Ryan Howard and the 10 Worst Players Ever to Lead the League in HR and RBI
Ryan Howard is the best hitter in the National League.
After all, it very much looks like he is ready to turn up the heat in the second half, and in all likelihood he is going to lead the league in home runs and RBI this season. And, of course, if he does that, he will be the best player in the league and easily earn his $20 million salary for the season.
Well, not necessarily.
Surely, by now we demand something more from our very best players. And while leading the league in home runs and RBI is an impressive feat, it is not the end-all be-all measure of greatness in the league.
To prove, let's take a look at the quite bad players who have led their league in home runs and RBI.
10. Andre Dawson, 1987 Chicago Cubs
For those who accuse me of bias, just know that I have included Andre Dawson's 1987 season with the Chicago Cubs on this list. I revere Dawson like a father, and the Chicago Cubs 1987 season was one of the foundational elements in my life.
Nevertheless, awe-inspiried children often grow up to be jaded adults, and Dawson's 1987 season, in which he led the NL with 49 home runs and 137 RBI, had its flaws.
Dawson's amazing season came in his first at Wrigley Field, and was somewhat Wrigley-induced. He hit 27 of 49 home runs at the Friendly Confines, and he hit a miserable .246/.288/.480 on the road.
He also scored only 90 runs, which means that other than home runs he scored a meager 41 other runs, which was in all likelihood a product of his .328 on-base percentage.
9. Ryan Howard, 2008 Philadelphia Phillies
In 2008, the former NL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player lived in the clean-up spot in the high-powered "AL-style" Philadelphia Phillies offense and simply raked.
In a league-leading 162 games, Howard hit an astonishing 48 home runs and drove in 146. It was a terrific season.
But . . .
Howard also hit .251 on the year, a career low and well below the league average. His 48 home runs came with just 26 doubles and a very low 153 total hits. Howard also struck out 199 times for the second consecutive year and walked less than 100 times (81 times, in fact) for the first time in two years.
Although Howard led the NL in home runs and RBI, he finished out of the top 10 in the NL in OPS and OPS+, a very rare accomplishment for an elite power hitter.
8. Cecil Fielder, 1991 Detroit Tigers
It is often said of Ryan Howard that he is "doing what he is paid to do," i.e., hit home runs and drive in runs. If that is the case, then the Phillies are paying a lot of money per home run and RBI.
In the case of Cecil Fielder, though, no one had any misconceptions about who he was as a player; Fielder was there to hit home runs and drive in runs, and unlike Howard, he was never one of the highest paid players in baseball.
In 1991, his second year with the Tigers, Fielder walked back a little from the dominant force he had been 1990, when he hit 51 home runs and 132 RBI while leading the AL in slugging and total bases. In 1991, Cecil hit 44 home runs and 133 RBI, but his average dropped from .277 to .261, his OPS dropped from .969 to .860, and he hit 27 home runs at home as opposed to 17 home runs on the road. The league was figuring out Cecil Fielder, and he was becoming a one-trick pony.
Interestingly, Fielder is one of the six major leaguers since 1901 to lead his league in RBI three years in a row, along with Ruth, Cobb, Hornsby, Joe Medwick and George Foster.
7. Bill Nicholson, 1943 and 1944 Chicago Cubs
The secret to Bill Nicholson's success is simple:
From 1940 to 1942, Nicholson was a very good player who hit over 20 home runs and drove in over 100 RBI every season.
Then, in 1943, a whole bunch of guys went to war, including Johnny Mize, Dolph Camili, Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter, not to mention a fair number of pitcher, and this coupled with the fact that Mel Ott and Joe Medwick had become old men by 1943 cleared the way for Nicholson to lead the NL in home runs and RBI in both 1943 and 1944.
In 1945, with the return of the war players plus a slight decline of his own, Nicholson's dominance was over and he never again led the league in either category.
6. Bob Meusel, 1925 New York Yankees
Hold nothing against Bob Meusel; he was a very good player.
But his leading the AL in home runs and RBI had everything to do with the Yankees, and more specifically, with Babe Ruth.
1925 was one of the few seasons in which Ruth did not play the full year, and consequently one of the few seasons in which Ruth did not lead the AL in home runs.
This was also the season in which Wally Pipp began the year at first base, and the last season that the Yankees would start the year without Ruth or Lou Gehrig in the order.
Meusel spend the beginning of the year batting third in the lineup, then when Ruth returned and Gehrig broke in, Meusel split the remainder of the year hitting either between Ruth and Gehrig or ahead of Ruth. It was pretty much one of the sweetest spots in baseball history.
The following year Ruth and Gehrig settled into the third and fourth spots in the lineup for good, and Meusel never hit more than 12 home runs in a single season ever again.
5. Gus Zernial, 1951 Philadelphia Athletics
Of course, he also led the league in strikeouts while batting just .268, played lead-footed outfield defense and hit 21 of his 32 home runs at home in hitter-friendly Shibe Park.
4. Chuck Klein, 1931 Philadelphia Phillies
Chuck Klein enjoyed a monster year for the Phillies in 1931, leading the NL with 31 home runs and 121 RBI, while batting .337 with a .983 OPS.
Of course, this success was completely fueled by the Phillies' home stadium, the Baker Bowl, with an insanely short left field (280 feet).
Of his 31 home runs, 22 came at home (leaving just nine for the road) where he hit .401 with a 1.205 OPS. Along with his meager nine road home runs, he also hit .269 with a .748 OPS on the road, meaning that if Klein had not been a Phillies, he would not have put up the numbers he did.
3. Chuck Klein, 1933 Philadelphia Phillies
In this photo, Chuck Klein surveys his home bats and his road bats.
In 1933, Klein won the NL Triple Crown, leading the league with 28 home runs, 120 RBI and a .368 batting average.
On the road, though, opposing players and fans must have wondered what all the fuss was about, since he hit only eight home runs and drove in only 39 runs while hitting .280 in 80 road games.
Wally Berger finished second to Klein in home runs by one and in RBI by 14 in 1933, and there is no way Klein tops Berger that year if not for the Baker Bowl.
2. Dante Bichette, 1995 Colorado Rockies
In Coors Field in 1995, Dante Bichette hit 31 home runs and 83 RBI in 71 games while batting .377.
On the road, he hit nine home runs with 45 RBI in 68 games while, to his credit, hitting .300.
Bichette was perfectly decent in 1995, but without Coors Field he doesn't lead the league in home runs or RBI.
1. Tony Armas, 1984 Boston Red Sox
To this point, we've laid out some pretty pathetic stories of guys being in the right place at the right and leading the league in home runs and RBI despite not having particularly great overall seasons.
Now we come to Tony Armas's 1984 season, perhaps the greatest right-place right-time season in baseball history.
In 1984, Tony Armas had a terrible season. He batted only .268, which is high compared to his .300 on-base percentage. His .531 slugging percentage was fine, and made his OPS tolerable at .831. He led the league in strikeouts with 156, and managed to take only 32 walks the whole year.
But Armas benefited from several circumstances beyond his control.
The 1984 season was Armas's second with the Red Sox after several season in Oakland. This was also Wade Boggs' second season in the league.
Jerry Remy, a major league veteran in his tenth season, started the season batting leadoff ahead of Dwight Evans, with Boggs batting third, Jim Rice fourth, Mike Easler fifth and Tony Armas sixth. However, Remy got off to a terrible start, which led to a reshuffling of the Red Sox lineup, with Boggs in the leadoff spot, Jim Rice moved up to third, and Armas moved to fourth ahead of Easler.
After that, the Red Sox became an offensive juggernaut, with Boggs, Evans, Rice and Armas all finishing in the top 10 in runs scored, and with Evans, Rice and Armas finishing in the top 10 in RBI.
There are a lot of players who could have batted cleanup in that lineup and would have done what Armas did, if not better.