Among baseball fans and historians, there has long been a Mays vs. Mantle debate. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle are among the best players in baseball history. But who was the better player, Mantle or Mays? Obviously there is no debate that both are among the greatest players in MLB history. But if you could only choose one, who would it be?
Mays vs Mantle: Who had the better career?
However, there is perhaps no wrong answer in the Mays vs. Mantle debate. However, we decided to look into the history books and examine both players more closely decades after their careers ended. Let's take a deep dive into the careers of both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle to determine who is the better player.
There's certainly a good debate to be made between Mays and Mantle as to who is the better overall hitter. Each player won a fighting title during their career, though only one. Mantle had 10 seasons in which he hit .300 or better, but his career average declined during the final years of his career, causing his career average to drop to .298. He also finished his career with only 2,415 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 finished his longest career with a .301 average, slightly higher than Mantle. Also, while Mantle was more strikeout-prone than Mays, the former Yankee was also better at drawing walks and finished with a higher pitching percentage than Mays.
The energy department is another area where it's difficult 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's 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 average about 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.
To be fair, longevity may not be the most important factor when it comes to 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, while Mays spent more than 20 seasons in the major leagues, playing from 1951 to 1973.
To his credit, Mantle was in the major leagues as a teenager while 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, something that can't be said about Mantle.
The biggest gap exists between Mays and Mantle 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 that hampered his throwing. However, Mantle had to work hard to become a competent quarterback while Mays was a natural fit for the position.
Mays had elite speed, great instincts, and one of the best arms of any center fielder in the history of baseball. That's why he was able to win 12 straight Gold Gloves from 1957 to 1968, leaving little 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 it was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to what Mays brought to the table defensively.
It goes without saying that both Mays and Mantle were accomplished players and won a lot of trophies. In 1951, Mays won Rookie of the Year, an award Mantle had never won. He then won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1954 despite spending the entire 1953 season in the Army. Mays later won his second MVP award in 1965, more than a decade later. As previously mentioned, he also won a batting title and 12 Gold Gloves while also leading the National League in home runs four times and stealing bases four times.
Conversely, Mantle won the MVP award three times and had three other years in which he was an MVP runner-up while Mays was an MVP runner-up twice. Keep in mind that Mantle won the MVP award in 1956 and 1957, respectively, and was a Triple Crown winner in 1956, the year he captured his only batting title. He also led the American League in home runs four times, including three times in a four-year period from 1955-58.
The case is clearly strong for both players, but the advantage in this discussion has to go to Mays. Both players were almost equal to each other when it came to batting, both in terms of power and average. However, Mays was the primary stealer, athlete and defensive midfielder.
The fact that Mays played for a few more years also gives him a slight advantage over Mantle. Ultimately, Mays' defensive abilities put him over the top. He was the most versatile and complete center fielder in the history of baseball, holding him at a higher level than any other position player, including Mantle.