There are no perfect stats, but wins above replacement is about as close as they come. To properly measure how valuable a player has been to their ball club in relation to a replacement-level dude sitting in Triple-A, WAR — particularly of the Baseball-Reference variety — is an invaluable measurement.
It’s an extremely complicated set of calculations that come together and form something of a super-stat. With baseball playing longer seasons than any other major professional sport, WAR is something that can only work in Major League Baseball, especially with how many players teams call up and down over the course of the season.
Whether you pay attention to the stat — or any advanced measurements, or “sabermetrics” for that matter — you’re familiar with how it works and what the baselines of the stat are. If you’re a regular reader here at Baseball Essential, you probably have a good idea as to what we’re talking about here.
But with WAR, Baseball-Reference sets these barometers for the proper usage of bWAR: 0.0 bWAR or less, you are a replacement-level player; 0-2, you’re riding the bench or sitting in the bullpen/filling in for a spot start or two; 2-5, you’re a starter, an everyday player, or a rotation regular; 5-8, you’re an All-Star. 8+, you have a case for Most Valuable Player.Five of the highest single-season bWAR seasons in @MLB history happened to be overshadowed by a teammate's success. Let's take a look at those five.Click To Tweet
Now, under these configurations and general rules of thumb, I wanted to see who has had the greatest season of all-time by bWAR despite not even being the best player on his own team in that season by the same metric. I found the answer, but I also discovered that searching for that exact measurement is exhausting and difficult.
What I also unearthed in my research are some potentially forgotten or somewhat unheralded seasons that were historically great but overshadowed by a teammate’s success. Those scales up above have 8+ bWAR seasons as potentially MVP worthy, and yet, these guys were playing second-fiddle on their own squad.
These are the best second-best seasons in the history of baseball. Note: I did not include pitchers. If you were a pitcher before, like, 1930, then you threw 35o innings a year and racked up 15 bWAR without trying, and that’s unfair. This is a position player exercise.
Alright, you know what, I’m continuing this little note. There are 13 pitching seasons with a bWAR higher than Babe Ruth‘s all-time best by a position player, 14.1 in 1923, including Pud Galvin‘s 20.5 bWAR season. Again, unfair.
5. Dan Brouthers, 8.2 bWAR
In 19 years of pro baseball action, Dan Brouthers, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was worth 78.7 bWAR. He was a career .342 batter in his career that spanned from 1879 to 1896, with a brief two-game, five plate-appearance comeback in 1904. Brouthers’ career-best season from a bWAR standpoint was his 1892 run with the Brooklyn Grooms, but he was the most valuable player on that team, so we’re not interested in that one today.
For the 1886 Detroit Wolverines, Brouthers had a historically great season that qualifies for this rundown. He slashed .370/.445/.581 with 11 home runs, 72 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases, but his 8.2 bWAR was nothing to Lady Baldwin‘s 10.5.
Baldwin went 42-13 that season, pitching a healthy 487 innings, and exemplifying why pitchers will not be a part of this dang rundown.
4. Sal Bando, 8.3 bWAR
Third baseman Sal Bando was a four-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion as part of the dynastic early 1970s Oakland Athletics franchise. He was also on the same team as Reggie Jackson, which made emerging as a solo superstar a trying task. This proved true in 1969, as Bando’s 8.3 bWAR — better than everyone but Jose Altuve in 2017 — came second to Jackson’s 9.2 that year.
Jackson would go on to be Mr. October while Bando, for all he’s worth, would be merely a great player on great teams. The 1969 season was Bando’s best by bWAR, but he would earn MVP consideration as a finalist in 1971 and 1974.
By the way, Jackson didn’t win the American League MVP in 1969. The award went to Harmon Killebrew and his 49-home run, 140-RBI, 149-walk (but “only” 6.2-WAR) season, while Jackson finished fifth and Bando placed 16th.
3. Albert Pujols, 8.5 bWAR
Albert Pujols is one of the greatest hitters of all-time, and in 2004, he was still the best batter on the St. Louis Cardinals. He racked up 8.5 bWAR with his 46 home runs, 125 RBIs, .331 average, and 84 walks to just 52 strikeouts. It just didn’t help his MVP case that Scott Rolen went on an absolute tear that season.
Rolen is known for his defensive wizardry, and when you couple that with an increase in offensive firepower (.314 average, 34 home runs, 124 RBIs), you get someone that oozes wins above replacement. Rolen went off for 9.2 bWAR in 2004, 3.3 of which was done on the eight-time Gold Glove-winner’s defensive side.
Pujols finished third in the MVP voting, winning his first of three the next season. Rolen finished fourth, as the two MVP cases basically cancelled each other out. In yet another infection during the Not Appreciating Albert Pujols Epidemic, Rolen owned 2004 and robbed Pujols of being the singular face of the Cards.
2. Terry Turner, 9.4 bWAR
It’s almost poetic that Terry Turner makes this list. Turner, an infielder for the Cleveland Naps, hit .291/.338/.372 with two long balls, 62 RBIs, and 27 steals in 1906, posting 9.4 bWAR for the third-place finishers in the AL.
Turner was not the best and most valuable player on his team, though, and for good reason. The Naps were named after player-manager Nap Lajoie, who won three batting titles, a hitting triple crown, and now resides in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Lajoie, also an infielder, led the majors in hits and doubles while posting a .355/.392/.465 slash line, 91 RBIs, and a 170 OPS+. Lajoie was worth exactly 10 bWAR in 1906.
If the team is literally named after one of its players, don’t try to steal that player’s thunder, Terry Turner.
1. Lou Gehrig, 11.8 bWAR
Lou Gehrig is Lou Gehrig, and needs no explanation or introduction. What he did in 1927, however, requires further examination. Keep in mind the stat from above: Jose Altuve’s 8.3 bWAR last season led baseball.
In 1927, the New York Yankees first baseman went off for 11.8 bWAR on a .374/.467/.648 slash line, 27 home runs, an MLB-high 173 RBIs, and a whopping 87 extra-base hits. By bWAR, Gehrig’s 1927 is the ninth-best season in the history of MLB position players. You probably know how this ends.
Babe Ruth was also on the Murderer’s Row Yankees, and he is not to be forgotten. Ruth hit .356/.486/.772 with 60 home runs (a record that bested his previous MLB record and would stand for 34 years), 165 RBIs, a 225 OPS+, and MLB highs in runs (158) and walks (137). Ruth was worth 12.4 bWAR in 1927, good for the fourth-best single season in history.
Sound off in the comments if we missed a forgotten MVP-worthy season like this.