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Original Article: Rating the Top Baseball Players of all Time: The Extrapolation Method (updated to include 2003 season)  



by Eric Gartman

Introduction to 2005 Rankings: When I originally wrote this piece in 2001, the purpose of using extrapolative techniques was in order to fairly address players who had honorably served their country in wartime.  Now, it seems circumstances have forced me to use similar methods to address players who have abused steroids. What we know at this point is that one player, Rafael Palmeiro, failed a steroid test, and three others, Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, and Jason Giambi admitted to using them to a Grand Jury. Another player, Mark McGwire, refused to deny using steroid in front of Congress.  Jose Canseco wrote a book in which he named several players whom he said he injected steroids to and his credibility went up after Palmeiro failed the test and McGwire’s Congressional hearing. It is very difficult to assess what the players would have done without the drugs, and I have done the best I could with what we now know.  With our current information, I cannot rate Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Gary Sheffield according to their stats. Some may dispute what I have done, and I accept there are other options, but I have done what I feel is correct. Isn’t it a shame that we have to debate this however?

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract introduces a novel new way to evaluate players: The Win Shares System. What is revolutionary about the system is that it does not use statistics that are subject to variation as the game changes. It is based on how many games a player helps his team win, based on his performance. Since the ratio of win shares to wins is always 3-1, the system treats good players on bad teams as equally as bad players on good teams. But most of all, it allows us to fairly look at players across eras, in one single integer. The system is brilliant. James application of it, however, is not. Its biggest flaw, as many people have noted, is that it does not evenly rate pitchers' contributions. But the system does allow for fair assessment of position players.

In evaluating players, James creates a six-step system to include all relevant data. Simply adding up raw win shares and rating the players against each other does not work, according to James. As proof of this, he cites the fact that Rusty Staub has almost as many Win Shares as Joe Dimaggio. So to even it out, he weighs a players' three best seasons, five best consecutive seasons, and win shares per 162 games. It is these three values that skew his system, but more on this later. His fifth element is a time line adjustment, and the sixth a subjective element. The time line adjustment is a good factor, since players do tend to get better over time.

The problem with the 2, 3, and 4 factors is that they overate a player’s prime, while vastly underrating his career stats. This leads to some skewed ratings of players. James himself admits to one: His system rates Mickey Mantle higher than Ty Cobb, mostly since Mantle's prime numbers were so good. Similarly, the system underrates Hank Aaron, while overrating Honus Wagner, and overrates Mark McGwire while undervaluing Eddie Murray. The reason these three variables were introduced was to compensate for a situation that rarely occurs: Players like Dimaggio missing significant time due to wartime service. A better system would look at total win shares while extrapolating what a player would have done in the years he missed, based on performance before and after the time missed. This would give us a rough total win shares, while not overcompensating for peak values. There is no inherent reason why peak values are more important than total values. Longevity is a key factor in rating a players total worth. There are players, however, who hang around late in their careers to pad their stats, like Pete Rose and Rickey Henderson. And some greats opt to quit early, like Hank Greenberg and Joe Dimaggio. Others, like Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig, were forced out to due other factors. In comparing these players to those with long careers we can examine performance until the age when they retired, in these cases, 36. One may argue that guessing what a player would have done is unscientific. Surely it is. But it is far better than skewing an entire system to accommodate for a couple of players who missed time.

My system proposes that we weigh total win shares as the most important variable. Players who missed time will have a projected total win shares, which will count just as much. There will be a slight time line adjustment, and some players who hung around too long will be penalized as well. There will only be tiny subjective element that will come into play in close cases. I have chosen not to include Negro league players due to lack of stats. I also did not include pitchers. I don't think its fair to rate pitchers vs. hitters. They should be rated by against their own kind of player.

Here then is the new rating system, along with each players total win shares:

1. Babe Ruth- With 758 Win Shares, Ruth comes out as the best ever. Not only was Ruth the greatest slugger of all time, he was also a great pitcher.

2. Ted Williams- Williams had 558 actual win shares. Of all the players on the list, Williams is the most affected by the extrapolation technique since he missed so much time due to military service.  Williams missed three years due to World War Two, 1943-45. His win shares for the two years before were 42 and 46. For the two years after, 50 and 44. I assigned Williams 40-45 for each year for a total of 120-135. Williams also missed most of 1952 and 53 due to the Korean War. He had 34 win shares in 1951 and 29 in 1954. I assigned him 29 win shares on top of the one he had in 1952, and 20 on top of the 10 in 1953. Extrapolating for the years he missed he ends up with an additional 170-185 win shares for 728-743 projected win shares.  Adding it all up, he is second only to Ruth. This shouldn’t be too surprising, however, since Williams is generally considered the best pure hitter of all time.

3. Willie Mays- Mays had 642 total win shares, but missed most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the service. In 1951, his first year he had 19 win shares, and upon returning had 40 in both 1954 and '55. Assigning Mays shares of 30 and 35 for the years he missed seems reasonable, bringing his total to 701. That leaves Mays about 25 shares behind Ty Cobb, but Cobb dominated the American League in its early days when the competition was somewhat lacking. Therefore, I rate Mays higher than Cobb, and I believe he is the greatest all-around player of all time.  Mays hit for power, average, could steal bases, and was probably the greatest outfielder ever. Like Ruth and Williams, we may never see his like again.

4. Ty Cobb- Cobb finished with 726 total win shares. Like Mays, he could do it all.

5. Hank Aaron- Hammerin’ Hank had 643 career win shares. He was fortunate not to miss any time, and had a very long and steady career. He made the most of it, and is the all-time leader in Total Bases, Home Runs, and Runs Batted In.

6. Honus Wagner- The Dutchman finished with 655 total win shares, but the time line favors Aaron. James rates him higher than Cobb because his peak years were better, but 70 career win shares is a big difference.

7. Stan Musial- Stan the Man finished with 604 win shares. He missed one year to World War Two, but his stats the previous two years were helped by weak competition, with many of the best players off to war. I'd adjust Musials overall totals slightly giving him 16 extra career win shares, finishing with 620.

8.  Mickey Mantle- Mantle finished with 565 win shares. James rates him slightly higher than me since his prime years were so good. Mantle was the best player in the league every year from 1954-64 except for 1963. Injuries forced him to retire early at age 36, but he was still posting good numbers.  I therefore believe he rates higher than Speaker.

9. Tris Speaker- It may surprise some fans that the Grey Eagle collected an astounding 633 win shares.  Speaker was overshadowed by Cobb and Ruth during much of his career. A whopping 118 of his total win shares comes from fielding, further hiding his true value. Still, Speaker was rarely the best player in his league, and like Cobb, he played in the early days of the American League, when the competition was still relatively weak. I therefore have rated him slightly lower than his raw totals suggest.

10. Lou Gehrig-Lou Gehrig finished with 489 career win shares. That figure would have been much higher had his career not been cut short due to a tragic illness at age 35. In the two years prior to 1939, Gehrig had 36 and 25 win shares. I would guess he could have added about another 100 win shares to his total, leaving him close to 600.

11. Eddie Collins-Eddie Collins finished with 572 win shares, the most of any second basemen, and enough to rate ahead of Joe Morgan as the greatest second basemen ever. Collins is generally not thought of as one of the all-time greats, but his defense was outstanding, and he had a long, productive, career.

12.  *Barry Bonds-Bonds finished 2005 with 666 career win shares (ironic number, huh?), but how many of those did he really deserve?  According to most accounts, Bonds began using performance-enhancing drugs after the 1998 season.  Bonds’ numbers seem to square with that assessment:  Until 1998, he was a great player, but with a normal career curve, peaking at age 29 in 1993 with 47 win shares, and declining slightly to 34 win shares at the age of 34 in 1998. He then became the greatest player of all time in his mid and late thirties, at an age when even the greatest players are beginning to struggle.

Going by his numbers until 1998, when he had 418 career win shares, we could compare his career to that point with other players’ career to that stage. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many similar players to choose from.  The nearest player is Frank Robinson, who had 431 career win shares to age 34 and added 88 to finish with 519.  Other players include Joe Morgan with 382 win shares and added 140, Stan Musial, with 463 win shares to age 34, and 140 afterwards, Eddie Collins with 461 win shares to age 34 and 113 afterwards.   Bonds, however, with 418 career win shares at that age, has somehow managed to add an astounding 248 additional win shares. Based on the other players though, it seems likely that Bonds would have finished somewhere between Robinson’s 88 and Morgan’s 140, for a final total between about 510 and 560.

13. Frank Robinson- One of the last players to win the triple crown, Robinson finished with 519 win shares. Robinson was not only a great player, but a great manager, league President, an outstanding human being, and an ambassador for baseball. In other words, everything that Barry Bonds is not.

14. Joe Dimaggio-Joltin Joe, along with Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg, was most affected by the extrapolation method. Joe D. finished with only 387 win shares. Factoring in for the three seasons he missed, I'd add about 100 win shares for a total of 487. But Dimaggio also retired early at 36, and could have racked up more win shares. Putting all this together, Id rate him somewhat higher than his totals suggest.

15.  Pete Rose-Of all the players on this list, Rose stayed around perhaps the longest to pad his stats. He finished with 547 win shares, but should have left the game long before he did.

16. Rickey Henderson- Rickey finished with 535 career win shares. But a lot of those are in his later years when he really should have been retired but stuck around to set some records.

17. Mel Ott-Ott had 528 career win shares, aided a bit at the end by weak competition in World War Two

18. Joe Morgan-Morgan finished with 512 win shares. 

Top First Basemen

1. Lou Gehrig-With 489 Win Shares before his tragic illness, Gehrig is easily first

2. Jimmie Foxx-The Beast weighs in with 435 Win Shares

3. Eddie Murray-Murray finished with an impressive 437 win shares. But since he did not have huge peak years, James rates him lower. Murray was consistent year in for the length of his career, but never brilliant. But consistency is important, as is longevity.

4. Johnny Mize- Mize finished with only 338 career win shares, since he served time in the Second World War. Before and after he averaged 30 win shares a season, so I extrapolate a total of 90 for the three years he missed, leaving him with 428 win shares

5. Hank Greenberg-Greenberg had a famously short career, missing more time for the Second World War than just about any other player. He missed nearly every game from 1941 until the end of the 1945 season and finished with a mere 267 win shares. Counting in for all the time he missed, I'd assign him an additional 140 win shares, leaving him with 407. He also left the game earlier than he could have, retiring at age 36.

6. Willie McCovey- Stretch finished with 408 win shares, but I'd give Greenberg the edge since McCovey played into his 40's.

*Rafael Palmeiro-Raffy finished with 395 win shares, but he failed a steroid test in 2005, and according to Jose Canseco, used ‘roids since the early 90’s.  Looking back at his early years, there is a big jump in homers from 1990 when he hit 14 to 1991 with 26 dingers. Suspiciously, that is the year Canseco joined the Rangers and allegedly started injecting Raffy with the juice. Of his 569 career homers, I doubt he would have hit even half that number without the extra help. Chances are he would have been a high-average medium-power first baseman like Mark Grace otherwise.  Therefore, I can’t in good faith even put Raffy in my top ten. 

 7.  Jeff Bagwell- Bagpipes now has 388 career win shares, but he appears to be nearing the end of his road.

8. Harmon Killebrew-The Killer finished with 371 career win shares

*Mark McGwire-Big Mac finished with 350 career win shares, but if we are to believe Jose Canseco, the only season he didn’t use steroids was his rookie year.  McGwire’s refusal to deny steroid use at the congressional hearings further solidifies the case against him, as does his physique, facial acne, rapid muscle gain, and enormous home run totals.  No player in Big League history was more dependent on the long ball for his total worth. Even more than Raffy, steroids made McGwire.  Without them he would have been little more than the 90’s version of Dave Kingman. Like Palmeiro, I cannot even put him in my top ten.

9. Frank Thomas- The Big Hurt now has a total of 362 career win shares, behind his long-time rival at first base, Jeff Bagwell. He seems to have a little more left in the tank than Bagpipes, but it may not be enough to catch up with him.

Top Second Basemen

1. Eddie Collins-Collins is first with 572 win shares

2. Joe Morgan-Morgan finished with 512 win shares.

3. Rogers Hornsby-Most would rate Hornsby as the greatest second baseman of all-time, and he certainly was with the stick, but he wasn't nearly as good defensively as the other two, and did not continue to produce good numbers in his mid-thirties.  He therefore finished third among second basemen with 502 win shares.

4.Napoleon Lajoie-Larry finished with 496 win shares.

5. Jackie Robinson-Jackie Robinson finished with only 257 win shares, but he didn't start his career until age 28. His prime years are slightly better than Charlie Gehringer and Rod Carew. I would guess he would have finished slightly higher than them, maybe around 400, or more, win shares.

6. Craig Biggio- Biggio now has 414 with a strong 19 win-share effort at the age of 39 in 2005. According to James, Biggio finished the 90's second only to Bonds in total win shares. His true value has been hidden by the cavernous Astrodome, which hurt his run production, and by the fact that his "little stats" are so good. Biggio finished ahead of Robbie Alomar, who was considered the best second baseman of his era.  Of course, Biggio is now a centerfielder, and was also a catcher for a few years, so that claim can still be made, but clearly the overall better player was Biggio

7. Tied: Charlie Gehringer/Rod Carew- Gehringer finished with 383 win shares, Carew with 384. Doesn’t get much closer than this!

9.  Roberto Alomar- Alomar had 373 career win shares

10. Frankie Frisch- The Fordham Flash finished with 366 win shares.

11. Ryne Sandberg- Sandberg finished with 346 career win shares

Top Third Basemen

1. Mike Schmidt-With 468 career win shares, Schmidt is the top third sacker

2. George Brett-Brett had 432 win shares but the time line favor him over Matthews

3. Eddie Matthews-Matthews had 447 career win shares, and a good case can be made for him over Brett

4. Paul Molitor-Molitor had the fourth highest total with 412 win shares, but James ranks him eighth. But Molitor was consistent, and continued to be productive late into his career. Of course his figures are aided by the advent of the DH, so it is reasonable to take some points off for him.

5. Wade Boggs- Boggs had 394 career win shares. Despite all of his batting titles early in his career, Boggs, unlike Molitor, faded quickly late in his career.  After Boggs, there is a big dropoff in third baseman, perhaps explaining why there a fewer third baseman in the Hall of Fame than any other position.

Top Shortstops

1. Honus Wagner-With 656 win shares, Wagner is far ahead of the pack

2. Cal Ripken-Ripken finished with 427

3. Robin Yount-Yount finished with 423, but he played the second half of his career in the outfield

4. Alex Rodriguez- The best player of his generation, A-rod now has 389 win shares, just before his 31st birthday. He doesn’t play shortstop anymore, but most of his win shares came from that position. Besides, he may switch back at some point in the future. Regardless, he certainly will finish his career with an immense number of win shares, well into the 500s, and maybe even 600. The only question will be whether to classify him as a shortstop or third basemen. If he is classified a third basemen, he will likely be rated as the greatest of all time. If a shortstop, he will rank second only to Wagner.

5. Luke Appling- Appling finished with 378 win shares. He missed some time in World War Two, but also benefited from weak competition in 1942 while many players were serving in the military. 

6. Arky Vaughan-An often-forgotten star for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Vaughan finished with 356 win shares.  Like Appling he missed some time due to the Second World War, but he was winding down his career, and in fact benefited from weak competition in 1942 and ’43 while many players were serving in the military.  I doubt he would have accumulated more than a handful of additional win shares.

7. Ernie Banks- Mr. Cub finished with 332, although a good number of those were while playing first base.

8. Ozzie Smith-The Wizard of Oz, generally considered the greatest defensive shortstop ever, finished with 325 win shares.

9. Alan Trammel-Trammel finished with 318, slightly fewer than Ozzie, but that hasn’t helped him get into the Hall of Fame yet.

10. Barry Larkin- Mr. Red finished with 314. Despite similar career numbers, I suspect HOF voters may favor him over Trammel.

Top Leftfielders

1. Ted Williams-Williams with his estimated 728-743 win shares is first

2. Stan Musial-Stan the Man's 620 estimated win shares rates second

3. *Barry Bonds-As noted earlier, Bonds true career total should have been between 510 and 560 win shares.  

4. Rickey Henderson-Henderson had 534 win shares through 2002

5. Carl Yasztremski-Yaz finished with 488 total win shares

Top Centerfielders

1. Willie Mays-The greatest all-around player ever.

2. Ty Cobb-The second greatest all-around player ever.

3. Mickey Mantle-The Mick finished with 565, despite retiring at age 36 from injuries (and drinking)

4. Tris Speaker-Speaker had 633

5. Joe Dimaggio-Joe D would have had close to 500

6. Ken Griffey, Jr.-Junior now has 361 career win shares, but he seems unlikely to rise up any higher on this list.

7. Duke Snider-The Duke of Flatbush finished with 352 

Top Right fielders

1. Babe Ruth-The all-time leader, the Babe had 756 win shares

2. Hank Aaron-Hammerin' Hank finished with 643

3. Frank Robinson-Robinson had 519. Robinson, Rose and Ott are all very close to each other. I believe Robinson was the best of the three, but a good argument can made for all

4. Pete Rose-Rose had 547 win shares

5. Mel Ott-Ott had 528 win shares

6. Reggie Jackson-Jackson finished with 444 career win shares

Top Catchers

1. Yogi Berra- Berra had 375 win shares, more than any other catcher

2. Johnny Bench-Generally considered the best defensive catcher of all time, Bench finished with 356 win shares

3. Carlton Fisk-Fisk had an amazingly long career for a catcher, and finished with 368 win shares.

4. Mike Pizza has 310 win shares through 2005. His days as a catcher may end soon, however.

Active players who may eventually make this list: At first base/DH, Jim Thome has 282 career win shares, but he turns 36 this season and needs to rebound from injuries.  At second base Jeff Kent has 300 win shares, but he is 38 years old and time may be running out.  At shortstop, Derek Jeter has 245 win shares at the relatively young age of 31.  He seems like a good bet to pass at least Larkin and Trammel.  Similarly, Miguel Tejada has 188 win shares at age 30, and may make his up the list. A few years ago Nomar Garciaparra seemed like a lock, but injuries and a position change have interfered.  At third base, 34-year old Chipper Jones has 282 career win shares, but a fair number of those were gained in left field. 31-year old Scott Rolen has 219 win shares, and is often compared to Mike Schmidt, but he needs to rebound from a lost 2005 season.  In right field, Vladimir Guerrero has 222 win shares at the age of 30.  He still has a ways to go, but he is young and enough and talented enough to make a go of it.  In center field, Andruw Jones has 212 win shares at the age of 29.  In left field, Manny Ramirez has 310 win shares at age 33, and has showed no signs of slowing down.  37-year old Gary Sheffield* has 401 win shares, but his name has been linked to the BALCO scandal. As he continues to rise in rank, the question of how to rate him will come up, as it has with Bonds.  At catcher, Ivan Rodriguez is closing in on Piazza with 274, but there have been allegations of steroid use.  Looking down the road a bit, Albert Pujols is only 26 but already has 180 career win shares, and is the most feared player in the game. Likewise Miguel Cabrera is only 23, but many baseball insiders think he is on his way to superstardom.

Also Read:
Michael Hoban (Great player analysis) - Pitchers with Hall of Fame Numbers Position Players with Hall of Fame Numbers The NEWS Hall of Fame Monitor
Bruce Baskin (Latin Baseball) - Maestros of Mexico: Hector Espino and others
Craig Tomarkin (the Guru) - Baseball's Thrity Greatest Foreign Players (who never played in the MLB)
John B. Holway (esteemed and widely published Negro Leagues expert) - My Hall of Fame Ballot Japanese in Cooperstown?


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