by Danny Blumenthal
In the absence of baseball last summer, HSAC unveiled our All-Around All-Star team – a squad of the most well-rounded MLB players based on the 2019 season. The team featured a who’s who of the modern game, including Anthony Rendon, J.T. Realmuto, and Freddie Freeman (even before he won MVP). Nevertheless, two Los Angeles Dodgers, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts, rose above the rest to emerge as the year’s best all-around players. This year, however, we’ve taken the rankings one step further in determining the most well-rounded players in MLB history. And while many modern players lose out to historical greats, Betts does not fall at all.
Scouts have utilized the five tools of baseball (contact hitting, power hitting, speed, defense, and arm strength) to evaluate players for years. They typically employ the 20-80 scale when assessing prospects, but this scale is not very predictive of MLB success. Therefore, statistics put up during playing careers were utilized here, rather than subjective evaluations. In addition, in the 2019 All-Around All-Star team, we were able to take advantage of Statcast data available in the modern game to better quantify underlying skills, such as Sprint Speed and exit velocity. Unfortunately, there was no Statcast back when Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were playing (let alone Derek Jeter or Chipper Jones), so for this historical analysis, results-based statistics were used. The present analysis gathered the following metrics from Fangraphs to evaluate all players since 1900 with at least 1,000 plate appearances:
- Contact hitting was measured using era-adjusted strikeout percentage (K%+). Strikeout percentage simply divides a hitter’s strikeouts by their plate appearances. Since strikeout rates have varied over time, the era-adjustment identifies how much less likely to strike out a player is than their peers.
- Power hitting was measured with era-adjusted isolated power (ISO+). Per Fangraphs, ISO measures “raw power” and tells whether a player has many extra-base hits and home runs.
- Speed was measured using Baserunning Runs (BsR), the baserunning component of Fangraphs’ WAR metric. While the pieces of BsR vary by era, it tallies up players’ contributions from stealing bases, avoiding double plays, and taking the extra base.
- Defense was measured using Fangraphs’ fielding runs above average. Since players were compared to those who shared a position and the difficulty in playing a position has changed over time, while positional adjustments do not vary by era, overall defensive WAR was not used here. In addition, since there are no historical statistics for measuring throwing arm, and this Total Zone data includes some throwing statistics, the arm strength tool was included within defense.
For each tool, players were given a percentile rank based on their standing. Then, the harmonic mean of the four tools was taken to determine a player’s all-around skill level. The harmonic mean is an average which skews towards lower numbers, ensuring players are well-rounded and not being dragged up by one very high tool, such as Ryan Howard’s power hitting or José Molina’s defense. Bill James and FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine have similarly employed harmonic means to identify players who excel as both sluggers and speedsters.
The Best All-Around Players at Each Position
The above diamond indicates the greatest all-around players at each position in MLB history. Some of these players are no-doubters. Honus Wagner, the original five tool player, won eight batting titles and earned plaudits from experts ranging from Bill James (“among the greatest defensive players in the history of baseball”) to Babe Ruth (“perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter of all time”). Jackie Robinson is one of three National Leaguers, along with Wagner and Dee Strange-Gordon, to lead the league in both batting average and stolen bases and was even better according advanced statistics than traditional ones. And while Barry Bonds’ career is sullied by steroids, he tallied a record seven MVP trophies and eight Gold Glove awards. On top of that, he is the only player in MLB history to have racked up 400 stolen bases and 400 home runs (let alone 500 of each).
However, a few of the above players may be more surprising. José Ramírez is a well-rounded player in today’s game, but he was able to pass fellow five-toolers George Brett (No. 3 all-around third baseman), Brooks Robinson, and Anthony Rendon by having no flaws. In each of the categories examined, Ramírez sits in the 75th percentile or higher, most notably ranking in the 98th in baserunning/speed. Ramírez has always excelled as a contact hitter, ranking in the top ten percent in lowest strikeout rate in five of his seven MLB seasons. In addition, he is a speedster (80th percentile in sprint speed in 2021) and an excellent defender (No. 6 in Outs Above Average). Although he stands only 5’ 9’’, Ramírez has been above-average as a power hitter in each of the last five seasons on account of being a doubles machine. Finally, while arm strength wasn’t included in this analysis, he has demonstrated his cannon of an arm on numerous occasions. Other third basemen boasted better individual tools, such as Mike Schmidt’s power or Brooks Robinson’s defense, but they had holes in their games (strikeouts and speed) that José Ramírez doesn’t. Therefore, Ramírez beats them out as the most well-rounded third baseman in MLB history.
Another surprise may be Sherm Lollar. Lollar was a contemporary of Yogi Berra, the No. 2-ranked catcher, and racked up seven All-Star seasons in the 1950s. Lollar was a dominant defender behind the plate, concluding his career by earning Gold Gloves in the first three seasons they were awarded. While Lollar was not elite offensively, he piloted the 1959 Chicago White Sox to the pennant by leading the team in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, and OPS+. In addition, he was very patient at the plate, never striking out more often than the league average in 18 seasons. Finally, of the 50 catchers with the highest Fangraphs WAR, Lollar was one of only five to rate above average as a hitter, fielder, and baserunner.
Overall, the big winner of this analysis was Mookie Betts. Out of more than 3,500 players, Betts emerged as the No. 1 all-around player in MLB history. Betts has been known to be “amazing at everything”, both on and off the field, and this award only reinforces his versatility. Betts excelled in every tool, finishing among the top 15% in MLB history in contact hitting, power hitting, running, and defense. Crucially, this is not just a product of the metrics chosen for this analysis. HSAC’s previous five tools breakdown applied more process-oriented data, rather than the results-based statistics used here, and placed Betts second in baseball in 2019.
Few players combine contact and power hitting better than Mookie Betts. Since he entered the league in 2014, only one player – Albert Pujols – has matched Betts’ home run total and had a lower strikeout rate. And because he plays in an era in which strikeout totals have ballooned, Betts’ ability to put the ball in play looks even better once adjusted for era. Per the present analysis, Betts sits in the 90th percentile of contact hitters all-time. In addition, Betts has shown some tape-measure power, and only Nick Castellanos has more doubles than Betts over the last five seasons (a testament to both his baserunning and slugging). Even as power hitting is his worst tool, he still sits in the 85th percentile all-time – giving him the highest worst tool of anyone ever.
On top of his elite hitting, Betts is an elite runner as well. Betts is merely above-average in terms of Statcast’s Sprint Speed, but he more than makes up for it with his insight on the basepaths. He consistently takes the extra base, rarely grounds into double plays, and is quite efficient with his stolen base attempts. In fact, per Sports-Reference, only 13 players in MLB history can match his volume (141 steals) and efficiency (82.9% stolen base percentage). As a result, since Betts entered the league in 2014, only Billy Hamilton has contributed more to his team as a runner.
Finally, Betts is an outstanding defender. He reeled off four straight Gold Gloves, as well as an Overall Defensive Player of the Year trophy, in his time in Boston, and kept it going in Los Angeles with his fifth consecutive Gold Glove win. Per Fangraphs’ fielding runs, Betts sits in the 96th percentile all-time, and the Statcast data reinforces this. No right fielder has racked up more outs above average than Betts’ 57. And although arm strength was not officially included here, there’s no doubt that Mookie Betts possesses this tool.
Overall, Mookie Betts combines Joe DiMaggio’s batting eye, Carlos Beltran’s slugging ability, Paul Molitor’s talent on the basepaths, and Jason Heyward’s defensive wizardry. Not too shabby.
The Best of the Rest
In the end, 165 of over 3,500 eligible players – about 5% – were deemed all-around players. To earn this designation, players had to be above the 50th percentile in each of the four categories. The following searchable table lists all of the all-around players, ranging from Hall of Famers like Al Kaline and Arky Vaughn to more unheralded players like Harry Danning and Alex Rios.
While the above table includes several superstars, a few players are conspicuously missing. Mike Trout and Alex Rodriguez both rated above the 70th percentile in three tools, but failed to make the All-Around All-Star team on account of striking out too much. Meanwhile, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente made the team, but their strikeout rates dragged them down outside of the best of the best. Ichiro ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in all but one tool – power hitting, in which he was only in the 12th percentile. Ken Griffey Jr. was clearly an all-around player at one point in his career, robbing home runs and launching hundreds himself. However, injuries and age sapped him of his speed over time, so he ended his career with negative value on the basepaths. Finally, stalwarts like Mickey Mantle and Kirby Puckett cost their teams in the field, so they were not deemed all-around players.
Players like Trout and Rodriguez excelled in three of four areas, but missed out in one aspect of the game. But what about players on the other end of the spectrum? Who are the players whose value was tied up in only one skill? The following table ranks the players most reliant on one tool, as defined by dividing a player’s top tool by the sum of all of their tools.
Back in 2017, HSAC identified J.D. Martinez, Matt Davidson, and Nelson Cruz as the active players most reliant on one tool. They all blasted home runs, but struggled running and in the field. The results of this historical analysis are no different, as once again, power hitters dominate the one-tool player rankings. While one-tool players may be perceived as poor players, there are many skills which are not included in the typical five tools of baseball. For instance, while Hall of Famer Jim Thome is the No. 2 player on this list, he complimented his home runs with over 1,700 walks, a skill not historically evaluated by scouts. On the other hand, Bill Bergen is famous for being a terrible hitter. He only had two home runs in over 3,000 at bats, and no player has ever had a lower batting average than Bergen’s .170. Nevertheless, Bergen stuck around for 11 years thanks to his defense.
There are many ways to evaluate players on the five tools of baseball. Some may like a metric which identifies raw speed rather than overall baserunning, and some may prefer to utilize batting average over strikeout percentage to measure contact hitting. In addition, there is value in measures besides the typical five tools, such as getting on base via walks. Nevertheless, no matter which combination of metrics is used, Mookie Betts would still be among the greatest all-around players in MLB history, since he rates as well above average in almost every statistic.
Fans can disagree about the most versatile players, but it’s clear that Betts deserves to at least be in the conversation. This is especially true given that he is still only 28 years old, and could have several years left to rack up even greater numbers. With a watchful eye at the plate, unexpected power for a player his size, intelligent baserunning, elite defense, and a rocket arm, Betts is well on his way to Cooperstown.
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