+ (6)
McGwire's combination of OBP (.394) and slugging (.588) means he rates high in the weighted runs created category. He also had enough big seasons to rank eighth in five-year peak. As you would expect, his worst category is adjusted batting average (26th), with a career mark one point above league average. In retrospect, it's amazing how quickly it was all over with -- "it" referring to the aftermath of the Summer of '98. McGwire was great again in 1999, bashing 65 home runs. He was great again in 2000, at least in the 89 games he played, posting a higher OPS than in 1998. Then he hit .187 in 2001, Bonds beat his record, and he was done.
Best category: Adjusted BA (3)
It's been a long time since Cabrera's last great season -- 2016, when he hit .316 with 38 home runs. That was his last .300 season, but his lifetime average still sits at .311. That ranks fifth highest among club members, behind only Williams (.344), Ruth (.342), Foxx (.325) and Ramirez (.312). When we adjust for era, Cabrera climbs to No. 3. Note that only nine of the 28 sluggers hit .300 in their careers, with only Ramirez, Cabrera and Thomas starting after 1954.
You can make the argument, I believe, that Cabrera hit the ball harder, on a consistent basis, than anyone on this list -- or at least as hard. He has the highest batting average on balls in play at .341, which illustrates that he hit line drives all over the park. The top five: Cabrera, Ruth (.340), Ramirez (.338), Foxx (.336), Williams (.328). At the bottom: Harmon Killebrew (.254) and McGwire (.255).
Cabrera was a slow, right-handed batter, and slow right-handed batters rarely win batting titles. Yet Cabrera won four of them and hit .320 or better nine times. He hit the ball hard.
Best category: Home runs (8)
With forearms cut from an oak tree, Thome tried to hit a home run with every swing -- and often did, crushing 612 of them. He also has the highest strikeout rate of any member of the 500-homer club: Thome (24.7%), Sammy Sosa (23.3%), Reggie Jackson (22.7%), McGwire (20.0%), Mike Schmidt/A-Rod (18.7%).
Thome is also sixth in walk rate, behind Williams, Bonds, Ruth, Mantle and McGwire. It's not surprising to learn that Thome has the highest Three True Outcomes (home runs, walks, strikeouts) of the club, with a TTT percentage of 47.6 - just ahead of McGwire (45.6), with Mantle (40.2), Ruth (39.9) and Reggie (39.7) rounding out the top five.
Thome was no Joey Gallo though. He hit .276 in his career, including three .300 seasons (although he's just 25th
in adjusted batting average). His career BABIP was .322.
Best category: wRC+ (7)
Maybe the most underrated great player of all time, Mathews was your classic power-and-walks slugger. He played in the shadow of his teammate Aaron for most of his career, but he also played in the shadow of his own best season, which came in 1953 when he was 21. He hit .302 with a league-leading 47 home runs and finished second in the MVP voting. By WAR, it's the fourth-best age-21 season ever for a position player (behind Hornsby, Mike Trout and Rickey Henderson). Indeed, three of his four best seasons came when he was 21, 22 and 23, so the media unfairly viewed the rest of his career as a bit disappointing -- which is why it took him five ballots before he got elected to the Hall of Fame.
Best category: Adjusted BA (13)
Sheffield was known for his bat waggle and lightning-quick bat speed that made him a menacing presence at the plate -- and he did it with elite contact skills, never striking out 100 times in a season (he had 304 more walks than strikeouts in his career). Sheffield has little Black Ink - leading the league - in his career, with one batting title, one OBP crown, one OPS title and leading once in total bases. He did lead the majors in adjusted batting runs in 1996, so he was arguably the best hitter in baseball that season.
Best category: wRC+ (15)
McCovey's peak years came in the high-mound, big-strike-zone 1960s. When MLB finally lowered the mound in 1969, he exploded with a monster season at age 31: .320/.453/.656, 45 home runs and 45 intentional walks. He followed up with another 1.000 OPS season in 1970, but then injuries slowed him down.
Best category: Home runs (7)
It feels a little surprising to see Griffey this low, but his second-best category after career home runs is adjusted batting average at 19th. Even his five-season peak ranks just 24th. There are three reasons he doesn't rank higher: (1) Griffey's best years came in the 1990s, one of the highest-scoring decades in history; (2) A lot of players were putting up big numbers in those days; (3) Griffey had just two seasons with a .400 OBP. Griffey did have four 40-homer/.300 seasons in the 1990s, the most of any player, but among players with at least 5,000 plate appearances in the decade, he ranked just 18th in OBP.
Of course, Griffey would be higher if the second half of his career had gone differently. He's second on the all-time home run list through his age-29 season (behind Rodriguez), but just 23rd out of the 28 players here in home runs from age 30 on.
Best category: wRC+ (14)
The greatest third baseman of all time, Schmidt did everything well except hit for average, reaching .300 just once. As great as Schmidt was -- he topped the NL eight times in home runs -- I think his numbers might have been greater in almost any other era. If he had played in the 1930s, he would have hit for a higher average. If he had played in the 1950s, he would have taken advantage of the old bandbox parks and hit more home runs. If he had played in the 1990s, he might have used PEDs. (He admitted in 2005, "I'm not going to sit here and tell you there's no way ... I wouldn't have gotten caught up in it.") If he had played now, he would have the juiced baseballs and smaller parks. Imagine him in cozy Citizens Bank Park instead of the Vet.
Best category: Home runs (17)
We can sort this group of 28 into various fun subcategories. Ortiz, for example, finishes last in base running runs -- minus-39.0 for his career. Willie Mays is No. 1 at 78.4 (followed by Rodriguez, Mantle, Aaron and Bonds). Collectively, the group was worth 83.5 runs on the bases - although there were more players with negative value (17) than positive (11). Ortiz also finishes last in WAR at 55.3.
The man could hit though. I always thought the most impressive part of Ortiz's career was that starting in 2011, he cut way down on his strikeouts even though strikeout rates starting accelerating across the league. His last season in 2016 was one of his best, as he hit .315/.401/.620 and led the league in OPS. He had more good years in him if his knees had held out.
Best category: Home runs (9)
Once Sosa got it going ... well, let's just say he really got it going. He's the only player with three 60-homer seasons -- although in a sign of those times, he didn't lead the league in any of those seasons. He's tied with Ruth for the most 50-homer seasons with four. He's one of seven players with at least two seasons of 400 total bases. Over the five seasons from 1998 to 2002, he hit .306/.397/.649 while averaging 58 home runs and 141 RBIs. His best season wasn't 1998, but 2001, when he hit .328/.437/.737 with 64 home runs, 425 total baes and a major-league leading 160 RBIs and 146 runs. He even drew more intentional walks that year than Bonds, who set the single-season record with 73 home runs. Sosa's career .344 OBP, however, ranks just 27th, and his relatively short peak mixed with other mediocre seasons at the plate means he's just 27th in both wRC+ and batting runs.
Best category: Home runs (12)
The story goes that Idaho senator Herman Welker recommended a 17-year-old Killebrew to Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, who dispatched a scout to Idaho and saw the teenager blast a long home run into a beet field. The implication is that without the advice of Welker, the Senators never would have discovered Killebrew.
The problem with the story: Killebrew signed for enough money that he was a "Bonus Baby," which under the rules of the time meant he had to remain on the major league roster for two years. It's possible that the Senators didn't have a scout in the region back then, but the idea that Welker pointed the Senators to some unknown Idaho teenager doesn't completely add up. Indeed, Killebrew said he had expected to sign with the Red Sox until the Senators gave the better offer. Imagine if Killebrew had spent his entire career in Fenway Park! Killebrew topped 40 home runs eight times between 1959 and 1970. With a .256 career batting average, he's the only player on the list with a career average lower than the league average of his era.
Best category: Home runs (14)
Reggie last played in 1987, yet still holds the all-time strikeout record despite the increasing overall rate of whiffs. While he wasn't the first all-or-nothing slugger with every swing -- Babe Ruth didn't exactly go for singles -- he took striking out to a new level with no shame. Of course, Reggie's career strikeout rate of 22.7% would be nothing in today's game, when the MLB average is over 23%. His rate of 1.63 times the league average from his era would equal a 38.3% strikeout rate in 2021 - comparable to Javier Baez's league-worst rate of 36%.
Best category: Home runs (13)
Palmeiro was famously better in his 30s than his 20s, hitting 414 of his 569 career home runs from his age-30 season on (only Bonds and Ruth hit more). Did PEDs make him better? Perhaps, or at least helped him age better. It's important to understand context here though. Palmeiro's power spiked in 1993, along with everybody else's (the ball no doubt changed that season, unless everyone started using PEDs at once). From 1994 on, he also played in great home run parks in Camden Yards and then the new park in Texas, so we get these numbers, skipping his final two seasons:
1990-92 (ages 25-27): 137 OPS+ 1993-2003 (ages 28-38): 138 OPS+
He was really the same hitter. While active, the general feeling was that as good as Palmeiro was, he wasn't quite the cream of the crop. That's true. There were always others putting up even more impressive numbers, so Palmeiro ends up last on our list in five-year peak and 25th in both career batting runs and wRC+ despite 569 home runs and 3,000 career hits.
Best category: Adjusted BA (14)
Steady Eddie certainly was a metronome of consistency and durability -- only Pete Rose had more seasons with 150 games played. At his best from 1981 to 1984, he was second only to Schmidt in the majors in OPS+. But with a career-high of 33 home runs, he didn't have the power or big seasons of the others on the list and his five-season peak only ranks tied for 26th.
Best category: Home runs (23), Adjusted BA (23)
Banks was a great player from 1955 to 1960, when he hit .294 and averaged 41 home runs per season, winning MVP Awards in 1958 and 1959. He ranks below only Mantle and Mays in WAR over those six seasons, but ahead of Aaron. Then his knees went bad, he moved to first base in 1962 and he really wasn't too valuable over the final 10 years of his career. His career OBP of .330 is easily the lowest on the list and he ranks last in wRC+ and batting runs. He also benefited from Wrigley Field, hitting 72 more home runs there than on the road.