Willie Mays was even better than his all-time great stats

Willie Mays was even better than his all-time great stats

Perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time is Babe Ruth. Maybe it's Henry Aaron or Barry Bonds or Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston. Proponents of a more clichéd version of the game might argue in favor of Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner. For a while, before injuries put a possible seal on their careers and their ultimate greatness, it might have been Ken Griffey Jr. or Mike Trout or Mickey Mantle. Perhaps if Ted Williams hadn't missed five seasons serving in the war, he might have emerged as the game's greatest hitter.

However, you can poke holes in the case for any of these players. Small holes — maybe they didn't play center field, maybe they couldn't throw, maybe their peak lasted only a few seasons — but holes nonetheless. You can't find any holes for Willie Mays.

Actress Tallulah Bankhead once said, “There have only been two genuine geniuses in the world. Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

Williams himself once said, “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.”

Maze attended 24 of these.

Writer Joe Posnanski once floated an idea called the “Willie Mays Hall of Fame,” because fans complained that the standards for selection into Cooperstown were too low. Of course, it was a joke. As Joe wrote, if Mays were the standard for the Hall of Fame, it would only have one member.

Maze could run.

How great was Mays on the basepaths? In 1971, he tied for the National League lead in the category called baserunning runs. He was 40 years old.

Mays can field.

His famous catch in the 1954 World Series may not have been the greatest catch ever. Mays himself said he played better games. But it's the catch everyone still talks about as the greatest catch ever — unmatched even 70 years later, a legendary play with video proof he deserved each of his 12 Gold Gloves.

Mayes can throw.

,[Mays] “He picked up the ball at the 406-foot marker, turned and threw it. It bounced all at once, straight across the plate and into the glove of catcher Tom Haller, who lobbed it to a surprised Willie Stargell. Old-timers called it the finest throw ever made at ancient Forbes Field,” Bob Stevens wrote of the 1965 game.

Can hit the table.

A lifetime average of .301, with many of his best years coming in the pitching-dominated 1960s, when mounds were as high as Mount Everest and pitchers like Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson threw a fastball if you didn't like them. Ten seasons with a .300 average and nearly 3,300 career hits. “As a batter, his only weakness is the wild pitch,” one of his managers, Bill Rigney, once joked.

Maze could power hit.

He wasn't a big man, standing 5 feet 10 inches and weighing 170 pounds, but he was all muscle and had huge hands that held the bat like toothpicks. He hit 660 home runs – and, if he hadn't missed nearly two full seasons serving in the Army, he might have broken Ruth's home run record before Aaron did. He led his league in home runs four times.

Two years ago, ESPN ranked Mays as the second-greatest player of all time behind Ruth. Bill James had him third (behind Ruth and Wagner). Posnanski ranked him first. And here's the thing: As great as Mays was, as great his all-around game was, as high as his ranking on these lists is, Mays is probably even greater than we assume.

Mays won MVP awards just twice in his career, in 1954 and 1965. If we consider modern analysis and the evolution of voting philosophy over the last few decades, Mays could have won… well, let’s consider how many MVP awards he might have won under modern criteria.

In Mays' era, the MVP award was typically given to the player on the pennant-winning team. Other subjective qualities such as leadership were factors in the consideration process, and writers shied away from giving the award to the same person every season. Today, more emphasis is placed on statistical value—the best player rather than the dominant player on a first-place team.

So, let's go year by year and explore Mays' career — remember, he's competing for MVP honors with inner-circle Hall of Famers like Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. We'll start with 1954, skipping his rookie season of 1951 and then his two seasons in the military.


Actual Winner: Willie Mays

Mays hit .345/.411/.667 and hit 41 home runs, leading the Giants to the pennant. He also led the NL in WAR at 10.4. Although he won easily, he somehow only received 16 of 24 first-place votes. Today he would almost certainly be the unanimous winner.

Fantasy MVP tally: 1


Actual Winner: Roy Campanella

Table Finale: Fourth

The Dodgers won the pennant, and their catcher Campanella had a great season with 32 home runs and a .318 average. Mays hit .319 with 51 home runs and a 1.059 OPS, leading the league easily over Campanella in WAR (9.2 to 5.2). Today, it is likely to be a two-man race between Mays and Dodgers center fielder Duke Snider (8.6 WAR), who had 42 home runs and a 1.046 OPS. The Dodgers winning the pennant helps Snider, but Mays' home runs and defense give him a slight edge. He takes home his second trophy.

Fantasy MVP tally: 2


Actual Winner: Don Newcombe

Table finish: 17th

Mays tied for the league lead in WAR with Snider at 7.6, while Aaron had 7.2. Newcombe won 27 games. Today, there's a three-man race among outfielders. The Dodgers won the pennant, but that's another coin flip. We'll give it to Snider and keep Mays at two.

Fantasy MVP tally: 2


Actual Winner: Henry Aaron

Table Finale: Fourth

Mays outpaced Aaron in WAR (8.3 to 8.0), but Aaron led the NL in home runs and RBI and his Milwaukee Braves won the pennant. The award goes to Aaron.

Fantasy MVP tally: 2


Actual Winner: Ernie Banks

Closing the Mess: Second

Tough question. Mays again leads in WAR (10.2), but Banks isn't far behind (9.3). Banks outhomed Mays (47 to 29) and out-RBIed him (129 to 96), but Mays hit .347 to Banks' .313 and had a higher OPS while playing in a tough hitters' park. Modern voters will know that Banks hit .340 with 30 home runs at Wrigley and hit a more pedestrian .287 with 17 home runs on the road. No. 3 for Mays.

Fantasy MVP tally: 3


Actual Winner: Ernie Banks

Table Completion: Sixth

Banks was a deserving winner with 10.2 WAR (Mays was at 7.8, which was a “down” year for him).

Fantasy MVP tally: 3


Actual Winner: Dick Groat

Closing the Mess: Third

Grot was the shortstop for the Pirates, the surprise pennant winners, and played a fine season, hitting .325 with good defense, but he also had just two home runs and 50 RBI. Writers at the time praised his leadership and determination. Teammate Don Hoak was second in the voting. But Mays surpassed both in WAR (9.5 to 6.1 and 5.4) and would win today. It's No. 4.

Fantasy MVP tally: 4


Actual Winner: Frank Robinson

Table Completion: Sixth

Mays was second to Aaron in WAR, while Robinson was fourth on the first-place Reds. Robinson led the league in OPS and may have won it today, albeit in a very tight vote (he received 15 of 16 first-place votes at the time).

Fantasy MVP tally: 4


Actual Winner: Maury Wills

Closing the Mess: Second

In my book, this is one of the worst MVP votes ever. Voters were overjoyed with Wills breaking the single-season stolen bases record with 104, but Mays was a much more valuable player — 10.5 WAR vs. 6.0 — and he was denied in a close vote, even though the Giants won the pennant by beating Wills' Dodgers in a tiebreaker. Give Mays his fifth MVP.

Fantasy MVP tally: 5


Actual Winner: Sandy Koufax

Closing of the mess: fifth

This debate will blow people's heads in 2024. Koufax (9.9 WAR) went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and 306 strikeouts. Mays led the league with 10.6 WAR, hitting .314 with 38 home runs and his usual Gold Glove defense. Aaron (9.1 WAR) led with 44 home runs and 130 RBI. The Dodgers won the pennant, letting Koufax win easily. In 2024? Pitchers don't usually factor into the voting (they don't pitch 311 innings, either, by the way). I'm giving Mays the No. 6 spot.

Fantasy MVP tally: 6


Actual Winner: Ken Boyer

Table Completion: Sixth

Boyer was no weakling, and he led the NL in RBIs as his Cardinals won the pennant on the final day of the season (the Giants finished fourth, three games behind). There's no doubt that the Giants' inability to win more pennants despite Hall of Famers like Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda hurt Mays in MVP voting. The Giants can truly be seen as underachievers because of their top-tier talent, and that's certainly how they were seen at the time. But Mays? Not his fault. He had an 11.0 WAR while leading the NL with 47 home runs and a .990 OPS. I think he'd win by a huge margin with that WAR today. He's No. 7.

Fantasy MVP tally: 7


Actual Winner: Willie Mays

After all, 11 years after his first MVP win, Mays won another one — posting a career-best 11.2 WAR after hitting .317/.398/.645 with 52 home runs. However, he received only nine of the 20 first-place votes, as Koufax (six) and Wills (five) split votes with the first-place Dodgers. Anyway, Mays will win today and get No. 8.

Fantasy MVP tally: 8


Actual Winner: Roberto Clemente

Closing the Mess: Third

Marichal and Koufax tied in WAR with 9.7, while Mays had 9.0 and Clemente led with 8.2. Koufax could win today with 27 wins, a 1.73 ERA, 323 innings and 317 strikeouts (he finished second). would like to These numbers could explode, but Mays will surely rank in the top three in his final great season.

Fantasy MVP tally: 8

After that, Mays' popularity declined, and he finished with eight MVP awards—one more than all-time leader Bonds' seven.

Still, perhaps one doesn't need to go back in time and make Mays an eight-time MVP winner to understand his reputation as one of the game's best players. After all, he was a genius. Even fifty-one years after his final game, it still seems an apt description.

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