Who was the better player?

Among baseball fans and historians, there has long been a Mays vs Mantle debate. Both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle are among the best players in baseball history. But who was the better player, Mantle or Mays? Obviously, there’s no debate that both are among the greatest outfielders in MLB history. But if you could only pick one, who would it be?

Mays vs Mantle: Who had the better career?

For what it’s worth, there is probably no wrong answer in the Mays vs Mantle debate. Nevertheless, we decided to look at the history books and examine both players closely decades after their careers ended. Let’s take a deep dive into the careers of both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle to determine the better player.

Average

There is certainly a good debate between Mays and Mantle with regard to the better overall hitter. Each player won a battling title during their career, although just one. Mantle had 10 seasons in which he hit .300 or better, but his career average plummeted during the latter years of his career, causing his career average to dip to .298. He also finished his career with just 2,415 total hits while Mays surpassed 3,200 hits, albeit in a longer career.

Likewise, Mays had 10 seasons in which he hit .300 or better but did finish his longer career with an average of .301, slightly higher than Mantle. Also, while Mantle was far more prone to strikeouts than Mays, the former Yankee was also better at drawing walks and finished with a higher on-base percentage than Mays.

Power

The power department is another area where it’s tough to separate Mantle and Mays. The two finished their careers with an identical slugging percentage of .557. Of course, Mays has the edge in total home runs, in part because he played more seasons than Mantle.

Mays finished his career with 660 homers, a number surpassed only by Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Albert Pujols, and Alex Rodriguez with a few of those players helped by performance-enhancing drugs. Meanwhile, Mantle ranks 18th on the all-time list with 536 home runs. For what it’s worth, both players averaged around 30 home runs per season, so it’s hard for either to stand out, even if Mays ranks higher on the all-time home run list.

Longevity

To be fair, longevity may not be the most important factor in terms of great baseball players, but it’s hard to deny that Mays gets a slight edge. Mantle’s knee problems caused him to retire after 18 seasons whereas Mays spent over 20 seasons in the big leagues, playing from 1951 to 73.

To his credit, Mantle was in the big leagues as a teenager whereas Mays didn’t make his debut until a few weeks after his 20th birthday. But Mays also played until he was 42 and also missed nearly two full seasons early in his career while serving in the Army. He was able to pick up where he left off, which is not something that can be said of Mantle.

Defense

The biggest gap between Mays and Mantle exists when it comes to their defensive prowess. For what it’s worth, Mantle was a solid center fielder who won a Gold Glove in 1962 despite a shoulder injury during the 1957 World Series hindering his throwing. However, Mantle had to work hard to become a competent center fielder while Mays was a more natural fit for the position. 

Mays had elite speed, great instincts, and one of the best arms of any center fielder in baseball history. That’s why he was able to win 12 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1957 to 1968, leaving no doubt that he was the best center fielder in the game during that time. Of course, his famous catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series remains one of the greatest defensive plays in baseball history, even if its’ just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Mays brought to the table defensively.

Awards

Needless to say, both Mays and Mantle were accomplished players who won plenty of awards. In 1951, Mays won Rookie of the Year, an award that Mantle never won. He then won MVP in 1954 despite spending the entire 1953 season in the Army. Mays later won his second MVP in 1965, more than a decade later. As mentioned, he also won a batting title and 12 Gold Gloves while also leading the National League in home runs four times and stolen bases four times.

On the contrary, Mantle won MVP honors three times and had three other years in which he was the MVP runner-up whereas Mays was MVP runner-up twice. Keep in mind that Mantle won MVP in back-to-back years in 1956 and 1957 and was a Triple Crown winner in 1956, which was the year of his only batting title. He also led the American League in home runs four times, including three times in a four-year span from 1955 to 1958. 

The Verdict

The case is obviously strong for both players, but the edge in this discussion has to go to Mays. Both players were virtually equal to one another when it came to hitting, both for power and average. However, Mays was the superior base stealer, athlete, and defensive center fielder.

The fact that Mays played a few more years also gives him a slight edge over Mantle. Ultimately, Mays’ defensive abilities put him over the top. He was the most versatile and complete center fielder in baseball history, putting him a level above every other center fielder, including Mantle.

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