Take a brief look at this leaderboard of the best seasons of all time, at least among position players. For those of you who like an easy reference without switching tabs or are too lazy to open up a link, here’s the part that you are going to look at.
Now your first thought is probably going to be something about how good Babe Ruth was. Ruth’s best season is 2 WAR higher than anything anyone else ever did. Babe Ruth’s fourth-best season is still better than anyone else’s first-best season. Not that those other three guys weren’t very good too, because they obviously were, but Ruth is clearly a step above the rest. But let’s add another column to that chart.
With the exception of Hornsby’s season — in which he hit .424 — all of these players had 40+ home runs. And 25 home runs isn’t too shabby. Hornsby was actually fourth in baseball in home runs that year. But really, this shouldn’t be much of a revelation. Home runs are the most productive thing a player can do in a single plate appearance. Hitting a lot of them is a good way to produce a lot of value.
As you might expect, we’re going to next look at the best seasons without much power. Specifically home-run power. I’m going to arbitrarily define 20 home runs as too much power for this next leaderboard. That’s about the threshold that people start to get considered home-run threats and it’s nice and round.
Well, the names aren’t quite as impressive as those on the first list, but they’re all in the Hall of Fame. And really, aside from Boudreau, all those guys are top 25 greatest position players of all time. Seven of the seasons are from the Deadball era when no one was hitting 20 home runs. Honus Wagner’s 10 dingers in 1908 was second in the league to the Superbas slugging first baseman Tim Jordan, who hit 12.
You’ll probably notice another pattern — most of these guys stole a ton of bases. Now this isn’t necessarily because stealing bases is such a valuable thing like home runs are — it’s more because guys stole a ton of bases in the most power-sapped era in baseball history. All the Deadball guys stole at least 50 bases, but we’re going to kick out all the guys who stole at least 20 — sorry, Joe Morgan.
Again, all these guys are Hall of Famers, but only Hornsby and Musial are really inner-circle guys. Hornsby and Musial actually had somewhat similar careers — both guys got their start in relatively low-power eras, but grew into their power as the ball livened up. While their career totals for home runs are astonishing to us now, they ranked 5th and 6th, respectively, in all-time home runs when they retired. It’s not really correct to call them no-power guys — more like guys who didn’t need power to beat you.
Going into this, I expected this list to be populated with slick fielders who had big offensive years. That description certainly fits Joe Gordon and Lou Boudreau. Total Zone says Gordon was a fantastic defender his entire career. That, combined with a BABIP spike in 1942, bumping up his typical 120 wRC+ to 152, sneaks him onto the list. For Boudreau, basically everything went right. he had career bests in home runs, BB%, K%, BABIP, AVG, OBP, SLG, ISO, and defense according to total zone. Oh, and he managed the Indians to a World Series victory.
Arky Vaughan was a shortstop, but Total Zone only considers his defense at that point to be serviceable. Instead, to make the list he hit .385/.491/.607, all of which were career highs. In fact, that .491 OBP is the best OBP since 1901 for players with less than 20 home runs.
Harry Heilmann was, well, definitively not a slick fielder. What he did do was crush everything that came his way, to the tune of .403/.481/.632. It was a phenomenal year, but it wasn’t the best that year, as Babe Ruth put up 6.8 more WAR than him.
And finally we come to Wade Boggs. While he might not rank that highly on the leaderboard there, he is the grand champion of the no power, no speed club. Not only does he have the only season there with single digits in both home runs and steals; he actually has the four best seasons with these parameters. In 1988, he put up 8.6 WAR, with only 5 home runs and 2 steals. Oh, and his defensive metrics that years are pretty average, so that’s all on contact, gap power, and walking.
Now, you’ve probably noticed that most of these seasons happened in the distant past. For all but the oldest of readers, Wade Boggs is probably the only guy on that last list that all y’all have seen in real time. What are the chances of seeing a season like these any time soon?
In 2016, the best season for a guy meeting both the power and speed thresholds was Francisco Lindor, who accumulated 6.3 WAR with 15 home runs and 19 steals. In order to make the top ten, he’d probably have to break at least one of those, if not both. That being said, Lindor making more contact and taking more pitches might be our best hope. Guys like Adam Eaton and Brandon Crawford — the next two guys down the list — probably aren’t good enough to hit 8 WAR. Guys like Dustin Pedroia and Buster Posey may have had the necessary skillset to pull it off, but it’s probably too late in their respective careers to put together an 8-WAR type of season anymore.
We’re probably not going to see a Wade Boggs-type season anytime soon — it’s just too hard to produce an incredible amount of value without hitting for home-run-type power or having the athletic ability to steal a ton of bases. Appreciate weird players while they’re around.
Jaack is a pseudonym bestowed by one Jeff Sullivan upon a humble Fangraphs participant. His interests include Barry Bonds, Rutherford B. Hayes, and very bad baseball players.