For baseball fans, part of the thrill of the game is arguing over who was or is better than whom. Current players are pitted against one another and against the ghosts of years gone by. For this particular article we are considering outfielders. This in itself creates a problem, because not all outfield positions are created equally. Because the center fielder must cover the most ground, he is typically the fastest outfielder. Because outfielders frequently have to make a throw to 3rd base and almost never have to throw to 1st base, the right fielder must have the strongest throwing arm because right field is the furthest outfield position from 3rd base. So is Lou Brock a better defensive outfielder than Dwight Evans? Yes and no. Brock would clearly have been the better center fielder because of his superior speed, but you would have wanted Evans in right field over Brock because his superior throwing arm would dissuade base runners from taking liberties on balls hit to right field. So on defense, to compare outfielders as a whole is like comparing apples to oranges. Incidentally, your least skilled defensive outfielders typically find there way into left field, so if I include a left fielder on my list, be assured that he will be head and shoulders above most other outfielders offensively.
Let’s begin by understanding that as a baseball player, there are five things that you need to be able to do on a baseball field. Those five things are hit for average, hit for power, throw, run and field the baseball. I shall only select players who were able to do each one of those five things well. So I based my selections on players who could do all five things well. Those selections are as follows:
Willie Mays: In various years Willie Mays has led the National League in runs, hits, triples, home runs, walks, batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage. He is widely accepted as the best defensive outfielder ever to play the game while playing in an era when parks were so much bigger and outfielders had so much more ground to cover.
Roberto Clemente: Clemente “only” hit 240 home runs in his career so some might question his power numbers. But consider that in addition to those 240 home runs he has 166 triples, which is 26 more than the next guy on my list. Clemente is also widely accepted to have the best outfield arm ever. He is a career .317 hitter whose triples and stolen base totals offer a testament to his speed.
Hank Aaron: Aaron’s career offensive statistics are absolutely staggering and I am loathe to reference defensive assist statistics for outfielders because players take extra liberties on weak-armed outfielders, giving them more opportunities to throw runners out. Aaron was a good example of this. He never had the gaudy assist numbers, but Henry Louis Aaron could “chunk it”! Runners did not take liberties with Henry often. And would it surprise you to know that in one six year stretch, Hammerin’ Hank once stole 21,15,31,22,24,21 bases? Yes Hank Aaron could do it all.
Joe DiMaggio: There is no footage of Joe DiMaggio making great sliding catches because it is said that he got such great jumps on balls that he almost never had too slide. Joe DiMaggio made it all look so easy. Do not let his low stolen base totals make you believe that DiMaggio wasn’t fast in 8 of his 13 seasons, Joe DiMaggio hit ten or more triples. And consider this staggering testament too DiMaggio’s prowess as a hitter. In a 13 year career, he struck out 369 times while hitting 389 doubles and 361 home runs.
Stan Musial: Another hitter whose offensive numbers lead one to assume that he was a mostly offensive player. He led the league in hits six times, in doubles eight times, in triples five times, in RBIs twice and he won or shared in seven batting titles. While he never led the league in homers he amassed 475 home runs and hit 30 or more homers six times. While I never saw Musial play in the field, his numbers tell a story similar to many great outfield arms in baseball history like Roberto Clemente, Dave Parker and Dwight Evans. Musial cut down 15 then 16 enemy base runners in 1943 and 1944 and then his assist numbers leveled off to about 10 per season. This pattern suggests that word got around the league that one should not run on Stan Musial.
So who did I leave off the list? Obviously an argument could have been made for many players, but here is why I left certain players off my list. To be a good average hitter you need to hit at least .300. No one on my list hit less than .300. This eliminated the likes of Barry Bonds (who also had a notoriously weak throwing arm), Mickey Mantle and many others. To hit for power, you needed a flood of extra base hits. A player with a good mix of home runs, doubles and triples like Clemente qualifies just as much as a guy like Frank Howard who had great home run numbers. I omitted any player that I suspect of having used PEDs as I believe that it is cheating. I understand that these lists are subjective, but isn’t that the beauty of baseball? We all get an opinion and they are all different.