This article was written by Don Nelson
This article was published in the 1982 Baseball Research Journal
Ralph Kiner the seventh-leading home run hitter of all time? Mike Schmidt already ranked 15th? Babe Ruth still Number 1? If career home runs is your measure of leading homer hitters, these ratings don’t make sense, because Kiner is 26th, Schmidt is 41st and Ruth second.
But career homers are not the only measure of a great long-ball hitter. Neither are yardsticks like most-times-leading-league or consistency in hitting the long ball.
They’re all good measures. And, taken all together, career homers, league leaderships in fourbaggers and number of big-output seasons measure a player’s real homer-hitting ability.
That’s why I use a system that ranks players as Big Hitters. It recognizes a player’s ability to hit home runs over time and at points in time. It also measures leadership ability. The “N-rating” (for Nelson) tells how certain sluggers perform compared to other long-ball hitters of their time and Big Hitters before or after their time. Here is the “raw data” on five players:
4 (1 tie)
12 (2 ties)
7 (3 ties)
Now here’s how the N-rating works:
Major league players score one point for each 10 career home runs.
Players pick up an additional 10 points each time they lead their league in home run production (5 for a tie). This is the leadership ingredient (even though nine National Leaguers walloped as many or more home runs as Tony Conigliaro in 1965, for instance, Tony is still rewarded for his American League dominance).
The Big Hitters score 10 points for each season they hit 30 or more home runs and earn 10 bonus points for 40 or more round-trippers in a single campaign. Reaching 50 or 60 tacks on still more points.
This rating system recognizes the exploits of the Conigliaros, the Colavitos and the Cashes, as well as the Mays’ and Mantles.
The most difficult part of the calculation is big-output single seasons. Just what is an outstanding one-year performance? Well, if a pitcher wins 20 games or a batter averages .300 or drives in 100 runs, he’s had a “great campaign” and is singled out for acclaim.
But what is the standard of excellence for a top home run year? 15? 25? 40? I set the standard at 30, because the man who slams 30 or more circuit clouts in a year has accomplished just as difficult a feat as the pitcher who twirls 20 wins.
From 1920 through 1980 there were 449 20-wins-and-up season pitching performances. In the same span, there were 455 30-or-more home run season performances. That’s only a 1% difference.
We had to start the comparison with 1920 because the home run wasn’t really discovered until then. (The shortened 1981 season should also be excluded.) Twenty-game winners we have always had. But until Ruth cracked 54 long ones in 1920, nobody had hit even 30 — Ruth’s 29 roundtrippers in 1919 for the Red Sox, when he was still pitching some, was the most ever hit until then.
That is why I award 10 points every time a player hits 30 homers. Of those 455, 30-plus homer seasons, 325 were in the 30-39 category and 113 in the 40-49 range. With a degree of difficulty of about 3, I figure 40-49 is worth 20 points. There have been 15, 50-59 performances (7 times more difficult to hit than 40), thus another 10 N-points are awarded. Finally, the two 60-homer seasons by Ruth and Roger Mans are 7.5 times more difficult than lofting 50, so 40 points are bestowed.
Here, then, are the N-ratings of the five players charted earlier:
Using this system, Ruth is the greatest Big Hitter in the game’s history with 471 points. Aaron is second with 340 and a comfortable lead over Willie Mays. Harmon Killebrew, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Mantle come in 4-5-6.
Hall of Famer Kiner (7th) picks up a bat rack full of points for league leaderships. Kiner was king in the National League from 1946 through 1952 as he won or tied for the league lead seven straight times. Not even Ruth could top this record of consecutive championships. So, though Kiner finished 124 behind Lou Gehrig as a career home run hitter (493 to 369), Ralph was a great slugger in his time. Gehrig had tough competition for N-points in the likes of Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Foxx and Joe DiMaggio. Kiner at his best was challenged only by Johnny Mize. The top 10 is rounded off by Gehrig, Eddie Mathews and Ernie Banks.
Some other interesting information the N-ratings show up:
1. The pre-eminence of Ruth as the greatest Big Hitter is driven home. The Babe had more league leaderships in four-masters than any other player (10 outright, 2 ties), hit 50 or more round-trippers more times than anyone before or since (4) and hit 40 or more homers more years than anyone else (11). His seasonal high in home runs (60) stood for 34 years until Maris produced his 61 (in a longer season). His career homer record lasted even longer — 39 years — until Aaron hit his shot heard `round the world’ (no. 715 in 1974). I’ve already mentioned that the Sultan of Swat truly ushered in the age of the Big Hitter — a Golden Era that now stretches through more than 60 years of baseball.
2. Besides Kiner and Schmidt, Greenberg and Chuck Klein stand out as surprising long-ball blasters. Greenberg is 38th in career homers but 14th in the N-ratings. Klein is 44th career, 24th (tie) in N-points. Some who don’t come up as high as their career totals might indicate are Stan Musial, Billy Williams and Al Kaline. All rate in the top 20 career, but fail to crack the top 25 N. Reasons: only one league leadership among them, not that many big individual seasons.
3. Schmidt is the only active player with a good shot at the top 10.
4. Whither Roger Maris? Well, Rog chalked up a fat 56 points for his great 1961 effort, but closed his career with 97 points total, currently good for a two-way tie for 36th in the N-ratings.
5. Home Run Baker earned his nickname. The old A won three home run championships and tied for another. That’s good for 35 deadball era points. His 93 career homers give him a grand total of 44. Gavvy Cravath, another early-day blaster, garners 55 points by the same route and racks up 66 points over all. This makes him a greater long ball hitter than Wally Berger, Yogi Berra or Joe Adcock. Baker, Cravath and Harry Davis (47 points) are the only pre-Ruthian names to show up in the top 75 of the N- ratings.
The Big Hitters:
All Players with 100 or more “N” Points, Through 1981
(active players with asterisks)
- Babe Ruth 471
- Hank Aaron 340
- Willie Mays 296
- Harm Killebrew 287
- Jimmie Foxx 268
- Mickey Mantle 243
- Ralph Kiner 231
- Lou Gehrig 224
- Eddie Mathews 211
- Ernie Banks 191
- Frank Robinson 188
- Mel Ott 186
- Ted Williams 182
- Hank Greenberg 178
- *Mike Schmidt 171
- Willie McCovey 167
- Duke Snider 160
- *Willie Stargell 147
- Rocky Colavito 142
- *Reggie Jackson 142
- Johnny Mize 140
- Frank Howard 138
- Joe DiMaggio 136
- Chuck Klein 125
- Richie Allen 125
- Gil Hodges 117
- *Johnny Bench 116
- Hack Wilson 114
- *Carl Yastrzemski 112
- Stan Musial 107
- Orlando Cepeda 107
- *George Foster 104
- Hank Sauer 103
- Billy Williams 102
- Rogers Hornsby 100