Some players have career years in which they far exceed their previous best performance and, as it turns out, any subsequent performance. Using FanGraphs leaderboards, I’ve identified the record-holders of this type.
This post takes a quick look at the players who had the largest difference between their best and second-best seasons in a variety of different statistical categories. Thanks to HHS reader Richard Chester for the idea for this post.
Before getting into the records for the biggest differences between the best and second best seasons, it would be remiss to not mention the true one-season wonders who played just a single season. Here are those record holders for seasons since 1901:
- Games: 152 – Sparky Anderson 1959
- Plate Appearances: 651 – Irv Waldron 1901
- Hits: 186 – Irv Waldron 1901
- Singles: 155 – Irv Waldron 1901
- Doubles: 26 – Al Boucher 1914, Buzz Arlett 1931, Buddy Blair 1942
- Triples: 9 – Irv Waldron 1901, Joe Martin 1903
- Home Runs: 18 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- Extra-base Hits: 51 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- Sacrifice Hits: 23 – Al Boucher 1914
- Runs: 102 – Irv Waldron 1901
- RBI: 72 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- Walks: 80 – Goat Anderson 1907
- Hit by Pitch: 7 – Dusty Miller 1902, Red Morgan 1906, Newt Randall 1907, Tex Vache 1925
- Strikeouts: 88 – Al Boucher 1914
- Stolen Bases: 27 – Goat Anderson 1907
- WAR (Fangraphs): 2.6 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- WAR (B-R): 2.8 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- Offensive WAR (B-R): 3.3 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- Defensive WAR (B-R): 1.2 – Art Kores 1915
- Batting Average (Qualifying): .313 – Tex Vache 1925, Buzz Arlett 1931
- Batting Average (200 PA): .324 – Judge McCredie 1903, Monk Sherlock 1930
- On-Base Percentage (Qualifying): .387 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- On-Base Percentage (200 PA): .397 – Judge McCredie 1903
- Slugging Percentage (Qualifying and 200 PA): .538 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- OPS (Qualifying and 200 PA): .925 – Buzz Arlett 1931
- OPS+ (Qualifying and 200 PA): 138 – Buzz Arlett 1931
Here are the top 5 highest totals for each category among players to play only a single season.
[table id=177 /]
Now for the players with the largest drops from their best to second-best seasons, for seasons since 1901.
139 – Bobby Vaughn: 144 games in 1915, second best was 5 in 1909
Vaughn’s 1915 season as second baseman for the Federal League’s St. Louis Terriers included a majors-leading 42 sacrifice hits. After the Federal League folded, Vaughn played two seasons in the PCL.
Vaughn also takes the prize for sacrifice hits with a difference of 42 between his 1915 and 1909 seasons.
Second in games difference was Ike Davis (see Runs below) with a 136 game difference between his 1925 and 1924 seasons.
643 – Ike Davis: 681 PA in 1925, second best was 37 in 1924
See Runs below for more on Ike Davis.
147 – Lou Klein: 180 hits in 1943, second best was 33 hits in 1951
Klein’s big year came as a rookie second-baseman for the NL champion Cardinals, excelling with his bat and glove (3.9 oWAR, 2.9 dWAR). His B-Ref page doesn’t mention it, but I’m guessing Klein was in the military the next two seasons as he didn’t play in the minors either year and played for the Cardinals in 1945 only at the tail end of the season. Klein played in Mexico after that and didn’t play again in the majors until the second half of the 1949 season. After a trade to the Reds, Klein was back in the minors in 1950 in the PCL before a final season in the majors with the Indians and Athletics in 1951. Klein would bounce around the minors until the 1959 season with the Cubs’ affiliate in Fort Worth.
Klein and Troy Tulowitzki are the only players at any position with 3.5 oWAR and 2.5 dWAR in a rookie season.
116 – Bobby Vaughn: 118 1B in 1915, second best was 2 in 1909
See Games above for more on Vaughn.
Outside of Federal League players, the next highest difference is 110 by Lou Klein (see Hits above) between his 1943 and 1951 seasons.
37 – Earl Webb: 67 2B in 1931, second best was 30 2B in the preceding 1930 season
Manny Machado was on pace last season to break Webb’s all-time mark. But maintaining a record-setting pace for a full season is no easy task. Webb himself was hot and cold (in relative terms) that season with 47 doubles coming in May, July and September and only 20 in the other three months.
Webb’s doubles were 50 more than his other extra-base hits, second only to the Indians’ George Burns who had 57 more doubles than other XBH in 1926.
22 – Chief Wilson: 36 3B in 1912, second best was 14 3B in the following 1913 season
As with Earl Webb, Wilson holds the all-time record. But, unlike Webb (or any other counting stat record-holder), nobody else has ever come close to Wilson’s mark, with 3 players tied for 2nd most with only 26 three-baggers. Wilson’s Pirates logged 129 triples that season, the most for any team. Forbes Field was evidently a triples mecca as Pirate teams hold down 4 of the top 5 seasons for team triples, plus 7 of the top 12, and 10 of the top 17, but with none of those seasons later than 1930.
Second place on the triples list belongs to Joe Cassidy of the Senators. As a 21 year-old in 1904, Cassidy led the majors with 19 triples, tied with Juan Samuel (among others) for the third-highest rookie total. In almost identical playing time the next season, Cassidy slumped to 4 triples (though he scored 4 more runs and drove in 10 more). After off-season surgery for a spike wound suffered the previous August, Cassidy contracted typhoid fever and died in March 1906.
26 – Brady Anderson: 50 HR in 1996, second best was 24 HR in 1999
26 – Luis Gonzalez: 57 HR in 2001, second best was 31 HR in the preceding 2000 season
Anderson’s heroics led the Orioles to a 2nd place AL East finish behind the eventual world champion Yankees. Anderson batted leadoff in 102 of 149 games, with his 35 HR from that spot good for 3rd best behind seasons of 39 and 38 homers by Alfonso Soriano.
Gonzalez’s big year paced the Diamondback offense as they took the NL crown and World Series title in only their fourth season of existence. Gonzalez started hot with 5 homers in his first 5 games and stayed hot all season, homering in consecutive games 12 times, including twice in 3 straight outings. His season slash of .325/.429/.688 included maintaining a .320 average from May 6 to season’s end, and staying above .340 from June 10 to Aug 31.
44 – Charlie Hanford: 53 XBH in 1914, second best was 9 XBH in the following 1915 season
44 – Mandy Brooks: 46 XBH in 1925, second best was 2 XBH in the following 1926 season
44 – Ken Hunt: 57 XBH in 1961, second best was 13 XBH in 1963
Hanford and Brooks both played just two seasons: Hanford was a 32 year-old rookie and an everyday outfielder in the Federal League in 1914, and a part time player the next season; Brooks got called up by the Cubs in late May and was an instant sensation with .398/.421/.825 and 9 homers in his first 25 games, but never made it back to the majors after a slow start the following season.
Hunt’s season with the expansion Angels was his first full campaign after cups of coffee the previous two years with the Yankees. An injury wiped out most of the following season and he never regained his form after that. Hunt’s 33 career homers are the fewest among players with 25 home runs as a rookie. Well back in second place on that list is Norm Zauchin with 50.
100 – Ike Davis: 105 runs in 1925, second best was 5 runs in the preceding 1924 season
Davis’s big season came as a 30 year-old rookie shortstop with the White Sox. He never played in the majors again. As Davis was out of baseball entirely the next two seasons before one final season in the minors, he may have moved on to other ambitions before making an abortive comeback, but who knows.
Davis’s 135 hits in 1925 are the fewest (by 10) of any player with 100 runs in a rookie season.
83 – Jake Jones: 96 RBI in 1947, second best was 13 RBI in the preceding 1946 season
Jones’ big season came as a rookie first baseman, and was unusual (for a rookie) in that he was traded mid-season from the White Sox to the Red Sox. While he put up similar BA and OBP for both his teams, Jones evidently encountered many more RBI opportunities for the powerhouse Boston club. After a slow start the following season (his last), Jones rode the pine the rest of the season. And he really rode the pine, with just 14 games and 33 PA from June onward (including just one appearance in July), despite remaining with the big club the entire season.
Jones’ 117 career RBI are second fewest among players with 90 RBI as a rookie. Only Charlie Hanford (see XBH above) with 112 RBI (all in the Federal League) had less.
WAR (Fangraphs version)
5.6 – Lou Klein: 6.1 WAR in 1943, second best was 0.5 WAR in 1949
Klein’s 1943 WAR on Baseball-Reference is tops among rookie second basemen, with his 5.8 mark just edging out Joe Morgan at 5.7. On Fangraphs, Klein’s 6.1 trails Bill Kenworthy‘s Federal League 6.3 mark in 1914 (only 4.8 on Baseball-Reference) with Bobby Grich at 5.4 (4.8 on Baseball-Reference) and Morgan at 5.1. However you slice it, it was a fine season for Klein about which more is mentioned above under Hits.
73 – Marty Berghammer: 83 BB in 1915, second best was 10 BB in both 1913 and 1914
Despite those 83 walks and a .371 OBP, Berghammer could do no better than a 95 OPS+ (though with 96 runs) for the Federal League’s Pittsburgh Rebels. Berghammer, who had jumped from the Reds, was unable to jump back when the Federal League folded, and instead played 10 more seasons in the minors, all with the American Association’s St. Paul Saints.
Ike Davis (see Runs above) takes second place with a walk difference of 69 (71 vs. 2) between his 1925 and 1924 seasons.
Hit by Pitch
24 – Ron Hunt: 50 HBP in 1970, second best was 26 HBP in both 1969 and 1971
Actually, there was another category (besides triples) where nobody else has come close to the single season record-holder. Ron Hunt has a comfortable 15 HBP margin over runner-up Don Baylor‘s total of 35 in 1986. Hunt led the majors in HBP for 6 straight seasons (1968-73) and was never below 24 HBP in that period. He was the career leader with 243 when he retired (he now stands fourth). All of that translated into a lifetime .368 OBP, higher than his SLG mark and 95 points better than his batting average.
99 – Jack McCandless: 99 SO in 1915, second highest was 0 in the preceding 1914 season
McCandless played only in the Federal League, leading that circuit in whiffs in 1915 after having none in 35 plate appearances the year before.
Outside of the Federal League, the largest difference is 98 by Orestes Destrade (130 in 1993, 32 in 1994).
53 – Eric Yelding: 64 SB in 1990, second best was 11 SB in both 1989 and 1991
Despite those 64 steals, Yelding managed just 69 runs scored, in part due to a majors-leading 25 times caught stealing. After debuting the season before at shortstop, Yelding played most of 1990 in the outfield (though he still had 40 games at short) before moving back to shortstop in 1991. But, doesn’t matter where you play if you can’t crack 70 OPS+, which Yelding never did in 5 big league seasons.
Yelding’s 64 stolen bases in 1990 are second only to Houston teammate Gerald Young‘s 65 in 1988, among seasons since 1951 with a stolen base success rate under 72%. Young and Yelding in 1988-90 made it 3 years in a row for an Astro to lead the NL in caught stealing.
For the rate stats, I’ve grouped these into marks for qualifying seasons and for 200 PA seasons.
Qualifying: .101 – Doc Farrell: .316 in 1927, second best was .215 in following 1928 season
200 PA: .119 – Tom Saffell: .322 in 1949, second best was .203 in following 1950 season
Following an impressive 1926 rookie campaign (.287/.341/.392), Farrell’s hot start in 1927 (.387/.442/.535 through 42 games) was enough for the Braves to offer up promising right-hander Larry Benton to acquire the slugging shortstop from the Giants. Farrell finished off a decent season in Boston, then nosedived, while Benton went 25-9 for the Giants in 1928 with a 142 ERA+. It would be 8 years before Boston reacquired a spent Benton. But, at least they managed to dump Farrell back on the Giants in 1929.
After cratering in 1950, the 28 year-old Saffell dove deeper still to a Bill Bergen-esque 32 OPS+ over his final 244 PA.
Qualifying: .128 – Jim Hickman: .419 in 1970, second best was .291 in 1963
200 PA: .121 – Tom Saffell: .385 in 1949, second best was .264 in following 1950 season
Those were Hickman’s only two qualifying seasons, but he did have 5 other seasons of 400 PA and one more just under that mark. 1970 was definitely his career year with 155 OPS+ and an All-Star selection for the Cubs. Hickman followed that up with four more very serviceable seasons of .260/.356/.422 and 111 OPS+.
See Batting Average above for a few words on the unfortunate Tom Saffell.
Qualifying: .220 – Larry Sheets: .563 in 1987, second best was .343 in following 1988 season
200 PA: .217 – Tex Erwin: .445 in 1911, second best was .228 in preceding 1910 season
Those were the only qualifying seasons for Sheets, who had four other seasons above 300 PA. These two seasons split his career into two equal-sized but very different halves, with 1250 PA of 127 OPS+ through 1987 and 1252 PA of 88 OPS+ from 1988 onward.
That nice improvement from 1910 to 1911 didn’t take and Erwin regressed to his below-replacement-level mean over the remaining 100 games and 240 PA of his career. Brent Lillibridge may yet exceed Erwin’s mark. Lillibridge currently has a .231 difference between his 2011 (.505) and 2012 (.274) seasons. With a -26 OPS+ in 2013, there may not be many more games in the 30 year-old’s career.
Qualifying: .311 – Jim Hickman: 1.001 in 1970, second best was .690 in 1963
200 PA: .306 – Tex Erwin: .811 in 1911, second best was .505 in preceding 1910 season
See On-Base Percentage above for more about Jim Hickman. See Slugging Percentage above for more about Tex Erwin. Brent Lillibridge may yet surpass Erwin. Lillibridge currently has a .321 difference between his 2011 (.845) and 2012 (.524) seasons.
Here are the top 5 biggest declines from highest to second-highest season totals, for each category.
[table id=178 /]
Let me know if this is interesting or not. If you like it, I’ll do a similar post on pitchers.