Written by: Matt Shock (@shockwave_music)
Edited by: Curt Ashcraft (@cashcraft740)
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The discussion of who the greatest baseball player to ever play the game is a debate that frequently heads to history. You can probably name five players right now, off the top of your head, that enter into the discussion…and most of them probably played before 1950 (i.e. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, etc.). Perhaps your list moves a little further into modern times to include names like Pete Rose and Cal Ripken Jr. Regardless, strong cases can be made to support every one of those players being the best that ever played.
However, I’m here to help end the debate. The players listed above were indeed great, but none of them were what I would consider to be “five-tool” players. For those of you that don’t know, a five-tool player can run, throw, field, hit, and hit for power…watch Moneyball for heaven’s sake…they use the term enough in that movie. Now I’m no professional scout, but in my estimation, there’s only been one true five-tool player in the history of professional baseball. These other guys had the tools, but they were really only great in a few of them. Don’t believe me? Well then read on.
Babe Ruth – At best, Babe Ruth was a three-tool player. He could throw, hit, and hit for power. We all know that The Great Bambino started his career as one heck of a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, but he dropped that position and moved to the outfield so that he could bat. For years, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record was the measure of baseball greatness. To that end, Babe Ruth was mostly a power hitter and not a well rounded talent. He was also a world-class whoremonger…but I digress.
Ted Williams – Ted Williams is really famous for two things: being the last guy to hit over .400 in a season (he hit .406) and leaving baseball to fight in two wars. Now I’m not suggesting that serving in two wars is somehow a small thing. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to fight in one…let alone two. But war is not baseball, so that’s not really a measure of what kind of player he was, it’s a measure of what kind of man he was. Ted Williams was a man’s man, someone we could all take a lesson from, no question about it.
Anyhow, Ted Williams was a two-tool player. He could hit and he could hit for power. He wasn’t that great of a defensive player, he was slow, and he didn’t have that great of an arm. He made no secret that he cared more about hitting than any other aspect of the game, even admitting at one time that he wished he would’ve focused more on his defense. Was Ted Williams as good of a ballplayer as his reputation makes him out to be? Not really.
Pete Rose – We all know Pete Rose. The player who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame but can’t get in because he’s banned from baseball for gambling while managing the Cincinnati Reds. We also know that he got in trouble with the IRS there for a while. We also know that he’s made a pretty good living off of the fact that he was banned from baseball and can’t get in the Hall of Fame. But we often forget how good of a player Pete Rose was.
Pete Rose is Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader. He ended his career with 4,256 hits. That is absolutely insane! The only player who even comes close to that these days is Derek Jeter…and he would have to play several more seasons to even have a chance at matching Rose’s record. Pete Rose also leads baseball in total games played at 3,562 and played a total of five positions during his career (2B, LF, RF, 3B and 1B). Also, we all know from the 1970 All Star Game that the dude can run…and run over people. At any rate, Pete Rose was probably a four-tool player. He could run, field, hit, and throw…but he wasn’t much of a power hitter.
Cal Ripken Jr – Cal Ripken Jr. is the golden boy of modern baseball. He broke Lou Gehrig’s record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games. To be able to play in that many games and avoid injury is absolutely amazing. Ripken hit 431 career home runs, played multiple positions (SS and 3B), and won multiple Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. He also had a fairly low career batting average, but he did collect 3,000 hits over the course of his career. I will generously give him four-tools…he could field, throw, hit, and hit for power.
As you can see, these are all great baseball players that posted careers that most players can only dream of posting. However, we have yet to talk about possibly the greatest baseball player of all time.
Ty Cobb – I’ve already slammed the reputations of two of the greatest players in history (possibly three), so I’ll go ahead and slam the greatest as well. Well…I won’t really slam his reputation as much as I’ll talk about what most people already know. To put it nicely, Ty Cobb was a colorful man with prejudice issues. To put it honestly, Ty Cobb was a mean, racist bastard. To put it into context, most of the incidents of players assaulting fans, behaving badly off the field, and saying outrageous things…they were all pretty much done by Ty Cobb almost a century ago. But all of that aside, Ty Cobb was one heck of a baseball player.
In Cobb’s twenty-three year career, he batted for an average of .367, the highest ever…still. He is second only to Pete Rose in hits, smacking 4,191 hits during his time in Detroit and Philadelphia. Ty Cobb is also fourth all time in stolen bases with 892 swipes and set as many as 90 MLB records during his career. Admittedly, fielding is maybe his weakest area, committing 271 errors over the course of his 23 seasons. But when you figure that number averages out to about 11 errors per year, that number really isn’t all that bad. It could also be argued that his low home run total suggests that Cobb wasn’t a power hitter. However, most people forget that the majority of his career was played during the dead ball era. That said, when you compare him to another great player with a sketchy reputation (Shoeless Joe Jackson) and his 54 career home runs in 12 seasons, Cobb appears to be right up there with the games greats in power numbers. Cobb also posted a career slugging percentage of .513, posting a career high of .621 in 1911. Yes, Ty Cobb was most assuredly a five-tool player who could run, field, throw, hit, and hit for power. Really, he’s the only one we’ve ever seen put together a full career. So I will make the statement right now. Despite his off the field issues, Ty Cobb is by far the greatest player to ever play Major League Baseball.
Do you agree? If not, who is your pick? Let’s get this discussion started in the comments below!