When discussing the greatest MLB players of all time, behind Babe Ruth, the number two spot is debated between the late great Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. Willie Mays played in the 1950's and 60's and was the ideal 5 tool player. Willie, in his prime (1954 - 1965), hit .318, averaged 40 home runs, with 22 stolen bases, finished top five in outfield assists 5 times, and finished with a .981 fielding percentage (Wining 12 Gold Gloves in his career). Truly, Willie Mays deserves to be in the conversation. On the other side, Barry Bonds, one of the most infamous players in MLB History, has great numbers (Large Part due to Steroids) playing in the 90's and 2000's. In his prime ('90 - '04), Bonds averaged .313, 41 home runs, 26 stolen bases, 5 finishes in top 10 outfield assists, and a .984 outfield percentage (8 Gold Gloves).
Again, look at how similar these numbers are between Bonds and Mays:
Clearly, the numbers between the two are eerily similar. The question remains, how do you separate the two? Who is the greater player? Who is the most valuable player? Well to start, let's look at their offensive numbers.
Mays has a slight advantage when it comes to batting average, as Bonds batting average is 5 points lower. However, another important number when looking at offensive numbers is on base percentage. When a player like Mays or Bonds gets on base, there's always a threat to steal a base. Bonds on base percentage is fantastic with a .468 OBS, and led the MLB 10 times in his career. In one of Bonds best years, Bonds had a stellar on base percentage of .609! No MLB player has ever reached above .600 besides Barry Bonds. Looking to Willie, Mays averaged a very good .392 OPS, and led the league twice. Comparing his numbers to any other player, Mays OPS would look great. But, Bonds clearly has a higher OPS with a 76 point difference! At the end of the day, when comparing OPS of Mays and Bonds, there's no question who reaches base more: Barry Bonds. Sure, Mays has a slightly better batting average, but there's no comparison with OPS.
Moving away from contact and onto power, Bonds is the all time leader in home runs (762) and has hit the most home runs in a single season with 73. Bonds averaged 41 home runs, 29 doubles, 307 total bases, with a .656 Slugging Percentage through his prime. Mays was a fantastic home run hitter averaging 40 home runs, 29 doubles, 353 total bases, with a .605 Slugging Percentage. Bonds had a much higher slugging percentage, but Mays maintained a larger number of total bases per year. If one were to give a slight advantage over the other, Bonds would have to get the tip of the cap. Bonds has had 1,034 less at bats, yet he has hit 102 more home runs. When comparing their prime years, the numbers are nearly exact with 40 - 41 home runs. However, when looking over their entire career, Bonds has hit 102 more runs with 1034 less at bats. Bonds has to get the slight advantage here with power.
When you combine the power and average of Bonds and Mays (OPS), one will see Bonds has a much higher combination of average and power. Bonds from 1990 to 2004, averaged 1.124 OPS, while Mays from 1954 to 1965 averaged a .997 OPS. Overall, Bonds has the major advantage with getting on base, and has a slight advantage of power. I find it hard to believe that Mays was the better player offensively.
Once the two players get on base, both are threats to steal. When in their prime, Bonds averaged 26 stolen bases, while Mays averaged 22 stolen bases. Mays led the MLB in stolen bases 4 times in 4 consecutive years, while Bonds never led the league in stolen bases. However, when Mays led the MLB in stolen bases, he stole 40, 38, 31, and 27 bases. Bonds, from 1990-1993, stole 52, 43, 39, and 29 bases. When comparing year to year, Bonds consistently stole more bases per years. From year by year, Bonds and Mays are similar in stolen bases. However, when you look at career stolen bases, Bonds has a clear advantage. Bonds has stolen 514 career bases, while Mays has stolen 338 bases total. One might think these numbers to be bias, but Bonds only played 1 full year more than Mays. To go along with total careers, Bonds stole 30 bases 9 times in his career, while Mays stole 30 bases only 3 times. Clearly, Bonds has another advantage over his entire career when it comes to stealing bases.
Finally, the debate comes to defense. Bonds and Mays were both great defensive men, as they combine for a total of 20 Gold Gloves. Mays has the advantage of the hardware, as he has won 12 Gold Gloves, while Bonds has only accumulated 8. When looking at numbers, Bonds threw out 173 players from the outfield with a .984 fielding percentage. Mays threw out 195 players over his career and has averaged a .981 fielding percentage. Mays has a major advantage when it comes to Gold Gloves and assists, and has only a slightly lower fielding percentage. Willie Mays can definitely be claimed better in the outfield.
Overall, when looking at the numbers and in depth looks, Bonds has an advantage in contact hitting, power hitting, stealing bases, and is still a great outfielder (8 Gold Gloves). Mays, on the other hand, has the down side comparison of getting on base, power hitting, and stealing bases. Mays only has the advantage when dealing with the glove in the outfield.
When it comes to the decision, I find Barry Bonds to be the clear better player. He is the overall better player at bat, and when he gets on base, his numbers show he is more dangerous for a longer period of time. Yes, Willie Mays is better with the glove, but Barry Bonds was clearly no slouch with 8 gold gloves. Willie Mays and Barry Bonds will go down as some of the greatest players of all time, but when ignoring steroids and cheating, Barry Bonds clearly is the greater player.