Making my list of the 25 best hitters of the free agent era has been absolutely agonizing.
I’ve poured over stats time and time again. I’ve said to myself, “Okay… done. Get writing,” only to shuffle the order several more times. I spent more time weighing key stats between two players — sometimes falling into a Rock-Paper-Scissor type argument about three — than actually writing.
The last spot was the hardest, of course. I had it down to about 5 hitters for 2 final spots, and in the end, I went with the ones I thought I’d most regret leaving out of the top 25. But, as promised, I’d like to give a list of 20 runners-up. This group will be in no particular order, so don’t take their sequence as anything other than how they randomly ended up in my spreadsheet.
I’ve decided to split this group into two posts for ease of reading for you, dear reader. I’ll give a highlight or two of their main stats, explain why they could’ve made the 25, but finish with why they didn’t.
Deep, excited breath. Remember: NO PARTICULAR ORDER for this group. The randomness was kind of fun for me to write.
And away we go!
It’s my list and I get to start it out with my favorite player of all-time. I worshiped his approach as a left-handed-hitting Little Leaguer, emulating him down to the crouch as I loaded for my swing.
Why he could’ve made it: Donnie Baseball mashed his way to .307 career average, while being just too damned stubborn to strike out. He never whiffed more than 43 times in a season, and walked more often over the course of his career (588:444). In the mid-80s he was one of the most feared hitters in the game.
Why he didn’t make it: Mattingly’s success just did not last long enough. While he was arguably the best hitter in the game for about a 4-year stretch, his stats fell off dramatically after 1987, never regaining their top tier status.
Why he could’ve made it: The versatile Lofton was a true journeyman, playing on 11 different teams. I found his career line to be very under-appreciated. He finished at .299 and got on-base at an impressive .372 rate. His BB:K ratio was a healthy .93 in 9,235 plate appearances. He finished with 2,428 hits.
Why he didn’t make it: I love Lofton’s style, but he didn’t dominate in any offensive stat that doesn’t involve running the base paths or scoring.
Why he could’ve made it: Reg-gie! Reg-gie! The great Reggie Jackson was one of the game’s last 500 home run hitters before the dawn of the steroid era. His slugger’s swing, a picturesque hammer of a cut, produced 563 long balls, still good for 14th all-time.
Why he didn’t make it: Mr. October was in my list for a long time. In the end, I pushed myself off the power numbers (a theme, you’ll see with the next few names) because of his .262 average and .356 OBP. I get it… 563 home runs makes a .262 clip completely reasonable. Again, he had me at hello, but his (relatively) weak averages convinced me otherwise, I decided on other names. You may think differently, but wait until you see the 25 before judging.
Why he could’ve made it: Like Reggie Jackson before him, McGwire had prolific power. But Big Mac took it to a near untouchable level. In only 7,660 plate appearances, almost 3,800 fewer than Jackson, McGwire homered 583 times. His .325 isolated power metric is 2nd only to Babe Ruth. He holds the rookie home run record with 49, set in 1987. McGwire just pummeled base balls at a historically elite rate. Give him the same plate appearances as the all-time home run leader, and McGwire’s pace would’ve yielded 959 home runs.
Why he didn’t make it: Talk about a one trick pony. These are the guys I struggle with. The home run is the absolute most important event in baseball. How does a guy with this kind of power not make it to the top 25 of his era? Well, despite the fact that he showed prodigious power, his final numbers are skewed by his presumed use of PED’s. At least, they are cast in a dark shadow. He managed a career sum of only 1,626 hits at a rate of .263. Like Reggie, he started in the list for his power alone, I just couldn’t keep him there.
Why he could’ve made it: I strategically listed these last three names together, because it’s the same tune. Kill the ball, but possess much lower averages or on-base than many of the great hitters we’ll read about later. Sosa is 8th all-time with 609 home runs.
Why he didn’t make it: Copy and paste McGwire. Sosa batted a little higher than Big Mac (.273) but only got on base 34% of the time. There are only about five hitters out of the near 50 we’ll discuss that have a lower OBP than Sosa. Speaking in terms of advanced metrics, his career wRC+ was just 124, equal to Don Mattingly and lower than Reggie Jackson’s 139. 600 home runs should’ve stamped an automatic ticket to the top 25, but a more complete picture — and the shadow of PED’s — has Sammy on the outside looking in.
Why he could’ve made it: Switching gears away from power mongers, Roberto Alomar was a complete ballplayer and a hitting machine. He finished with 2,724 hits, his final average sitting right at .300. The hall of famer hit 504 doubles, 80 triples, and 210 homers over 17 seasons.
Why he didn’t make it: If this were a list of 25 best players not solely hitters, Alomar probably gets more consideration. He won 10 gold gloves, but that won’t help him here. It’s very hard to find a hole in Alomar’s game. He got on base at a .371 clip, and his BB:K ratio is an impressive .91, meaning he almost walked as many times as he struck out. So nothing to point at that really disqualified him, just other batters I deemed to have higher qualifications.
Why he could’ve made it: Another great baseball name, Robin Yount. He tallied 3,142 hits in his long, 20-year campaign, including 583 doubles, 126 triples, and 251 home runs. Yount finished with a career average of .285.
Why he didn’t make it: Much like the 500+ home run club, it seems like anyone with 3,000 hits should be an automatic add. But Yount needed 12,249 plate appearances to reach his total of 3100+ hits. I love his longevity, but he only batted over .300 five times in 20 seasons, only once accumulating 200 hits in a single season. His OBP (.342) and OPS (.772) are less than inspiring when compared to the rest of the names. It seems blasphemous to exclude Yount, but it had to be done. It’s more out of respect for those with better numbers than disrespectful of Yount himself. He was a great hitter.
Why he could’ve made it: Walker was flat out fearsome. He batted .313 with 383 home runs. Look further and his numbers really pop out, and he makes quite the case for a top 25 status. On base percentage? .400. Slugging? .565. He’s 66th on the home run list with 383. So how could I leave him out?
Why he didn’t make it: Sigh. Coors Field. Walker really deserves to be considered one of the top hitters of his day, but his home-away splits are considerable. Sure, for the first six seasons of his career he played for the Expos. But he never topped 23 home runs in Montreal, and his OPS there was just .839 against a career number of an eye-popping .965. I’ve seen many arguments that claim Walker is disrespected unfairly for his time in Colorado. He was clearly a leading hitter of his day regardless. This is true. I just had to cut some hitters, and he’s on that list. Again, no disrespect.
Why he could’ve made it: The crime dog didn’t really dominate any particular stat, though he certainly exhibited some upper class power. His stats across the board are all impressive though. Most prestigious are his 493 home runs, good for a tie with Lou Gehrig for 28th on the all-time list. He boasted a triple slash of .287/.377/.509 as a journeyman.
Why he didn’t make it: His quietly elite career was tempting to consider, the home runs and OBP were almost enough to make arguments for him. However, there are just too many guys with .300+ career average and/or 500 home runs.
Why he could’ve made it: Tim “Rock” Raines filled his roll in the leadoff spot admirably for years. He finished with a .294 average and .385 on base percentage. He fueled rallies by walking more than he struck out, racking up a 1.38 BB:K rate, one of the top rates in all of the 70 or so batters I examined.
Why he didn’t make it: Raines’ stats are fine, and there really aren’t any holes. He even homered 170 times. If we included his generational speed in the equation, he’d be a hotter commodity for the top-25. Great career, just not top 25 hitters.
So, there we have Part I, 10 hitters who all arguably deserve to be in the discussion. I can’t tell you how many times people have been in and out of this list.
Reggie, Helton, and Walker spent plenty of time in the graduating class, but I’m okay with taking them out.
Part II is almost done. Just wanted to cut this up and make reading it more manageable.
Thanks for reading.