Thursday, June 1, 2017

Who had the Best Non-Ruthian Season?

Who equalled Ruth's 1927 WAR? The answer may surprise you (Historian Insight)
Quick, without looking at the Baseball-Reference WAR leaderboard, which position player not named Babe Ruth had the most WAR in a single season (remembering of course that Ruth owns the three highest and six of the top 12)?

Your first guess (as mine was) might be Barry Bonds circa the early 2000s, when he broke baseball with his videogame numbers. Bonds is up there, but by then his defense and baserunning had deteriorated just enough for him to fall short.

Knowing that, you'd probably be inclined to pick someone who put up insane numbers while manning a premium position, like Rogers Hornsby or Willie Mays. I was certain it was Mickey Mantle, either his Triple Crown season in '56 or his .365/.512/.665 performance the following year, but once again I was wrong.

Another hint: he played left field for the Boston Red Sox.

Well in that case, it has to be Ted Williams! The man batted .406, for goodness sake, while slugging .735 and reaching base 55.3 percent of the time in 1941. All of those marks led the Majors, as did his 135 runs, 147 walks, 37 homers, and 235 OPS+. He struck out just 27 times in 606 plate appearances, and was about as close to perfect as one can be at the plate.

It wasn't him. It was his successor, Carl Yastrzemski, who everyone agrees was not the player Williams was. A tremendous ballplayer and deserving Hall of Famer in his no right, but no Williams.

But the numbers don't lie: The best non-Ruthian season anyone ever had was Yaz's 1967 when he piled up 12.4 WAR, meaning he was effectively as valuable as two All-Stars and a solid regular combined.

WAR is not the end-all, be-all, obviously, and it's only accurate to a certain point. Ranking players based on fractions of WAR is a fool's errand given the stat's margin for error. Still, the closest non-Ruth position player to Yaz is Hornsby's 1924 (12.1 bWAR), which is even less reliable given how long ago that was. Then you have another Ruth season (his first with the Yankees), two years when Bonds was on 'roids ('01 and '02), Lou Gehrig's 1927 (11.8 bWAR), and another Ruth season (1924) before finally getting to Cal Ripken's 1991, which is valued at 11.5 bWAR -- nearly a full win less than Yastrzemski's 1967 total. A good chunk of Ripken's value comes from his positional adjustment too, so one can say with a fair degree of accuracy that Yaz authored the best season by a non-pitcher since Roaring Twenties.

Anecdotally, that checks out. Yaz was superhuman in '67, willing the Sox to the pennant with clutch hitting, superb fielding, and timely baserunning. When Boston needed a homer, he went yard. When he needed a single, he found a hole. He famously went 23-for-44 (.523) over the final 12 games of the regular season, becoming almost impossible to retire. Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, who was a coach on that team, called it the greatest season he'd ever seen, and he was Teddy Ballgame's teammate when The Kid batted .406 and won a pair of Triple Crowns. Everyone who saw him play that summer have said similar things over the past half-century, solidifying its place as one of the greatest seasons ever (and only growing with stature when so many seasons passed without another Triple Crown).

From a numbers standpoint, though, I just can't quite wrap my brain around it. His raw stats are great, obviously, but they're not misprints. His Triple Crown figures of 44 homers, 121 RBIs, and a .326 average typically wouldn't be enough to lead one category, let alone all three. There are players who exceeded his .418 OBP and .622 SLG for their whole careers, Williams included, and even Yaz nearly outdid himself three years later. His 193 OPS+ is exceptional, but only the 78th-highest mark of all time. He stole 10 bases but was caught eight times. He played phenomenal defense, but left field is the easiest position to play besides first base (especially in Boston, where there's little ground to cover). '67 was a brutal year for hitters, but Fenway Park was also the best hitter's park in baseball at the time. As such, Yastrzemski's neutralized batting line of .334/.427/.638 is only marginally better than his real one.

WAR doesn't even incorporate Win Probability Added or Base-Out Runs Added, both of which he led the league in and would have given him a considerable boost. So...what gives?

Well, his offense alone was worth nearly 10 wins that year, which is pretty incredible. He generated 69 batting runs--more than Miguel Cabrera ever had. Throw in his outstanding defense (he led AL left fielders in putouts and assists) and plus baserunning, shake it all up in the magic WAR blender, and voila! You get 12.4 bWAR, the same total that Ruth produced during his 1927 season, when he swatted 60 homers.

I guess it's telling that since 1967, three players have exceeded 60 homers (six times in all), but only one man has won a Triple Crown. And for the record, Ruth never won a Triple Crown.

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