Sometimes, and this sounds incredibly embarrassing as a lifelong fan of the team for which Albert Pujols reached his highest peaks, I kind of don’t realize just how great Albert Pujols is.
Like, I know he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But he is legitimately one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. And it’s worth considering just how great he is sometimes.
I have decided to rank the twenty greatest living baseball players, a parameter which is both arbitrary and, like, literally everything. I feel like this is a nice way of not getting too bogged down in old-timey pitchers who threw 600 innings per season or who fielded their position prior to the recording of any consequential defensive statistics but also not saying definitively that those guys were not good players, merely that they are not eligible.
“Greatest baseball player” seems easy to define, but I should acknowledge a few biases I have. One, when I say “greatest baseball player”, I basically mean the most accomplished player. Maybe Brooks Robinson transported via time machine to 2022 couldn’t make a big league roster, but the guy made eighteen All-Star Games and was a better defensive third baseman in his era than anyone else ever, and that matters to me. Also, I don’t care about steroid use–I care even less about steroid use for this list than I do for the Hall of Fame (where I also don’t care about it), as even if the steroids were a major contributing factor in greatness, they were still great!
Also, I invented a metric, but I think it’s a completely reasonable one–I made first and second team all-MLBs (these exist in real life and have since 2019, but I backdated them) and determined the greatest player by position (five for starting pitchers, two for relief pitchers) by combining their FanGraphs and Baseball Reference WAR totals for the first team, and took the second-best crop for the second team. So I will occasionally refer to “first-team All-MLB” or “second-team All-MLB” players as though that is a real thing, because I am jealous that NBA and NHL people get to do this.
Honorable mentions: Adrián Beltré, Johnny Bench, Ferguson Jenkins, Brooks Robinson, Justin Verlander. And if your first response is “Oh my God, these guys are unbelievable, how could they not be in the top twenty?”, I assure you that there are a ton of really, really good living baseball players.
20. Ken Griffey Jr.–Although Griffey certainly tapered off a bit in his thirties, the high peak of his youth with the Seattle Mariners remains intact. A thirteen-time All-Star, Griffey was a five-time All-MLB outfielder who reached 630 home runs to go with his ten Gold Gloves.
19. Nolan Ryan–Because of his wildness, the all-time leader in pitching strikeouts has arguably gone from overrated during his career to underrated in hindsight. All in all, while Ryan never won a Cy Young award, he was a model of consistency–he was an eight-time All-MLB pitcher (four times on the first team, four times on the second) and he had productive seasons in four different decades. Even if 324 pitching wins is the culmination of a flawed statistic, teams also don’t let bad pitchers have a shot at that.
18. George Brett–Easily the greatest player in the history of the Kansas City Royals, Brett was a superior hitter. Although frequently overshadowed at third base by his contemporaries, including Brooks Robinson and a pair of guys who will be coming up later, George Brett crossed 3,000 hits and was a top five player in Wins Above Replacement on five occasions during his career.
17. Pedro Martínez–Although his absolute peak didn’t last as long as some of the other pitchers on this list, Pedro reached as high of highs as anyone. A one-man wrecking crew who posted ERAs of 2.07, 1.90, and 1.74 in a four-year stretch at the height of the most offensive-heavy era in baseball history, Martínez was also a dynamic performer who remains beloved both in Boston and in Montreal. And even during the seasons where he wasn’t that level, he was still generally very productive, notching six first-team All-MLB appearances and three spots on the second team. His thirties weren’t as illustrious as his twenties or he could be making a legitimate run at the upper reaches of this list.
16. Carl Yastrzemski–An eighteen-time All-Star with over 3,000 hits and over 450 home runs, Ted Williams’s replacement in left field for the Boston Red Sox, unlike Ted, was also a splendid defensive outfielder. Yaz didn’t quite have those sustained heights (to be fair, few do), with just three first-team All-MLB appearances plus a second-team, but those three seasons were excellent, including a Triple Crown in 1967 and being the one baseball player who even bothered to do offense in 1968.
15. Gaylord Perry–A combination of high peaks (a pair of Cy Youngs and a stunning seven appearances as one of the sport’s five best pitchers) and longevity (314 wins, stretching from the Kennedy to the Reagan administrations), Gaylord Perry bounced around a bit too much during much of his peak to be regarded as highly as he likely should by modern fans. Judging by a criminally low five All-Star Game appearances, I suspect his contemporaries also were not regarding him highly enough.
14. Steve Carlton–Hope everyone is excited for a St. Louis Cardinal! Althoug he began his career and was quite effective with the Cardinals, Carlton’s legacy was cemented with the Philadelphia Phillies, where the lefty won four Cy Young Awards and won most of his 329 career games. A ten-time All-Star, Carlton has a slightly less exhilerating All-MLB resume than Perry (five first-team, one second-team), but the peaks were absolutely higher–he once had a sub-2 ERA and won 27 games for a Phillies team that finished 59-97.
13. Bert Blyleven–The all-time example of modern (well, modern a generation ago) statistics salvaging the reputation of a grotesquely underrated superstar, Bert Blyleven only received 17.5% of votes during his first season on the Hall of Fame ballot. He never won a Cy Young (though to be fair, he probably only deserved one) and bounced around too often to really entrench himself in the hearts and minds of one city (though the Minnesota Twins come closest) and just missed out on 300 wins (he got to 287), but on six occasions, he was one of the five best pitchers in baseball, and he ranked between six and ten on three more occasions. I can see the case for him being a little lower on this list; I absolutely cannot see how anyone ever saw his statistical resume and didn’t think he belonged in Cooperstown.
12. Wade Boggs–A player whose statistics more closely resembled a man of the 1880s than the 1990s, Wade Boggs was a third baseman without much power, but he was an extremely high average (and high on-base) hitter who cleared 3,000 hits and contributed very good defense at the hot corner. On seven occasions, Boggs was the best third baseman in baseball, and on six occasions, he was a top five player in baseball by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement.
11. Cal Ripken–Although Ripken is best known today for his consecutive games played streak, he was also the man who re-defined the shortstop position from a place to put quick, undersized players with minimal pop to a spot where a 6’4″ guy could thrive. He cleared 3,000 hits and 400 home runs while spending most of his career as an above-average defensive shortstop, reaching ninenteen All-Star Games (second-most on this list) and winning a pair of MVPs, arguably deserving a third. On six occasions, Ripken was the sport’s top shortstop, taking second-team honors twice.
10. Mike Trout–Needless to say, these rankings are not fixed and he can and likely will climb the list even higher by methods other than one of the nine guys ahead of him dying. Currently thirty years old, Mike Trout already has three MVPs, was #1 in WAR four times (and top five on four additional occasions), and has eight first-team All-MLBs (along with a second-team all-MLB) over his ten full MLB seasons. Even just by counting stats like WAR, he’s already worthy of this list, and his peak puts him in the conversation for a top-three spot. Trout has battled injuries, but if he stays healthy, he could make a legitimate run at 500 home runs with an outside chance at 3,000 hits, over a career where he played a rigorous defensive position fairly well.
9. Albert Pujols–He won three MVPs, but he probably deserved a couple more. He was a nine-time first-team All-MLB. By counting stats, he is in rarified air with over 3,000 hits and closing in on (though he likely will not reach) 700 home runs. And for as much as his time with the Angels has been maligned, he did still manage to receive MVP votes in a year where the award was won by Mike Trout, thirteen years after receiving them in a year where the award was won by Barry Bonds. Talk about a man of wildly underrated longevity.
8. Rickey Henderson–As electrifying as any player on this list, the all-time stolen base leader, to steal the words of Bill James, could be split in half to form two Hall of Famers. Rickey Henderson possessed arguably the most varied offensive skill set of his era–in addition to the steals record, Henderson has more leadoff home runs than any other player in history, he cleared 3,000 hits while leading his league in walks four times, and he scored more runs than any other player in history. The runs record was the one for which Henderson claimed to be most proud, viewing his stolen bases merely as a means to an end, and his scientific approach to the sport suggests he’s telling the truth.
7. Greg Maddux–For as often as Greg Maddux has been described as looking like an accountant, take it from an actual accountant–there aren’t a ton of guys walking around the office with 355 career MLB wins and 3,371 career strikeouts. Armed with all-time freakish control, Maddux rarely made mistakes, winning Cy Young Awards with both the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves over four consecutive seasons, and the numbers back up his worthiness–Maddux was a top-five MLB pitcher nine times despite only eight All-Star Game appearances.
6. Mike Schmidt–In all likelihood the greatest third baseman of all-time, the Philadelphia Phillies superstar finished in the top five in MLB WAR twelve times, and despite playing in an era filled with superior third basemen such as the aforementioned Brett, Boggs, and Robinson (not to mention Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, and Paul Molitor), he was a top two third baseman on twelve occasions (six times at #1; six times at #2). Schmidt was a jaw-dropping defensive third baseman, picking up ten Gold Gloves, and he hit 548 home runs in his career; this combination has made Schmidt the gold standard to which every great young third baseman is now compared.
5. Álex Rodríguez–For as controversial of a figure as Rodríguez was and remains, his credentials are unquestionable. He cleared 3,000 hits and nearly reached 700 home runs (he retired at 696), and for as strong as his time as third baseman of the New York Yankees was, Rodríguez had his finest seasons as the sport’s best two-way player, patrolling shortstop for the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. On eight occasions, between the two positions, Rodríguez was the best player at his position in the sport, and on a staggering twelve occasions, he was a top-five player in the entirety of Major League Baseball.
4. Randy Johnson–Every baseball writer has, by law, a pet Hall of Fame candidate who they know will never get in (I mentioned mine earlier, Graig Nettles) and, by law, an unquestioned Hall of Famer that they still somehow believe is underrated, and mine is Randy Johnson. It’s not that he was great, a thing everybody knows–it’s that I think he has a credible argument for the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. Despite a somewhat slow start, not becoming a true star pitcher until the season during which he turned thirty, Randy Johnson won five Cy Young Awards and was simply unfathomable for stretches in both Seattle and with the Arizona Diamondbacks, winning four consecutive Cy Young Awards with the latter. A ten-time All-Star, The Big Unit was also a ten-time first-team All-MLB, eventually reaching 300 wins and tallying the second-most strikeouts of all-time despite the increased reliance on relief pitching during his career and his aforementioned slow start.
3. Roger Clemens–Seven Cy Young Awards, one of which paired with an American League MVP award. 354 wins. The third-most strikeouts of all-time. Roger Clemens won Cy Young Awards with four different teams and won 162 games after Boston Red Sox executive Dan Duquette infamously referenced the pitcher being in “the twilight of his career”. Despite criticism both for his steroid use and his personality both on and off the field, it’s hard to deny that Roger Clemens is on the Mount Rushmore of both living baseball players and all-time pitchers.
2. Willie Mays–The twenty-four All-Star Game appearances are a little bit inflated, as his career overlapped with the two games per season era, but his thirteen first-team all-MLBs (along with a pair of second-teams) speak volumes to what a superstar Willie Mays was. 3,293 hits, 660 home runs, or a reputation as one of the greatest defensive outfielders who ever lived (with twelve Gold Gloves to go along with it) alone might be enough to make one a Hall of Famer, but Willie Mays combined all three into arguably the greatest two-way position player of all-time. His 94.7% Hall of Fame vote total is a strong argument that 5.3% of people will just insist on being wrong about everything.
1.Barry Bonds–For all of the controversies surrounding Barry Bonds, and there are many, his resume as a player is staggering. Seven MVP awards. Fifteen seasons in the top five of MLB WAR, along with fifteen seasons as one of three best outfielders in baseball. Eight Gold Gloves, a fact often overlooked given the rightful emphasis on his older seasons. The most utterly incredible batting eye in the history of the sport, with four consecutive seasons with an on-base percentage over .500 (with one season reaching .609) in what is the greatest four-year stretch in baseball history. And, of course, there are the 762 career home runs. No player would have become as despised as Barry Bonds with mediocre talent or results; his excellence could not help but invite attention, positive or negative.