Shohei Ohtani is pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Until recently, Ohtani’s greatness has been a focus of the baseball world, but not so much the focus of the sports world at large, which is how we get takes like these:
Stephen A Smith just clowned on Shohei Ohtani for hitting .271 (.956-OPS) … and that somehow the Angels being under .500 takes away from his greatness .. pic.twitter.com/4tOgnshYvs
— Fuzzy (@fuzzyfromyt) May 19, 2021
Something something something Angels under .500 joke. Moving on.
The question posed by the graphic designers over at First Take is an intriguing one. And, it got me thinking: “Is Ohtani the best athlete in all of sports? Is he the best athlete in his own sport? Why haven’t we seen an article about this already?”
So, I set out to find the best athletes to ever play baseball, hoping to answer the question posed by the well-intentioned but uninformed analysts at ESPN. By “best athlete,” I mean people who you would normally call “athletic freaks” when describing them. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty subjective way to quantify players for this article, but since certain measurements (vertical jump, 40-yard dash, and other NFL combine metrics) are not always available for baseball players, it was hard to make comparisons between guys. For example, Ohtani was said to have had the third-highest vertical jump in Angels baseball history when the Angels tested him. But, we don’t have those exact measurements for Ohtani’s jump, nor do we have measurements for some of the older players in the player pool. So, I made some assumptions and applied my own judgment when selecting the most athletic guys in the player pool. You are more than welcome to express your displeasure (or pleasure, hopefully) with my methods in the comment section or on Twitter. I promise I won’t be offended.
The main criterion for this exercise was that players had to have played baseball at the highest level, meaning players like Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Michael Jordan were off-limits. The player pool includes players who strictly played baseball and players who played baseball and other sports. Luckily, baseball history is littered with players that crossed over to MLB or tried their hand at another sport after baseball. So, I had a fairly large player pool to draw from.
Important note: This article will NOT crown one particular athlete as the greatest athlete of all time or the greatest athlete to ever play baseball in The Show. Athleticism doesn’t always correspond to baseball success, so it’s probably not a good idea to compare players based solely on their statistical prowess. These statistics can be a useful tool but are not a be-all, end-all tool to compare every athlete referenced. Additionally, it is not a simple apples-to-apples comparison between players because some players on this list strictly play baseball, while others play multiple sports.
The Multi-Sport Contestants
To qualify for this list, athletes had to have played at least one other sport well in college. Excelling in high school was not enough for the purpose of this list.
Cumberland Willis Posey, Jr.: Posey is the oldest entrant to this list (and an owner of an ‘interesting’ nickname). He was a longtime member of the Homestead Grays, playing, managing, and even owning the Homestead Grays from 1911 to 1946. Posey contributed to the Grays for 9 years as a player before moving into a management role (which was terrific, but outside of the focus of this article). His playing career was relatively modest, as he was not a particularly prolific hitter, and the Grays played mostly semi-professional teams during Posey’s tenure, which hurts his candidacy. Posey was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, although Posey is arguably in that position because of his achievements as an executive, not as a player.
However, Posey was outright dominant as a basketball player. He led his high school to their city championship, led the Duquesne University basketball team in scoring in 3 seasons, and won the Colored Basketball World Championship 5 different times. Posey was ultimately placed in the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016 for his playing achievements, making him the only person to be in both the National Baseball HOF and the National Basketball HOF. He is also enshrined in the Duquesne Basketball Hall of Fame.
Curtis Pride: The only deaf entrant on this list, Pride enjoyed a very successful baseball career across 8 different MLB teams. He was the first deaf player to reach the majors since 1945. His first four hits as a major leaguer were a double, a triple, a home run, and a single (across multiple games). Pride was mostly used as an injury replacement or pinch hitter, appearing in 421 games across 11 seasons in the majors.
Pride was also a star for the United States U-16 team, scoring 2 goals in the 1985 FIFA U-16 World Championship in China. One of those goals was the game-winning goal against Bolivia. And, Pride became the starting point guard for the basketball team at the College of William and Mary.
Bo Jackson: No list of talented athletes is complete without “Bo Knows.” He is the only player in professional sports history to be named an All-Star in both baseball and football, making him a top contender for the “Best Athlete in Baseball” Award. Jackson is also one of the more accomplished and awarded athletes on this list (in multiple sports).
Drafted 3 different times by 3 different teams (Yankees, Angels, Royals), Jackson played 8 seasons of professional baseball, accumulating a slash line of .250/.309/.474 and an OPS+ of 112 (8.3 bWAR). Jackson was an All-Star in 1989 and finished the 1989 season 10th in MVP voting. He was also the All-Star Game MVP in 1989.
As a football player, Bo Jackson won college football’s version of the MVP Award (the Heisman Trophy) in 1985 as a running back for Auburn University. During that season, Jackson produced the most rushing yards (over 1,700 yards) by any player in Southeastern Conference (SEC) History, although that record has since been broken. He accumulated over 4,000 rushing yards across his Auburn career, ranking 4th in SEC history.
Jackson was selected first overall in the 1986 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, although Jackson decided to forego his Buccaneers career for professional baseball, opting to sign with the Kansas City Royals instead. The Raiders were not discouraged by Jackson’s baseball commitment, drafting Jackson in the 7th round of the 1987 NFL Draft. They worked out a deal with Jackson, allowing him to play both professional baseball and professional football. Here’s some of what Jackson did on the gridiron:
Jackson was also a track athlete in college, qualifying for NCAA nationals in the 100-meter dash in both his freshman and sophomore years at Auburn. Unfortunately, he had to forego his training as a track athlete to compete in football and baseball, with both sports providing a better path to financial security.
Deion Sanders: “Prime Time” is still the only athlete to have played in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. Sanders was able to win two Super Bowl titles but fell just short of a World Series title with Atlanta.
As a baseball player, Sanders accumulated a slash line of .263/.319/.371 and a career 89 OPS+ (and 5.5 bWAR).
Sanders was a two-time All-American Cornerback for Florida State, set the record for longest interception return for a touchdown (100 yards), set the all-time Florida State record for punt return yardage, and had his number retired by the Florida State football program. He also won the Jim Thorpe Award, awarded to college football’s top defensive back.
As a professional football player, Sanders was an 8-time Pro Bowl Cornerback, 6-time All-Pro, and won the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1994. He also was part of the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade team as both a Cornerback and Punt Returner. Sanders was able to enjoy a little bit longer of a professional career than Bo Jackson, if only because Sanders avoided the career-ending injury that Jackson suffered.
Dave Winfield: One of three athletes on this list to have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Winfield enjoyed a very successful MLB career across 6 teams and 22 seasons. Winfield racked up a slash line of .283/.353/.475 and an OPS+ of 130, hitting 465 home runs, 3,110 hits, and 223 stolen bases (and 64.2 WAR). He was a 12-time All-Star, 7-time Gold Glove winner, 6-time Silver Slugger winner, and won a World Series over Deion Sanders’ Atlanta in 1992.
Winfield is also the only player on this list to have been drafted in four different leagues. He was drafted by fourth overall by the San Diego Padres in the 1973 MLB Draft. But, Winfield was also selected by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, the ABA’s Utah Stars, and by the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings (in the 17th round, which is impossible today).
Winfield won the 1972 Big Ten basketball championship as a member of the University of Minnesota. And, despite being drafted by two different basketball teams in two different leagues, Winfield opted to focus on baseball only, which seems to have worked out for him quite well.
Jackie Robinson: Robinson was not just a great baseball athlete—he was also one of the most impactful athletes to ever play professional sports. Here are some of Robinson’s MLB accomplishments:
- 6-time All-Star
- World Series champion (1955)
- National League MVP (1949)
- National League Rookie of the Year (1947)
- 2-time National League Stolen Base Leader
- National Baseball Hall of Fame Member
Robinson was also a star in a handful of other collegiate sports, earning a varsity letter in track and field, football, baseball, and basketball. In football, Robinson helped UCLA to an undefeated season in 1939 and a 7th-place finish in the AP Poll. In track and field, Robinson won the NCAA championship in the long jump. Unfortunately, he didn’t win any championships in basketball, which was something of an outlier for Robinson, who did quite a bit of winning in his career.
Honorable Mentions: Jeff Samardzija (All-American Wide Receiver and RHP), Darin Erstad (Punter (and NCAA Football National Champion!) and 1B/OF), and Rick Leach (QB and OF).
The Baseball-Only Contestants
Giancarlo Stanton: The man is not fast. But he can do pretty much anything else at an elite level because he is a Big Boy(TM). Here’s a screencap of his BaseballSavant page:
Yes, that’s a 100th percentile EV. I don’t know if there’s anyone else in the majors that has consistently shown to be as strong or powerful as Stanton.
— Foolish Baseball (@FoolishBB) May 18, 2021
Nolan Ryan: If we can only have one flame-throwing pitcher on this list, it has to be “The Ryan Express,” as Ryan has the record for the hardest-thrown (hardest-recorded, according to the instruments of his time) pitch of all time at 108.1 mph. Holy. Moly.
Ryan racked up over 5700 strikeouts in his pitching career, a record that will likely be around for quite a while because of how major league teams employ their starting pitchers today. He also played in the pros for twenty-seven years, pitching through his age-46 season. Even at 46, Ryan held a 4.44 FIP across 66.1 innings.
Interestingly enough, Ryan never won a Cy Young Award, finishing as high as second (1973, age 26). He was an 8-time All-Star, won the ERA title twice, and won the World Series in 1969, but could never get over the Cy Young hump.
Rickey Henderson: The “Man of Steal” is absolutely an elite athlete for his perennial base-stealing prowess. No one else has reached 1,000 steals, and Henderson has 1,400. You have to be one heck of an athlete to average 74 stolen bases per season across 25 big league campaigns. That’s a lot of wear and tear on anyone’s body, let alone a professional athlete. The absurd volume of steals, plus the lack of emphasis on stolen bases in today’s game, means Henderson’s record will not be challenged by any particular base stealer any time soon.
Henderson was once clocked around 9.6 or 9.7 seconds in the 100-yard dash, which would place him around 31 feet per second. That 31 feet per second would place him comfortably at the top of the MLB Sprint Speed leaderboard, roughly 0.2 feet per second ahead of Trea Turner. That incredible speed – along with a career OBP of .401 (53rd all-time) – makes Henderson an easy entrant to the baseball-only elite athlete list.
Babe Ruth: George Herman Ruth needs no introduction. He was one of the greatest hitters of all time and may have won plenty more pitching awards — in addition to his 1916 ERA title — had he been allowed to continue as a two-way player. He picked up 94 wins and a 2.28 career ERA in his time as a pitcher. It’s a testament to his greatness that no other player has come close to Ruth’s accomplishments as a hitter and as a pitcher.
Shohei Ohtani: The man of the hour, and for good reason. Here’s a screencap of his percentile rankings in 2021:
Admittedly, not all of these numbers are the very best. However, keep in mind that Ohtani is almost done rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery, which can lead to velocity dips, among other things. But, his fastball still averages 96 mph (and can touch triple digits on occasion), his splitter is one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball, and his xERA is 71st among qualified pitchers.
So, to sum up Ohtani: an above-average pitcher, an elite slugger, and an elite runner.
I thoroughly encourage each reader to do their own research and decide for themselves who they feel the best athlete to ever play baseball might be. This is only a jumping-off point, as I kept the list of players fairly short and restricted selection to players who had some level of success in the major leagues.
It is incredibly difficult to do what Shohei Ohtani is doing. To be elite in one facet of Major League Baseball is difficult enough. But numbers can back up the assertion that Ohtani is elite in multiple facets of Major League Baseball, and an above-average pitcher (elite, when he’s at his very best), all at the same time. In the modern era, when specialization within baseball is encouraged, the commitment required to excel in multiple areas of the sport is immense. Again, it is difficult to compare across eras of baseball, so it seems silly to compare Ruth and Ohtani. Both did and are doing something incredible.
In regards to the question posed on First Take, I believe the answer is “Yes.” Ohtani is the “Best Show in Sports” and “Best Athlete in Baseball” right now because of his elite measurables (EV, pitch speed, sprint speed) and relatively unprecedented accomplishments as both a slugger and a pitcher simultaneously. When Ohtani is healthy, he is one of the most electrifying hitters in baseball, serving as must-watch TV on a nightly basis.
But is he the best athlete to ever play professional sports? That’s a much more difficult question. If I had to narrow it down from the previous list, the discussion for best athlete in sports history would center around Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Ohtani, and Jackie Robinson. Sanders and Jackson were both elite football players, with varying levels of achievement in baseball (a combined 11 bWAR for the two). We’ve already detailed Ohtani’s accomplishments. Baseball was reportedly Robinson’s “worst sport.” Assuming that’s true, although it is quite difficult to figure out what’s true and what’s not true about some of baseball’s tallest tales, Robinson would absolutely be in consideration for best of all time. Robinson has had the most storied baseball career of the four athletes, but his lack of professional experience in other sports makes it difficult to compare him to the other athletes.
Reader, I’m sorry for the lack of clarity, but this is one of the discussions that could go on forever, like LeBron vs. Jordan vs. Kobe vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s more fun to engage in these debates when there’s no right answer. For now, let’s sit back and enjoy what Ohtani is doing and compare once again when there are more of Ohtani’s statistics to fawn over.