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December 22, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

The Best Seasons Ever Recorded

by Jim Baker

The Best Seasons Ever
(for position players according to WARP3)

For your holiday consideration, here are the best WARP3 figures ever posted. In the name of contrived drama, we're listing them with the very best saved for last. In the name of diversity, we are listing the 10 players who have posted the highest figures, not just the 10 highest figures. By that we mean, the number of players represented would be a lot shorter if we went strictly by highest figures in that a few of them would make the top 10 more than once.

14.7: Ross Barnes (1876 Chicago White Stockings)

In the first year of the National League, Barnes played like he had invented the game. Actually, part of his approach was taking advantage of the rules of the day that allowed balls that first landed fair and then went foul to be counted as in play. There was much more going on than that for him in 1876, though. He led the league in doubles, triples and walks, on base percentage and slugging average. While it is not known just how many of his hits were of the fair/foul variety, his isolated power was second in the league (to George Hall of Philadelphia), so there was clearly a lot more going on here than a player besting a loophole in the rules. His .371 EqA set the bar pretty high right out of the gate.

14.7: Mickey Mantle (1957 New York Yankees)

Mantle's three best seasons were this one, the year before (14.3) and 1961 (12.9). The '56 season is more well-known because of the Triple Crown, but '57 was the year he had a .400 EqA, set career highs in batting average, walks and OBP and even cut down on his strikeouts to the point where he almost had a 2:1 BB:K rate (which is not to say he wasn't effective when he was striking out a lot more). It was also the one time in his career that he broke triple figures in BRAA (102), something that has not happened all that often in baseball history. (Consider that his predecessor, Joe DiMaggio, had a career-high BRAA of 80). Mantle did win the Most Valuable Player award that year but it was a pretty close affair. No less than four voters thought his teammate Gil McDougald (.289/.362/.442) was the MVP.

15.0: Honus Wagner (1908 Pittsburgh Pirates)

Wagner was in double figures in WARP3 10 times and over 9.0 another four. This is the spike, though, leaping way above the next-best seasons, which were 1905 and 1912 (at 12.2 each). Quite simply, Wagner was playing the game of a different, much more offensive-minded era. He was a man out of context in the best possible way. Apart from winning one of his eight batting championships, he led the league in steals, slugging, OBP.

15.0: Arky Vaughn (1935 Pittsburgh Pirates)

One way to split Hall of Famers is along these lines: those that were voted in while they were still alive and those that weren't. Vaughn had to wait a long time to get into the Hall of Fame. Actually, the first sentence puts the lie to the second. Vaughn drowned in a fishing mishap before he was even eligible, so any waiting he did was on a plane not known to us. Still, though, he was far more deserving than any number of his contemporaries who were shown the hallowed doors long before he was. Shortstops who could get on base and field the way he could were simply not that common.

15.1: Ernie Banks (1959 Chicago Cubs)

Banks amassed nearly three-quarters of his career WARP3 value as a shortstop. His move to first base in 1962 signaled the end of the truly productive portion of his career. Not coincidentally, this dividing line also nearly splits his twenties and his thirties. Banks could always hit, but in 1959, his fielding stats take a great leap forward as well. He actually won a Gold Glove in 1960 but a very strong case can be made that he should have won it in '59 as well. No other National League shortstop came anywhere near his 54/22 FRAR/FRAA. Winner Roy McMillan (22/8) only played in 79 games at short that year, proving, once again, that when it comes to Gold Gloves, it takes a while for reputation to catch up to reality. Of course, had Banks had his 1959 season (in which his EqA was .324) as a first baseman, he'd be nowhere near this list.

15.1 and 15.6: Ted Williams (1942 and 1946 Boston Red Sox)

That was quite a run Williams had from 1942 to 1946: defeating evil fascists as a combat pilot for three years bookended by two of the greatest baseball seasons of all time. Williams had the crazy .419 EqA in 1941, but his fielding stats in '42 and '46 were the best he ever showed, helping elevate those two seasons into his personal stratosphere. I'm still trying to figure out why there ever needed to be an argument about which player was the best between Williams and DiMaggio. The latter had better seasons when the former was a rookie and a sophomore and limited to 89 games in 1950, but otherwise - even in the storied year of 1941 - Williams was the better player. Peak or career, taking into account their respective ballparks, Williams takes the cake. When they were exact contemporaries (1939-42, 1946-51), Williams amassed a 118.9 WARP3 to DiMaggio's 90.4. Another thing I can't figure out is how Williams stood still for that "greatest living ballplayer" crap that DiMaggio demanded be pronounced before every appearance.

15.8: Rogers Hornsby (1924 St. Louis Cardinals)

Hornsby had a career-high EqA of .378 in '24. He came close to that two other times .370 the following year and .374 for the Braves in 1928. It was in '24, though, that his top offensive and defensive efforts coincided to create this super season.

15.5 and 16.2: Barry Bonds (2004 and 2001 San Francisco Giants)

I think we're all still trying to sift our way through these seasons. Even Babe Ruth never had BRAAs approaching the 130s. I'm not even sure the human mind is capable of processing such numbers. What is more, we don't really have closure on their full meaning yet in that we don't quite know the full story as to how they were derived. We do know this: had Bonds been able to make any kind of defensive contribution he'd have the top spot.

17.0: Cal Ripken (1991 Baltimore Orioles)

Like Ernie Banks before him, Ripken spent the second half of his career playing at a greatly reduced level. In fact, he spent so long appearing as a mere mortal (1992-2001) that the meat end of his career seems to have faded from collective memory, leaving in its stead the one-note horn that is his consecutive games played streak. Make no mistake, though, he was the real deal in the first half of his career. It culminated with 1991 when he posted his career-best EqA (.339) and tied it into one of his better defensive efforts (63/27 FRAR/FRAA).

18.0: Babe Ruth (1923 New York Yankees)
(also, 15.3, 15.2 and 15.1 in 1921, 1927 and 1920)

Why 1923 over the insane 1920 and 1921 seasons or the loudly famous 1927? It has a lot to do with his defense that year. This marked Ruth's best FRAR/FRAA (37/23 adjusted for all-time) which, combined with his second-best EqA (.398) put it way over the top. Ruth still has a quarter of the best seasons ever recorded.

Related Content:  Ernie Banks,  Best

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