Tipping Pitches: Most Dominant Home Run Hitters: Greatest Season


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Most Dominant Home Run Hitters: Greatest Season

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It's very easy to get swept away by totals when considering the "best ever." We generally consider the best home run seasons ever to be Bonds' 73, McGwire's 70, the gaggle of steroid 60s, Maris' 61 and Ruth's 60. We fail to provide any context to those numbers.

We do the same with Pete Rose's career hits. Hank Aaron's career home runs. Hack Wilson's single season RBI record. Ted Williams' .406.

The truth is, however, that each player's feat only has meaning for that particular season. You can't take that number out of context and compare it to another, unadjusted number from a different season.

What is dominance? It's quality, and it's distance between the player and the league average. The league average for a quantitative stat is found by multiplying the league rate (total home runs, for example, over total plate appearances) by the average starting player's plate appearances. I will refer to the ratio of player's home runs to league average as HR+.

The league average for home runs has been as high as 16.3 in 2000 and as low as 3.6 in 1920. In other words, the value of 15 home runs is far different in 2000 than it was in 1920. As such a number obviously needs context when determining worth, the same needs to be done for the gaudy numbers.

For the purpose of this analysis, I have eliminated all candidates prior to 1920 (known as the Dead Ball Era). While it is important to recognize a great 10 home run season when the average is two or fewer, it is also difficult to compare such a season to modern day totals. One lucky or inside the park home run significantly alters such a player's ratio, whereas it makes virtually no impact now.

The Greatest Season Ever
It is likely no surprise that this season is owned by Babe Ruth. While there is some debate over when the Dead Ball Era ended (either 1920 or 1921, depending on whom you talk to), Babe Ruth had the most dominant season regardless. In fact, Ruth owns the five most dominant post-1919 home run seasons ever, six of the top eight, seven of the top  nine, and eight of the top 12. Again, just a reminder: This doesn't even include his short though dominant seasons prior to 1920 when he was also a pitcher and played during the Dead Ball Era.

1. Babe Ruth, 1920, 54 home runs vs. 3.6 league average (14.9 HR+)
Ruth alone hit more home runs in 1920 than any other team in the American League and all but the Philadelphia Phillies (with 60, led by Cy Williams' 15) in the National League. If that isn't enough context for you, it would be the equivalent of Barry Bonds hitting 234 home runs in 2001.

2. Babe Ruth, 1927, 60 home runs vs. 5.1 league average (11.7 HR+)
You'd think that seven years later the rest of the league would be catching up to Ruth. Not really. The Babe still hit more home runs than 12 of the other teams in the league.

3. Babe Ruth, 1921, 59 home runs vs. 5.4 league average (10.9 HR+)
Teammate Bob Meusel was second to Ruth in 1921, tied with Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns with 24. Only three others hit 20.

4. Babe Ruth, 1926, 47 home runs vs. 4.8 league average (9.8 HR+)
From 1918 through 1926, there were only two years in which Ruth did not lead league in home runs (both times led instead by Rogers Hornsby in 1922 and 1925). Ruth became the game's single season home run king in 1919 (when he was still a part-time pitcher) and didn't lose the crown until 1961.

5. Babe Ruth, 1924, 46 home runs vs. 5.0 league average (9.3 HR+)
It was a typical season for Ruth, who led the league in Runs, Home Runs, Walks, Batting Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage and Total Bases. No Triple Crown, I guess, but eight categories ain't bad.

The rest of the Top 10:

6. Lou Gehrig, 1927, 47 home runs vs. 5.1 league average (9.2 HR+)
7. Babe Ruth, 1928, 54 home runs vs. 6.0 league average (8.9 HR+)
8T. Lou Gehrig, 1931, 46 home runs vs. 5.9 league average (7.8 HR+)
8T. Babe Ruth, 1931, 46 home runs vs. 5.9 league average (7.8 HR+)
10. Jimmie Foxx, 1933, 48 home runs vs. 6.2 league average (7.8 HR+)


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