My grandfather in Florida sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal by Allen Barra, detailing Barry Bonds’ amazing feats. The article suggests Bonds is the greatest hitter of all time.
Many stats are given to back up Barra’s claim, perhaps the most impressive being the 56 home runs Bonds has averaged from 2000-2002. Fifty-six home runs was the all time single season National League home run record until Mark McGwire broke it in 1998.
The record had belonged to Hack Wilson since 1930, the year he also drove in 191 runs, still an all time Major League record.
Other impressive stats from Bonds’ past three seasons include averages of 164 walks, a .512 on-base-percentage, and a .783 slugging percentage.
Once again, to give you an idea how incredible these numbers are, Bonds’ .783 slugging percentage is 135 points higher than Babe Ruth’s average during the three seasons he was Bonds’ age.
So, is Bonds the greatest hitter of all time?
The answer is both yes and no. It is difficult to judge players from different eras. Who do you want in centerfield for your all-time team, Ty Cobb or Willie Mays? Who do you want as your short stop, Honus Wagner or Alex Rodriguez? It is not fair to compare ball players that played in such different times.
Of course Mays could provide the power, slamming 543 homeruns more than Cobb, but Cobb played in the Dead Ball Era and his lifetime batting average is 65 points higher than Mays.
Sure, A-Rod is a better athlete and can probably throw harder, run faster and hit better than Wagner, but Wagner won seven NL batting titles in a row and was heads and shoulders better then all his peers.
What Cobb, Mays, Wagner and A-Rod are, are the best players of their time. In that respect, Barry Bonds is the best hitter in our time, and judging by his stats the past three seasons, he is the best of all-time in at least a three year period. Or is he?
At the end of 2002, Barry Bonds has 613 home runs. With his incredible home run surge, he is still 47 home runs shy of Mays, 99 shy of Ruth, and 142 shy of Aaron.
Yet, one player eclipses them all and is the single greatest all-around hitter that ever lived: Ted Williams.
Mays and Williams both missed seasons due to war. Mays missed more than half of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 season. Williams effectively missed five entire seasons.
If Mays averaged 31 home runs a season, lets say that if he never missed time due to war, he would have retired with slightly more than 700 home runs. We can then assume that if he were just ten or 15 home runs shy of Babe Ruth’s then all-time record of 714 home runs, Mays would have played part of one more season and broke the record.
With Ted Williams, though, the numbers are more incredible. Missing five years in the prime of his career, while Mays’ time off was immediately following his rookie season, let’s say Williams would have averaged 40 home runs a year for the five years. That’s an extra 200 home runs. That makes his 521 home runs now 721. Thus, he would have retired in 1960 as the all-time home run king.
Williams’ lifetime batting average was .344. However, he averaged .380 in the two years prior to missing three years fighting in World War II. After missing two years fighting in the Korean War, Williams averaged .359 for the next four years. Thus, his lifetime batting average would have been at least .350. The only other ballplayers to have higher lifetime averages – Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson – combined to hit 472 homeruns, 249 short of Williams projected 721.
Finally, let’s compare Bonds and Williams straight up with just plain home runs and batting averages. Bonds’ is 107 home runs short of Williams’ 721 projection. Bonds’ lifetime batting average is .295, 55 points less than Williams’ projection.
The combination of power and average makes Ted Williams clearly the best hitter who ever lived.
Bonds is also on performance enhancing drugs, swings a maple bat, faces pitching quality thinned by expansion, has access to far better medical treatment, lifts weights and wears layers of protective batting gear so that if he gets hit by a pitch it won’t hurt as much.
Imagine if Ted Williams had all those factors going for him, too.