The 50 Greatest Individual Player Seasons in Baseball History

Dan Tylicki@DanTylickiAnalyst INovember 21, 2011

The 50 Greatest Individual Player Seasons in Baseball History

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    There are two things that we, as fans of the game, remember most when it comes to baseball. We remember the greatest teams to play the game. We remember Murderers' Row, the $100,000 infield and perhaps we will remember the Phillies rotation with its own nickname should they win a couple rings.

    We also remember those who had particularly memorable seasons. For example, Justin Verlander had an amazing year, but showing how great baseball's tradition has been, it doesn't even crack this list, and neither does Cliff Lee's breakout 2008 season.

    What does crack the list? Here are the 50 greatest individual seasons in MLB history. While it was not too difficult to pick out the 50 seasons, ranking such greatness and comparing eras is not an easy feat.

    Each player is limited to two seasons in this slideshow in order to keep things interesting, and only one season per player will be in the top 10.

50. Roger Maris, 1961

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    I bounced back and forth between including this or not, and in the end, I chose to both for its excellence and renown, even though it pales in comparison to others on the list.

    In 1961, Roger Maris broke the single-season home run record with 61 and led the league with 141 RBI and 131 runs as well. What keeps it from nearly missing the cut is a mediocre .269 batting average and a 7.2 WAR, one of the lowest on this list.

    Still, the lore of such a season is well-remembered, especially given who holds a few other seasons here.

49. Ichiro Suzuki, 2004

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    Ichiro is not someone who puts up great power numbers, unlike most on this list, but in 2004, he had a great season doing what he does best: simply hitting the ball.

    In 2004, he had a .372 batting average and set a season record with 262 hits, while the rest of his numbers consisted of a fairly typical season for him. His 8.1 WAR was also best in the AL, yet he only finished seventh in MVP voting that year.

48. Joe Morgan, 1976

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    When one thinks of Joe Morgan, they think about his amazing 1975 season while leading the Big Red Machine. While that season obviously appears further on, his follow-up effort was almost as good.

    He won the MVP award with a .320 average, 27 home runs, 111 RBI and 60 stolen bases to go with 114 walks. He managed a WAR of 10, and his leadership led the Reds to 102 wins and a World Series title.

47. Mark McGwire, 1998

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    We may know about all the steroid issues now, but at the time, the 1998 home run record chase was what was saving baseball. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr. were all on pace to break Roger Maris's home run record.

    McGwire did just that, hitting 70 to go along with 147 RBI and 162 walks, good enough for an 8.8 offensive WAR. A .299 batting average is nothing dominant, but it's a nice step up from Maris', plus he had a league-leading on-base percentage of .470.

46. Jeff Bagwell, 1994

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    There's one reason why this season is both low on the list and not talked about as much as it should be: the strike. Due to the season being cut short, Jeff Bagwell had only played 110 games.

    In those 110 games, however, Bagwell had a .368 batting average, 39 home runs, 104 runs and 116 RBI. He was on pace to challenge not only for Maris' record, but Hack Wilson's 191 RBI record as well. Would he have approached them? Likely not, but we will never know; he also never approached that batting average again.

45. Robin Yount, 1982

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    Robin Yount's 1982 season is one of those situations where the surface numbers are merely MVP-like, but sabermetricians will say that it goes beyond that, and Yount's season was among the all-time great ones.

    I may not see it entirely, but it's tough to dismiss an 11.5 WAR. That season, Yount had a .331 average, 210 hits, 46 doubles, 29 home runs and 114 RBI.

    The next highest WAR that year? Rickey Henderson, who had 7.4. That definitely shows some dominance from Yount.

44. Cy Young, 1892

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    On the surface, Cy Young's stats look incredible in 1892, but you have to factor in the era he played in, which is why the season is down here.

    That year, Young went 36-12 with a 1.93 ERA, nine shutouts and 168 strikeouts. He had 118 walks on top of it, and while his WAR was 12.6, he also pitched twice the innings of most pitchers in the live-ball era.

43. Bob Feller, 1946

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    After Bob Feller missed his prime seasons while serving in World War II, he returned full-time in 1946. When he did so, he proved that not only were his pre-war numbers not a fluke, but that he could be even better.

    Feller finished the 1946 season with 26 wins, a 2.18 ERA and 348 strikeouts. Only Hal Newhouser had even 200 strikeouts, while shows how dominant he was that year. He also led the league in walks and hits, but that could be interpreted to pitching over 370 innings.

42. Willie Mays, 1965

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    There are many players who were consistently great. Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux and many others spread their greatness out, and as a result, either won't be on this list or will be ranked relatively low.

    Willie Mays is an example of this, as he was consistently great year after year, with his career year perhaps coming at the ripe age of 34 in the 1965 season. That year, Mays won his second MVP award while hitting.317 with 52 HR and 112 RBI, notching the final of four seasons where he had an OPS over 1 as well.

    His WAR that year of 11 was a career high as well, and the fact that 1.3 of it was defensive showed that he was all-around dominant year in and year out.

41. Tris Speaker, 1912

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    Before Tris Speaker became the leader of the Cleveland teams in the 1910s and 1920s, he was the star of the Boston Red Sox, and his best season with them came at the young age of 24.

    In 1912, Speaker hit .383 with 10 home runs, 90 RBI, 53 doubles and won his lone MVP award in the process. His WAR of 11 was, shockingly, second in the league that year.

    Who was first? That will come in due time.

40. Carl Yastrzemski, 1967

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    It's been over 40 years since a player last won the hitting triple crown. It has become tough to lead the league in batting average, home runs and RBI, and the last to do so was Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

    That year, Yastrzemski hit .326 to go with 44 home runs and 121 RBI, 112 runs and 189 hits, all leading the league. As a result, he was a no-brainer for the MVP award that year, and a massive 12.2 WAR was thanks to great defense as well.

39. Ty Cobb, 1915

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    The king of the dead-ball era, Ty Cobb had many great seasons in the 1910s. One of them that's considered amazing by sabermetrics, even if it doesn't look on the surface to be one of his best seasons, is 1917.

    Cobb hit .383, one of his many batting titles, with 55 stolen bases 24 triples, 102 RBI and had his last season with at least 50 stolen bases. His 11.9 WAR was the best of his career, despite the fact that he definitely had one season that sticks out big time.

38. Rod Carew, 1977

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    Rod Carew was a consistently great hitter, leading the league in batting average multiple times. In 1977, everything came together en route to him winning MVP.

    He led the league with a .388 batting average, the closest we've gotten to seeing someone approach .400 in a full season since Ted Williams. He also had 128 runs, 16 triples, 100 RBI and a 10.9 WAR.

37. Joe DiMaggio, 1937

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    Joe DiMaggio is another on the list that was consistently great. His best seasons were interrupted by World War II, and it's likely one of those could have made this list had he played.

    In 1937, DiMaggio burst on the scene in his second year with the Yankees, hitting .346 with 46 home runs, 167 RBI and a 9.0 WAR. Incredibly, he did not win MVP that year, losing narrowly to Charlie Gehringer and his .378 batting average.

36. Barry Bonds, 2002

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    In some ways, Barry Bonds' follow-up performance in 2002 wasn't all that great in comparison to the year before, but he was somehow able to improve on that performance elsewhere.

    He only had 46 HR and 110 RBI, but he managed a .370 batting average and 198 walks, earning the second of four straight MVPs. Not quite as memorable as his 2001 season, but still great.

35. Christy Mathewson, 1905

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    Christy Mathewson was one of the star dead-ball era pitchers, notching very low ERAs while making the Giants the team to beat in the NL. His first real breakout season came in 1905.

    That year, Mathewson won 31 games and had an ERA of 1.28, throwing 206 strikeouts in the process to notch a triple crown. Eight shutouts on top of that, and it's easy to see how he led the Giants to a World Series title.

34. Randy Johnson, 2002

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    Randy Johnson had a myriad of great seasons, and in fact, it was difficult to pick one or two seasons to place on here. Had it been a top 100 list, it would be a no-brainer to put several seasons in here, but in the end, his crown jewel came at the age of 38.

    In 2002, Randy Johnson won his fourth straight Cy Young Award, as well as the pitching triple crown with 24 wins, a 2.32 ERA and 334 strikeouts, pitching 260 innings in the process and making even his amazing 1995 season look merely good.

33. Stan Musial, 1948

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    Another consistently great player, Stan Musial was part of the golden age of hitters in the 1940s that could put up amazing numbers. Unlike others, it's relatively easy to pinpoint which year was his best.

    Musial had his best hitting year in 1948, hitting .376 with 18 triples, 39 home runs and 131 RBI. A WAR of 11.5 on top of that led to an MVP award, even beating DiMaggio and Williams' numbers that year.

32. Joe Morgan, 1975

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    Morgan's 1975 season is one of those where the surface numbers look merely good rather than anything spectacular, yet this one always seems to be in the top three seasons for a second baseman.

    That year, Joe Morgan led the league with 132 walks while batting .327 with 67 stolen bases, 17 home runs and 94 RBI. That and a WAR of 12 led to his first of two MVP awards.

31. Ted Williams, 1949

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    While 1949 was definitely not Ted Williams' best season, it did have its own tune. That year, rather than focus on a high batting average, he unleashed what was easily his best power season.

    That year, he hit .343 and walked 162 times. He also had 39 doubles, 43 home runs and 159 RBI, all leading the league. As a result, he cruised to his second MVP win; he went on to hit 100 RBI in only one more season.

30. Greg Maddux, 1995

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    While Greg Maddux only barely cracks the top 30 with his amazing 1995 performance, part of that is due to the strike-shortened season, which actually cost him about five starts based on his longevity.

    Nonetheless, there's no question Maddux was dominant that year, going 19-2 with a 1.62 ERA and winning the Cy Young Award. His 10 complete games and three shutouts also led the league.

29. Cy Young, 1901

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    Maybe I'm not giving enough credit to Cy Young for his ace 1901 performance, but he didn't face too much competition on the hitting end besides perhaps Nap Lajoie.

    In Young's first foray into the American League with the Boston Americans, he won 33 games with a 1.62 ERA and 158 strikeouts, with his 11.2 WAR being nearly double any other AL pitcher.

28. Roger Clemens, 1997

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    There's no question that Roger Clemens was a dominant pitcher for a long time for the Red Sox and Yankees. His best season, however, came with the Toronto Blue Jays.

    In 1997, his first year in Toronto, Clemens dominated pretty much every ptiching category to win the Cy Young with the following stats: 21 wins, 2.05 ERA, 9 CG, 3 shutouts, 292 K, 261 IP.

27. Pedro Martinez, 1999

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    A couple years after Clemens put up amazing numbers, Pedro Martinez did the exact same thing for Clemens' old team, the Boston Red Sox.

    In 1999, Martinez put up 23 wins with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts, so he was an easy Cy Young choice. Despite that, he somehow managed to outdo himself the following year and have an all-time great season in 2000.

26. Sammy Sosa, 2001

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    Two of Sammy Sosa's career years were perhaps overshadowed. In 1998, he hit 66 home runs while Mark McGwire hit 70, and he had a career year in 2001 alongside Barry Bonds.

    That year, Sosa hit .328 with 64 home runs and 160 RBI. His 146 runs led the league, and he never came close to hitting his 11.4 WAR again. He finished second in MVP voting, and you can probably guess to who.

25. Jimmie Foxx, 1932

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    In 1933, Jimmie Foxx hit .356 with 48 HR and 163 RBI to win the Triple Crown. He also won his second MVP award, and yet that year doesn't compare at all to the year he had prior.

    In 1932, Foxx topped all those numbers with a .364 average, 58 HR, 169 RBI and 151 runs and an MVP. It was thanks to players like him putting up those kinds of numbers that the Philadelphia Athletics were finally able to turn it around in the early 1930s.

24. Walter Johnson, 1912

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    The dead-ball era in the 1910s had both its star pitcher and hitter. The hitter was of course Ty Cobb, and the pitcher, Walter Johnson, who had his best years in 1912 and 1913.

    In 1912, he led the league with 303 strikeouts and a 1.39 ERA, going 33-12 in the process; his numbers may have been different had he been a starter the whole season, but he was used in some relief work, though either way, the year was amazing.

23. Grover Cleveland Alexander, 1915

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    Three years after Walter Johnson's breakout year, Grover Cleveland "Old Pete" Alexander ended up having one of his own, leading the Phillies to the NL Championship in 1915.

    That year, he went 31-10 with a 1.22 ERA ,12 shutouts and 241 strikeouts. There wasn't an MVP Award released that year, but with those numbers, I think we know who should have gotten it.

22. Mickey Mantle, 1957

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    In 1957, Mickey Mantle won his second MVP award and had a year that either was one of his best or one that left a bit to be desired depending on the stats looked at.

    His power numbers were a bit down, with 34 HR and 94 RBI, but Mantle did have a .365 average, 121 runs and a 12.5 WAR, which ranks as one of the all-time best, and is of course, Mantle's second-best season on that front.

21. Sandy Koufax, 1963

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    It's a shame that Koufax was done in his prime, because the numbers show he was getting better with age. While his 1964 and 1965 seasons were great, 1963 was Koufax's real coming-out party.

    That year, Koufax went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and 306 strikeouts, not only winning the Cy Young and Triple Crown, but the MVP as well. As great as that year was, his last one was no question his greatest.

20. Rogers Hornsby, 1922

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    In the 1920s, the live-ball era began, and Rogers Hornsby's bat was one of the many that came alive. His hitting gradually improved, and in 1922, he had a career year.

    Hornsby hit 42 home runs and 152 RBI while leading the league in pretty much every other offensive category, not the least of which was batting average, with .401. As dominant as he was that year, though, he went on two years later to have what is generally accepted as the greatest season by a second baseman.

19. Steve Carlton, 1972

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    In 1972, the Philadelphia Phillies were a poor team, winning a mere 59 games and not looking like they were going to compete soon. Despite that, they managed to have an ace pitcher who refused to let a bad team hold him down.

    Steve Carlton went on to win 27 games for Philadelphia that year; that's right, nearly half of them. He also had a 1.97 ERA, 310 strikeouts and 30 complete games. Even though it was in a pitching era, it's a miraculous season that's talked about more for the win numbers than the dominance itself.

18. Lou Gehrig, 1934

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    Lou Gehrig is one of those elite players who had so many great seasons that it's actually hard to pick just two. His greatest is easy, and for the second greatest, I went with a year from his prime, 1934.

    The 31-year-old won the triple crown that year, hitting .363 with 49 home runs and 165 RBI, and had 40 doubles and 109 walks to go along with that. The fact that he and his 10.7 WAR finished fifth in voting that year shows that voters had no clue what they were doing back in the day.

17. Ted Williams, 1941

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    Before U.S. involvement in World War II began, the game had its share of major stars in their prime, and perhaps the biggest was Ted Williams. In 1941, the 22-year-old showed he was ready to be a star by having an all-time great season.

    His batting average of .406 that year was the last time anyone hit .400, and 37 home runs 147 walks and 120 RBI were great numbers as well. He narrowly lost the MVP to Joe DiMaggio, and while he had a great season and would no doubt have made a list of 100, Williams' season was easily all-time great.

16. Lefty Grove, 1931

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    Lefty Grove may be perhaps baseball's most underrated pitcher, as he put up his numbers in the first big hitting era. In 1931, however, he broke through and had all-time great stats even in spite of that.

    That year, he went 31-4 with a 2.06 ERA and 175 strikeouts. Only one other player had an ERA under three, and had he not also done some relief work as well, he would have been better, as those appearances inflated his ERA and losses.

15. Dwight Gooden, 1985

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    It's a shame that Dwight Gooden's 1985 season was just before my time, as I would have loved to see just how dominant he was in person. The fact that he was only 20 makes it look even better.

    That year, Gooden went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts, winning the triple crown and the Cy Young Award very easily. His 12.5 WAR is also one of the best numbers in the modern era, and it's unfortunate that he could not sustain those numbers.

14. Sandy Koufax, 1966

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    While Dwight Gooden faltered down the stretch, Sandy Koufax's best season was, no question, his final one in 1966. In fact, he led the league in pretty much everything.

    He finished the year with a 27-9 record, a 1.73 ERA, 323 innings pitched, 317 strikeouts, 27 complete games and five shutouts. Somehow, he finished second in MVP voting to Roberto Clemente; he had a great season that year, but Koufax's was on a whole different level.

13. Christy Mathewson, 1908

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    In 1908, most pitchers were dominant, as any offensive powers were pretty much at a halt. Ty Cobb was hitting well, but few others were, and Christy Mathewson capitalized on that.

    That year, Mathewson led in most pitching categories. He had a 37-11 record, a 1.43 ERA, 11 shutouts, 259 strikeouts, nearly 400 innings pitched and even five saves on top of that.

12. Ty Cobb, 1911

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    Speaking of Ty Cobb, he was winning battle title after battle title throughout most of the dead-ball era, but the 1911 season was a breakout year even for him.

    That year, Cobb led the league in pretty much everything, including batting average with .420, stolen bases with 83, RBIs with 127, triples with 24, hits with 248 and needless to say, he won the MVP Award when it was all said and done.

11. Babe Ruth, 1920

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    While this really should be a top 10 performance, I'm holding to what I wrote in the first slide. After all, where else could I put a 54 HR, 137 RBI, .376 average performance? His 12.9 WAR that year was one of the greatest of all time, though only the second-highest in his career.

10. Charles Radbourn, 1884

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    In 1884, let's face it, there wasn't much competition in baseball. In fact, due to that, I wasn't positive about putting Old Hoss Radbourn on here, but if you look at the stats, there's no way I can leave it off the top 10.

    In 75 games, Radbourn went 59-12 with a 1.38 ERA and 441 strikeouts, the sheer numbers being the result of having to pitch every game during the later part of the season. Many pitchers had ERAs under two at the time, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone even approaching 59 wins in any era of baseball.

9. Hack Wilson, 1930

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    In 1930, Hack Wilson managed to not only have a career year, but establish records in the process that will be very difficult to break, especially since if they were breakable someone in the steroid era would have been able to do so.

    That year, Wilson batted .356 with 106 walks, 56 home runs and 191 RBI. His performance that year was so dominant that I'm having trouble figuring out why his WAR is only 7.4 that year. I'm just chalking it up as proof that WAR isn't the end-all, be-all on dominance.

8. Rogers Hornsby, 1924

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    The top eight are players whose performances, especially compared to others that season, were just incredible.

    In 1924, Rogers Hornsby ended up being known as the guy who hit .424 and who had his name left off one ballot because he was considered an MVP only to himself.

    It's tough to discount a player's season when he has a .424 average, a 13.0 WAR, 89 walks and 43 doubles, all league-leading. His 25 HR and 94 RBI aren't his best numbers, but were nonetheless great, and the only player whose season was even as close to greatness as his that year was Babe Ruth.

7. Lou Gehrig, 1927

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    Lou Gehrig's 1927 season was the catalyst for perhaps the greatest baseball team of all time. Yes, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs that year, but there was a reason Gehrig was the MVP.

    That season, Gehrig had a .373 batting average, 52 doubles, 47 home runs, 175 RBI and an OPS of 1.240, the highest of his career and a mark very few have touched. His 12 WAR was comparable to Ruth's that year, but no one else came close.

6. Barry Bonds, 2001

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    Even looking past all the issues that are evident with Bonds' many records, one thing is true; his numbers in 2001 likely will not be replicated.

    That year, Bonds led the league in WAR with 12.5, and while two others had double-digits, his season stands alone. He had a .328 average, 177 walks, and 137 RBI to go along with the first of four straight MVPs.

    Oh, and those 73 home runs aren't only a single-season record that only a couple other in the era got close to, but they were far more than even Bonds hit in a season his entire career.

5. Bob Gibson, 1968

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    Bob Gibson's 1968 season had to come sooner or later. Yes, it was during a pitcher's era, but it was still the most dominant performance anyone had seen since the days of the dead-ball era.

    That season, Gibson had a 22-9 record with a 1.12 ERA, 13 shutouts, 268 strikeouts and a 12.2 WAR. The only player who was even close to that number was Carl Yastrzemski.

    Needless to say, he won both the Cy Young and MVP that year, and he was still a dominant pitcher the rest of his career despite those numbers being a slight anomaly.

4. Walter Johnson, 1913

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    Once 1913 hit, Walter Johnson was in prime form, and not only did he have an amazing pitching season, but for a long time, he had the best pitching season ever.

    Johnson went 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA, 11 shutouts, 243 strikeouts, a 12.4 WAR and 346 innings pitched, which was actually a light load in comparison to what he had been doing. As for his WAR, only two other pitchers managed WARs over seven, and no one was even close to 200 strikeouts, so saying he was dominant is putting it lightly.

3. Mickey Mantle, 1956

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    As dominant as Mickey Mantle was in his prime, he may have been even more so as an up-and-comer. In 1956, he not only had his best season, but one of the greatest ever.

    That year, Mantle won his first MVP award by hitting .353 with 52 HR and 130 RBI, with a 12.9 WAR as well. The next highest WAR for a player was Duke Snider at 7.7, and his slugging percentage was a full hundred points high than Ted Williams's.

    His unanimous MVP win was probably one of their easiest votes ever.

2. Pedro Martinez, 2000

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    Pedro Martinez's win-loss record in 2000 is nothing special at 18-6. The rest of his numbers that year, however, are just phenomenal.

    He led the league with four shutouts and 284 strikeouts, and his 1.74 ERA cannot be looked as as great enough. The next-highest was nearly a point higher, and in the AL, the second-place one was Roger Clemens, whose ERA was 3.70.

    Factor in a 10.1 WAR, and you have perhaps the best pitching season ever.

1. Babe Ruth, 1921

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    How does one top an all-time great season in 1920 where many records were shattered? Babe Ruth found a way.

    That year, Ruth hit .278 with 59 home runs and 171 RBI and 177 runs, putting up the all-time best WAR with 14.0. As for how dominant he was that year, only one player managed a WAR over 10, his slugging percentage was .200 points higher than anyone else's and the next highest home run total was 24.

    This and the 1920 season were the ones that changed the way the game was played forever.