clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

ESPN ranked the 100 greatest baseball players of all-time and I have questions

Who’s the best of all-time?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Sports Contributor Archive 2020 Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

With little baseball news to write about this off-season, ESPN took a look back at the past and asked its writers to rank the top 100 baseball players of all-time. This is a pretty ambitious task, and I respect a lot of ESPN’s baseball writers and I suspect they took this quite seriously as an endeavor. However the list leaves me with quite a few questions.

Are we already calling Bryce Harper one of the greatest 100 players of all-time?

First of all, I’m not a Bryce Harper hater, I think he’s one of the best players in baseball as his two MVP awards would attest. I think if he has a decent second-half to his career he is on his way to Cooperstown. But would you consider him one of the greatest 100 players of all-time already?

Harper comes in at #94 on ESPN’s list which seems a bit premature for the 28-year old. You know who also won two MVPs by age 28? Juan Gonzalez. He had a career line of .290/.339/.568 with 301 home runs and a 135 OPS+ up to that point, not far from Harper’s line of .279/.392/.524 with 267 home runs and a 142 OPS+. Harper’s a much better defender, but let’s pump the brakes a bit before we rank him over Hall of Famers like Jim Thome and Barry Larkin.

Is Nolan Ryan overrated?

When I was a kid, I idolized Nolan Ryan. He had a bigger-than-life fastball, tossed seven no-hitters, and was still effective in his 40s. He was like a tall tale on the mound.

But I think some of that mythology has overrated him in a lot of people’s minds. He led the league in walks eight times - twice topping 200 free passes in a season. He never won a Cy Young and only twice finished in the top three in WAR among pitchers. He pitched in a very pitcher-friendly era, and spent nine seasons in the most pitcher-friendly ballpark, the Astrodome. Accordingly, his ERA+ is 112, which ties him with guys like Al Leiter and Frank Viola.

ESPN ranks him #42, and the 12th-best starting pitcher of all-time, ahead of Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, and Lefty Grove. Nolan Ryan is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, but I wouldn’t have him nearly this high on the list.

Was Pete Rose better than George Brett?

ESPN ranks Pete Rose #34 and George Brett #43. They were contemporaries of the same era, both with teams that were serious contenders every year. But again, I think this is where myth-making overcame reality. Pete has the hit-record and the “Charlie Hustle” moniker. Brett was every bit a competitor on the field, and known as one of the most clutch hitters of his era. The two players have nearly identical batting averages (.305 for Brett, .303 for Rose) and on-base percentages (.369 for Brett, .375 for Rose), but Brett’s slugging percentage is nearly 80 points higher (despite playing in a pitcher’s park, compared to home-run happy Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati).

Injuries during his prime probably cost Brett from reaching 3,500 hits, which would have put him sixth all-time. He also gracefully retired at age 40 while Pete Rose stuck around til age 45, penciling himself into the starting lineup as player/manager of the Reds. Health matters, but Brett compiled more WAR (88.6 to Pete’s 79.6) despite playing in over 800 more games. Because of his power and defensive ability, I would have George over Pete.

Did Negro League players get overlooked?

Josh Gibson is ranked #35, Satchel Paige is ranked #41, and Oscar Charleston is ranked #53, the only three players who spent most of their career in the Negro Leagues (Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays also spent some time in the Negro Leagues).

There are many that claim Satchel Paige to be the best pitcher of all-time, or at least among the very best. Ted Williams called him the greatest, and advocated him to be in the Hall of Fame at a time when no Negro League players were in Cooperstown. Joe DiMaggio said he was the best right-handed pitcher he ever faced. Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean said Satchel was better than him. Ralph Kiner compared his fastball to Bob Feller - generally considered the hardest thrower in baseball until Nolan Ryan.

Josh Gibson is considered one of the greatest power hitters ever. Monte Irvin said he was better than Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, although he probably played with those two before they had hit their prime. He is estimated to have hit over 800 home runs, with one estimate as high as 965. And he did it as a catcher. Longtime executive Bill Veeck called him “two Yogi Berras.”

Then there’s Oscar Charleston. Joe Posnanski ranked him the fifth-greatest of all-time, although he wrote even he wasn’t certain if that ranking was justified.

The other is that this is about right, that he was one of the greatest — maybe even the greatest — baseball player who ever lived and most of America ignored him.

And — here’s where the rage part comes in — we’ll never know for sure.

Negro League players had much less mainstream media coverage with incomplete stats in such dissimilar conditions that it makes it nearly impossible to know how good these players were compared to others in baseball history. But to not have any in the top 30 may be doing them a disservice.

Can a reliever be among the 31 greatest players in history?

Most of this is just nitpicking on my part, but I had a genuine laugh out loud moment with this sequence:

33. Bob Gibson

32. Sandy Koufax

31. Mariano Rivera

Okay, let’s look at their numbers.

Pitcher rankings

Players WAR IP K ERA ERA+
Players WAR IP K ERA ERA+
Bob Gibson 81.7 3884.1 3117 2.91 127
Sandy Koufax 53.1 2324.1 2396 2.76 131
Mariano Rivera 56.3 1283.2 1173 2.21 205

It’s quite possible that Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher that ever lived, but his Hall of Fame case is entirely based on just five seasons - five of the most dominant seasons a pitcher has ever put up - but it was just five years and then he hung ‘em up due to injuries. I

Meanwhile, Bob Gibson was a contemporary who also dominated - maybe not quite to the same extent - but was great for much, much longer, putting up a 137 ERA+ over his 13-season prime before tailing off at the end.

And to have Mariano Rivera over both is just ridiculous. Mariano Rivera is by far the greatest closer of all time and a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. But he’s a reliever. Koufax - who pitched just 12 seasons - faced more hitters than Mariano Rivera. To say Mariano was greater than all these other great starters that worked seven, eight, nine innings each time out seems silly to me.

Did most great players actually play from 1960-1990?

I tried my best to group each player on their list according to their era (you can quibble with some of the players whose careers crossed eras). Here is how it broke down by era:

Breakdown of the Top 100 list

Era Number
Era Number
Before 1920 11
1920-1940 12
1940-1960 10
1960-1980 24
1980-2000 25
Post-2000 18

Is it possible that half of the greatest players of all-time played from 1960-2000? It is possible. Many have called the era just after World War II the “golden age of baseball.” It is also possible that perhaps we should discount players that played before baseball was integrated.

It is also possible the era most represented is when today’s writers grew up watching and covering players. I can’t blame them much for this - can I really speak with much certainty on how great players were that I never saw? But it is something to keep in mind when reviewing the list.

What do you think? Did they get it right or do you have issues with the ESPN top 100?