Roger Clemens. 1986.
Ted Williams. 1941.
Jim Rice. 1978.
Baseball, like no other sport, is a game for which its history is vitally important. As a Red Sox fan, when I say name the best pitching you ever saw, you will say Pedro Martinez in 1999 or 2000, or Roger Clemens in 1986, or maybe Jim Lonborg in 1967. Hitters? Ted Williams in any number of seasons, or Fred Lynn in 1975, or maybe David Ortiz in 2006.
The moments in our memories are tied inextricably to players, and those players are tied to the seasons in which they played. When the players were at their best, those seasons defined them. Rice, after all, is likely to be inducted into the Hall of Fame largely on the strength of his career-defining 1978.
Sometimes, though, these seasons are mythologized into more than they really are. Other times, the player was so good, the true greatness of his accomplishments are easily lost in the mythos of the man. Still again, some players just never get their due as having put together historically great seasons.
Even if we could reach consensus on what players in which years had definitively the best seasons — and we can’t — how would we determine which was the best? We could break out the calculators and the formulae, create a system and rank them objectively. It would be a fun process, and while it would probably spark some discussion, it leaves out a lot of important context. A season doesn’t occur in a numerical vacuum. Carl Yastrzemski’s 1967 was a truly terrific season, but would it have been as great had it taken place one year earlier or later?
In an effort to provide a framework for these kinds of discussions, I’ve spent the offseason researching Red Sox history and creating a list and summary of the 50 greatest seasons put up by Boston’s super and not-so-super stars. I’m a stats guy at heart, so the foundation — the initial pool of seasons — was created by using top-20 leaderboards for a combination of counting and rate statistics.
I used the stats also as a general guide for where a season should finish in relation to the others, but ultimately the rankings are mine alone. They are subjective. There is plenty of room for argument, as there should be.
I’ll be posting them in groups of five for the next week or so, then post each of the Top 10 individually. Feel free to share your own memories, agreements and disagreements as different performances you may have witnessed crop up here. I hope you all have as much fun with this as I did.
Each entry includes some statistics I found relevant or interesting, with emphasis on those that led the league. League-leading numbers are bolded (except BAA, for which I could only get league leaders after 1957). For relievers, league-leading numbers are for pitchers who relieved at least 60 percent of the time and tallied a minimum number of innings that is dependent on the era in which the reliever pitched.
Unlabeled "slash stats" are:
For hitters — BA/OBP/SLG
For pitchers — ERA/WHIP/BAA
I also include a "key game" for each season, with a link to a box score or game story, where possible. These are games from that player’s season that included a key contribution or simply a terrific moment or memorable feat that I would have liked to witness. Now, without further ado …
50. Derek Lowe, 2000
74 G, 2.56/1.266/.259, 91.1 IP, 64 GF, 42 SV, 79 K, 3.6 K/BB, 198 ERA+
One year after breaking out as the Red Sox’ most reliable member of the bullpen, the 27-year-old sinkerballer – already turning the 1997 trade of Heathcliff Slocumb for Lowe and Jason Varitek into a steal for the Sox — was installed as the team’s closer, and he excelled, delivering one of the best seasons by any Boston closer to date.
Lowe led the league in saves and games finished and finished second among all relievers with at least 50 innings in ERA, blowing the lead in just five of his 47 save opportunities and none of his final 23.
Key game: Aug. 1. Lowe does his part to keep the Red Sox tied with Seattle for the ninth, 10th and 11th innings of what ends up being a 19-inning marathon that the Sox lose, 5-4. Lowe strikes out five of the 11 batters he faces and throws 60 pitches, the most of any of the 11 relievers to appear in the game for either side.
49. Cy Young, 1903
28-9, 2.08/0.969/.234, 341.2 IP, 176 K, 32 BB, 4.6 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 4.8 K/BB, 34 CG, 7 SHO, 145 ERA+
Postseason: 2-1, 1.85/1.029/.233, 4 G, 3 GS, 3 CG, 34 IP, 17 K, 4 BB
For the third straight season, Young led the league in wins while completing a phenomenal 97 percent of his starts. He once again finished among league leaders in all major pitching categories, pitched four consecutive shutouts in June and July, three of them ending in 1-0 scores and one a 10-inning affair in which Young drove in the winning run.
Young led the Americans to their first American League pennant and the first World Championship of baseball in a nine-game series against Pittsburgh. Young lost a lopsided Game 1, a contest most likely thrown to extend the series as long as possible, entered in the third inning of Game 3, a Boston loss, then cruised to complete-game wins in Games 5 and 7.
Key game: Oct. 7. With Boston down three games to one, Young shuts out the Pirates for seven innings while the Americans stake him to a 10-0 lead. Ultimately, he allows just two runs on six hits in the complete-game win – the first of four consecutive World Series victories for Boston en route to the championship. (Of course, the Pirates may have thrown this game to extend the series and thus enlarge the respective shares of both teams).
48. Ernie Shore, 1915
19-8, 1.64/1.105/.229, 247 IP, 102 K, 66 BB, 3.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 17 CG, 4 SHO, 170 ERA+
Postseason — 1-1, 2.12/1.176/.190, 2 GS, 2 CG, 17 IP, 6 K, 8 BB
In his first full season, Shore spun the best work of his career, finishing third in the AL with his 1.64 ERA and 170 ERA+ (behind teammate Smokey Joe Wood and all-time great Walter Johnson) and throwing a 12-inning shutout in September against the Tigers, who finished 2.5 games behind the Red Sox in a close race.
Shore opened the 1915 World Series against Grover Cleveland Alexander, losing a close game before rebounding for a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of the five-game series. Shore allowed three runs in the eighth inning of his two starts, and just one run in the other 16 innings combined.
Key game: Oct. 12. Shore wins a tight one, allowing a single eight-inning run in a 2-1 win that gives the Red Sox a commanding 3-1 lead over Philadelphia in the World Series.
47. Roger Clemens, 1991
18-10, 2.62/1.047/.223, 271.1 IP, 241 K, 65 BB, 8.0 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 3.7 K/BB, 13 CG, 4 SHO, 164 ERA+
Cy Young, All-Star, MVP – 10
Of Clemens’ monster 1990-92 peak, this performance was the “worst” – a season in which the flamethrowing Texan only led the league in strikeouts, ERA and shutouts and won the Cy Young Award, to boot. He finished April with a 0.28 ERA and started the season 6-0 – his second start of the year on April 13 being an 11-strikeout, no-walk shutout.
The team surrounding him, however, was merely mediocre: Clemens lost five games and received five no decisions in 10 of his 28 quality starts while he went 0-5 in seven non-quality starts.
Key game: April 13. In his second start of the season, Clemens does his best work – a three-hitter with no walks and 11 strikeouts. He strikes out at least one in every inning but the first, yet never throws more than 16 pitches in any inning.
46. Wade Boggs, 1988
.366/.476/.490, .965 OPS, 719 PA, 214 H, 125 BB, 128 R, 5 HR, 58 RBI, 3.7 BB/K, 166 OPS+
Postseason: .385/.444/.385, 16 PA, 5 H, 3 BB, 3 K, 2 R, 3 RBI
All-Star, Silver Slugger, MVP – 6
Boggs was nearing the end of his stunning string of 200-hit seasons in 1988 (the next year would be his last to reach that mark), but this would be his second-best, following up an amazing 1987 campaign with another league-leading OPS and setting a career high in on-base percentage – at the time the best single-season mark since 1962.
What’s more, Boggs put together an impressive 35-game on-base streak from May 13 to June 22 that included 50 hits and 37 walks (a .530 OBP). It was the second-longest of his career, then a month later, he kicked off a 31-game streak. In the 96 games between May 13 and Aug. 28, Boggs failed to reach base in a game three times. Overall, the third baseman reached base in 144 of the 155 games (93 percent) in which he played that season – clearly the lawsuit filed that summer by former girlfriend Margo Adams was no distraction.
Key game: Aug. 3. True to form, Boggs reaches base three times in four appearances – coming a homer short of the cycle and scoring two runs in a come-from-behind, 5-4 win over Texas. His one-out triple in the seventh leads to the tying run.