The case for Willie Mays as baseball's GOAT

When it comes to figuring out the baseball GOAT, there is really no angle you can take that doesn't end with Mays on the list

The world of baseball lost one of its integral legends on Tuesday with the death of Willie Mays. To some, the sport lost its greatest player of all time.

There is no shortage of ways to praise Mays' 23-year career in the major leagues, from the objective numbers to the subjective anecdotes. He was the best offensive player in the history of his position at center field, and he was responsible for its most iconic defensive highlight. He dominated, he entertained, he lived on in the memories of every witness to his playing career.

Hits: 3,293. Home runs: 660. All-Star selections: 24. Gold Gloves: 12. MVP awards: 2 (with an argument that he deserved a few more). Home run titles: 4. Stolen base titles: 4. A World Series title, a Rookie of the Year award, a batting title, a four-homer game and even the inaugural Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship. It's hard to think of a résumé more complete than that.

But Mays somehow doesn't come up as often as some others in the conversation about baseball's GOAT. For a century, the default answer was Babe Ruth. Then Barry Bonds disrupted the conversation for a while, and he still does if you're willing to disregard certain malfeasances.

Let's remedy that.

There is absolutely a case to be made that there has never been a baseball player greater than Mays and it starts with Wins Above Replacement, especially once you take into account a few complications related to how it is used to lead the debate.

For starters, let's look at the Baseball Reference leaderboard for all-time WAR:

1. Babe Ruth, 182.6
2. Walter Johnson, 166.9
3. Cy Young, 163.6
4. Barry Bonds, 162.8
5. Willie Mays, 156.2

Notice a few things about the guys ahead of Mays?

We don't need to dwell on this for too long — you probably already know how much the following statement means to you — but it needs to be said: Willie Mays is the all-time leader in WAR among MLB players who competed in an integrated league and never used steroids.

Would Ruth have been as dominant as Mays if he had been born 25 years later and faced the wave of Black talent that hit MLB in the wake of Jackie Robinson? It's impossible to say. But it's not hard to argue that the era in which Mays starred for the Giants was when the league's raw talent level was at its highest, when every young boy in America grew up wanting to be a baseball player and was afforded the opportunity.

If that's enough to sell you on Mays, great, but it's also very possible to prop him up while accepting the premise that Ruth, et al., didn't have an advantage. That's because the WAR we use now is not the same as the WAR used back then, even though it's treated the same in the record books.

It is relatively simple to calculate offensive WAR across the many decades of MLB history. Nearly everything at the plate can be boiled down to a few numbers that have survived the transition from literal record books to the online ledgers used today. Mays hit a home run on May 18, 1957, and we have a good idea of the effect that had on the game and how impressive it was, given the pitcher, park and era.

Calculating defensive WAR isn't so simple, as there isn't a hard record of how many amazing catches a player made in his career.

That matters quite a bit when you realize that Baseball Reference pegs Mays' career impact in the field as 18.2 wins above replacement. That number ranks 69th on the all-time defensive WAR leaderboard, which is good but, well, doesn't quite line up with Mays' defensive reputation. Kevin Kiermaier is a very good defender, but it's hard to imagine that anyone would say he should be more than 10 places ahead of Mays.

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 2:  Willie Mays #24 of the New York Giants warms-up while catching fly balls at the wall before a Spring Training game on March 2, 1955 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)
Willie Mays' defense was a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the relevant statistics are blind. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)

For the outfield, modern-day defensive evaluation basically consists of a human being or a computer watching a game and recording how far a player had to run to make — or not make — a catch. Unfortunately, the system that Baseball Reference uses for defensive WAR, Baseball Info Solutions Defensive Runs Saved, goes back to only the 2003 season.

For seasons before 2003, Baseball Reference uses something called Total Zone Rating, which does not include any sort of player tracking. Here's what B-Ref says it does instead:

Total Zone Rating (TZR) is a non-observational fielding system that relies on various forms based on the level of data available ranging from basic fielding and pitching stats to play-by-play including batted ball types and hit location. As much data as is available is used for each season.

When play-by-play is available, TZR will use information like ground balls fielded by infielders and outfielders to estimate hits allowed by infielders. It uses baserunner advancement and out information to determine arm ratings for outfielders, double play acumen by infielders and arm ratings for catchers.

TZR is an impressive feat of statistical engineering, but its limitations for our purposes are obvious. It also becomes even more limited for seasons before 1953 (Mays debuted in 1951) due to a lack of play-by-play data.

Point being: The tool used to evaluate where Mays ranks historically relative to his peers has some flaws. Normally, that's not a huge issue as long as you realize that WAR features a lot of variability (its critics will never hesitate to point out when the metric favors a player who seems to fall short compared to another in other numbers), but here, it's a problem.

But is it enough to make up the 26.4-WAR gap between Mays and Ruth, whose defensive evaluation is tricky for the same reasons? Again, it's impossible to say, but it is definitely worth considering.

Mays is remembered as perhaps the greatest defensive center fielder of all time, leading the position in Gold Gloves with 12, and he is measured by WAR as only a pretty good defender. If you don't think Mays' defense was better than anything the numbers from back then can capture, you've clearly never talked to a person who saw Mays play in person.

There are some ways to argue against Mays' supremacy, such as a lack of team success, given that he won only one World Series ring. The counter-argument to that: Switch Mays and Mickey Mantle, and see how well the New York Yankees do in the 1950s and '60s. Rings are a very silly way to argue an MLB GOAT, so we won't linger on them.

The thing about using WAR to argue Mays' case is it not only supports, but elevates what many were getting through the eye test. Mays became the GOAT to those people because they watched him and walked away thinking "That's the greatest baseball player I've ever seen." And when properly contextualized, the stats can say the same thing.

Let's just think about Mays with a wide lens. For two decades, he was one of the most productive and consistent players in the league at the plate, retiring with a 155 OPS+ (meaning his OPS was 55% better than league average when accounting for park and era). At the same time, he was the most decorated fielder at one of baseball's most important positions, while playing in two of the league's most difficult outfields at the Polo Grounds and Candlestick Park.

If you care about how high a player's ceiling was, Mays posted six seasons above the historically elite mark of 10 WAR. If you care about how high a player's floor was, Mays' worst OPS+ between 1954 and 1966 was 146. He slashed .296/.369/.557 with a league-leading 40 steals that year. If you care about a player's character, look at all the remembrances from the people who met him. If you care about basic stats and accolades, read the third paragraph of this article again.

When it comes to figuring out the baseball GOAT, there is really no angle you can take that doesn't end with Mays on the list, and that's why so many people will present him as the greatest ever. Your personal preferences might vary, but Mays' career did not.