There was a time when you could tell all you needed to know about a baseball player by his counting stats and the cut of his jib, how much chaw he could pack in his cheek and how accurately he could spit. But now that we’ve got all these new-fangled sabermetric whatsits and sunflower seeds have become the oral fixation of choice. What has the sport come to?
As for swapping out the tobacco, that was a very good thing. And the stats, well, what we’ve lost in romanticism we have gained in a greater knowledge of intricacies of the game. Arthur C. Clarke said “Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet,” and that is true of the nature of baseball as well.
With the annual rite of determining who among the former practitioners of this great game behind us, I find myself with a lingering desire to peek back into the past and do a little comparison. To be sure, the Hall of Fame selection process is more alchemic than scientific, but there’s something oddly comforting about that incongruity.
Anachronisms and juxtapositions are part of baseball’s unique tapestry, after all. Even with a giant video board flashing replays and up-to-the-second stats, a mid-summer afternoon at Wrigley Field will forever be a magical experience no matter your age.
That said, I wanted to take a brief look at some of the greatest single-season hitting performances in Cubs history using the advantage of some of the advanced metrics available to us today. I’m not necessarily seeking to determine which was best, but rather to put them all in a similar context. I want to level the playing field, if you will.
All stats via FanGraphs*
Hack Wilson, 1930
One of the most famous seasons in baseball, Wilson’s ’30 campaign stands out due to his RBI total, a record that still stands. What makes this accomplishment even more amazing is the oufielder’s stature, as the dude was an absolute fire hydrant.
Today, we look at the Astros’ 5’6″, 175 lb. Jose Altuve as a mighty mite, but Wilson outweighed him by 15 lbs. or so. I can just imagine how much fun it would have been to see the squat, powerful Cub plying his trade; it’d be like giving a bat and glove to Ram Man.
Ernie Banks, 1959
Ah, Mr. Cub. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the extremely high value of a middle infielder who can generate 30+ HR power. One need look no further than Banks in ’59 to see that, as his 45-HR, 143-RBI campaign generated the highest WAR total of any player on this list.
In stark contrast to the aforementioned Wilson, Banks stood 7 inches taller and carried 10 fewer pounds on his wiry frame. But his strong wrists helped him to generate whip-like power throughout a stellar career.
Ron Santo, 1964
One of the most beloved Cubs of all-time due to both his playing and broadcasting careers with the team, Santo is not without a little Hall of Fame controversy of his own. Whether it was his trademark heel-click or setting his toupee on fire with a space heater, there was never a dull moment with Ronnie.
I wish that I’d had the chance to see him play, but I’ll never forget being at Wrigley for Ryne Sandberg’s jersey retirement and hearing the crowd drown out the words of the Hall of Fame spokesman with chants of “Ron-nie! Ron-nie!”
Billy Williams, 1972
If you’re up on the sweet-swingin’ lefty’s career stats, you might wonder why I didn’t use the 1970 season, which is probably the one most would point to as Williams’ best. Indeed, his 42 home runs and 137 RBI were both career-bests. But ’72 represented his highest WAR (though only by 0.1) and saw high-water marks in nearly every hitting percentage category.
Much is made of its aesthetics, but Billy Williams was judicious and efficient with his swing as well, evidenced by the lowest K-rate of this entire group. As such, he’s the only member of this small fraternity to walk at a higher rate than he struck out.
Ryne Sandberg, 1984
I was doomed to Cubs fandom no matter what, but this season certainly helped to cement my hopeless love affair. A great deal went into building the ’84 Cubs, but nothing was more significant than the emergence of Ryne Sandberg as a bona fide superstar.
June 23, 1984 provided the springboard that would launch Ryno into the national spotlight, as he homered twice off of dominant Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter. Sandberg had such an impact on me that I named my son after him and watched a DVD of that famous game while I held my newborn for the first time.
Of note is the fact that Sandberg is the only player on this list with more than 15 steals in a season. In fact, the other seven players combined only totaled 37 swiped bags, 26 of which came from Dawson and Sosa.
Andre Dawson, 1987
It’s not often that an MVP comes from a last-place team. It’s even less often that a highly-coveted free agent hands a GM a blank check and lets him fill in the amount. But after 11 seasons in Montreal, The Hawk was ready for a change and he wanted to come to Chicago.
There was certainly a great deal of hype and energy generated by Dawson’s 49 homers that season (a feat equaled by an Oakland A’s rookie by the name of Mark McGwire), but the Cubs were only able to muster 76 wins. That weak team is the reason for the relatively paltry 3.5 WAR, a total that seems to belie Dawson’s real value that year.
Sammy Sosa, 2001
Like Williams earlier, an argument could be made a different season here. Certainly, the Race for 62 captured more imaginations. By the time Sosa notched 64 longballs in ’01, it was the third time he had done it…yawn. But his 9.9 WAR total stands as the highest of his career and is atop the list in terms of Cubs history as well.
I’ll not get into further discussion of the veracity of these numbers or of Sosa’s choices. If you’d like to know my thoughts on those topics, please click the link above. No, really, please click the link above; I’m suffering from an acute case of why-doesn’t-anybody-like-me-itis.
Derrek Lee, 2005
Maybe it’s just me, but D-Lee almost seems like the forgotten man when it comes to great Cubs seasons. Coming off of the eye-popping numbers that had been put up over previous season’s, Lee’s 2005 just didn’t move the needle. It was like watching Marvel’s Agents of Shield right after The Expendables.
Still, his wRC+ of 170 is equal to the total Williams put up in ’72 and is only 1 tick below Hack Wilson’s 1930 number. Likewise, Lee’s .662 slugging percentage trails only Sosa (.737) and Wilson (.723) on this list.
So there you have it, the greatest seasons in Cubs history. To be sure, there are more outstanding seasons that could very easily have been included. So that’s your challenge, dear reader: find and list your greatest single-season Cubs performances. You can leave them in the comments or tweet me @DEvanAltman.
*Each season represents at least 150 games and 650 plate appearances.