Jose Bautista Joins 50-Home Run Club: Ranking All 42 50-Homer Seasons
When the player's strike of 1994-95 ended, Major League Baseball began its 120th season of play. In the first 119 years, 50 home runs was a nearly unreachable plateau, reserved for the game's true elite: It had been done only 18 times, by 11 players. Cecil Fielder had last reached the lofty mark, in 1990. Before him, no player had smashed 50 since George Foster in 1977.
That season, despite a strike-shortened 143-game schedule, Albert Belle cranked 50 home runs (and 52 doubles). It was the beginning of the long-ball era, and for 12 years there would be no letting up. Beginning with Belle, 23 players reached or exceeded 50 bombs in a single season from 1995-2007. Much of this, of course, was the result of well-documented steroid use. Still, the tater frenzy is historically remarkable.
For two consecutive seasons, though, the long balls dried up. No superstar, not even the venerable Albert Pujols, reached 50 homers in 2008 or 2009.
To re-open the doors to what was once one of baseball's most elite sanctums, it took a virtually unknown 29 year-old journeyman named Jose Bautista. In a year otherwise known for the dominant performances of a dozen or more pitchers, Bautista's 52 home runs (with a week still to play) stand out.
But where does Bautista's power binge rank among the all-time list of 50-homer sluggers? The following is a ranking of all 42 50-home run season in MLB history. In formulating the rankings, steroid allegations and relative strength of league were considered, as was the run environment of the era in which the feat was accomplished.
Who's No. 1? Who's No. 42? Where do the infamous but dominant campaigns of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire rank? Read on.
42. Andruw Jones, 2005
.263 AVG/.347 OBP/.575 SLG, 51 HR
Jones possesses the lowest batting average (for now—Bautista will need to keep his pace during the final week to best Jones), lowest on-base percentage and lowest slugging average in any 50-homer season in history. He had just 24 doubles to go with his 51 big flies, and was "only" 36 percent better than the league average hitter that year. Those numbers would be impressive in comparison with lesser company, but Jones' season chokes on the rarefied air of the 50 home run club.
41. Greg Vaughn, 1998
.272/.363/.597, 50 HR
Probably steroid-fueled and not especially overwhelming anyway, Vaughn's 1998 flew even further under the radar because of the (count 'em) three players who hit more than his 50 homers.
There are sometimes great stories to be mined from the men who just miss the headlines of history, and Vaughn was an underrated success: He walked over 12 percent of the time in his career, which puts him in the company of great hitters like Dick Allen and Jayson Werth. He also played good defense in left field and could run in his early years. He probably enhanced himself along the way, but Vaughn had a memorable season on a Padres team that improbably reached the World Series—where Greg Vaughn hit two home runs.
40. Sammy Sosa, 1999
.288/.367/.635, 63 HR
Sosa's encore to the great home run race of 1998 was the least impressive of his four incredible seasons. His plate discipline had not yet developed the way it would later in his career, and the 1999 season marked the beginning of the end for Sosa's always inconsistent defense in right field. Still, his 63 homers are impossible to ignore.
Sosa's season might merit higher placement, but for the very distinct possibility that he used steroids during that campaign. This, of course, is not the last time we will hear that.
39. Ken Griffey, Jr. 1998
.284/.365/.611, 56 HR
Given the lack of good evidence that Griffey ever used the juice, this may be a bit harsh. Taking fielding into consideration would also elevate him quite a bit, but as home runs are not hit with a mitt, I left that out of all consideration when ranking the 42.
Griffey didn't draw many walks for a power hitter and his speed had somewhat decreased by 1998, his 10th big-league season. "The Kid" is a surefire Hall of Fame center fielder, but his second 50-homer campaign just wasn't one of the all-time greats.
38. Brady Anderson, 1996
.297/.396/.637, 50 HR
Anderson had 74 career homers in almost 950 games entering the 1996 season. He was already 32 years old and relied mostly on speed. The future was not bright.
Out of nowhere, though, the slim left-handed hitter suddenly discovered his power stroke. Fifty home runs later, he returned to essentially the place from whence he had come in 1997, cracking just 18 homers. His 210 career blasts rank lowest of any player who hit 50 or more in one season, except (for now) Bautista.
That said, Anderson's season itself was impressive: a .396 OBP as, primarily, the team's leadoff hitter, added to the 50 moonshots and 21 stolen bases. If it weren't so apparent that Anderson used steroids that season, this all-around campaign would rank much higher.
37. Alex Rodriguez, 2002
.300/.392/.623, 57 HR
Only Rodriguez and Mark McGwire (whose years were so good they get some measure of dispensation) have admitted publicly to using performance-enhancing drugs during seasons in which they belted 50 or more homers.
Rodriguez was insane in '02, cranking 57 drives over the walls of (especially) Texas's tiny home park in Arlington. He pled guilty of fraud in the court of public opinion, however, and mitigation of his accomplishments will be a part of the sentence for the foreseeable future.
36. Rodriguez, 2001
.318/.399/.622, 52 HR
Different season, same story. A-Rod could have done it clean, at least once. In 2001, however, he admits to having cheated his way to the top. Still, give him credit for playing all 162 games in his first season with the Rangers, and for needing next-to no time to adjust.
35. Prince Fielder, 2007
..288/.395/.618, 50 HR
Because Fielder played in the minor leagues during the era when MLB began rigorous testing of young players for PEDs, it's pretty safe to say that the Prince got his long balls the right way.
A tremendous mass of a man, Fielder fills up the entire left-handed batter's box and forces pitchers to pitch into his strength over the outer half of the plate. He could not quite manage a 51st tater, which would have tied his estranged father's 1990 total, but Fielder still had a terrific season en route to becoming the youngest player (a tender 23) to ever hit 50 in one year.
34. David Ortiz, 2006
.287/.413/.636, 54 HR
Ortiz was popular in Boston right away, and became a fan favorite on his way to winning the MVP in 2005. In 2006, however, Red Sox nation truly became Papi's people.
Ortiz drew 119 walks and struck out just 117 times during that '06 campaign, proving himself the best and scariest hitter in the American League. He gets penalized somewhat for his one-dimensional game (he mostly played DH even then), but those numbers are still staggering.
33. Griffey, 1997
.304/.382/.646, 56 HR
Griffey's first of back-to-back legendary seasons was the better of the two. He had the full offensive arsenal at his disposal that year, smashing 34 doubles to go along with the league-leading 56 blasts and 147 RBI. It's too bad injuries so limited Griffey during the second half of his career; he had a chance to be one of the five best ever.
32. Cecil Fielder, 1990
.277/.377/.592, 51 HR
In the entire decade of the 1980s, no one hit 50 homers in one year. Fielder made sure the 1990s wouldn't go the same way, becoming the first American League slugger to reach 50 bombs since Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris did so in 1961.
His famous girth made Fielder somewhat one-dimensional, but he could hit fly balls and draw walks, and did both to great effect in 1990.
31. Sosa, 1998
.308/.377/.647, 66 HR
"Swung on, high drive, BELTED," yelled Cubs play-by-play man Chip Caray. "Move over, Maris! Look out, Mark McGwire, you've got company!"
Sosa circled the bases to an unprecedented Wrigley Field roar, the park as full as it has been since the institution of fire codes 40 years earlier. It was his 62nd home run of a magical season, and it caught him up to McGwire for the first time in over two weeks. He took a long curtain call, and then another.
Sosa and McGwire became so beloved and iconic during that season that it's sometimes difficult to imagine the degree of contempt in which many now hold them. Sosa hit 66 homers, drove in a league-best 158 runs and led the Cubs to the postseason for the first time in the decade. It may have been juicy, but it was an exceptional all-around year.
30. George Foster, 1977
.320/.382/.630, 52 HR
Though the Year of the Pitcher drove MLB to offensive-minded reform beginning in 1969, the game still belonged to pitchers and speed demons throughout the 1970s. Foster cranked 52 homers in 1977, becoming the first player to reach 50 since Willie Mays circa 1965.
Foster had the build of an all-around athlete, but never quite developed the plate discipline to become an elite hitter. At his prime, though, he was the senior circuit's premier power threat: He led the league in RBI each year from 1976-78, and in homers in both '77 and '78.
29. Mark McGwire, 1997
.274/.393/.646, 58 HR
Another admitted steroid cheat, another lower ranking than the numbers dictate. McGwire's prodigious power and walk totals, however, make him a bit stronger all-around than Rodriguez. Big Mac hit a preposterous 58 long balls despite a mid-season trade to St. Louis. The 70-homer outburst with which McGwire would let loose the following season seemed eminently possible.
28. Ryan Howard, 2006
.313/.425/.659, 58 HR
Howard is (so far) the post-steroid era home run champion. He clubbed 58 big flies in 2006, walked all the time, hit majestic shots and generally murdered National League pitching. Like the younger Fielder, Howard came by way of a minor league system intent upon eradicating steroid use, so the good odds are that he did it cleanly.
If so, Howard's season may be one of the best in the last 20 years. His placement here on the list is more a reflection of the incredible dominance of those ahead of him than of any deficiencies in his own performance.
27. Sosa, 2000
.320/.406/.634, 50 HR
Sosa added balance to his offensive game beginning in 2000, and raked all year despite strikingly little protection in the Cubs' order. Again, PED allegations come into play, but Sosa's better years remain well-placed on the list for obvious reasons.
26. Johnny Mize, 1947
.302/.384/.618, 51 HR
Johnny Mize gave up three of what might have been his most productive seasons to serve in the armed forces during World War II. Therefore, he was already 34 years old in 1947, and had not yet reached his full potential—though he had already won two home run titles, with St. Louis before the War.
As a New York Giant in '47, Mize finally broke into the world of home run immortality. He hit 51 homers, led the league with 138 RBI and scored a staggering 137 runs. It took a Veteran's Committee vote to get Mize the Hall of Fame berth he had long deserved, in 1981.
25. McGwire, 1999
.278/.424/.697, 65 HR
It's easy to look back at McGwire, knowing he was artificially powerful, and see a caricature. His muscles were certainly cartoonish long before 1999.
Pitchers never thought so. They pitched in fear, walking McGwire 133 times. Big Mac responded by mashing everything they put near the plate, belting 65 homers while managing only 58 singles.
24. Luis Gonzalez, 2001
.325/.429/.688, 57 HR
Floating the game-winning single into left field in Game 7 of the World Series probably shouldn't qualify Gonzalez for extra points. Too bad.
Gonzalez's season is suspicious in hindsight, but it was a heck of a season. Gonzalez became a fan favorite in Arizona, where he was welcomed back from retirement this August in a pregame ceremony. He also holds the distinction of having the widest stance of any 50-home run hitter—maybe of any hitter. That adjustment came in 2000, and might help explain away Gonzo's breakout season. Of course, performance-enhancing drugs might help explain it, too.
23. Rodriguez, 2007
.314/.422/.645, 54 HR
Rodriguez says he was off the juice by 2007, which (if true) makes that one very strong stat line. Plate discipline came with maturity for A-Rod, leading to 95 walks and fewer strikeouts than he had had since 1999.
Along the way, he hit his 500th home run and won his third MVP. Rodriguez also scored a career-high 143 runs that season.
22. Jose Bautista, 2010
.264/.384/.627, 52 HR through Sunday
Laugh if you must, but Bautista has accomplished a lot in a season otherwise dominated by pitching. His park-adjusted OPS is 70 percent better than the league average, and no other hitter in the American League has more than 38 bombs, and only Albert Pujols (with 42) is within 10 of Bautista in the NL. The lack of superhuman home-run power elsewhere in the league makes Bautista's 52 homers amazing.
21. Albert Belle, 1995
.317/.401/.690, 50 HR
Was Albert Belle clean when he hit 50 home runs in 1995? Perhaps not. Was he ever nominated for a Man of the Year award? Probably not.
Albert Belle could hit, though, and in 1995 he had one of the all-time great seasons in the history of power hitters. In just 143 games (not because of injury but because of the strike that had obliterated baseball the previous year), Belle mashed 103 extra-base hits and went yard 50 times, despite playing in a pitcher-friendly park in Cleveland. It remains one of the underrated single-season explosions in modern baseball history, likely for reasons (the hangover effect of the strike especially) outside Belle's control.
20. McGwire, 1996
.312/.467/.730, 52 HR
If the above numbers look too good to be true—and they should—then this will really knock your socks off: McGwire did all this in a mere 130 games, and fewer than 550 plate appearances. Juan Gonzalez won the American League MVP award in 1996, in a vote that must have been overseen by a Russian judge.
Adjusted for his roomy home park in Oakland, McGwire was a stunning 96 percent better than the average junior circuit hitter that year. Of course, with retroactive perspective, his accomplishments diminish somewhat, but he remains the scariest pure power hitter ever from the right side of the plate.
19. Roger Maris, 1961
.269/.372/.620, 61 HR
To have hit 50 home runs in one year and to have won back-to-back MVP awards during a career is a rare set of accomplishments. Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx and Barry Bonds did it, but Babe Ruth didn't. Neither did any of the modern-era sluggers. Roger Maris did.
Maris' plight during that season has been well-documented. He hated the dramatic increase in media attention, hated being above the law in the clubhouse. Yet, he was. Maris may be rightfully called the single-season home run champion of the pre-steroid era. He earned it. He led the league in homers, RBI and runs scored in 1961.
18. Ralph Kiner, 1947
.313/.417/.639, 51 HR
Ralph Kiner only played 10 years in the major leagues. He led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. He hit 50 or more homers in two of them.
Kiner also walked 17 more times than he struck out in 1947, 98-81. For his career, he drew almost 275 more walks than whiffs. He had 78 extra-base hits in '47 and led the league in OPS, but finished sixth in MVP voting. Perhaps that's fair: It was only his second season, after all. He had time yet to win the award.
17. Willie Mays, 1955
.319/.400/.659, 51 HR
Mays may be the best all-around player of all time, and certainly had the best speed of any 50-homer hitter: he stole 24 bases in just 28 tries in 1955. He also led the league in triples that year, totaling 82 extra-base hits despite playing his home games in the quirky Polo Grounds, which many say played away from his power at the plate.
16. McGwire, 1998
.299/.470/.752, 70 HR
If it weren't for the admitted use of illegal substances, this season would merit top-three consideration on even this illustrious list. Beyond the obvious (he broke the all-time single-season home run record), McGwire drew 162 walks and was, if you can believe it, 2.16 times as valuable as the league average hitter that year. Sosa won the MVP by virtue of playing for a better team and driving in more runs; McGwire earned it though.
15. Sosa, 2001
.328/.436/.737, 64 HR
Sosa drove in 160 runs in 2001, despite a woeful offense that drove other teams to issue more intentional free passes to Sosa than to any other big leaguer—including Barry Bonds.
The Cubs looked like Cinderella until the wheels came off their carriage in August, but Sosa was magnificent all season. Ten days after the Sept. 11 attacks, he hit a home run at Wrigley Field and took a small U.S. flag around the bases. On Oct. 7, after the death of long-time Cubs TV man Arne Harris, Sosa hit his 64th homer in his final at-bat of the season, and (instead of his usual dugout camera routine) held up a sign reading: 'Arne, that was for you.'
Self-indulgent? Yes. Sosa always was, to one degree or another. But you can't deny the flair for the dramatic, or Sosa's remarkable numbers in 2001.
14. Hank Greenberg, 1938
.315/.438/.683, 58 HR
Many have alleged that opposing pitchers stopped giving Greenberg anything to hit during the final two weeks of the 1938 season, so as to avoid seeing Ruth's record of 60 fall into the hands of the Jewish slugger.
Whether or not that is true, Greenberg hit for prodigious power in 1938, during a time when home runs still were not the vogue method of run scoring. He walked a staggering 119 times that season, against only 92 strikeouts.
Greenberg gave up three and a half seasons to fight in WWII, and never returned to full strength thereafter. If he had, he might well have hit 500 or more home runs.
13. Hack Wilson, 1930
.356/.454/.723, 56 HR
Wilson set National League records in '30 for both home runs and RBI. In fact, his RBI total (191 for the year) may be the most untouchable record in baseball. Overall, Wilson has one of the Hall of Fame's weaker resumes, but the 1930 season was an impressive zenith for him. The home run title he won that year marked his fourth career title; it would be his last.
Wilson declined quickly after age 30, and it is now easy to forget that (for just one season, perhaps) he was better than Babe Ruth.
12. Jimmie Foxx, 1938
.369/.472/.704, 50 HR
Of all the incredible distinctions held by members of this club, Foxx's may be the most exclusive: He is the only player to crank 50 homers during a season in which he also won the rate stat Triple Crown (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging average). It was 1938.
Foxx had 119 walks and fewer than 80 strikeouts, further demonstrating his well-rounded attack at the plate. Foxx was a great player, and because of Ruth, Greenberg and others never got the recognition he deserved as one of history's true elite.
11. Barry Bonds, 2001
.328/.515/.863, 73 HR
Purely on the strength of his offensive performance, Bonds would be at the top of this list. He walked 177 times and drove the ball so ferociously that he would draw even more walks in 2002. For good measure, he also stole 13 bases in '01.
Of course, a prodigious skill set like Bonds's should never necessitate cheating the way he did, and that's why Barry is walking among mere mortals at No. 11.
10. Jim Thome, 2002
.304/.445/.692, 52 HR
This may be the biggest shocker of the list's upper half, but Thome really was excellent in 2002. Absent any evidence that he cheated (and there is none, so far), his 1.137 OPS in an otherwise down year for power hitters demonstrates his dominance. Add in the fact that Thome, like Belle, played in the roomy Jacobs Field, and you get a downright scary stat-line, adjusted for home park: 97 percent better than the average hitter.
9. Mays, 1965
.317/.398/.645, 52 HR
Other than the fact that he hit one more dinger, Mays' raw numbers were down across the board in 1965, compared to his earlier 51-homer outburst in '55. Because of the conditions in which he reached the mark a second time, though, the repeat performance is even more impressive.
First of all, the game all around Mays had changed during the 10 years between his big seasons. Pitching had a much firmer hold; there was more travel; and Mays played on the west coast. Perhaps even more importantly, though, Mays had begun to play at home in the frigid and windy Candlestick Park, which stole so many home runs from him that many still believe Mays ought to have broken the record that season.
8. Kiner, 1949
.310/.432/.658, 54 HR
Kiner was a specimen, to be sure: He was the most dominant power hitter of the 1940s and early 1950s, despite his short career. In 1949, Kiner smashed 50 percent more home runs than Stan Musial, who finished second in the league with 36 long balls that year. Such a disparity between home run champions and their best competition is unheard of, except in the special case of a man not yet mentioned on this list.
7. Mickey Mantle, 1961
.317/.448/.687, 54 HR
It might seem ludicrous to place Mantle ahead of Maris, who beat him out in the great home run race that season. Then again, Mantle had ludicrous talent.
Mantle led the league in walks, slugging average and adjusted OPS, ending up a little more than twice as valuable as the average hitter in a very pitcher-friendly 1961 American League. As has been said by generations of Mantle fans, imagine what he could have done, given good health.
6. Babe Ruth, 1928
.323/.463/.709, 54 HR
I wonder if Ruth felt at all disappointed by his 1928 campaign, given the slightly higher degree of utter humiliation he was used to doling out to Yankee opponents.
He hit "only" 27 more home runs than teammate and runner-up in the home run race, Lou Gehrig—who only hit 27 himself. Ruth did manage to score 163 runs, the most he had scored since 1921. Perhaps that consoled him.
5. Ruth, 1927
.356/.486/.772, 60 HR
It's surprising, but the year in which Ruth famously reached the magic number of 60 wasn't at all his best all-around campaign. Of course, he still led the league in walks, on-base percentage, slugging, homers and runs scored, so he got by alright. He had 43 more homers than Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns, the nearest non-Yankee.
4. Foxx, 1932
.364/.469/.749, 58 HR
Baseball fans will forever associate 1932 with Ruth's called shot in the World Series. But Foxx was the best hitter in baseball that year, as evidenced by an adjusted OPS north of 200—he was better than two average players, lumped together.
Foxx won the first of two consecutive MVP awards that year, playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. Along the way, he amassed a sort of run production Triple Crown, leading the AL in homers, RBI, runs, and slugging percentage.
3. Mantle, 1956
.353/.464/.705, 52 HR
Mantle was a grizzled veteran by 1961; his real glory days came in the summer of 1956. Though he failed in a strong effort to match Ruth's record, he managed a sensational .464 on-base percentage and stole 10 bases in 11 tries. Mantle could do it all, and it showed in the brightest way possible: Mantle won the traditional Triple Crown, the only player ever to do so in a 50-home run season.
2. Ruth, 1921
.378/.512/.846, 59 HR
Ruth's 1920 and 1921 seasons leave six on one side and a half dozen on the other: The two stat lines look almost identical.
But Ruth faced a bit more controlled pitching in 1921, getting on base only 51 percent of the time (as opposed to 53 percent). That is enough to tip the scales. Still, Ruth hit 35 more homers than the second-most prolific slugger in the AL in 1921, which is (in baseball jargon), Ruthian.
1. Ruth, 1920
.376/.532/.847, 54 HR
Other than Bonds's artificially superhuman 2001, Ruth's 1920 is the only 50-homer year in which a batter managed to be worth over 2.50 times the value of an average offensive player. He belted 54 homers, when no one else reached 20, and had a .532 OBP thanks to 150 walks. Only the batting title eluded him, as it would in all but one of Ruth's 22 seasons. Wherever he rests, here's hoping the Babe can stand the memory of that loss.
Given his placement on a list of some of baseball's best-ever offensive seasons (note that all four of his qualifying years fall within the top six), his legacy has clearly withstood the decades of assault by hitters both honest and fraudulent. Babe Ruth is the best power hitter, ever, period.
Matt Trueblood is a student at Loyola University Chicago and a B/R College Writing Intern. Follow him on Twitter.