Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

The best “5-tool” player of all time? (updated)



The 400 homer/10 gold glove club question (see post on August 10th 2010 here) spurred a different question into my mind.  Who is baseball’s greatest 5-tool player?  For those of you who don’t know what the 5 tools are:

  • Speed; indicated by stolen bases statistically.
  • Fielding/Defense: indicated by gold gloves somewhat, even though the Gold Glove voting process is known to be bad.
  • Arm: no real statistical measure, just rumors and observations.
  • Hitting for average: career batting average
  • Hitting for power: career homers

My dad and I were talking about this same question and he says the answer is Willie Mays.  And I have a hard time disagreeing with him.   He was fast (338 career SBs), he was a fantastic center fielder (12 straight gold gloves), he was known to have a cannon for an arm, he hit a career .302 with 3283 hits and belted 660 homers.

Who else might be in the conversation?  Lets take a look at some of the candidates:

  • Barry Bonds: Career batting .298, 762 homers, 2935 hits and 514 steals.  8 gold gloves, ending a streak suddenly in 1999.  Which is also probably when he started juicing (his homers per season jumped from 34 to 49 to 73 in 1999-2001).   The only thing Mays had on Bonds was his arm.  Bonds always played left field, where you can “hide” poorer outfielders who don’t necessarily need the range of a center fielder or the cannon arm of a right fielder (to prevent first to third base runners).  But Bonds had significantly more steals and homers (whether or not you discount them).
  • Ken Griffey Jr.: Definitely up there in the argument.  Clearly he was fantastic defensively (10 straight gold gloves) and had a great arm.  Great power (630 career homers).  Only 184 career steals and a lifetime .284 BA with 2781 hits dings him in comparison to Mays.

Here’s some names that have multiple of the tools, but are missing one or two key ones:

  • Babe Ruth: Great power and average combo, he obviously had a good arm starting as a pitcher, but he had zero speed and ate himself so large that he could barely play the outfield.
  • Ted Williams is always an interesting test case for the “What could have been?” question.  He hit .344 with 521 homers and a really good argument that had he not lost 3 full seasons in his absolute prime to WWII (plus most of two others to Korea in his mid 30s) that he’d be closer to 700 homers for his career.  But he was known to be a defensive liability and had only 24 sbs for his career.
  • Mickey Mantle: famously said that “if 40/40 was so impressive, I’d have done it every year.”  And its hard not to doubt him.  Playing in a time when there wasn’t much of a need for him to steal bases, he still ended up with 153 on the career and routinely had 15-20 each season.  He retired with 500+ homers, a career ba of .298, a legendary reputation for roaming centerfield in Yankee stadium and an even more legendary reputation for drinking himself out of baseball prematurely at the age of 36.
  • Joe DiMaggio: one of the best pure hitters of the 20th century.  Career .325 BA, 361 homers.  Lost 3 years in his absolute prime to the WWII and retired incredibly early at 36.  Played a great center-field (his time predates gold gloves).  but very very few stolen bases.
  • Stan Musial: one of the “lost players” of the 20th century, in that it is easy to forget his name when talking of the all time greats.  3600 career hits, 475 homers, career .331 BA.  Great hitter.  Played center field for 20-some years for St. Louis.  But as with DiMaggio, very few SBs.
  • Bobby Bonds: nearly a 40/40 man one year but strikeout rate is so excessive.

How about some more modern players?

  • Paul Molitor another guy to think about.  504 career SBs, .306 BA, only 234 homers but not much on the defensive side, having been mostly a DH for the last half of his career.
  • Alfonso Soriano: his 40/40 season was legendary (there was preliminary talk of him doing a 50/50 season, which hasn’t even been approached), and he’s currently got 309 career homers and 271 career SBs.  A scatter brained hitter though,  defense so bad that he’s barely holding on in left field, and zero arm.
  • Jose Canseco: another 40/40 guy.  462 career homers and 200 career Sbs.  .266  hitter though.  Good arm in right but never a good fielder (remember the infamous ball bouncing off his head over the fence for a homer?).
  • Vladimir Guerrero: another near 40/40 guy.  Probably worth of further consideration; retired with 449 homers, 181 SBs, a career .319 hitter.  But was literally one of the worst baserunners of all time and was poor defensively despite a strong arm.
  • Carlos Beltran: injuries have just killed him; a former speed/power hitter and one of the first mega contract guys.
  • Brady Anderson: most people regard his 50 homer season either a fluke or (more likely) the result of early PEDs.  But the fact remains that only he and Barry Bonds have ever put up seasons which had both 50 homers and 50 sbs.
  • Craig Biggio: 414 sbs, 291 homers, .281 career BA, 4 gold gloves at 2nd base.   2nd baseman though, presumably b/c he never had the arm for Short.
  • Rickey Henderson: obviously fast as the career leader in SBs.  .279 career BA.  He twice hit 28 homers while leading the league in SBs.  One gold glove and two silver sluggers, and a liability as a left fielder.  Maybe not.

here’s a couple “what if” guys, as in what if they hadn’t been injured or otherwise sullied their careers:

  • Bo Jackson: A hip injury picked up while playing his hobby football ended his career basically at the age of 28.  But he was electric.  Who can forget his legendary all star homer, a bomb to dead center that went 448 feet.  Bo never won a gold glove but he played a premium defensive position in Center and certainly had the arm to play right.  He just missed a series of 30/30 seasons, maxing out with 32 homers and 27 steals).  He did not hit for average though, not at all.  Best full season BA was a paltry .272.
  • Josh Hamilton: After well documented troubles with drugs and the law, this former 1-1 draft pick currently is leading the Majors in batting average (.356), has 26 homers, and plays a very very good center field.  He could hit 96 on the gun in high school.  His failing is SBs; only a handful on the year.  But in a league that so often chews up and spits out flash in the pan players, it is refreshing to see Hamilton succeed.  Visual Baseball though discounts both his speed and his range.
  • Daryl Strawberry: had a 39 homer, 36 sb year.
  • Eric Davis: career year in 1987, hitting 37 homers and stealing 50 sbs.  His first 2 full seasons produced a .286/.389/.560 with 64 HR and 130 SB in 147 attempts.  Decent average, great power, great speed, with some clear capabilities in the outfield.

In January 2010, Visual Baseball introduced some really neat visualizations that graphically show each player’s strengths and weaknesses.  I’d love to see a tool that allows people to plug in individual players, but in their analysis two 2010 players popped up as being very close to the perfect 5-tool player:

  • Ben Zobrist: based on his 2009 stats he hit for average (.297) and power (27 homers).  He had 17 steals.  He showed pretty amazing flexibility by playing every outfield position besides pitcher and catcher at some point.  Unfortunately, he’s take a pretty significant step backwards in 2010, sligging nearly 200 points less.  Odd.
  • Carl Crawford: He’s already lead the league 4 times in SBs and has been hitting an average of 13-15 homers a season.  Not nearly Mays-esque stancards but very solid.  .305 Batting average with healthy slugging percentages.  Left fielder though, but his Visual Baseball graph shows significant range and arm.

And finally, something to think about:

  • Alex Rodriguez: 600 career homers, .303 career BA.  300 career steals, a couple of Gold Gloves, and a pretty good arm while playing short.  Posted probably the best ever 40/40 season in 1998 (42 homers, 46 sbs).  Too bad he had to go and juice it up so that his career is forever sullied.

In the end, I’d have to still put Mays, with a shameful shrug of the shoulders when considering both Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.


2017 Post-publishing update: this post was initially done in 2010.  There’s several up-and-coming players who are putting their names into this discussion.

Here’s two additional links to consider that were done after this post was published in 2011 at Baseball America.

My dad and I were talking about this same question and he says the answer is Willie Mays.  And I have a hard time

20 Responses to 'The best “5-tool” player of all time? (updated)'

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  1. I think you would HAVE to include Junior in this argument as well.

    Junior averaged 16 steals per season in his first 10 healthy years (discarding an injured or strike shortened 1995.) Then from 1993, went on to 40-49-56-56-48 (again discarding ’95) and rediculous production numbers to go along with the steals and stellar defense. Not sure how great his arm was, but for a while there he defined the term.


    13 Aug 10 at 12:03 pm

  2. Those second numbers (40-48) were HOMERS, not steals. But you get my point.


    13 Aug 10 at 12:03 pm

  3. Good point! How did I forget Griffey. He is absolutely a candidate. Power, some stolen bases (184 for his season) and he definitely qualifies based on his defense (10 straight gold gloves) and his arm (great arm out of center).

    Only slight ding would be career average of .284. His later years have really knocked it down from where it could be. He certainly was hitting for average and power in the late 90s.

    Todd Boss

    13 Aug 10 at 12:09 pm

  4. Good analysis. Mays also lost one year to military service. He also played in the worst stadium for hitting home runs–candlestick park. Still gets my vote.

    Also, most of the guys discussed, except for Griffey, were not considered great defensive players. We can only wonder how great Bo would have been, or a healthy Mantle over the years.

    Gary Boss

    30 Aug 10 at 9:22 pm

  5. you cant forget mickey mantle


    4 Mar 12 at 5:53 pm

  6. I think the top five are (forgetting about steroids):
    1. Willie Mays
    2. Ken Griffey Jr.
    3. A-Rod
    4. Barry Bonds
    5. Mickey manttle


    4 Mar 12 at 6:03 pm

  7. what about cal ripken jr


    4 Mar 12 at 11:23 pm

  8. what about chipper jones?


    4 Mar 12 at 11:50 pm

  9. Honestly, I don’t think i fully understood Mantle’s greatness until I read the biography of him by Jane Leavy. Its been so long since I wrote that 5-tool post that I can’t remember if I included him. Can’t argue with your top 5, other than to say I’d probably re-arrange the order to Mays, Bonds, Mantle, Griffey Jr and A-Rod.

    Todd Boss

    5 Mar 12 at 11:01 am

  10. Ripken was one of the more over-rated players of all time, in my opinion. He was a poor defensive SS and he had NO speed (36 stolen bases in 21 years? Adam Dunn has nearly twice that number of SBs and he’s play half as long). Arm ok, and he only hit decently for career average (.276). Of course he had a ton of homers for a short stop, probably the first real power-hitting SS. But go look at his career; he was basically a below-league average hitter for the entirety of his 30s and retired with a 112 ops+. He had a few absolutely stellar seasons (both MVP seasons, his ROY and one-two others) but otherwise was a durable but poor defensive shortstop.

    Todd Boss

    5 Mar 12 at 11:05 am

  11. I’d say Chipper was a good 2 out of 5 tool player, with issues remaining about his defense, arm and his speed. He’s never won a gold glove, I don’t know how strong his throwing arm is other than to say i’ve never heard him mentioned with the best arms in the game. Clearly he’s got power and hits for average. Not a ton of SBs; he more or less stopped stealing bases in his mid 20s. I think he’s an absolute hall of famer but wouldn’t put him in the 5-tool category.

    Todd Boss

    5 Mar 12 at 11:07 am

  12. Roberto Clemente


    23 Dec 13 at 4:20 pm

  13. Clemente is a great choice. This post is way old; i need to update it.

    Todd Boss

    24 Dec 13 at 4:39 pm

  14. Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente are actually the ONLY legitimate 5 tool dudes! Clemente did the two(2) rareist things in baseball the very best hitter ever vs. hall of fame pitching and the greatest outfield ARM of all time.


    30 Dec 13 at 11:03 am

  15. Wow, lots of comments this week on a post that’s 3 years old. I’ll update it soon with some new thoughts.

    For me, I think its Willie Mays, then a gap, then a handful of guys that include Clemente. I don’t see how you leave Griffey out of the conversation, nor A-Rod. I mean, A-Rod has a 40-40 season, has 600+ homers, 300+ SBs, and gold gloves for his play in the infield. That’s all your tools. Mantle too; remember Mantle basically destroyed his knee at age 19 which limited his speed, but he’s also the only switch hitter in these conversations. More homers as a lefty but much better average as a righty.

    Tune back in when I re-do this post in the next couple weeks.

    Todd Boss

    30 Dec 13 at 11:21 am

  16. Griffey’s Ernie Els type long swing is nice to watch but it won’t hold up against hall of fame pitching…he’d be off balance against hof pitching as would A-rod. This game is ALL about great pitching and that only happened during 60’s national league! Clemente hit line drives more frequently than all esp. vs. hof pitching and coupled with that arm had baseball never erected outfield walls he created more energy with the bat and could play deeper than any with that arm. Outfield walls killed Clemente’s line drives and denied him full use of that incredible arm… remember he played in the park other teams called the airport!


    6 May 14 at 12:21 pm

  17. Widds; must respectfully disagree. Griffey’s career numbers speak for themselves; if his swing was that “long” he wouldn’t have 630 career homers and a .907 career OPS figure … and that was against more than his fair share of HoF hurlers. And you really think Alex Rodriguez’s career stat lines are somehow over-rated because he didn’t face 1960’s pitching?

    I’ll give you that the 60s featured power arms and big fields. But conversely there’s changes in the game now that players form the 60s never had to deal with. Designated hitters instead of pitchers in the AL. Matchup relievers, loogies, and closers. Instead of getting a 4th at bat against a starter throwing his 140th pitch, in today’s game hitters are getting a 15-pitch specialist who throws 98 mph with a wipeout slider.

    So, it isn’t quite as simple as saying that Clemente played in bigger fields therefore he would have hit more in the modern game.

    Todd Boss

    6 May 14 at 1:19 pm

  18. Stolen bases are not always an indicator of a player’s speed or base running skills. Joe D., Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline all had excellent speed and were great base runners. Stealing a great deal of bases was not what they did back then until Maury Wills brought back the 100 steal season in 1962. And even the great Mays who led the league in steals a few times averaging well over 25 steals between 1955-60, cut back on that over time. These guys stole bases when it was needed. Clemente had a near Olympic average in speed in cleets and in full uniform when timed in an early try out. And let’s not forget possibly the fastest man in baseball ever, Mickey Mantle who could have easily been a 40-40 man as often as he hit that many homers. Yogi Berra and other Joe D. Teammates said that Joe could have averaged 60 steals a year.
    Base running skill and great speed is not measured alone by stolen bases.


    1 Mar 16 at 2:08 pm

  19. Add Frank Robinson and The Hammer to that list as well. They were indeed five tool players as well.


    1 Mar 16 at 2:13 pm

  20. The most forgotten five tool player of all and maybe the greatest all round player was Jimmie Foxx who like Mantle, had awesome power and great speed. When out of the line up, Foxx would often be used as pinch runner. Foxx exelled as a fielder not only at his known position, first base but at a number of other positions as well. Foxx could fill any number of fielding positions just like a utility player, or like Pete Rose or Jackie Robinson. Plus, had the A’s not already had a HOF catcher in Mickey Cochrane (also a fast man), Foxx would have been known as the greatest all-time catcher. Foxx,s career was cut way short by a tragic beaning in 1934. He still put up amazing stats for a number of years, but by 34, the head and sinus pain (in those days only medicated by alcohol) was too much and his skills faded. A great and long forgotten player. Maybe the best ever.


    1 Mar 16 at 2:27 pm

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