Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Best Offensive Baseball Season of the 1990s

This was a tough call because offense skyrocketed during this decade, and many players put up some huge seasons. Nevertheless, I feel confident in my selection.

1998 Mark McGwire (7.2 bWAR)

Big Mac had been knocking on Roger Maris's door the previous two seasons when he cranked out 52 home runs in 1996, followed by 58 moon shots in '97 (Ken Griffey Jr. had slugged 56 homers in '97 and seemed poised to challenge the record once more, but all he could do was replicate that total in '98). 1998 was the year the hulking first baseman finally got over the hump, and he shattered the 37 year-old record (and helped "save" baseball from the disastrous 1994 strike) by clearing the fences 70 times.  He had become the Babe Ruth of the modern era, a larger than life legend with Paul Bunyan strength who captivated the nation with his titanic blasts.  His new record stood for just three years before Barry Bonds upped him with 73, but McGwire's 1998 remains the signature season of the decade (even if it was fueled in part by the Andro in his locker). 

Oddly enough, he finished a distant second in the National League Most Valuable Player race to home run challenger Sammy Sosa (6.5 bWAR), who pushed the Chicago Cubs into the postseason with his major league leading 134 runs, 158 RBI, and 416 total bases.  McGwire's Cardinals finished third in the same division, but I can't overlook the fact that his OPS was nearly 200 points higher than Sosa's!  In 2011, 200 points of OPS was the difference between Jose Bautista and Michael Young; one's a serious MVP candidate, and the other isn't.  I'm convinced if they played today, the sabermetric revolution would help McGwire because voters don't seem to value old-school counting stats such as RBI anymore (although they are still important) and place more emphasis on rate stats like OPS and ERA. Ffor instance, in 2009 and 2010 Joe Mauer and Josh Hamilton won MVPs because their rate stats were so impressive, even though their counting stats were good but not great.  Felix Hernandez and Zack Greinke won Cy Youngs without gaudy win totals.  Sosa's numbers are phenomenal and I understand why he got the nod over Big Mac, but if I had it my way McGwire should have won the thing. 

But I digress.  Here are some more eye-popping stats from McGwire's epic campaign:

-Besides pacing the majors in big flies, he also topped both leagues in walks (162), OBP (.470), SLG (.752), OPS (1.222) and OPS+ (216)
-Even though he was a three true outcomes hitter (a jacked up version of Adam Dunn) who batted an uninspiring .263 (roughly league average) for his career, he flirted with .300 but fell one percentage point short
-Hit a grand slam on Opening Day
-Scored 130 runs and knocked in 147
-Socked 37 home runs before the All-Star break, a new record eventually broken by Bonds.  Albert Pujols and Mark Reynolds needed all of 2011 to hit their 37
-He set a record by homering once every 7.3 at-bats, but that greedy Bonds guy broke that record, too.  At least McGwire still holds the career record with one bomb every 10.6 at-bats.
-Another point in his favor regarding the MVP award; he took his game to another level in clutch situations.  1.491 OPS with RISP and two outs, 1.367 OPS late and close, 1.315 OPS in high leverage situations, and 1.310 OPS when the game was tied.
-Was worth 8.8 bWAR with his bat, but apparently the former Gold Glover focused so much on his hitting stroke that his defense suffered tremendously; he committed a dozen errors and was worth -1.6 bWAR in the field.  If only the National League used the DH...

For the record, I was very tempted to pick Larry Walker's 1997 here because he put up monster numbers in every category, but gave the edge to McGwire because of his advantages in OPS, home runs, RBI, and the immeasurable sentimental factor (how many people remember that Walker won the MVP in '97, or nearly hit 50 home runs? Not too many). Also, he didn't have the same quality hitters around him and didn't get to spend half his games in Coors Field, which is a pretty nice place to call home if you like to swing the bat.  Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, and Tony Gwynn all might have have had a shot at this title, too, if the '94 strike didn't cut their tremendous seasons short.  I didn't think it was fair to extrapolate their numbers for the final month and a half because who's to say they wouldn't have gotten hurt or slumped down the stretch?


  1. There's a lot more to baseball than bWAR and OPS. Young finished 8th and Bautista 3rd. Everyone knows Young is the ultimate team player and leader, playing at his 4th position last year to help the team. He finished tied for 2nd in BA and tied for 1st in hits in MLB. Should he have been MVP? No. But, he was in the discussion.

    And Hamilton had no busy finishing anywhere near as low as 7th in 2008. And Mauer is continually overrated since the voters think that the catching position is so void of great players, that then overvalue Mauer. And that he is so great at 'calling' games, whatever that means. His CS % has been good some years, but it hasn't been that good some years as well, which that is only one stat to rate defensive prowess, but a very pretty important stat indeed.

  2. Of course Young was in the discussion last year, he finished eighth and got a first place vote, but I think we can all agree that the difference between Bautista (probably the best hitter in baseball the past two years) and Young (great batting average and counting stats but 106 OPS+ indicates he benefits from stacked lineup and favorable home park) is quite substantial. Not knocking Young here-offensively he's a poor man's Derek Jeter-but the point I was trying to make is that 200 points of OPS is huge. Look at it this way; the average AL hitter posted a .730 OPS last year, while Jacoby Ellsbury had a .928 OPS. In that case, 200 points represents the difference between the average major leaguer and the MVP runner-up. See what I mean?

    I agree that Hamilton got screwed in '08, probably because Texas was a sub .500 team and he faded down the stretch. The league was devoid of any slam dunk candidates that year, and I'm really shocked he didn't at least make the top 5 with those all-around numbers. But he won two years later, so he can't complain too much.

    Mauer was definitely overrated (especially on defense) before last season, but you can't deny that he's one of the best catchers in the game. He deserved his '09 MVP and is a batting average/on-base/doubles machine, but his general lack of power leaves me unimpressed; how does a big strong guy like that only have one season with more than 13 home runs? That being said, I feel that many are underrating him this year and that he will enjoy a nice rebound season.

    Lastly, I know there's a lot more to baseball than bWAR and OPS, but they are better, more informative statistics than "hits" and "batting average" which you mentioned. I like to use them as a measuring stick because they tell you a lot more about a player's performance, but obviously they are not the end-all-be-all stats.

  3. Not sure about that. The rangers have always had great hitters. I saw some years that offense #'s in arlington wasn't that great. I'd like to see #'s on this. Right field is shorter, but left field to right center is deep.

    Young's been a great hitter for most of his career. Great hitters continue to hit well with any teammates. You could say the same thing about most hitters benefitting from having good hitters around them as well. Actually, Young's stats over the past 7-8 years are at least on par with Jeter's stats, if not better. It's just that Jeter was better at a younger age; therefore, has had more productive seasons. Young has been the better fielder. While Jeter has a lot more SBs, he isn't that much better of a baserunner, but gets the nod there. Young still has a decent chance to make the HOF.

    Hamilton arguably had a better year in 08 than 10, it's just that the rangers weren't contenders in 08, or else he probably wins. Just because he won 1, doesn't mean he shouldn't have won 2, so yea, he still has something to complain about. Who do you think deserved the 08 MVP?

    Mauer's certainly good. But, some of his #'s aren't really that special. He's never hit 30 HRs or had 100 rbis, and yea, only one season with more than 13 HRs. Not as overrated as Jeter is, nobody could be, but he's in the neighborhood.

  4. 08 MVP is very tough because no one stood out in any way. If you go by bWAR, Mauer was actually head and shoulders above everyone else with his 8.7. Morneau and Youk were great too, and if they hadn't gotten injured A-Rod and Carlos Quentin would have put up some huge numbers. I think Pedroia was a fine choice, but then again I'm biased because I'm a Red Sox fan.

    Young was very underrated for a long time, but I think he got a little overrated last year. Although he's better than Jeet defensively, he's still a poor defender himself. I think he has an outside shot at 3,000 hits if he can stay healthy and productive for another five or six years. His case is a lot like Johnny Damon's; they both have great counting numbers but were never considered one of the best players in the league (his batting title notwithstanding). They are relying on longevity to boost their numbers. Unfortunately Young got a late start to his career-he didn't become a regular until he was 25. If he can get to around 2,700 hits and keep his average over .300, I think he'll deserve some serious consideration. A few more All-Star nominations and MVP votes wouldn't hurt, either.

  5. That's another reason why bWAR isn't that good of a stat or not that reliable as Mauer had no business being in any serious MVP conservations in 08. I don't know how Hamilton didn't deserve it, but that's what happens when you don't play on a contender.

    Young finished 8th in MVP last year after having a wonderful year for the AL champs, arguably their best player, probably 2nd behind Hamilton, so that's not really overrated. He didn't start the AS game either. Not sure how he was overrated.

    Young's a poor defender, huh? He was on his way to eventually winning a GG at 2B before he had to move to SS, the hardest position in baseball. And then, he actually wins a GG at SS for the worst fielding team in MLB. I think that was a first, so that's telling you something right there. Then, he had to move to 3B, where he wasn't a chump, and now he's 1B. Quite the team player. Well, if he wasn't considered one of the best in the league, then Jeter has no business being counted one of the best in the league as well. I think you're wrong there. Jeter was certainly good, overrated, but still good. Young's one of the most clutch hitters in baseball for several years now.

  6. Mauer was pretty good in '08; he won the batting title, posted a .413 OBP and scored 98 runs while playing Gold Glove defense behind the dish. He won a Silver Slugger and made the All-Star team, too, so I think it's fair to say he had a nice season. Catchers have always gotten big boosts in MVP voting (see Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, etc.) so it's no surprise that he finished fourth that year, especially given how weak the competition was.

    No way Young was arguably the best player on the Rangers last year. Kinsler and Beltre were definitely better, while Hamilton, Napoli, and Cruz all carried the team at times as well. I'm sorry, but you can't tell me that Young (one first place MVP vote) had a better season than Adrian Gonzalez, Robinson Cano, and Kinsler, who didn't receive any first place votes.

    Statistically, Young generally rates as a poor defender. His -7.9 dWAR reflect that, and he led all AL third basemen in errors last year. He had a few plus years at second and short, probably deserved his Gold Glove in '08, and his versatility is a plus. He's a great team player, and the Rangers were wise not to follow through on the trade rumors before the 2011 season.

    And you are right about Young being clutch, as his stats in high leverage situations are significantly better than they are in other situations.