What makes someone a great hitter? Is it simply their ability to hit for any sort of contact, or is being a complete offensive player - even if some of that comes at the expense of contact at times - more valuable?
We struggled with that question when putting together this list. Even the answer that we arrived at is complicated. By no means is this meant as a diss to players like Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki or Wade Boggs, but is their ability to single at a historic clip more valuable than someone that hits for a lower average but walks more and drives the ball at a significantly better clip? In our opinion, the answer is no.
Nine of the 10 players on the list are Hall of Famers, and the one that isn't is arguably the most accomplished offensive player in the history of the sport. But the aforementioned quartet didn't make the list. Neither did Rod Carew, Shoeless Joe Jackson, David Ortiz, Rafael Palmeiro, Duke Snider, Yogi Berra, Eddie Collins, Norm Cash or Johnny Mize. In other words, you can't win when trying to narrow down a list to 10 names in a sport that has been embedded in the fabric of America since the 1800s.
With all of that acknowledged, here is RADIO.COM Sports' countdown of the 10 greatest left-handed hitters in MLB history:
10. Jim Thome - Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles (1991-2012)
Best Season: 2002 - .304/.445/.677 with 52 home runs, 118 RBIs, 122 walks, a 1.122 OPS and an 8.2 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .276/.402/.554 with 612 home runs, 1,699 RBIs, 1,746 walks, a .956 OPS, a 147 OPS+ and a 77.6 offensive WAR
Given that Thome hit "only" .276 in his career, his inclusion on this list may turn some off. That said, there are nine players in MLB history with 600 or more home runs, and Thome is one of them. Though it's hard to compare his home run totals to those who played in The Deadball Era, he has 242 more home runs than Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki combined, all of whom he overlapped with in terms of when he played. What's more, he comfortably tops that trio in OPS, OPS+ and offensive WAR. The initial inclination was not for Thome to make this list, but after doing extensive research, he deserves to be here.
9. Ken Griffey Jr. - Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox (1989-2010)
Best Season: 1997 - .304/.382/.646 with 56 home runs, 147 RBIs, 76 walks, a 1.028 OPS and a 7.6 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .284/.370/.538 with 630 home runs, 1,836 RBIs, 1,312 walks, a .907 OPS, a 136 OPS+ and a 84.6 offensive WAR
The kid with the sweetest swing in MLB history checks in at No. 9. It's crazy to think that injuries in his early 30s leave you with a "what could have been" feel when discussing the 13-time All-Star. As is, Griffey Jr. slugged 630 home runs in his illustrious career, good for sixth in MLB history. In an era full of controversial stars, Griffey Jr. remained one of the most popular players the sport has ever seen.
8. Mel Ott - New York Giants (1926-1947)
Best Season: 1938: .311/.442/.583 with 36 home runs, 116 RBIs, 118 walks, a 1.024 OPS and an 8.4 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .304/.414/.533 with 511 home runs, 1,860 RBIs, 1,708 walks, a .947 OPS, 155 OPS+ and a 106.7 offensive WAR
While starring for the New York *baseball* Giants, Ott made 12 All-Star appearances and slugged over 500 home runs, making hime one of the earlier entrants to the hallowed 500-home run club. Ott also finished with a batting average north of .300 and led the Giants to the 1933 World Series title.
7. Tris Speaker - Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics (1907-1928)
Best Season: 1912 - .386/.464/.567 with 10 home runs, 90 RBIs, 82 walks, a 1.031 OPS and a 9.2 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .345/.428/.500 with 117 home runs, 1,531 RBIs, 1,381 walks, a .928 OPS, a 158 OPS+, and a 124.4 offensive WAR
If Babe Ruth is the player that the Boston Red Sox organization regrets allowing to leave the most in franchise history, Speaker is probably No. 2. Despite winning an American League MVP in 1912 and putting up Hall of Fame-caliber production between 1909 and 1915, the Red Sox traded Speaker to the Cleveland Indians after the 1915 season because of a salary dispute. All he did the next season was hit .386. When the .345 career hitter was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, he went into Cooperstown as an Indian, as he ultimately spent 11 seasons in Cleveland.
6. Ty Cobb - Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics (1905-1928)
Best Season: 1917: .383/.444/.570 with six home runs, 106 RBIs, 61 walks, a 1.014 OPS and a 10.6 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .366/.433/.512 with 117 home runs, 1,944 RBIs, 1,249 walks, a .944 OPS, a 168 OPS+ and a 151.2 offensive WAR
You have to be a hell of a player to be as disliked personally as Cobb was, but never have anyone take a swipe at your on-field accomplishments. Cobb - unaffectionally referred to as "The Georgia Peach - won 12 batting titles and has a .366 career batting average, the highest in MLB history. There's a variety of reasons why players in his era didn't hit home runs at the same clip that they do today, but it's pretty staggering to think that he drove in 176 more runs in his career than David Ortiz, despite hitting 424 less home runs. With today's approach and ballpark dimensions, you get the sense that Cobb was capable of hitting 40 plus home runs in a season, if he had been so inclined.
5. Stan Musial - St. Louis Cardinals (1941-1944; 1946-1963)
Best Season: 1948 - .376/.450/.702 with 39 home runs, 131 RBIs, 79 walks, a 1.152 OPS and a 10.8 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .331/.417/.559 with 475 home runs, 1,951 RBIs, 1,599 walks, a .976 OPS, a 159 OPS+ and a 124.8 offensive WAR
Despite missing the 1945 season as he served in World War II, Musial is tied with Willie Mays for the second most All-Star Game appearances at 24. It's hard to find many years during his career that "Stan the Man" didn't deserve to be playing in the midsummer classic either. Musial, a three-time National League MVP, struck the balance of hitting home runs and competing for batting titles (he won seven of those) about as well as anyone in baseball history has ever done.
4. Lou Gehrig - New York Yankees (1923-1939)
Best Season: 1927: .373/.474/.765 with 47 home runs, 173 RBIs, 109 walks, a 1.240 OPS and an 11.3 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .340/.447/.632 with 493 home runs, 1,995 RBIs, 1,508 walks, a 1.080 OPS, a 179 OPS+ and a 114.1 offensive WAR
Not to be outdone by Babe Ruth, Gehrig put together one of the most complete offensive seasons in baseball history for the 1927 Yankees, who were arguably the greatest team in the history of the sport. It's been over 80 years since Gehrig played his last game, and he comfortably remains the most accomplished first baseman in the history of the sport and one of the best left-handed hitters baseball has ever seen.
3. Ted Williams - Boston Red Sox (1939-1942; 1946-1960)
Best Season: 1941: .406/.553/.735 with 37 home runs, 120 RBIs, 147 walks, a 1.287 OPS and a 10.7 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .344/.482/.634 with 521 home runs, 1,839 RBIs, 2,021 walks, a 1.116 OPS, a 191 OPS+ and a 125.1 offensive WAR
Williams famously once said that his goal in life was to be able to walk down the street and have bystanders refer to him as "the greatest hitter that ever lived." If he didn't achieve that goal, the Splendid Splinter came pretty damn close. He hit .406 in the 1941 season, something that no one has done since. His most impressive accomplishment may actually be that he swatted 521 home runs in his career, despite missing his age-24-26 seasons as he served in World War II. Had he been able to play as scheduled in 1943, 1944 and 1945, he would have easily topped 600 career home runs.
2. Barry Bonds - Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants (1986-2007)
Best Season: 2001 - .328/.515/.863 with 73 home runs, 137 RBIs, 177 walks, 1.379 OPS and a 12.4 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .298/.444/.607 with 762 home runs, 1,996 RBIs, 2,558 walks, a 1.051 OPS, a 182 OPS+ and a 143.6 offensive WAR
At his peak, Bonds was the most feared hitter in the history of the sport. We can debate what went into his peak, but the seven-time National League MVP's numbers are about as good as one could possibly put together. For as much time is spent talking about the single-season record he set in 2001 with 73 home runs, Jordan Cohn and I noted earlier this year that the 120 intentional walks that Bonds drew in 2004 - 75 more than any other player has had in a single season - may be his most unbreakable record.
1. Babe Ruth - Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Boston Braves (1914-1935)
Best Season: 1923 - .393/.545/.764 with 41 home runs, 130 RBIs, 170 walks, a 1.309 OPS and a 12.3 offensive WAR
Career Summary: .342/.474/.690 with 714 home runs, 2,214 RBIs, 2,062 walks, a 1.164 OPS, a 206 OPS+ and a 154.4 offensive WAR
The most popular player in baseball history, Ruth tops Bonds in career RBIs, OPS, OPS+ and offensive WAR. Given that his peak came in the 1920s and his name has become more associated to many today with movies and candy bars, he's almost become more of a concept than reality. Then again, when you consider he put up video game numbers before video games even existed, people alive during the course of his career struggled to comprehend what Ruth did at the plate as well.