Just as the history of baseball is filled with phenomenal pitching talent, so too is it filled with dominant hitting talent – batsmen who can take a pitch that's thrown an inch too high or an inch too low and crush it, sending it 500 feet from where they're standing. Prolific and powerful hitters can change the complexion of a game, or the complexion of a series, in the blink of an eye – anybody remember Kirk Gibson and the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series?
Over the years, Major League Baseball has taken great pains to help hitters generate more offense from introducing the designated hitter to lowering the pitchers mound to shrinking the strike zone. The end result has seen a rise in the average ERA's of pitchers as some hitters began to take advantage of new rules designed to benefit them. While not all hitters are created equal, some have gone to another level in becoming incredibly prolific offensive machines.
Given the rule changes and “modernization” of baseball in the year 1969, it seems as if that is the best start point to use in determining the “modern era” of the game. While there have been some rule tweaks and changes along the way – such as the introduction of the DH in 1973 – baseball starting in 1969 most closely resembles the game we know today than it did in years previous to that year. So only hitters who began their careers in 1969 or after will be named to this list. And no currently active players will appear either – their status as “the best” is an issue for the history books once their careers are actually over.
So with 1969 as our starting point for determining baseball's “modern era,” who have been the best hitters of that era? Read on and find out...
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10 Dave Winfield (1973-1995)
Most people probably remember Winfield as a New York Yankee, but he broke into the league with the San Diego Padres in 1793, and spent 8 seasons with them. Across his 22 seasons in the Majors, Winfield was one of the steadiest and most consistent hitters in the league, able to hit for power and for average. He finished his distinguished career with a .283 average to go along with 465 home runs, 1,833 RBI's, and 3,110 hits. He was a 12-time All Star, 6-time Silver Slugger and won a championship in 1992 with the Toronto Blue Jays. A first ballot Hall of Famer, Winfield was a dynamic player and one of the most feared hitters in the league.
9 Paul Molitor (1978-1998)
Molitor seemed to fly under the radar as one of the greatest hitters of baseball's modern era. Most people outside of Milwaukee probably don't even remember who he is. But over the course of his 21 years in the game, Molitor put together a resume worthy of being named among the greatest hitters. He had a lifetime batting average of .306, hit 234 homers and drove in 1,307 runs. While he wasn't a power guy, you could always count on him to get on base, as his 1,782 runs scored can attest to. Molitor was a 7-time All Star, 4-time Silver Slugger and won a title – and World Series MVP honors to go along with it – while with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993.
8 Vladimir Guerrero (1996-2011)
Vlad the Impaler was a sensation while with the Montreal Expos. A 5-tool player, Guerrero drew countless comparisons to Roberto Clemente, and with good reason. Over his 16 seasons of work in the Majors, Vlad compiled a lifetime .318 batting average. He collected 2,590 hits, including 449 home runs. Though he was strongly criticized for his “swing at anything” style at the plate, Guerrero never stuck out 100 times in any one season – something that not too many MLB players can claim. Vlad was an 9-time All Star and 8-time Silver Slugger, but he likely doesn't have the numbers to put up a claim for induction into Cooperstown, but during his time in the Majors, he was one of the league's best and most feared hitters.
7 Frank Thomas (1990-2008)
The Big Hurt was one of the most feared hitters in the game for a while. He could turn a pitcher's mistake into a long home run in the blink of an eye. But he wasn't just a power hitter – he has a lifetime batting average of .301, and had 495 doubles and 12 triples amongst his 2,468 hits. He also belted 521 homers and drove in 1,704 runs over his career. Thomas has a lifetime OPS of .974. He was a 5-time All Star, 4-time Silver Slugger, and the AL Batting Champion in 1997. He was also a first ballot Hall of Famer inducted in 2014.
6 Eddie Murray (1977-1997)
Murray spent 13 of his 21 big league career with the Baltimore Orioles, making a name for himself as one of baseball's best hitters. Murray, the AL Rookie of the Year in 1977, was an 8-time All Star and 3-time Silver Slugger, compiled a lifetime .287 batting average, finishing his career with 3,255 hits. He also had 504 home runs and knocked in 1,917 RBI's. A first ballot Hall of Fame selection in 2003, Murray also won a championship with the Orioles back in 1983.
5 Manny Ramirez (1993-2011)
Yes, he's childish, immature, arrogant, and perhaps a little bit crazy, but it can't be denied that Man-Ram is one of baseball's best hitters during the modern era – or perhaps in any era. Over 19 seasons in the Majors, Ramirez compiled a lifetime .312 batting average, blast 555 home runs amongst his 2,574 hits, drove in 1,831 runs, and has a career .996 OPS. He's a 12-time All Star, a 2-time World Series Champion, 9-time Silver Slugger, and has been the AL Batting Champion, Home Run Champion, and also the RBI king. And he still holds the MLB record for most postseason home runs with 29. Say what you want about him, Man-Ram can flat out hit.
4 Ken Griffey Jr. (1989-2010)
Perhaps in hindsight, that whole move to Cincinnati didn't work out as well for Junior as he thought it would. His productivity definitely declined, but the Kid has never been anything less than an elite hitter. A lifetime .284 hitter, Griffey also has a career .907 OPS, has 2,781 hits, blasted 630 homers and drove in 1,836 RBI's. He was on pace to break the MLB home run record at one time, but injuries derailed that bid. Griffey was a 13-time All Star who was a 7-time Silver Slugger and led the American League in home runs 4 different times. Even in his later years, Junior was a threat to go deep any time he stepped into the box.
3 George Brett (1973-1993)
Brett was once one of the most notoriously intense players in baseball. You can go to YouTube and check out some of his most epic meltdowns. But there is no doubting that he was also one of the game's most prolific hitters. Over his distinguished 21 season career, Brett – who only ever played for the Kansas City Royals – amassed 3,154 hits, amongst them were 665 doubles, and 137 triples, so he was never afraid to take the extra base. He also slugged 317 homers and drove in 1,596 RBI's. He was a 13-time All Star selection, 3-time Silver Slugger, and won the AL batting title 3 times (1976, 1980, 1990). He also won a title with the Royals in 1985 and his elite numbers at the plate helped ensure him of a first ballot ticket into Cooperstown in 1999.
2 Barry Bonds (1986-2007)
Put an asterisk next to Bonds' achievements if you wish, but there is no denying his talent or abilities at the plate. Steroids may have helped him hit the ball a little bit farther, but the hand-eye coordination it took to make contact with the ball on such a consistent and prolific basis was all his own and not something the drugs could have helped him with. Over his 22 seasons in the Majors, Bonds was a lifetime .298 hitter with 2,935 career hits including the MLB record of 762 home runs. He also scattered 601 doubles and 77 triples amongst his prolific hit total while driving in 1,996 RBI's. So feared at the plate was the 14-time All Star and 7-time MVP, he set all-time MLB records by taking 2,558 walks – 688 of them intentional. Those are numbers that will surely never be matched. Bonds was a 12-time Silver Slugger, 3-time Hank Aaron award winner and still owns the record for most home runs in a season (73). He is one of baseball's best hitters – in any era – but even that might not get him enshrined in the Hall of Fame given the lingering taint of the BALCO scandal.
1 Tony Gwynn (1982-2001)
The late Tony Gwynn was one of baseball's true professionals and a loyal player – staying with the San Diego Padres even though free agency could have made him a very wealthy man. He was one of baseball's best and most consistent hitters – and had a strike not shortened the 1994 season – could have been the league's first .400 hitter in a very, very long time. As it stands, in 20 years in the big leagues, Gwynn compiled a lifetime .338 batting average – an incredibly impressive feat in and of itself. He racked up 3,141 hits and drove in 1,138 RBI's. Gwynn was never a power hitter, but you could always find him on base. As a result, he scored 1,383 runs over the course of his career. He was rightfully, a first ballot Hall of Famer in 2007, who was a 15-time All Star, 8-time NL batting champ, and 7-time Silver Slugger. Gwynn was one of baseball's most prodigious hitters and one of the classiest guys to play the game. MLB – and the world – lost a bright light when he passed away in June 2014.
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