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)
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?