Baseball Reference has a neat feature--okay, they have about a million neat features--the progressive leader boards. Besides leader boards for various statistics by career, single-season, and active, Baseball Reference allows you to see when individuals became a career leader in a statistic, how their career total grew, and what year they ceased to be the record holder. Perusing the progressive leader boards got me thinking whose the most impressive record holder of all time?
For this installment, let's look at offensive records (I'll tackle pitchers next week). We can brake this down into traditional statistics and advanced or sabermetric just to gain some perspective.
Let's get the granddaddy of them all out of the way first--the career home rune record. The original Babe Ruth was Roger Conner, who established the career record for home runs with 126 in 1895. Conner went on to hold the record through 1920 (26 years), finishing with 138 home runs. Base Ruth passed Conner in 1921, pushing his career total to 162 that year. Ruth would hold the progressive career record through 1973 (53 years) when Hank Aaron hit number 715 and finished the year with 733 career home runs. Aaron would remain the leader until 2007 (35 years) when Barry Bonds would pass him.
Batting average doesn't provide much of a story, but arguably the most impressive run. From 1881 to 1911, 9 different players held the career mark. Ty Cobb would take ownership of the record with a .358 average. Cobb would retire in 1928 with a .366 average. As you likely know, Cobb's record still stands. That's basically 100 straight years that Cobb has reigned as the career leader in batting average.
Cobb's career mark for hits, of course, has been broken, but not before he held the record for 62 years. It should be noted that when Cobb assumed the career mark in 1923 he displaced Cap Anson, who himself held the record since 1880 (44 years).
What about doubles and triples? In terms of two-baggers, Cap Anson again shows up as a career leader from 1882 to 1912 (31 years). Nap Lajoie took over the lead, but until held it through 1924. In 1925, Tris Speaker finished the year with 675 career doubles and still holds the record with 792 to this day (86 years). In terms of triples, Roger Connor again held the record from 1888 through 1904. Jake Beckley would take the lead but relinquish it in 1913 to Sam Crawford, who remains the leader today with 309 triples (98 years).
What about our newfangled advanced metrics?
Let's start with Offensive WAR. Lots of great names on this list. Good old Cap Anson held the record from 1881 through 1908 (94.7 oWAR, 28 years) until he was dethroned by everyone's favorite baseball card, Honus Wagner. Wagner would keep the record warm for Ty Cobb who held the record from 1922 through 1932 (156 oWAR, 11 years). Babe Ruth would pass Cobb in 1933, finish his career with 164.6 oWAR, and has yet to be dethroned (78 years).
In terms of career WAR, it's a more interesting story. Cap Anson put together a good streak, holding the record from 1888 through 1901 (99.3 rWAR, 14 years). But the player that over took Anson was not a position player, but a pitcher you may have heard of--Cy Young. Young held the record from 1902 through 1923 (22 years, 143.20 rWAR) until Ty Cobb would get his turn. Cobb held on until 1931 (159.5 rWAR, 7 years) when Babe Ruth grabbed the lead and has yet to be overtaken (190 rWAR, 80 years).
At this point, the story is pretty much the same whether we look at OPS, Adjusted OPS+, Runs Created, and Slugging. Ty Cobb grabs the early lead and by the early 1920's or 30's, Ruth passes him and still remains the career leader. (It should be noted that Ted Williams did manage to pass Ruth for the career OBP record.)
So who is the most impressive?
From a cumulative perspective, I'd have to say the two contenders are Ruth and Cobb. Cobb's run of 100+ years being the career batting average leaders is incredibly impressive. But Cobb's style of play has been surpassed by Ruth's, so it's less likely that his most impressive record will be truly challenged over the long term. Ruth has been able to dominate at least one statistic in both the traditional and advanced categories, and in terms of advanced he's unrivaled. Ruth not only changed the game offensively (he managed to become the HR leader in only his third season as an everyday player), but he still holds multiple records highlighting offensive production that have yet to be broken. For those reasons, I'll have to go with Ruth.
So who do you think is the most impressive?