Sometimes I just like to play around with numbers. So what I did was look at my data at each position to see which players had the most MVP-level seasons (8 WAR), the most All-Star-level seasons (5 WAR), and the most seasons at the level of a starter (2 WAR), with my adjustments included, of course. I also wanted to see, pretty unscientifically, whose MVP-level seasons were most surprising. I don’t know that the lists below are necessarily telling of anything, but I do think they’re fun. Aside from the surprising seasons, my favorite numbers are the 2-WAR seasons. There are some players on those lists who can lay claim to being all-time greats even though we don’t necessarily think of them as such.
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Buck Ewing (2), Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Mike Piazza (1)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Buck Ewing (9), Gary Carter (8), Johnny Bench and Pudge Rodriguez (6)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Pudge Rodriguez and Carlton Fisk (16), Gabby Hartnett and Wally Schang (15)
- Most surprising 6-WAR season: Darrell Porter, 6.71 WAR in 1979. Porter was a historically underrated performer. The story that’s often remembered is that drugs and alcohol ruined his career. Well, maybe. But it was after his very best season, not a down one, that he admitted a problem and checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic. Porter was such a valuable Royal in 1979 that he played almost every day even though he was a catcher. He was behind the plate 141 times and the DH 15 more. His 20 HR and 112 RBI are shiny, but it was his league-leading 121 walks that were particularly special. Basically, Porter was a beast at the plate and adequate behind it. He never again came within 40 of his 1979 RBI total or 50 of his BB total. Still, Porter ranks #25 on my catcher list. If you’re a particular type of big-Hall person, you might be inclined to put him in.
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Lou Gehrig (8), Stan Musial and Jimmie Foxx (5)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Stan Musial (14), Cap Anson, Roger Connor, and Jimmie Foxx (11)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Cap Anson (25), Stan Musial (19), Roger Connor and Pete Rose (17)
- Most surprising 8-WAR season: Norm Cash, 9.00 WAR in 1961. This season has stood out on many similar lists as an anomaly. While Cash did have more doubles one time, he had more H, 3B, HR, RBI, SB, and BB in 1961 than in any other season of his career. He also had a higher BA, OBP, and SLG than in any other year. Cash led the American League in hits, batting average, and on base percentage. He was good enough to win the AL MVP in 1961, though that title, unsurprisingly, went to Roger Maris. Somewhat famously, he dropped from a .361 batting average to .243 the next season, the largest ever drop by a batting champ. Though Cash was a good player for a number of years, he only once has another 5-win season.
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Rogers Hornsby (9), Eddie Collins (8), Nap Lajoie (7)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Rogers Hornsby (14), Eddie Collins and Nap Lajoie (12)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Eddie Collins (20), Lou Whitaker (18), Nap Lajoie and Joe Morgan (17)
- Most surprising 8-WAR season: Fred Pfeffer, 8.30 WAR in 1884. Pfeffer, already put to rest in HoME voting, was a decent enough player, ranking #34 among my 2B. But his 1884 season really stood out. That was the second of two seasons his White Stockings, who would later become the Colts, the Orphans, and then the Cubs, played in Lake Front Park II. Because parks then were built on the land a team could afford, Lake Front II was small. Frank Jackson at the Hardball Times explained that foul poles averaged 188 feet from the plate, power alleys were an average of 266 feet away, and dead center was a laughable 300 foot shot. For reasons of size and credibility, balls hit over the LF wall in 1883 were considered doubles rather than homers. That changed in 1884, and Fred Pfeffer exploded with 10 doubles and 10 triples to go with 25 home runs. In 1885 the fabulous Pferrers moved to West Side Park I, which had more normal dimensions, and Pfeffer smacked five homers. Only once more in his 16 years in the majors would he ever reach double figures.
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Mike Schmidt (8), Eddie Mathews, George Brett, Wade Boggs, and Ron Santo (5)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Mike Schmidt (14), Eddie Mathews (12), Graig Nettles (9)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Chipper Jones (17), Eddie Mathews and George Brett (16)
- Most surprising 8-WAR season: Al Rosen, 9.63 WAR in 1953. Rosen was a supernova, bursting onto the AL scene in 1950 and fading by 1955. But one could call his 1953 season a supernova season in a supernova career. He was AL MVP that year, leading the junior circuit in HR, RBI, SLG, OPS, OPS+, TB, and R. While Rosen ranks only #35 at the position, his 1953 season tops anything ever accomplished at the position other than Mike Schmidt’s brilliant campaigns in 1974 and 1981 (and many wouldn’t give Schmidt the credit I do for the strike-shortened ’81 season).
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Honus Wagner (8), Jack Glasscock (5), Hughie Jennings (4)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Honus Wagner (15), George Davis, Luke Appling, and Bobby Wallace (11)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Honus Wagner (19), Bill Dahlen (17), Monte Ward, George Davis, Cal Ripken, Bobby Wallace (16)
- Most surprising 8-WAR season: Rico Petrocelli, 8.80 WAR in 1969. Petrocelli led the league in nothing in 1969. He didn’t even have his highest RBI total ever. But he did set a record (since broken) with 40 homers as a SS. He also had an OBP 49 points higher than in any other season and a SLG 116 points higher than in any other season. And only once in his career did he post a WAR even half as high as he did in ’69. Had Petrocelli shown the fielding prowess that he flashed a couple of seasons earlier, this campaign would have been even stronger.
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Barry Bonds (8), Ted Williams (7), Rickey Henderson (5)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Barry Bonds (17), Ted Williams (13), Rickey Henderson (12)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Barry Bonds (21), Rickey Henderson (20), Ted Williams and Fred Clarke (17)
- Most surprising 8-WAR season: Tip O’Neill, 8.10 WAR in 1887. Misremembered by some (me when I was a lot younger) as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, this Tip O’Neill was an American Association star, mainly for the St. Louis Browns. His 1887 season was just crazy. He led the AA in pretty much everything – R, H, 2B, 3B, HR, RBI, BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and TB. His batting average was .435 in a season where only one other player topped .367. Tip had only one more 5-WAR season, and four others at even 2-WAR.
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Willie Mays (13), Tris Speaker (10), Ty Cobb (9)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker (18), Willie Mays (17)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Ty Cobb (21), Willie Mays (20), Tris Speaker (19)
- Most surprising 8-WAR season: Willie Wilson, 9.33 WAR in 1980. Wilson was a player who used blazing speed to change the game. Only five of his first fifteen career homers left the park, and a drive he hit off Mike Torrez to lead off a game in 1979 was one of my first baseball memories. It was as if Wilson flew around the bases. By the time the Sox got the ball in, the score was 1-0, and that’s how the game finished. In 1980, Wilson was awesome. Sure, he’d win an batting title two years later, and he’d add four more triples titles, but he’d never have another year with the glove like he had in 1980. His work patrolling CF in KC was worth more than three wins by itself that year. Combined with titles in R, H, and 3B, 1980 was a very impressive season.
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Babe Ruth (14), Hank Aaron (8), Mel Ott (4)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Babe Ruth (17), Hank Aaron (16), Mel Ott (14)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron (20), Frank Robinson (19)
- Most surprising 8-WAR season: Sammy Sosa, 10.07 WAR in 2001. We’re most familiar with Sosa’s 1998 campaign when he and Mark McGwire went head-to-head chasing down Roger Maris. But Sosa was better, a lot better, three years later. As in 1998, he led the league in R and RBI while falling short of the HR title. But the real difference at the plate was his walk total. He added 43 free passes in 2001, which helped him add 60 points to his OBP. To be clear, Sosa had a pretty great career, but this season was clearly better than the rest.
- Most 8-WAR seasons: Babe Ruth (14), Willie Mays (13), Tris Speaker (10)
- Most 5-WAR seasons: Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker (18), Babe Ruth (17)
- Most 2-WAR seasons: Cap Anson (25), Barry Bonds and Ty Cobb (21)
- Most surprising 8-WAR season: Now this is where it gets really fun. Check out the chart below. It includes our eight candidates, along with their career best WAR, the difference between their best and second best WAR, the difference between their best and fifth best WAR, and their positional rank.
Best Above Above Rank 2nd 5th at Best Best Pos. C Darrell Porter 6.71 2.65 3.22 25 1B Norm Cash 9.00 3.83 5.07 30 2B Fred Pfeffer 8.30 2.97 4.70 34 3B Al Rosen 9.63 3.15 5.35 35 SS Rico Petrocelli 8.80 4.26 5.80 48 LF Tip O’Neill 8.10 2.97 5.63 57 CF Willie Wilson 9.33 2.60 5.39 26 RF Sammy Sosa 10.07 3.59 4.71 20
Okay, just looking at the numbers, I think we can eliminate Sosa (20), Porter (25), and Wilson (26) as too good historically for us to be so shocked that they had one season that would jump out as even greater. That leaves us with five guys. Among the remaining, Pfeffer is last in the difference between his best and second best seasons, and he’s also last in the difference between his best and fifth best seasons. He’s out too. And let’s dump O’Neill. He put up his season in the AA at a time, well over a century ago, when baseball wasn’t really the baseball we know today.
Let’s look at a chart with just our remaining three candidates.
Best Over Over Rank 2nd 5th at Best Best Pos. 1B Norm Cash 9.00 3.83 5.07 30 3B Al Rosen 9.63 3.15 5.35 35 SS Rico Petrocelli 8.80 4.26 5.80 48
You know what? It seems like a relatively clear call when we see these three players together, and that’s surprising to me. I went into this thinking it was a battle between Cash and Rosen. At their best, all were truly great. But when they weren’t at their best, both Cash and Rosen were better than Petrocelli.
The most frequently incredible players might have been our 8-WAR leaders, Ruth, Mays, and Speaker. We could call our 5-WAR leaders the most frequently great players – Cobb, Speaker, and Ruth. And the most frequently productive players were Anson, Bonds, and Cobb, our 2-WAR guys.
In an upset, the award for the most surprising MVP-level season goes to Rico Petrocelli, Red Sox shortstop from 1969.