The history of baseball, and its players, are most commonly described by careers and decades. And it’s a shame that in baseball, and actually all sports, people don’t talk about single season performances. Because as incredible as careers are, single season domination might be even more intriguing. Here are baseball’s top 10 single season performances:
HM: Ty Cobb, 1911
Before I start the top ten, I need to give out 2 Honorable Mentions. This is the first. Cobb in 1911 was pretty incredible. Despite the era, Cobb’s .420 average is mind-boggling. He also stole 83 bases, knocked in 127 runs, slugged .620, hit 24 triples, and had 248 hits–a record that stood for 90 years until Ichiro broke it in 2001. Cobb led the league in virtually every stat, and led his team to the World Series. This was Cobb’s peak, but not peak enough to crack the top ten.
HM: Charles Radbourn, 1884
This is a bit of an outlier. I made a cut-off point of 1901, but I couldn’t leave Radbourn’s 1884 season out. Radbourn (and I understand how different the game was back then) finished with a 60-12 record. And that’s not the best part. In his 73 games started, he completed ALL 73, and had a 1.38 ERA. He pitched 678.2 innings, struck out 441 batters, and had a 19.1 WAR. Radbourn’s season was too good not to mention.
- Steve Carlton, 1972
In 1972, the Phillies won 59 games. Steve Carlton won 27 of those games. That really captured Carlton’s 1972 performance. Carlton, surrounded by hopeless players, managed to scratch out a league-leading 27 wins. And it’s not like the other numbers weren’t impressive, he had a 1.97 ERA and threw 346 innings. But the fact that he was able to pitch so well despite his team’s poor play makes this even more incredible. (And you thought Jacob DeGrom carried the Mets last year.)
- Mickey Mantle, 1956
In 1956, Mickey Mantle won the triple crown. He hit 52 homers, knocked in 130 runs, and hit .353. He also finished with a 11.3 WAR. Nobody else in the league came close. At all. The MVP vote was more than unanimous.
- Carl Yastrzemski, 1967
In 1967, Yaz also won the triple crown. But, Yaz didn’t just finish first in average, RBIs, and Home Runs. He also was tops in runs, hits, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and total bases. You know, everything. But the one stat that really shows how dominant he was is his 12.5 WAR, the third best of all time. Can you guess who won MVP?
- Babe Ruth, 1923
Don’t worry, this isn’t the Babe’s only appearance on this list. But, Babe’s 1923 is one of the most underrated performances of all time. The first part of the story is his WAR: a staggering 14.1, the highest by more than a whole point. Babe won his first MVP in 1923, and he deserved it. He hit a career best .393, knocked in 130 runs, and hit 41 home runs. He also had a .545 OBP, slugged .764, and had an OPS of 1.309. Ruth’s 1923 was one for the ages.
- Roger Hornsby, 1924
Roger Hornsby’s numbers in 1924 were a bit underwhelming. He knocked in just 94 runs and hit just 25 homers. But, Hornsby did end up hitting .424, a best in the modern era, and got on base just over 50% of the time. But, to get real sense of how good he was, you have to understand how much better he was then everyone else. He finished with a 12.1 WAR, and was only matched that season by Babe Ruth. It is a crime Hornsby did not win an MVP
- Walter Johnson, 1913
The bottom 5 were tough, but the top 5 were not. In my mind, these 5 seasons are clearly the best 5 of all time. And, I’ll start with Walter Johnson’s 1913. In 1913, Johnson won his first MVP. He won the pitching triple crown with 36 wins, a 1.14 ERA, and struck out 243 batters. He completed 29 games, and had 11 shutouts. Dominant. Oh, and he had a 15.1 WAR. Dominant.
- Pedro Martinez, 2000
This is the most recent season on the list, and that’s important to remember. The fact that Pedro was able to put up these numbers in 2000 is just incredible. He finished 2000 with a 1.74 ERA in 29 starts, and an 18-6 record. He had an 11.7 WAR and struck out 284, giving him a K/BB of 284/32. That means for every 1 player Martinez walked, he struck out 9. The closest person to that mentioned so far is Johnson, with 6 Ks per walk. Pedro was not only unhittable, but he was unhittable in a time period of pure hitting.
- Lou Gehrig, 1927
When you think of the 1927 Yankees, you think of Babe Ruth and his 60 home runs. The fact of the matter is, Babe didn’t even have the best year on his team, let alone the whole league. The person who overtook him: Lou Gehrig. Gehrig was nothing short of incredible. The Iron Horse had just finished his first season and there was no stopping him. Gehrig punched in 173 runs, hit .373, and bludgeoned 47 homers. He also had a .765 SLG% and an OPS of 1.240. He was unstoppable. Ruth may have been the face of the 1927 Yankees, but Gehrig was the motor. There is a reason he, and not Ruth, went home with an MVP award.
- Bob Gibson, 1968
Bob Gibson had the best season for a pitcher of all time in 1968. First, the numbers. In the history of baseball, 36 pitchers have finished a season with an ERA less than 1.50. The top three are Tim Keefe(0.86), who pitched in 1880, Dutch Leonard(0.96), in 1914, and Mordecai Brown(1.04) in 1906. Then, in 4th place is Bob Gibson with a 1.12 ERA in 1968. The next 32 pitchers on the list all pitched before 1920. And it’s not like Gibson just barely got under the threshold. He got WAY under it. But that wasn’t it for his season. Gibson finished 22-9, threw 28 complete games, 13 shutouts, and struck out 268 batters. Between June 6th and July 30th Gibson pitched 11 games. In those games he pitched every single inning (that’s 99), won every start, and allowed 3, yes 3, earned runs. That is an ERA of 0.27. That is mind-blowing. That is ridiculous. The final, and most incredible thing about Gibson’s 1968 is this: In 1968, the National League ERA was 2.99. If you were to erase Gibson’s numbers, the National League ERA is 3.03. Bob Gibson’s 1968 is the biggest outlier in baseball history
- Babe Ruth, 1921 and 1920
So, who could top Bob Gibson’s brilliant 1968? What person could ever touch that? Babe Ruth, that’s who. Oh, and he did it twice. It was so hard to choose between the two seasons, I just mashed them together. Ruth’s 1920 and 1921 were revolutionary. In 1920, Ruth was a force of nature. He hit .376, had 54 home runs, and knocked in 135 RBIs. He slugged a mind-boggling .847, had an OBP of .532, and had an OPS of 1.379. He also had a WAR of 11.9. So how did he follow up his historical, record-setting performance? By doing it again, and maybe better. In 1921 Ruth slashed 59 home runs, 168 RBIs, and hit .378. He had a .512 OBP, .846 SLG, and and OPS of 1.359. His WAR was even better, posting a mark at 12.9, the second best by any position player ever (following himself of course). But Ruth’s ‘20 and ‘21 seasons were not great just because of the numbers, they were great because of how revolutionary they were. In 1920 and 21, Ruth broke baseball out of the deadball era. He started hitting for power rather than average (but it’s not like he slacked in that regard), and it changed the game forever. The reason Bob Gibson 1968 is so extraordinary is that Ruth made it that way. No one will come close.
Sources: Baseball Reference, SB Nation