Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez slugged a home run for his 3,000th career hit on Friday night, becoming the 29th player to join the elite club. He had just recently joined the 2,000 RBI club and passed Willie Mays for fourth in baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard earlier this season as well.
Rodriguez, a three-time MVP award winner and a 14-time All-Star, is an obvious Hall of Famer on statistics alone, but where does he rank all-time? According to Baseball Reference, Rodriguez has accumulated the 12th-most WAR among position players, trailing Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Ted Williams. FanGraphs has him 13th, also behind Lou Gehrig.
Of the 12 batters ahead of Rodriguez, Ruth, Cobb, Speaker, Wagner, Hornsby, Collins, and Gehrig played before integration, which rules them out. Many will interject with, “but A-Rod used performance-enhancing drugs, so he should be ruled out as well.” I’m glad you brought that up. So did Mays and Aaron, as well as fellow Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Mickey Mantle — they used amphetamines. If one invalidates Rodriguez’s place among baseball’s greats, one must do the same for Mays and Aaron and others. Assuming we’re keeping Mays and Aaron, and thus, Rodriguez, we’re dealing with an all-time list of Bonds, Mays, Aaron, Musial, Williams, and Rodriguez.
Musial and Williams played most of their careers before integration, but they should still be penalized for the years played prior to integration. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Musial accrued 32.6 of his 128.1 WAR in that time, per Baseball Reference. For Williams, it was 45.1 of 128.1. That puts them clearly behind Rodriguez. The ranking then becomes Bonds, Mays, Aaron, and Rodriguez:
- Bonds: 162.4 WAR
- Mays: 156.2
- Aaron: 142.6
- Rodriguez: 117.5
Personally, I believe more recent eras of baseball to be much tougher than those of the past as athletes are bigger, stronger, and smarter than they’ve ever been, and technology has made it simple for pitchers to research and exploit a hitter’s tendencies. But I don’t think there’s any realistic adjustment for that which would bridge the 25 WAR gap between Rodriguez and Aaron. So, with my methodology, Rodriguez is the fourth-greatest position player in baseball history.
Note: I realize that WAR has many methodological flaws, but it’s the best tool for comparing players across eras. I believe in using imperfect tools than no tools at all.