Which Man Has Had the Best Overall Career in MLB History?
A blogging friend, Bill Miller, wrote about Walter Johnson’s hitting proficiency a while ago; it was something I had not known about. His post prompted me to come up with this question: Which man has had the best overall baseball career in MLB history, covering the roles of pitcher, position player and/or hitter, and manager? The criteria I came up with was that the man had to serve in at least two of the three roles, had to be at least adequate in each role he served, and ideally was superlative in at least one of the three roles.
Babe Ruth, with his pitching and hitting career, is of course the first name to come to mind. Ruth never managed, though, and I think it’s harder to choose the winning candidate than you first assume. Here are the three men who seem to be the best candidates: John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson.
I assume you know pretty well what Ruth did on the field, but here are some quick details on McGraw and Johnson’s careers. McGraw managed from 1899-1932, with a 2763-1948 record over 4769 games, for a .586 winning percentage. He won three World Series and 10 pennants, all with the Giants, from 1902-1932. As a hitter, his triple slash line was .334/.466/.410, for an OPS+ of 135. His OPB topped .500 in three seasons, 1899 through 1901, he drew at least 90 walks in five seasons, scored 1024 runs in 1099 games, scoring at least 100 runs in five seasons. His OPB of .466 is third-best in MLB history. He played for the Baltimore Orioles as they won the N.L. pennant in three straight years, 1894-1896 (there was no A.L. and no World Series at the time).
Johnson’s record as a manager was 529-432, a .550 winning percentage over 861 games. He managed the Senators from 1929-1932, then the Indians from 1933-1935. His Senators had three straight 90-win seasons, 1930 through 1932, but Johnson left before they won the pennant in 1933. His triple slash batting line of .235/.274/.342 (for an OPS+ of 76) is not very impressive, until you realize most of his at-bats were in the deadball era. Nonetheless, he hit 24 homers, 41 triples, and 94 doubles. From 1924 through 1927, when he was 36 to 39 years old, Johnson’s triple slash line was .306/.332/.423, with six homers and 22 doubles in 359 at-bats, for an OPS+ of 95. He hit .433/.455/.577 over 97 at-bats in 1925. Johnson appeared in 132 games as a pinch-hitter or outfielder. And, of course, he was arguably the greatest pitcher ever, going 417-279 from 1907 to 1927, and ranks in the top 5 in many pitching stats.
What jumps out to me is that Johnson is the only man who was well above average in two of the three roles, and clearly held his own in the third role, as a hitter. McGraw is perhaps the best player of the managers in the HOF who won at least 1500 games, and you can contend that he’s the best manager ever. Then you have Ruth. I think you can make an honest, solid argument for each of the three. I’ve posed this question on my blog, where one guy tabbed the Big Train, and another couldn’t make a choice.