Baseball, more than any other major sport, uses individual statistics to tell its story. Records are cherished, benchmarks glorified, and the usage of modern era advanced metrics – while sometimes derided as “nerdy” – is turned into bestselling books and critically acclaimed movies.
The tendency to evaluate baseball by adding up the sum of a team’s individual players’ performances lends itself seamlessly to fantasy leagues.
The Dodgers’ Matt Kemp has made a legitimate run at the National League Triple Crown this season. On top of that, he has also stolen 40 bases, good for second in the N.L. If you are looking for a fantasy stud in the outfield for next season, your list starts with Matt Kemp.
As impressive as Kemp’s 2011 season has been, it actually pales in comparison to some of the greatest offensive seasons by outfielders in recent memory. I decided to stroll through the virtual archives of baseballreference.com to try to put Kemp’s superb numbers into some historical context.
What outfielders in seasons past have racked up more impressive stats than Kemp has this year?
Taking this concept further, what are the best fantasy baseball seasons ever at every position?
Unlike fantasy football, in which the object is typically to rack up as many points as possible (with each on-field achievement linked to a static point value), fantasy baseball’s best performing teams have consistently excellent performers in each stat category. Determining the best of all time in fantasy baseball isn’t as simple as looking at the single season touchdown record.
I decided to try to assemble the greatest possible fantasy baseball team ever, by taking single seasons at every position (C, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, 3 OF, 1 Utility, plus 5 starting pitchers and 3 relief pitchers) and adding up the stats to create one mega-juggernaut.
I laid down a few conditions before starting:
- Only seasons from 1980-2011 are eligible, since fantasy baseball started, in its modern form, in 1980.
- I’m only including one season from any player. I’m only including this rule to keep things interesting and give credit to the maximum number of players.
- Outfielders are designated simply as “outfield.” There is no specification of which outfield position was played. For example, I can choose three left fielders if I decide they possess the best three fantasy seasons ever for outfielders.
- I’m choosing these players based on the standard categories in fantasy baseball – batting average, home runs, RBI, stolen bases and runs for hitters, and wins, strikeouts, saves, ERA, and WHIP (walks plus hits/innings pitched) for pitchers. I know it’s not exactly saber-friendly, but these are the stats fantasy leagues were built on and that most continue to use today.
- The idea is to add up all of the statistics for the team and have it be able to best any other combination of players’ seasons in at least 6 of the 10 scoring categories.
- I haven’t examined every possible combination to see if my team is unbeatable based on the criteria I have chosen. I simply did a lot of research and chose the seasons I was most impressed by and tried to make my statistics as well rounded as I could.
- I challenge any readers to create their own teams to see if they can beat my team in at least 6 out of 10 categories. Post your own teams or glaring omissions I may have made in the comments below.
Now that the technicalities and rules have been explained, let’s see who had the most absurd fantasy seasons in the last 31 years!
Mike Piazza – 1997 – Los Angeles Dodgers
.362 BA, 40 HR, 124 RBI, 104 R, 5 SB
This was the easiest position to decide since there have been precious few spectacular seasons from catchers.
All 5 stats were at least ties for his career high, which is saying something because no one at the position has ever mashed like Piazza.
He finished 2nd in MVP voting in 1997, but he is second to no one when it comes to the best fantasy season ever supplied by a backstop.
Also considered – Ivan Rodriguez – 1999 (.332/35/113/116/25) and Joe Mauer – 2007 (.365/28/96/94/4)
.372 BA, 42 HR, 147 RBI, 138 R, 5 SB
It was as difficult to select a first baseman as it was easy to select a catcher. I chose the 2000 edition of Helton because of his strong performance in all categories, and especially because of that gaudy batting average.
Fantasy baseball does not discriminate against statistics regardless of their accelerants (read: Coors Field). Though 42 is a lot of homers, it falls well short of some other big power seasons (including Helton’s own 2001 total of 49).
I decided I could make up the differential in home runs lost by not choosing Mark McGwire’s 1998 season at other positions.
Also considered – Helton – 2001 (.336/49/146/132/7), McGwire – 1998 (.299/70/147/130/1), Albert Belle – 1996 (.311/48/148/124/11), Albert Pujols – 2006 (.331/49/137/119/7) and Andres Galarraga – 1996 (.304/47/150/119/18)
.323 BA, 24 HR, 120 RBI, 138 R, 37 SB
Alomar was never a power hitter, but he did supply some pop in ’99. His home run, RBI and runs were all career highs. Throw in a very good stolen base number and a solid batting average and you’ve got the makings of the best fantasy season ever from a second baseman.
Outside of runs, other players at the position had higher totals in each category, but no one was as consistently excellent across the board as Robbie.
Also considered – Alfonso Soriano – 2002 (.300/39/102/128/41), Bret Boone – 2001 (.331/37/141/118/5), Jeff Kent (.334/33/125/114/12), Craig Biggio – 1998 (.325/20/88/123/50) and Ryne Sandberg – 1990 (.306/40/100/116/25)
Alex Rodriguez – 1998 – Seattle Mariners
Remember when A-Rod was a speed-demon, capable of posting a 40/40 season? I do, and he was a shoo-in for this spot. No other shortstop in the fantasy era, and maybe ever, produced like Rodriguez during his Seattle and Texas days. His move to New York and its accompanying position change to third base has always been sad to me, as it robbed the fantasy game of a dominant power and speed combination at shortstop the likes of which we had never seen.
This year’s best fantasy shortstop, depending on your team’s needs, was either Troy Tulowitzki or Jose Reyes. 1998 A-Rod out-slugged Tulo (to date, he does have a few games left) by 12 homers and 19 RBI, hit for a higher average (.310 to .302), scored 42 more runs, and stole 37 more bases.
Reyes, meanwhile, was injured for a chunk of the season and has managed a fantasy line of .329/5/40/98/36 in 122 games. Depending on what your team’s makeup was for 2011, Tulowitzki or Reyes could have been your top shortstop, but A-Rod’s 1998 season almost tops both of the top 2011 seasons combined.
Also considered – N/A
.319 BA, 45 HR, 110 RBI, 116 R, 25 SB
In the midst of the Braves record-setting string of division titles, Jones was the switch-hitting, 5-tool player who bolstered the offense and gave the starting pitchers enough breathing room (not that they needed much) to relax.
Despite stiff competition and a relatively low RBI total, Chipper gets the nod here because of his surprising stolen bases and strong number of runs scored. It’s worth noting that had the 1981 season not been shortened by a strike, Mike Schmidt (.316/31/91/78/12 in 102 games played) likely would have been the choice.
Also considered – Adrian Beltre – 2004 (.334/48/121/104/7), Ken Caminiti – 1996 (.326/40/130/109/11), Vinny Castilla – 1998 (.319/46/144/108/5), Mike Schmidt – 1980 (.286/48/121/104/12) and George Brett – 1980 (.390/24/118/87/15)
.328 BA, 73 HR, 137 RBI, 129 R, 13 SB
Remember when I said I would make up for the home runs I left on the table at first base? Well, here you go.
Like first base, the outfield is cluttered with great seasons. It was really tough to leave out some all time great players (Griffey, Vlad) and the fantastically ridiculous Rickey Henderson (130 steals in 1982!).
There are a handful of Bonds seasons I could have included (and would have, had I not self-imposed the one-season-per-player rule), most notably 1993 and 2002. I went with the record-setting big fly year that worked everyone into a frenzy and ultimately ramped up the nation’s concern over performance-enhancing drugs.
Remember, fantasy cares not about what forces are behind a statistic’s achievement, only that it goes into the official score.
.328 BA, 64 HR, 160 RBI, 146 R, 0 SB
Slammin’ Sammy sure wasn’t running a whole in 2001, but that’s probably because he spent most of his time doing a slow trot around the bases. That, or he was so massively juiced up that he was incapable of more than jogging.
Joking aside, Sosa racked up the second-most RBIs since 1938 (Manny Ramirez had 165 in 1999). His .328 average and 146 runs scored were also differentiators. His average was 20 points higher than his massive 1998 campaign, too.
Sosa, like Bonds, had a few seasons worthy of inclusion on this list. The lack of steals hurts, but my next two selections help make up that gap while not sacrificing power or average.
.366 BA, 49 HR, 130 RBI, 143 R, 33 SB
Our second beneficiary of the Coors Field effect is Larry Walker. That, or cutting his mullet had dramatic effects on his numbers. Either way, in 1997 Walker combined power, speed and average like no player in the last 30 years, possibly ever.
His 33 stolen bases help cover the shortage left by Rickey Henderson’s absence and Sosa’s goose-egg. And that .366 average is second only to Helton for best on the hypothetical team.
Also considered – Bonds – 1993 (.336/46/123/129/29), Bonds – 2002 (.370/46/110/117/9), Sosa – 1998 (.308/66/158/134/18), Ramirez – 1999 (.333/44/165/131/2), Rickey Henderson – 1985 (.314/24/72/146/80), Henderson – 1982 (.267/10/51/119/130), Vlad Guerrero – 2002 (.336/39/111/106/40).
Ellis Burks – 1996 – Colorado Rockies
.344 BA, 40 HR, 128 RBI, 142 R, 32 SB
Yes, I included a third player who benefited from the Coors Field launching pad. But Burks had one of the most well rounded seasons ever in 1996.
Plus, the randomness of Ellis Burks appearing on this list was appealing to me. He’s clearly not in the same conversation as the other position players in any other context. That’s part of what makes fantasy sports so fun, though. When you get a guy later in a draft that puts up video game numbers it gives the owner an even greater sense of satisfaction.
Also considered – All of the players considered at each position, plus Edgar Martinez – 1995 (.356/29/113/121/9).
All told, the offense ended up with:
419 HR (average of 46.5 per player)
1180 RBI (131 per player)
1179 runs (131 per player)
196 stolen bases (approximately 22 per player).
Pretty incredible stat line, huh? Of course, some categories can be easily tweaked to beat my totals (home runs and steals are easy to manipulate), but when you load up one stat, typically a couple others suffer. This combination is the best setup I found for all stats.
I’d like to see yours, too. Let me know how I did in the comments, and if I missed a great season by someone, tell me about it.
Part 2, featuring the pitching staff, is coming soon. [Update: Click to view the best possible fantasy baseball pitching rotation.]