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History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Dustin Pedroia’s Place in History

Instinctively, I feel Dustin Pedroia just completed one of the great seasons in Red Sox history. He won the MVP, of course, led the league in hits and runs, finished second in batting, crushed a whopping 54 doubles and posted a staggering number of extra-base hits and times on base, particularly given his light-hitting position of second base.

While the season was still ongoing, I thought we might be seeing the best season by a Red Sox second baseman ever. In the cool light of December, I’m not so sure.

My goal is to rank Pedroia in with the rest of the Top 50 seasons, assuming he belongs there. The only season by a second baseman currently represented is Bobby Doerr’s 1944, in which he posted a 165 OPS+. Since then, no Red Sox second baseman has even topped 135. I’m inclined to discount that season a bit because of the inferior wartime competition, but it’s worth noting Pedroia’s OPS+ this year was just 123. Now, OPS+ isn’t everything, but it was a general tool I used for ranking the Top 50, and even accounting for the war, that’s a huge gap. Pedroia actually ends up sixth on the list of Sox second basemen in OPS+ since Doerr’s big season. Doerr holds three of those spots, Mike Andrews holds one and John Valentin holds the fifth.

Did Dustin Pedroia have a better season in 2008 than Valentin in 1997 or Mike Andrews in 1969? I think so. But does that still qualify him for ranking in the Top 50, where the bottom two offensive season were Wade Boggs in 1988 and David Ortiz in 2007 (which is almost certainly too low)?

How about you decide. Below is the list of the Top 50, as I ranked them last offseason. I’m interested not only in where Pedroia fits on that list — if he fits at all — but if there are any other changes you would make.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons: Honorable Mentions and Links

Well, the Top 50 Red Sox seasons are done, culminating some months of work. Thanks again for all the great feedback. Credits go to “Red Sox Century” by Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, which provided many dead-ball era anecdotes, as did the New York Times and Sporting News free archives. Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, of course, remain indispensable for their ability to sort and disseminate a large array of the statistics on which I based my list.

When I started this whole thing, I began by using the B-R Play Index to determine the Top 20 seasons in about 10 or so categories each for hitters and pitchers — from batting average to OPS+ to runs created, or ERA to ERA+ to wins for pitchers. That gave me a total of 63 hitting seasons, 58 starting pitching seasons and 28 relief pitching seasons, or 148 in all. I whittled those down to a “final 89,” which, as I ranked them, I was able to cut further to 75. I initially was going to write up a Top 75 list, but chose instead (out of laziness or perhaps realization that my time before Opening Day was running out) to write up only the Top 50.

Still, that leaves 75 honorable mentions, which I list below, in chronological order with the other 50. You can tell which are the honorable mentions because they don’t have links to their individual posts, like the Top 50 do. Without further ado…

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #1: Pedro Martinez, 2000

18-6, 1.74/0.737/.173, 217 IP, 284 K, 32 BB, 11.8 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, 8.9 K/BB, 5.3 H/9, 4 SHO, 291 ERA+
Cy Young, All-Star, Sporting News Pitcher of the Year, MVP — 5

Some day, as ERA+ and OPS+ become more and more acceptable to the mainstream sports commentariat, 291 will be to pitching what .406 is to hitting. Had Pedro Martinez merely put up a 191 ERA+ in 2000, it would have been tied for the 52nd-best mark of all time. But he exceeded that by 100 points.

Let me state this unequivocally: Not only did Pedro Martinez in 2000 post the best season by any player in Red Sox history, he posted the best pitching season ever in the history of baseball. His 1.74 ERA, stripped of all context, is still in the top 100. When considering the league-average ERA in 2000 was 5.07, the mind boggles. No hitter has ever bested the league-average OPS by 190 percent – no one’s really ever come close.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #2: Ted Williams, 1941

.406/.553/.735, 1.287 OPS, 606 PA, 185 H, 147 BB, 37 HR, 120 RBI, 335 TOB, 12.3 AB/HR, 235 OPS+
All-Star starter, ML Player of the Year, MVP – 2

.406.

You know what it is. No labels. No context. You don’t even need to be a Red Sox fan or a particularly serious baseball fan. You hear it; you know it. .406. The magic number.

But 1941 was about so much more than just .406; one could say Williams was so good that year, he managed to overshadow even himself.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #3: Pedro Martinez, 1999

23-4, 2.07/0.923/.210, 213.1 IP, 313 K, 37 BB, 13.2 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 8.5 K/BB, 6.8 H/9, 243 ERA+
Postseason: 3 G, 2-0, 17 IP, 6 BB, 23 K, 0.00/0.647/.089

CY Young, All-Star starter and MVP, MVP – 2

We all as Red Sox fans must have done something right to have been granted the privilege of watching this skinny Dominican throw a baseball.

From the beginning of the season, Pedro was a revelation – proving that his 1997 was no fluke, and that the tastes of dominance he’d shown us the year before were just that: Mere tastes. The main course was so much better. For the first and only time in my life, I remember commentators realistically wondering whether a pitcher could win 30 games. Through 79 games in 1999, Martinez had won 15, and he entered the All-Star game the unquestioned best pitcher in the game.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #4: Carl Yastrzemski, 1967

.326/.418/.622, 1.040 OPS, 680 PA, 189 H, 91 BB, 44 HR, 121 RBI, 360 TB, 79 XBH, 284 TOB, 193 OPS+
MVP, ML Player of Year, All-Star starter and MVP, Gold Glove

There’s a simple reason why this is one of the top two offensive seasons in Red Sox history – most of us are likely Red Sox fans because of it.

We all know the story. A dissatisfied Tom Yawkey, never recognizing the team-building flaws that continually thwarted his efforts to win a championship for Boston, is tired of losing money on the Red Sox. Attendance is sinking – Fenway draws just over 800,000 in 1966, an average of just more than 10,000 fans per game – as is the team, finishing ninth out of 10 AL teams. He begins thinking seriously about moving out of Boston, leaving the Hub of the Universe with no big-league teams.

Then came Yaz.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #5: Cy Young, 1901

33-10, 1.62/0.972/.236, 371.1 IP, 158 K, 37 BB, 7.9 H/9, 3.8 K/9, 0.9 BB/9, 4.3 K/BB, 5 SHO, 216 ERA+

There are plenty of reasons why Cy Young – the first dominant pitcher of the American League – is deserving of so high a rank for his 1901 campaign. The pitching Triple Crown (the first and only time he would manage that), the stratospheric ERA+ (fourth-highest in team history), the silly-low walk rate (which he would actually surpass three times in Boston).

But the real reason is because without Cy Young performing so well, American League baseball may never have survived in Boston. Granted, players like Buck Freeman and Eddie Collins also played roles, but Young was the fan favorite, and his 33 wins equaled 42 percent of the team’s total of 79 (in 2008 terms, that’s 94 wins, and a pitcher would have to win 39 games to equal Young’s percentage, which stood as a big-league record until Steve Carlton broke it in 1972). It should be no surprise that the pitcher whose blazing fastball was partially responsible for moving the mound back 10-and-a-half feet played such an important role in Boston.

Boston scored a coup, making headlines across the country when it signed Young on March 10 – something the Trenton Times called a “clever trick.” He opened the Huntington Avenue Grounds less than two months later with a 12-4 win. In July, he won 12 straight games, including his 300th. He won 20 games by his first start in August and 25 wins before September. Although the Americans slumped in August and fell from the race, Young was the Red Sox’ first superstar, enshrining Boston’s love with its superstar pitchers – those who won or contended for the award named for Young himself, from Lonborg to Clemens to Martinez to Schilling to Beckett.

Key game: Aug. 27. With Boston and Chicago fighting in the first American League pennant race, Young is lights out against Detroit, giving up just a first-inning run. But Roscoe Miller is just as good, allowing Boston to tie in the second but giving nothing more. They match zeroes for another 12 innings before Boston breaks through for a second run in the top of the 15th. Young retires the side in the bottom half, having managed to scatter 11 hits and two walks for his 25th win.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #6: Roger Clemens, 1990

21-6, 1.93/1.082/.231, 228.1 IP, 209 K, 54 BB, 8.2 K/9, 3.9 K/BB, 4 SHO, 213 ERA+
Postseason: 2 G, 0-1, 7.2 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 5 BB, 4 K

All-Star, MVP – 3, CYA – 2

One need look no further than 1990 to understand Red Sox’ fans stormy relationship with Rocket Roger. On the one hand, his regular season was amazing – by many measures his best in a Boston uniform. He posted his lowest ERA, highest ERA+ (despite the lowest league ERA in his career), fewest walks and far and away the fewest runs. In his final 12 starts of the season, Clemens posted a 0.97 ERA with four shutouts, seven games with zero runs allowed and a 9-2 record. Only Bob Welch’s 27-win season kept Clemens from his third Cy Young in five seasons.

The season marked the return of Clemens to dominance. After posting steadily declining numbers since his breakout 1986 campaign, Clemens opened a monster three-season peak with this, his highest ERA+ season until 1997. After 1992, no pitcher had had a better three-year peak from ages 27-29, and the only two to do it since are Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #7: Ted Williams, 1957

.388/.526/.731, 1.257 OPS, 546 PA, 163 H, 119 BB, 38 HR, 87 RBI, 67 XBH, 11.1 AB/HR, 233 OPS+ All-Star starter, Major League Player of the Year, MVP – 2

Those who look for career-year performances at an old age as an indicator of steroid use should beware the example of Ted Williams – who was 38 and 10 years removed from his last full 200 OPS+ season. In 1957, Williams was fighting off injuries and age. He hadn’t played 150 games since 1948, 145 games since 1951. After two years in Korea, he played only 117 and 98 games. In 1956, Williams played in 136 games, the most in five years. While he was excellent (175 OPS+), it did not portend the monster year that would follow.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #8: Pedro Martinez, 2002

20-4, 2.26/0.923/.204, 199.1 IP, 239 K, 40 BB, 6.5 H/9, 10.8 K/9, 6.0 K/BB, 202 ERA+
All-Star,
CYA — 2

Pedro Martinez had only himself to blame. Returning from an injury-plagued 2001, Martinez’s last two healthy seasons had been among the best in the history of the sport. Yet in 2002, he lost the Cy Young to Barry Zito, he didn’t manage to win any of the player or pitcher of the year awards given out by any other agencies, and the season on the whole is overlooked when considering Martinez’s dominance as a member of the Red Sox. This, obviously, is a disservice to the baseball history we witnessed.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #9: Babe Ruth, 1918

.300/.411/.555, .966 OPS, 380 PA, 95 H, 58 BB, 11 HR, 66 RBI, 48 XBH, 194 OPS+
13-7, 2.22/1.046/.210, 166.1 IP, 40 K, 49 BB, 6.7 H/9, 121 ERA+
Postseason Batting: 1-for-5, 3B, 2 RBI
Postseason Pitching: 2 G, 2-0, 1.06/1.176/.203, 17 IP, 2 ER, 4 K

He scoffs when he hits a single, merely lifts his eyebrows at a double, begins to take a little interest in life when he hits a triple, and only begins to have a good time when he slams out a home run. That’s George Babe Ruth, the caveman of baseball, who is whaling away to fame this season with the Boston Red Sox.The New York Times, July 21, 1918.

Putting together arguably the most unique season in Red Sox history, Ruth divided his time as a pitcher and an outfielder and was phenomenal at both. Ruth’s abilities as a pitcher were clearly slipping – either because he was fading or because he was concentrating on his offense instead. Nevertheless, he had this final great year, one of the 10 best in the league.

Meanwhile, Ruth’s bat became a wonder of baseball. The Red Sox as a team hit 15 home runs – 11 of which were by Ruth. Eleven home runs were more than the Senators and Browns hit combined. On the mound, Ruth was second in WHIP and winning percentage and fifth in ERA. Ruth is certainly the only player to post OPS+ and ERA+ both over 120 while qualifying for the batting and ERA titles. Only two other full-time pitchers have ever also qualified for the batting title, with the Giants’ Doc Crandall in 1910 the only other player to even approach Ruth’s numbers at the plate and on the mound.

As Stout and Johnson note, Ruth’s remarkable 1918 season – which showed he was likely a better hitter than a pitcher – was only made possible by World War I, which left Boston short on players and forced manager Ed Barrow to try Ruth out as a hitter in spring training. Baseball would never be the same.

Key game: Aug. 24. Ruth the pitcher hurls a gem against St. Louis, giving up just five hits and one run, with two walks and four strikeouts. On offense, with Ruth at third and Jack Coffey on first, the Babe steals home on the front end of a double steal. The Red Sox win, 3-1.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #10: Ted Williams, 1946

.342/.497/.667, 1.164 OPS, 672 PA, 176 H, 156 BB, 38 HR, 123 RBI, 142 R, 338 TB, 83 XBH, 334 TOB, 215 OPS+
Postseason: .200/.333/.200, 5-for-25, 5 BB, 5 K, 1 RBI

MVP, All-Star starter

Oh, the eternal guessing game. It’s no surprise that we’ll rank Ted Williams’ 1941 as his personal best season. His 1942 is ranked 16th on this list. Then Williams and the rest of baseball’s stars went to war. When he returned, now 27 years old, Williams put up the line you see here, setting career highs in home runs, walks and total bases. The thought of a hitter like Williams playing the three seasons between ages 23 and 27 – considering he recorded an OPS+ of at least 200 in each of the two seasons before and after that – is indeed tantalizing. The subject has been hashed to death on any number of Web sites, but consider anyway the sheer ability Williams must have had to put up the above numbers after not playing competitive baseball for three full seasons.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #11: Joe Wood, 1912

34-5, 1.91/1.015/.216, 344 IP, 258 K, 82 BB, 6.8 K/9, 3.2 K/BB, 7.0 H/9, 35 CG, 10 SHO, 178 ERA+
Postseason: 4 G, 3-1, 4.50 ERA, 22 IP, 27 H, 3 BB, 21 K
MVP – 5

The two greatest pitching streaks in Red Sox history sit side-by-side on this list. Smokey Joe still holds the Red Sox record (and probably always will) for most wins in a season with the 34 he won in 1912 to help power the Red Sox to their second World Championship. For that reason – and as the best starter on the best Red Sox team ever to play baseball (their .691 winning percentage would be good for 112 wins today) – it stands to reason that Wood’s 1912 should rank highly on any list.

Indeed, never mind the lack of black ink. Wood, like many other great AL hurlers of his day, had the misfortune of playing in the same league as Walter Johnson, without whom Wood would have led the AL in ERA, WHIP, H/9, strikeouts, K/9, K/BB and ERA+. And although 1968 is considered the “Year of the Pitcher,” the 22-year-old Wood was involved in one of the most amazing pitching seasons in history when he became the third pitcher that year to win at least 16 consecutive games – tying in September the AL record Johnson had set one month earlier and falling three short of the big-league record set by Rube Marquard two months earlier. Both records have yet to fall.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #12: Roger Clemens, 1986

24-4, 2.48/0.969/.200, 254 IP, 238 K, 67 BB, 8.4 K/9, 6.3 H/9, 3.6 K/BB, 169 ERA+
Postseason: 5 G, 1-1, 3.97/1.382/.238, 34 IP, 28 K, 13 BB, 15 ER

MVP, Cy Young, All-Star starter, All-Star MVP, Major League Player of the Year, TSN AL Pitcher of the Year

There are many things that have sullied Roger Clemens’ reputation over the past 20 years, particularly among Red Sox fans. Those should not do anything to take away from the magic of those first special years in Boston. It was obvious even in 1986 that Clemens was a flawed personality; whether he could get past an injury-marred first two seasons and fulfill the potential that had caused the Red Sox to draft him with the 17th overall pick of the 1983 draft was a different story.

By April 29, it was pretty clear he could fulfill that potential. Entering that start, his fourth of the season, he was already 3-0 with a 1.85 ERA. By the end of the night — 20 strikeouts later — he was a sensation, having set the big-league record for strikeouts in a game. He would win 10 more decisions before taking his first loss of the season. His 24-4 record – the second-best winning percentage in Red Sox history – could have been even better, but he lost a 1-0 complete game by giving up an unearned run and received a no-decision by pitching nine shutout innings of a 12-inning 1-0 loss. In the end, Clemens went at least eight innings 22 times, including 13 times in the 15 starts during which he compiled his 14 straight victories. Those are numbers we may never see again.

Clemens fell one short of the AL record of 15 consecutive victories to start a season, but he did set the Red Sox record (later broken) for opponents’ batting average. Perhaps most impressive – and least discussed – about Clemens’ 1986 campaign was how young he was when he managed it. He was just 23. Of the 413 pitchers to log 150 innings at age 23, Clemens ranks first in winning percentage, fourth in wins, second in fewest losses, second in WHIP, and in the Retrosheet era, fourth in opponents’ batting, first in opponents’ OBP and first in opponents’ OPS+.

Key game: April 29. Plenty has been written, particularly as the 20th anniversary of Clemens’ first 20-strikeout game has come and gone, about that amazing start. The game itself has been replayed numerous times on NESN. Little more can be said about it, although consider the feat this way: Clemens struck out two out of every three batters he faced, and recorded a K for nearly three out of every four outs. Yet his chances of setting the mark dropped significantly when he struck out just one in the third. With six strikeouts through three, Clemens needed to record 14 strikeouts in six innings (18 batters). Which of course is exactly what he did, striking out the side in fourth and fifth, then taking it easy by ringing up two each inning the rest of the way.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #13: Jimmie Foxx, 1938

.349/.462/.704, 1.166 OPS, 685 PA, 197 H, 119 BB, 50 HR, 175 RBI, 398 TB, 92 XBH, 316 TOB, 182 OPS+
MVP, All-Star starter

The Beast’s sudden collapse (139 OPS+ at age 33, 93 at age 34) robbed him of perhaps being at the forefront of the “greatest hitter” debate, up there with Williams and Ruth. It’s unfair, of course, because for 13 years, Foxx was utterly amazing – so amazing that his 1938 season (I have this as the fifth-best by a hitter in Red Sox history) wasn’t even one of his two best.

But it was far and away his best in a Boston uniform. In 1936, Foxx put up the first impressive season of the live-ball era in Boston. After 1938, it must have seemed like no one would ever put up as impressive a season as this ever again. The next year, Ted Williams made his big-league debut.

By the time 1938 drew to a close, Foxx held the following single-season Red Sox records (* still stands):

  • Runs, 139
  • Home Runs, 50
  • RBI, 175*
  • Walks, 119
  • Slugging Percentage, .704
  • OPS, 1.166
  • ISO, .355*
  • Runs Created, 183*
  • Total Bases, 398
  • Extra Base Hits, 92*
  • Times On Base, 316
  • Runs Produced, 264

Williams topped most of these marks within the next five years, which is why Foxx through no fault of his own tends to be overshadowed, particularly in the discussion of great Boston hitters. He’s received more notoriety recently, when David Ortiz broke his home run record. Foxx’s club total bases record stood for 40 years, until Jim Rice topped it in 1978. No one in Red Sox history has managed as many extra-base hits (Ortiz came within one in 2004), RBI (no one else has even tallied 160) or runs created. No one in the last 50 years has come within 40 of Foxx’s runs produced (RBI+R-HR), and Williams broke that record by only two in 1949.

No wonder, then, that on June 16, the St. Louis Browns walked Foxx all six times he came to the plate – a big-league record.

Key game: Sept. 24. With the Yankees and Red Sox knotted at six in the top of the ninth, Foxx caps a 3-for-3 day by crushing a home run into the left-field upper deck at Yankee Stadium, giving Boston a 7-6 win. It’s Foxx’s 48th of the season.

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General Red Sox History Top 50 Sox Seasons

Top 50 Sox Seasons #14: Babe Ruth, 1919

.322/.456/.657, 1.114 OPS, 542 PA, 139 H, 101 BB, 29 HR, 114 RBI, 284 TB, 74 XBH, 219 OPS+

Many look at Babe Ruth’s first season in New York, 1920, as the year he redefined hitting in Major League Baseball. In fact, his first revolutionary season was his last with Boston. Ruth outhomered 11 of the other 15 teams in baseball in 1919. His 29 were nearly three times the total of any other AL player – no surprise then that he set the league records for home runs, slugging and OPS, all of which he shattered the next season.

1919 was also Ruth’s last as a pitcher. He started 15 games, but his pitching suffered as he concentrated on his hitting. Once the Red Sox slipped from contention in the middle of summer, Ruth’s hitting was the only draw to Fenway Park, and he was turned into a full-time outfielder. He’d never go back. One wonders how many home runs Ruth would have hit had he the benefit of the right field bullpens later built for Ted Williams. Less than a quarter of Ruth’s 49 home runs as a member of the Red Sox were hit in Fenway.

After the season, of course, Ruth was traded – a terrible move alternately blamed on the stinginess of Harry Frazee or the machinations of Ban Johnson. Ruth promptly hit 54 home runs with the Yankees – five more than he hit in his six years in Boston combined. Despite the offensive explosion that occurred over the following two decades, Boston wouldn’t have another batter hit at least 29 home runs for 17 years – until Jimmie Foxx hit 41 in 1936. That .657 slugging percentage remains the sixth-best in Red Sox history, topped only by seasons from Foxx and Williams.

Key game: Aug. 24. In a topsy-turvy contest against Ty Cobb’s Tigers, Ruth slams two home runs to help keep the Red Sox even with Detroit at five at the end of nine innings. In the 11th, with two runs already across, Ruth then singles home Harry Hooper with the Sox’ eighth run. When Detroit rallies for two runs in the bottom of the 11th, Ruth’s RBI turns into the game-winner. The home runs give Ruth 22 on the season, extending the AL record and coming within three of the all-time mark.