Willie Mays' case as baseball's GOAT: 24-time MLB All-Star was the perfect five-tool superstar


                        Willie Mays' case as baseball's GOAT: 24-time MLB All-Star was the perfect five-tool superstar
By: CBS Sports Posted On: June 19, 2024 View: 30

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The baseball world lost a legend on Tuesday night with the passing of Willie Mays. Despite the gravity that the word "legend" carries, that still might not do justice to his greatness.

There's a short list in the heads of all long-time, die-hard baseball fans of the greats: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams. Knowing what we know now, Josh Gibson should sure be on that list. Obviously, Mays belongs toward the top, alongside Ruth and Aaron. In fact, there's an argument to be made that he is THE greatest player in baseball history. 

In honor of Willie's life, spanning 93 years of positivity and baseball ambassadorship, let's now make that case. 

When you hear the term "five-tool superstar," there was no greater historical example than Mays. We could go greater than five things, too, because Mays was amazing at everything. He checked every single virtual box you can dream up, winning MVPs, Gold Gloves (there weren't Silver Sluggers yet, but he'd have had a closet full), a World Series, a Rookie of the Year and making a whopping 24 All-Star teams. He went pro as a 17-year-old for the Birmingham Black Barons and hit Major League Baseball at age 20. 

We can start with the easy stuff. 

Mays scored 2,068 career runs, good for seventh all-time. He scored at least 100 runs in a season 12 times. Only nine players in history did so, with Hank Aaron leading the way at 15. Mays ended up with 1,909 RBI in his career, which ranks 12th in history. He topped 100 RBI 10 times, one of 18 players in history to do so. The only players to top 1,900 runs and RBI were Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Musial, Cobb, Barry Bonds, Cap Anson, Hank Aaron and Mays. 

Mays ended up with 3,293 hits, which is now 13th all-time. He doubled 525 times (46th) and tripled 141 times (63rd). His 660 home runs are now sixth in MLB history. Add it all up and his 6,080 total bases trail only Aaron, Pujols and Musial. His 1,326 extra-base hits are sixth behind Aaron, Bonds, Pujols, Musial and Ruth. 

While doing all this, Mays posted a .301/.384/.557 line, which was good for a 155 OPS+, meaning he hit over .300 while being 55% better than the average hitter at getting on base and hitting for power throughout his entire career. 

Again, placing Mays in history as a hitter and run producer is the easy stuff. He also led the majors in stolen bases four times and ended his career with 339 steals.

It's a bit harder to quantify defense, of course. We know all about "The Catch" and it's one of baseball's most famous catches for a reason. The over-the-shoulder catch has a much higher degree of difficulty than any type of dive and Mays did it in the World Series going straight backward. He even whirled and made a strong throw instead of basking in the glory of the catch. 

Speaking of his arm, did you know that he led the league in assists from center field three times? He also finished second four times and third three times. In nine different seasons, he had at least 10 outfield assists. 

Again, it's difficult to quantify defense, especially range in the pre-Statcast days, but there are stats that have tried. Total Zone Runs has Mays 12th all-time with the only center fielder above him being Andruw Jones, who is generally regarded as the greatest defensive center fielder ever. 

We go to great lengths to make sure that people understand we do not think WAR is the only stat worth using. It's not. There are a ton of useful stats to help illustrate obvious greatness. That said, WAR is an all-encompassing stat that includes defense and baserunning with the offense, so it's useful in telling the whole picture. Here's the all-time WAR leaderboard. 

1. Babe Ruth, 182.6
2. Walter Johnson, 166.9
3. Cy Young, 163.6
4. Barry Bonds, 162.8
5. Willie Mays, 156.2
6. Ty Cobb, 151.5 
7. Hank Aaron, 143.1
8. Roger Clemens, 139.2
9. Tris Speaker, 134.9
10. Honus Wagner, 131

A season of 8.0 WAR is generally considered MVP-caliber. Mays had 11 of those, trailing only Ruth and Bonds' 12. No one else has more than nine. If we set the criteria to 9-WAR seasons, Mays was second with nine (Ruth had 10, no one else has more than eight). If we went to 10-WAR seasons, Mays and Rogers Hornsby had six. Ruth had nine. No one else has more than three

It's incredibly difficult to compare eras, but this is probably the best we've got and it says Babe Ruth was the greatest player ever. Remember, of course, that he played in a segregated league that wouldn't have even allowed Aaron or Mays to take the field. I know that this statement angers people, but it's a fact. The same goes for Johnson, Young, Cobb, Speaker and Wagner. If we were going to argue that the greatest player ever had to face the greatest possible competition, that eliminates all those players. Bonds, of course, has the PED asterisk, as does Clemens. Mays and Aaron are then left alone and there's little doubt that while Aaron might've been the better hitter -- certainly the better power hitter -- Mays was the best all-around player. 

If you wanted to say the best Major League Baseball player against fellow MLB players at the time he played, the answer is probably Ruth, but you can't say against his peers because he didn't play against all his peers. Would he have been as great with the likes of Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Turkey Stearns and Mule Suttles mixed in? We have no way of knowing. With Mays, we don't have to wonder.

We don't have to boil it down to just WAR once the league was integrated, though. We've already run through those numbers. Whether we're talking about runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBI, stolen bases, hitting for average, getting on base, hitting for power, outfield assists, any defensive metric that measured range, Mays measures up as the best all-around position player we've ever seen. He led the league in most of those things multiple times. He walked more than he struck out in 10 seasons, too! 

Let's also keep in mind that Mays lost a full year of development to military service (1953, when he was 22). He came back the next season and won MVP, winning the batting title with a .345/.411/.667 slash, good for a 175 OPS+. The Giants won the World Series that season and, yes, that's the series that featured "The Catch."

Perhaps some testimonials from people who saw him play could do him justice. Probably not, but I found this quote particularly excellent: "If somebody came up and hit .450, stole 100 bases and performed a miracle in the field every day, I'd still look you in the eye and say Willie was better." That's Leo Durocher, from Mays' Hall of Fame webpage.

Do things like "everyone loved him" or "he was so positive he had a nickname like 'The Say Hey Kid'" count? Probably not, but he was said to exude charisma and that never hurts in these discussions. 

To be clear, I don't necessarily believe Willie Mays was the single greatest player ever. It might be Ruth. It might be Aaron. It might be Charleston or anyone else I mentioned in this column. Hell, maybe it's a pitcher like Johnson or Clemens or Pedro Martinez or Tom Seaver or Greg Maddux. Maybe it's Shohei Ohtani! No one knows for sure and anyone who claims otherwise isn't being honest with themselves.

What I am saying is that Willie Mays absolutely has a case -- a very strong one -- as the greatest player ever. On the night of his passing, it felt like a good time to make that case. 

Read this on CBS Sports

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