The Top Ten Greatest Pound For Pound Hitters in Baseball History
With the recent death of Hank Aaron, it got me thinking about the best pound for pound hitters of all time. Most people don’t realize that as prodigious a home run hitter as Hank was, he was also, at 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, not a very big guy.
Derek Jeter had three inches and fifteen pounds on Aaron. Pete Rose had twelve pounds on him. And yet, as great as these two were, they didn’t even come close to being on Aaron's level. The difference was in the consistency with which they hit home runs. Jeter hit a home run once every 43 at-bats, Rose every 87 at-bats. Aaron hit one once every 16 at-bats.
This should be more shocking to people than it apparently is. You'd think home run champions were all above 6'2, and 230 pounds. After all, we know that size and strength has a lot to do with hitting. So if a guy doesn't have size and strength to his advantage, there must be another skill that is working for him.
“Well,” you might say, “Jeter and Rose were about consistency. They served their role.” Really? Hank Aaron batted .305 for his career, just five points shy of Jeter and two points higher than Rose. Hank Aaron was basically just as good as them in consistency, and lightyears ahead of them in power. There's no place in the lineup you'd want to have either Jeter or Rose replace Aaron. Aaron was quite simply a much better hitter.
So why did Aaron, the smaller guy of the three, hit so much better, even though contact was made with about the same consistency in all three? The difference between Aaron and Jeter and Rose is in their swing mechanics. All you have to do is study their swings on video, and over time, you will start to see the difference. You could say that Jeter and Rose's swings "coded" for consistency but not power. And Aaron's swing coded for both.
This is not a blog about swing mechanics though. Primarily this blog is written to list the top ten hitters PER POUND OF BODYWEIGHT in the history of baseball. And for that, I have used an equation that I created and I'd like to introduce to you. I hope it is used more often to judge a hitter's level of swing mechanics. I call it the “Pound-for-Pound Hitting” score, or PPH.
It goes like this: PPH = (playing weight) - (career OPS+). The lower the score the better.
What I love about the PPH equation is that it filters out the hitters who primarily achieved their numbers with strength (ie. the steroid users or otherwise unusually strong men), and leaves you with the guys who most likely achieved their numbers through superior swing mechanics instead of strength. While PPH is not perfect at isolating swing mechanics - after all, there are more skills to hitting than strength and swing mechanics - it is however the best equation I’ve seen for getting as close as possible to measuring the efficacy of a hitter's swing.
For example, it may seem like a toss up for a kid deciding whose swing he should copy between his grandfather's hero Mel Ott and his father's hero Frank Thomas. This is where PPH comes in handy. Thomas had 8 inches and 70 pounds on Ott. The assumption that I make, and I believe you should too, is that because was so much bigger and stronger, he could get away with inferior mechanics, whereas Ott had to be more mechanically sound - to get more out of each pound of bodyweight. And since every hitter's mission should be to get the most out of each pound of bodyweight, you'd want to go with the guy who had the best PPH score, not the guy who simply hit the most home runs or had the highest career OPS+. Yes, Ott and Thomas had virtually the same career OPS+, but Thomas’s swing score is a respectable 84, while Ott’s swing score is a ridiculously low 14. Therefore, you should give your kids video of Ott and not Thomas, when looking to emulate a swing.
I don’t use the PPH equation as the end-all-be-all in creating this list for a couple reasons. One, OPS+ has the tendency to give a little too much credit to hitting for average and not power at times. This is especially true of guys from the early twentieth century - who were able to put up tremendous consistency numbers, which have since been attributed to a smaller talent pool at the time, which resulted in an exceptional divergence from the mean when it comes to batting averages (a theory postulated by Stephen J Guild). Therefore, I omitted Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, and Shoeless Joe Jackson from this list, although they 100% deserve to be on it. As Hornsby has the lowest swing score of all time at zero! Cobb comes in at the second lowest of all time with a seven, and Jackson a thirty. This would put all of them in the top ten.
I also omitted them because there isn't a lot of good footage of their swings available. I’ve only seen one or two swings of all three of them in my life, which makes studying their swings near impossible, and since my interest is to compile this list for the purpose of understanding swing mechanics better, I decided to just leave them out. Having said that, from the little bit of video and images I’ve seen of these three guys, their swing mechanics show the same patterns that you see in common in all of the greatest pound for pound hitters - most notably the compressed front arm to start the forward swing.
So this list is primarily compiled by using the PPH equation, but also has a little twist of my own thoughts on the topic too. Without further ado, here it is, the top ten greatest pound for pound hitters of all time.
#10 Ken Griffey Jr.
6',3" 195 lbs, OPS+ = 136, PPH = 59
Even though Griffey played a majority of his career during the steroid era, and by all accounts didn’t take steroids, he still managed a lifetime OPS+ of 136. He also played half of his career with nagging injuries, another obstacle that he overcame with superior swing mechanics. At just 190 pounds, Griffey hit 56 home runs two years in a row. That's just amazing. In fact, the only player to eclipse that two year total of 112 home runs (who didn’t take steroids) is Babe Ruth, who did it twice, in 1920 and 1921, and in 1927 and 1928, when he hit 113 and 114 respectively. Power wise, that is some very good company for Griffey. He's always said to have the sweetest swing of all time, and it amazes me that more people don't make the connection - if his swing is so pretty and effective, shouldn't we be copying his mechanics more? Rarely is he mentioned by the "swing gurus" out there as a swing to copy. Instead they want to talk about are guys like Barry Bonds, Miguel Cabrera, and Manny Ramirez. I don’t get it.
#9 Dick Allen
5'11" 187, OPS+ = 156, PPH = 31
Dick Allen is another hitter that we lost recently. Talk about an underrated hitter. He weighed only 187 pounds and had a ridiculous OPS+ of 156. How he’s not yet in the Hall of Fame is beyond me. In my book, he's without a doubt in the top twenty hitters of all time. He hit over .300 seven times, and hit 30 or more homers 6 times. He won his only MVP award in 1972 with a .308 average and 37 home runs. Allen is easily the most unknown of all the guys on this list, but hopefully this post helps a little to make him more well known, and more kids try to copy his swing.
#8 Hank Aaron
6'0" 180 lbs, OPS+ = 155, PPH = 25
As I said earlier, Aaron wasn’t very big. Pete Rose weighed ten pounds more than him, and yet he hit for a higher lifetime average and hit 595 more career homers than Rose. He also had to deal with unbelievable pressure in his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record. How does a small man who dealt with intense racism in pursuit of the home run championship persevere? He had exceptional mechanics and a steel trap mental game. His best year was 1971 when he hit 47 home runs with a .327 average.
#7 Mickey Mantle
5’11”, 195 lbs, OPS+ = 172, PPH = 23
The only switch hitter on the list, Mantle hit a home run from both sides of the plate in a single game 10 times. Yes he was a natural athlete, but people tend to overlook the fact that he was a fighter mentally too. In his rookie year of 1951, he endured an injury that would have made most men pack it in, but he toughed it out and played on a wobbly knee for the rest of his career (that’s why he hobbled around the bases when he hit home runs). People don’t think of Mantle in this way. They tend to think more of him as a natural athlete, which he certainly was. But a lot of that athleticism was taken from him when he tripped on the sprinkler head and obliterated his knee. He is another one, like Aaron, who not only had exceptional swing mechanics but also an exceptional mental game. His best year was 1956 when he hit .353 with 52 homers and won his first of three MVP awards.
#6 Lou Gehrig
6’0", 200 lb, OPS+ = 179, PPH = 21
Gehrig is also a slightly underrated hitter. For one, he played alongside Babe Ruth, who was a better hitter and stole a lot of the spotlight. He’s also probably a little more well known for his death and the disease named after him than his prowess at the plate. But Gehrig is on the Mount Rushmore of all time greatest hitters. For this list, because of his rather large size, he’s ranked number 6 instead of in the top four. His numbers are amazing. Hi hit over .370 three times, and hit over 40 home runs 5 times. He hit .300 or above twelve seasons in a row! He hit 40 or more homers five times. His best year was in 1927 when he hit .373 with 47 homers and 52 doubles, and won his first of two MVP awards.
#5 Stan Musial
6’0", 175 lb, OPS+ = 159, PPH = 16
The Man weighed only 175 pounds and hit over 30 home runs six times. He hit over .300 sixteen seasons in a row! His best year was 1948 when he hit .376, with 39 home runs, 46 doubles, and 18 triples, to win his third MVP award. This guy hit the ball hard. He had a bit more of a downward motion of the bat in his swing, so he didn’t always lift the ball and maybe could have had a few more homers than he did, which is saying a lot because he ended up with 475 of them. But he had extraordinary extra-base-hits numbers, because even though he wasn’t lifting the ball a whole lot, he was making solid contact and hitting it hard.
#4 Mel Ott
5’9” 170, OPS+ = 155, PPH = 15
No player on this list is smaller than this man. I wish Ott was more well known to today's coaches and players. Then maybe you wouldn’t have so many kids assuming that because they’re small they can’t hit home runs. At just 5’9”, 170 pounds, it’s amazing that Ott finished his career with 511 home runs. Just think about that for a moment. He’s smaller than Ichiro Suzuki by two inches and five pounds, and yet slapping the ball around the field was the furthest thing from his mind. He was up there to smash the ball. Ott’s pumping movement during his stride is what most people think of when they think of his swing, but the best thing he had going for him was how straight and stretched across his chest his front arm got as he started his forward swing. His best year was 1929 when he hit .328 with 42 homers.
#3 Willie Mays
5’10” 170, OPS+ = 156, PPH = 14
Mays is often talked about as the greatest all-around baseball player that ever lived. But his small stature is not often mentioned. Mays was just an inch taller than Ott, after all, and he too hit like a brute. His best years were 1954 when he hit 41 home runs and batted .345, 1955 when he hit 51 homers and batted .319, and 1965 when he hit 52 homers and batted .317. Incredible. These are monster power for any man, let alone one who is just 5’10”, and 170 pounds.
#2 Ted Williams
6’3” 205, OPS+ = 191, PPH = 14
Williams is the tallest guy on this list at 6'3". He was known mostly for his consistency. He had 16 seasons in a row where he hit .300 or better. But he was also a prodigious home run hitter, hitting a home run once every 14.79 at-bats. In 1953, he only had 91 at-bats but managed 13 home runs and a .407 batting average. In 1960 at the age of 42, hit final year, he batted just 310 times and hit 29 home runs (that’s a home run every 10.7 at-bats) with a .316 average. His best year was 1941 when he hit .406 with 37 homers. Ridiculous numbers.
#1 Babe Ruth
6’2” 215, OPS+ = 206, PPH = 9
Ruth is the greatest hitter of all time. With a career OPS+ of 206, there’s really no debating it. The closest is Ted Williams, a full 15 points behind. If there is one person’s swing that every child should emulate, it’s Ruth. His best year was probably 1920 when he hit .376 with 54 homers. Or maybe it was 1921 when he hit .378 with 59 homers. Or how about 1923 when he hit .393 with 41 homers? Or was it 1927 when he hit .356 with 60 homers? Ruth’s stats are comical. And to think he did it weighing just 215, twenty pounds less than Mike Trout.
There you have my list of the top pound for pound hitters of all time. If you examined each one of these guys’ swings and compared them to everyone else, you would see a big difference in their slotting action - their front arms straighten and compress up against their chest and the bat flattens as they started their forward swing. They also tended to make contact more compressed and connected - meaning their back arms well bent and/or their front arms compressed up against their chest. This gives them more weight transfer into the hit.
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