Come for the fire headline; stay for the nuanced conversation
* Before we dive into this too deep, I want to give credit where credit is due. The GOAT vs. BOAT distinction coming up in this article was one I originally heard from a listener named David who emailed into Sports Illustrated’s basketball podcast, Open Floor, with the idea. Although, I have a hard time imagining that’s the only time the distinction has been made. It’s just where I heard it first.
The term GOAT (and the goat emoji) have become an almost overwhelming present in the sports landscape of the past decade or so. Charles Curtis took a look at the term’s rise to prevalence over at For The Win, determining that while Muhammed Ali may have been the first to profit off the term, LL Cool J was the first to really popularize it in the public sphere.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the amazing careers of LeBron James and Tom Brady have helped to solidify the term to the extent it resides in the public sports conscious at this moment.
It makes sense. It is an endlessly fun bar debate that has been raging for all-time, albeit not always under its modern nom de guerre. The Ty Cobb-Babe Ruth debate was one of baseball’s earlier dividing lines.
While the most prevalent GOAT conversations are currently taking place in the NFL and NBA (and to a certain extent, in soccer), it turns out that Major League Baseball may have a fun debate of its own if we just slightly change the phrase.
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The term Greatest of All Time is in part such a debate starter because it is inherently vague. If we simply ask: Who has the most home runs all-time, we have a simple answer. If we ask: Who has the most World Series rings all-time, we have a simple answer.
Greatest, however, has a definitive mystique to it. Similar to its cousin, the Most Valuable Player, it thrives in large part thanks to its ability to encourage debate, rather than floundering because of that very nature.
Greatest requires stories and lore and almost always a bit of temporal removal from the situation. (Side note, since this is Beyond the Box Score, not Nylon Calculus: I believe that is the biggest reason LeBron faces such strong pushback against his GOAT claim, people just never want to see the best in the moment, but prefer to look at him/her from a distance.) Greatest may not actually be the best stats: it’s Yogi Berra’s ten rings, it’s Babe Ruth out-homering an entire league, and it’s Stan Musial collecting the exact same number of career hits on the road and at home.
Greatest is something you feel with your gut, and that’s part of its beauty.
However, it’s why we also need to begin to honor the BOAT: Best of All Time.
Best is a far less subjective word. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of debate that can swirl around defining who is actually the “best” — and I’m sure plenty of it will swirl by the end of this article — but as a word it is far less ambiguous. BOAT is really the perfect compliment to the term GOAT, and it makes for a bit of spice in the admittedly stale GOAT conversations that we seem to have take up half the airwaves on ESPN and Fox Sports every days.
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So, if we’re introducing a new crown, we’re going to need a new King to wear it. And I’m here to propose a very new King.
First, however, a quick look at the feasible candidates. Right now, over at The Athletic, Joe Posnanski is running an excellent series on The Greatest Ever in each sport. However, because he is a great writer, he’s doing it with a bit of a twist: he sent out a poll allowing readers to nominate as many GOATs as they wanted for each sport. The results were interesting, albeit not too surprising. Hockey had basically one GOAT (Gretzky), while basketball had two big leading vote getters (MJ and LeBron). Baseball was the most unique, however, for a couple reasons.
For one, there were six legitimate candidates (plus a hidden gem who Posnanski added on his own), giving the sport more depth than the others. This makes sense, baseball’s history is not only longer than any other U.S. sport, its history is far more beloved. The 1927 Yankees call to mind far more memories than even the 1979 Seattle Supersonics.
Second, however, was that the top vote-getter was by far the oldest of any of the four main sports Posnanski polled. As Posnanski pointed out, the best hockey, football, and basketball players of 1927 aren’t even known today. But with baseball, Babe Ruth still stands at the top for many in the GOAT conversation.
And I buy this. His greatness was unmatched. His name spurred new words added to the English language! He revolutionized the sport in ways unparalleled by any before or after (except by Jackie Robinson in a much different way).
But I don’t think he is the Best of All Time.
One of the beauties of the long history of baseball is that we get to see just how much the game has changed, as well as stayed the same over the course of history. (And if that sentence sounded a bit like an internalized version of the scene with Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne debating in Bridesmaids, I have no apologies.) On the one hand, it’s still 60 feet 6 inches to home plate, and it downright remarkable that 90 foot base paths that were set up in the sport’s infancy are still the exact right distance for the modern game, but think about some of the differences between Ruth’s era and the modern era:
- Most obviously, the game was segregated in Ruth’s era. There was an incredible talent pool left out, led by players like Oscar Charleston, Pop Lloyd, and numerous players who simply never got a chance because of the sport’s arcane “Gentleman’s Agreement.”
- Training and diet regiments are right now at an all-time high. Players in Ruth’s era were more of the “Beer and hot dog” variety, which, while it certainly helps in the GOAT conversation, aggressively hurts in the BOAT conversation.
- Travel is far less taxing on the players than it ever has been before. This is not to hold that against the Ruth’s and Mays’ of the world, but rather to point out that the modern generation is likely better rested and performing at a higher level of play more frequently than in generations past.
- Scouting is also at an all-time high, as baseball scouts simply have more resources available to them to help them travel and find the truly best players to bring to the major leagues.
- While honing their craft as kids and teenagers, modern baseball players don’t have to worry about providing for their families, as many players may have had to Ruth’s era, and the era just before hand. Therefore, their entire focus can be on becoming the best baseball player possible.
- This is one of my favorite nuggets of all time, and although I have lost the exact source now, it’s almost certainly Jayson Stark with a slight possibility of being David Schoenfield: When Stan Musial won the 1948 MVP, he faced 52 pitchers all season. When Miguel Cabrera won the MVP in 2012, he faced 225 different pitchers that season. Plus, those pitchers have higher average velocity on their fastballs and iPads full of information on each and every batter.
The game has clearly changed. And although baseball is unique in that it is such a game of hand-eye coordination, and, compared to size and speed, hand-eye coordination may not be taking quite the same number of leaps forward over the past 100 years, the sport has undoubtedly gotten better. There are a great number of you who may disagree with that sentiment, I am sorry, but it’s an unassailable fact.
What I think is more than fair to argue is my conclusion off of that point: Mike Trout is already the Best of All Time.
Let’s quickly lay out the case for Trout, and then respond to a couple of potential rebuttals.
- Trailed only Ty Cobb for WAR through age-25 season after 2017. If we extrapolate 2018, he will pass Cobb by the end of the season for the most WAR through age-26 season.
- Fifth player in MLB history to win two MVPs by age 25, joining Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, and Johnny Bench.
- Three straight OPS+ titles. His career OPS+ of 174 ranks sixth all-time, with only one other player (Barry Bonds – 182) playing their full career in the integrated era.
- The BOAT, for me, simply has to have played post-1960. The advancements to the game are undeniable, and athletes today are just better than they have ever been before.
- That leaves two real challengers to Trout: Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.
- Bonds has issues of his own, and even if we look at his career before those “issues” (as defenders of Bonds like myself tend to do), Trout has the clear edge.
- Same with Griffey. Even before the injuries came into play, Trout is clearly the superior player. Griffey doesn’t have nearly as much black ink on the card as one might imagine. He never led the league in OPS+, and he won only one slugging crown. His three WAR titles are impressive, but Trout already has five.
- Plus, Trout has an incredible ability to fix whatever holes appear in his game. Somehow he is getting better each season despite starting with an insanely high bar to begin with. He is showing no signs of slowing down off his current pace; if anything, he is still improving and may not have reached his peak.*
I put an asterisk next to the last point because it was more editorialized than the others, but that proves my point. The BOAT conversation is able to tie in both more logical standards, while also allowing for bits of editorializing.
The main disputes to the “Trout as BOAT” claim is likely to be: He’s not even halfway through his career, this is reactionary journalism, can’t we wait until he’s at least 30?
I’d usually agree. If we were still talking GOAT. Greatness requires a legacy; being the best, while it requires a decent enough sample to know we’re not just seeing luck (I’m not about to call a rookie who just got called up and hit a homer in his debut the BOAT), but once we know the player is truly the best, there’s no need to wait around until proclaiming it.
That’s the beauty of the BOAT conversation.
There may be other small qualms with this argument (I have literally zero time for anyone who will use the “How come he has only played in three postseason games” argument), but that’s what the comments section is for.
Many of you may not agree, but I hope you see where this is coming from. The GOAT debate has been run into the ground. Let’s start the BOAT debate.
Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.