Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Willie Mays, Requiescat in Pace

Wins Above Replacement, all-time:

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.  Henry Aaron:  143.1
8.  Roger Clemens:  139.2
9.  Tris Speaker:  134.9
10.  Honus Wagner:  131.0

Wins Above Replacement for players whose careers began after 1946:

1.  Barry Bonds:  162.8
2.  Willie Mays:  156.2
3.  Henry Aaron:  143.1
4.  Roger Clemens:  139.2
5.  Alex Rodriguez:  117.6
6.  Rickey Henderson:  111.1
7.  Mickey Mantle:  110.2
8.  Tom Seaver:  109.9
9.  Frank Robinson:  107.2
10.  Mike Schmidt:  106.9
11.  Greg Maddux:  106.6
12.  Albert Pujols:  101.4
13.  Randy Johnson:  101.1
14.  Joe Morgan:  100.6
15.  Carl Yastrzemski:  96.5
T16.  Eddie Mathews:  95.9
T16.  Phil Niekro:  95.9
T16.  Cal Ripken, Jr.:  95.9
19.  Roberto Clemente:  94.9
20.  Bert Blyleven:  94.5

Mike Trout is the highest ranked currently active player, with a WAR of 86.2.

For most of his career, Willie Mays was regarded as the greatest baseball player since Babe Ruth -- and some folks even ranked him ahead of Ruth.  Then he retired after a 1973 season in which he had looked old and frail, and Hank Aaron was the player who got the fame for breaking Babe Ruth's record for career home runs.  Aaron was a great, great player -- and modern statistical analysis bears that out.  But modern statistical analysis also confirms that the fans in the 1950's and 1960's were right.  Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player since Jackie Robinson initiated the modern era.  Yes, Bonds has 6.6 more wins above replacement ("WAR").  But Mays only played 34 games in 1952, and played no games in 1953, because he was in the Army.  He missed about 266 games because of his military service.  In 1954, his first full year back, he generated 10.4 WAR.  So I think it's safe to say that if he had played in those 266 games, he would have generated at least 6.7 WAR, and thus he would rank ahead of Bonds.

Now here's the thing:  I never saw Willie Mays play baseball, but I remember Barry Bonds very well.  He made the whole game look ridiculous.  Here were his WAR numbers from 2001 to 2004:

2001:  11.9
2002:  11.8
2003:  9.2
2004:  10.6

Now remember, when Bonds was playing at that level, he looked like a guy playing a video game.  He didn't seem real.  But if you look back at Mays's career, here are his WAR Numbers from 1962 to 1965:

1962:  10.5
1963:  10.6
1964:  11.0
1965:  11.2

It's absolutely crazy to me that anyone put up Barry Bonds-type numbers after 1947 without being Barry Bonds.  But Willie Mays did it.  No wonder they thought he was so great.


  1. For the record, between 1959 and 1968 the Giants had some really frustrating seasons:

    1959: 83-71 -- missed a playoff by three games
    1960: 79-75
    1961: 85-69
    1962: 103-62 -- won a playoff; lost the World Series in seven games
    1963: 88-74
    1964: 90-72 -- lost the pennant by three games
    1965: 95-67 -- lost the pennant by two games
    1966: 93-68 -- lost the pennant by 1 1/2 games
    1967: 91-71 -- second place for the third straight year
    1968: 88-74 -- second place for the fourth straight year

    If the Giants could have won a few more games, Willie Mays's reputation would have been even higher. Instead, we've spent the last 50 years hearing about teams led by Bob Gibson (1964, 1967, 1968) and Sandy Koufax (1959, 1963, 1965, 1966).

  2. Of course, if Koufax hadn't gotten hurt in 1962, the Giants probably wouldn't have won that pennant.

  3. Replies
    1. It really is. I remember those Barry Bonds years, and I thought that Bonds was so much better than everyone else that it made the game itself look absurd. But Mays at his best was just as good as Bonds at his best.

  4. I'm glad you did this post. One thing it does for me is make me respect WAR (and Baseball Reference) even more.

    For sure, we grew up into an older-sports-fan culture that seemed to share an understanding that Willie Mays was the best player they had ever seen. I think, if anything, our older sports fans actually wondered if Mays was better than Babe Ruth (but there was nowhere near consensus on this point, largely because the older-sports-fan culture that they had grown up had been so convincing in terms of how great Ruth had been).

    1. The fact that Ruth gets around 20 WAR as a pitcher is so odd. As a hitter he and Mays are very close.