I think we all know that Babe Ruth was probably the greatest offensive player in the history of baseball. Ted Williams was probably second, and Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, and Lou Gehrig round out my own personal top five. The numbers these guys put up during their careers were astounding, but are sometimes difficult to fully appreciate out of context.
What's not difficult to appreciate is a truly great season. Last year, Albert Pujols led baseball with 47 homers. Joe Mauer led baseball with a .365 average, and Ryan Howard led baseball with 145 RBI. What if I told you a player had hit over .380, with 40 homers, and 170 RBI, and still missed this list? It happened. That was Chuck Klein in 1930. Of course, that was the year of the hitter. The league average BA was over .300, and he didn't lead the league in any of the three categories. Someone else was better (and that someone made the list). But even so, Klein hit .386, with 40 and 170, and didn't make this list. These seasons are really, really good.
Hack Wilson was a great ballplayer, and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1979. But most baseball fans know his name because of this 1930 season, in which he set the Major League record by driving in 191 runs.
Hack was already a really good player before 1930. He led the National League in home runs in 1926, 1927, and 1928, and in RBI, with 159 in 1929. He was .300 or better hitter each season, and had an OBP well over .400, leading the league in walks twice over his 12-year career. Wilson was the centerfielder on the 1929 National League Champion Chicago Cubs, and one of baseball's biggest stars.
But 1930 was different. For one, it was the so-called "year of the hitter." That season, the National League hit over .300 as a whole, and despite scoring nearly 6.5 runs a game, the Cubs didn't lead the league in runs scored, finishing second with 998 runs.
That season, Wilson would hit .356; lead the league with 105 walks, hit 56 home runs, and drive in 191 runs. The play of their star slugger wasn't quite enough for the Cubs, who finished in second place. But Wilson's RBI record, which stands today, kept him in the minds of baseball fans, and likely punched his ticket to Cooperstown despite a short career.
Stan Musial was a great hitter from day one, hitting .315 as a rookie, and leading the league in OPS in his second, third, and fourth seasons, and winning two MVP awards before 1948. But he was never much of a power hitter early in his career. In 1947, he hit a career high 19 homers. The following season, his power exploded.
In 1948, Musial led the league by batting .376 and collecting 230 hits. He hit a career high 39 homers, and also led the league in doubles and triples, posting a .702 SLG. He led the league in OBP at .450, and OPS at 1.152. He also drove in the most runs, with 131, and scored the most, with 135. He led the league with 429 total bases, and a 200 OPS+.
Musial led the league six times during his big league career, but 1948 was really the one season that would place him among the top-10. He led the league in just about everything.
Mickey Mantle's 1957 season could potentially have appeared on this list if his 1956 season hadn't. I'd have to say that Mantle was better in 1956, but his 1957 season was also extremely impressive.
Mantle, by 1956, was baseball's best player. The previous season, at just 23, he'd led the league in homers, triples, walks, OBP, SLG, and OPS.
His play reached another level the next season. That year, he hit a league leading .353. He walked 113 times for a .464 OBP. He hit a league leading 52 homers, drove in a league leading 130 runs, and scored a league leading 132. He also led the league in OPS.
But is this season better than what Hack Wilson did in 1930? Wilson hit more homers, hit for a higher average, and drove in way more runs. Let's look at their Runs Created numbers, and use a Bill James style method to compare these two seasons.
In 1956, Mantle created 188 runs. The league average team scored 4.6 runs a game, so Mantle created 41 games worth of offense.
In 1930, Wilson created 192 runs. The league average team scored 5.7 runs a game, so Wilson created 34 games worth of offense.
On face value, Wilson's 1930 looks better than Mantle's 1956. He hit three points better, with two more homers, 13 more steals, one more triple, and of course, 60 more RBI. But 190 runs created in 1956 meant a hell of a lot more than 190 in 1930.
On a list like this, it's important to address the steroid issue. For the purposes of this list, I didn't really consider the use of steroids by Sosa. I understand without steroids he likely isn't here. But whatever. Sosa's 2001 was a truly great season, it happened, and so it's listed here.
Another issue centers on which of Sosa's great seasons to pick. I don't think it's much contest. His 1998 season was probably the most historically significant, given his chase of 61 along with McGwire. But that season he hit just .308. In 2001, he hit .328. That season, he walked 73 times with a .377 OBP. In 2001, he walked 116 times with a .437 OBP. He hit just two fewer homers, and slugged about 90 points higher.
The funny thing is that Sosa didn't lead the league in batting, on base, slugging, OPS, or homers. He did lead the league in RBI, and in total bases, and in IBB. But another guy who was pretty good at baseball was doing his thing in San Francisco. We'll get there in a moment.
At six, we start to get into the truly unbelievable all around seasons with Rogers Hornsby's 1924 season. I really had a tough time picking Hornsby best year. He had more runs crated in 1922, but more batting wins, and batting runs in 1924. He had a higher average, and OPS in 1924, but more homers and steals in 1922.
In the end, you could go with either one. I picked 1924. That season, Hornsby hit .424, led the league with 89 walks, had a .507 OBP, and a .696 SLG. He led the league in hits, and in doubles, and chipped in 14 triples, making up a good portion of the 17 homer difference between 1922 and 1924.
But again, let's look at total games worth of offense. 1922, he created 202 runs. The league average team scored 5 a game. That’s 40 games worth of offense. In 1924, he created 183 runs. The league average team scored 4.5 runs a game. That's 41 games of offense. Slight difference. However, in 1922, Hornsby made 400 outs. In 1924, he made just 334. I think Hornsby's 1924 season has to be considered the greater of the two, but it's very close.
I think a lot of people assume that the year Jimmie Foxx hit 58 homers, nearly breaking the 5-year-old record of Babe Ruth, was the same year he won the Triple Crown. It wasn't, at least not technically.
In 1932, Foxx led the league with 58 homers and 169 RBI. He missed out on the Triple Crown by three points in average to Dale Alexander. Under today's rules, Alexander didn't qualify. Under 1932 rules, though, he did. So Foxx has just one Triple Crown.
Foxx's 1932 season is just as incredible though. He hit .364 that season, and walked 116 times, with a .469 OBP. He hit 58 homers, coming two shy of the Major League record, set by Babe Ruth in 1927, a record that would stand for 29 more years.
Foxx actually entered August with a decent shot at the record. He had 51 games left to hit 20 homers and break Ruth's 60. That's one every 2.55 games. In the first 103 games of the season, he'd hit one every 2.51 games. But he hit just seven in August, one every four games. He did hit one every 2.3 games in September, but it was too late.
Foxx won his first of three MVP awards that season, his next coming in 1933, and his final MVP coming in 1938.
Ted Williams’ 1941 season is the last season in which anyone has batted over .400. He led the league with a .406 average, 147 walks, and an insane .553 OBP. He also led the league in homers, and in SLG. Yet he didn't win the MVP award.
The award that season went to Yankees centerfielder Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio had a great year himself, hitting in a record 56 straight games, but he wasn't nearly as good as Williams. Williams created 183 runs that season, DiMaggio 152. Williams had an offensive winning percentage of .914 (an offense made up of nine Ted Williams would, theoretically, win 91% of their games). Joe D had an offensive wining percentage of .834. Williams had a 235 OPS+, an OPS 135% better than the league average. Joe D had a 182 OPS+, and OPS 82% better than the league average.
DiMaggio's 1941 season was an all-time great season, and that or his 1937 season could have made this list. But Williams was so much better than him in 1941, it's a travesty that he didn't win the MVP award.
Williams was also 22 that season. He set the record for runs created by a 22-year-old with 183. Next most? 171, by Joe DiMaggio four years earlier.
Lou Gehrig's 1927 season was unbelievable, but he still wasn't the best hitter on his own team. That would be Mr. George Ruth. It just shows how incredible Ruth was, and how incredible the 1927 Yankees were. Lou Gehrig's 1927 season, listed here as the third greatest season in baseball history, ranked second on his own team. Of course, if a player could have more than one season on this list, the top 10 would be all Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.
Gehrig hit .373 that season, with a .474 OBP, and a .765 SLG. His 1.240 OPS was only 18 points bellow that of Ruth. He lost out to Ruth in home runs, 60 to 47, but beat him in RBI with 175 (this makes sense, as Gehrig batted fourth, right behind Ruth. Ruth scored 158 runs that season).
At one point, it looked as though Gehrig, not Ruth, would challenge the record of 59. They were neck and neck most of the season. At the end of August, Gehrig had 41, Ruth 43. Of course, Ruth hit 17 in the final month, and broke his record. Gehrig hit a respectable six, batting .336, and finished second in baseball.
Gehrig looked as though he might reach another milestone that season. On July 8th, his average stood at .402. It dipped bellow .400 the next day, hovered in the .390s and .380s the rest of the year, and finally finished at .373.
Really, the next two seasons should be 1A and 1B but I'm not going to do that. I have a tough time saying that this wasn't the greatest season any hitter has ever had, but I think the season listed at No. 1 was just a bit better.
Instead of discussing the merits of this season, versus season No. 1, I'll just discuss the merits of Ruth's various great seasons.
In 1921, Ruth set a record of 229 runs created that stood for 80 years. He hit .378, set a record with 59 homers that he would break six years later, and led the league with 171 RBI. He also scored a record 177 runs, and set a record with 457 total bases. Both still stand.
In 1920, he had a slightly higher OPS and offensive win percentage, but played 10 fewer games. You could argue 1920 was his best offensive season; I'd just take the production of 1921.
I think his best overall season was 1923. His fielding was a lot better in 1923 than it was in 1920 or 1921, and he was nearly as good with the bat. But offensively, I have to say 1921.
So, which of Bonds' seasons was the best? I have no clue. Honestly. You could say 2001, you could say 2002, or you could say 2004. He had his highest RC in 2001, setting the record with 230. His highest OW% came in 2002, and his highest OPS came in 2004. I'm going to go with 2001, simply because I think he was most valuable that season. But it's really close.
Bonds in 2001 was just playing at an entirely different level than anyone else. He hit .328 that season, and set a Major League record with 73 homers. He had a .515 OBP, and set the Major League record for slugging at .863. He drove in 137 runs, scored 129, and even stole 13 of 16 bases. Over the next few years, he just stopped seeing pitches. His home run totals dropped to around 45, but his average and OBP shot up.
So, let's compare Bonds 2001 to Ruth 1921. Bonds created 230 runs, compared to 229 for Ruth. However, the league average team in 1921 scored 5.1 runs a game, compared to 4.7 in 2001. Bonds has a slight edge. In 1921, Ruth made 353 outs. In 2001, Bonds made 330. Bonds created more runs, and made fewer outs, in a league environment more friendly to pitchers on the whole.
Yeah, Bonds did steroids. Again, that was not given much consideration. What happened happened, and the runs he created didn't help his team any less because he was cheating. If we excluded his run from 2001 to 2004, his 1993 season, in which he hit .336, walked 126 times, hit 46 homers, and stole 29 bases, would probably make it towards the back end of the list.
But 2001 happened, and it was the greatest season in baseball history.