I think we all know that Barry Bonds hit 73 dingers, Hack Wilson had 191 RBIs, and Nolan Ryan set a modern record with 383 strikeouts. Needless to say, they were all league leaders.
At the same time, though, somebody’s got to lead the league every year, right? Even when it’s just not that great a year for homers, or steals, or saves, somebody’s still gonna get credit for being the league leader.
So, how bad can it be? Let’s take a look …
On the face of it, this should be pretty straightforward. There were, though, a few years where MLB did not have a complete season. 2000, 1995, and 1981 were all strike-shortened, and 1918 was shortened by World War I. It just didn’t seem fair to give credit for low homers or RBIs or wins when players only had 144, 140, 129, or 110 games to do it in.
I also eliminated the deadball era. I mean, there were years when HR leaders couldn’t break double digits. In other words, I’m looking at stats from 1921 on.
Oh, I also just limited stats to basic, traditional stuff, like HRs, RBIs, wins, saves … So, no defense-independent component ERA, fielding runs above replacement, player empirical comparison and optimization test algorithms, etc.
Alright then, here they are – from most to least believable.
#10 – WHIP, Herb Pennock, 1926, Yankees, 1.265
Now, this one doesn’t sound that bad. Overall, there were 9 leaders who couldn’t break 1.200. Interestingly, all but 1 was in the AL. And all of this (lack of) action took place mostly in the 20s and 30s.
What I find particularly ironic about this one is that Pennock is a Hall of Famer, a place where I’m not sure he really belongs. In fact, the only time he led the league in anything was for 2 WHIPs in the 1.200’s. Career-wise, baseball-reference.com has him coming up a little short. None of their HoF stats have him matching the averages for players actually in the Hall (with some of them falling far short).
Oh, he was a Yankee? Why didn’t you say something? Right this way!
#9 – RBIs; 105; Al Rosen, Indians, 1952 / Willie McCovey, Giants, 1968
Well, at least they broke 100.
Once again, we’ve got another Hall of Famer. This time, I think he deserved it. In fact, hitting over 500 dingers is definitely a free ride.
As for Rosen, I think you can make an argument that he should be in Cooperstown as well. He led the league in a major category a total of 5 times. Unfortunately, he was up for only 7 real seasons. Interesting to see what he could have done given a little more time, and a lot fewer injuries.
#8 – Average, .301, Carl Yastrzemski, Red Sox, 1968
Hmm, 1968 again. Yup, it was the Year of the Pitcher. Just as an example … Would you believe that Yaz was the only AL player that year to bat above .300?
That year was also quite a falling off for Yaz from 1967, when he won the Triple Crown, MVP, and pennant. He did, however, also lead the league in walks, OBP, and OPS in ‘68.
And, yes, we do have another Hall of Famer here. And I’m pretty sure he deserves it too.
#7 – ERA, 3.20, Early Wynn, Cleveland, 1950
Man, I woulda thunk this would be a lot closer to 3.00. Actually, in addition to Wynn, there were 6 other pitchers who won it all with an ERA over 3.00. And, believe it or not, 3 of those were in this, our current, century.
Another Hall of Famer, Early Wynn has always been one of my favorites. A 300-game winner, he played in 3 decades, for 23 years total. Quite the character too.
#6 – Runs, 93, Carl Yastrzemski, Red Sox, 1968
Aaahhhh! It’s 1968 again. How else could someone lead the league in runs and not break 100?!?!
So, what was all that about anyway? Well, when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961, the powers that be got all worried that the BALANCE OF THE GAME was out of whack. So, they enlarged the strike zone, then stepped back and watched offense tank.
After that all bottomed out in 1968, they lowered the pitching mound from 15” to 10”. Balance was – finally, thankfully, assuredly – restored.
#5 – Wins, 16, 8 different guys, 1994 & 2006
This one really surprised me. I was actually surprised that there was even any under 20, let alone that there was this plethora of losers at 16.
Okay, let’s count ‘em out … 1994: Ken Hill, Expos; Greg Maddux, Braves / 2006: Aaron Harang, Reds; Derek Lowe, Dodgers; Brad Penny, Dodgers; John Smoltz, Braves; Brandon Webb, Arizona; Carlos Zambrano, Cubs.
Did you notice that all of these guys were in the NL? And they all happened in only 2 years? Weird, huh? I tell ya, ya can't make this stuff up.
#4 – Saves; 4; Guy Bush, Cubs / Johnny Morrison, Pirates; 1925
Now, here’s one that’s not quite apples and oranges. Saves were simply not something MLB teams cared about all that much way back when.
In fact, let me share with you a little graph I put together. It shows the MLB leader every year in saves from 1921 to 2016:
See how that goes up and up, like a stock that you might just retire on?
Bush? Morrison? Ah, they was nobodies.
#3 – Strikeouts, 106, Lefty Grove, Athletics, 1925
Holy cow! This is barely over 3 figures. Hard to believe, but it’s less than a third of the record, Nolan Ryan’s 383, set less than 50 years later.
Needless to say, Lefty Grove is another Hall of Famer. In fact, he would lead the league in K’s 6 more times. His 2,266 career strikeouts, though, would only net him 54th on the all-time list. I guess they weren't striking out too many batters back in those days ... though it seems Lefty was doin' most of it.
#2 – Home Runs, 21, Hack Wilson, Cubs, 1926
What’s odd about this one is that some guy over in the AL hit 47 that year. And the year after that, that same guy would hit no less than 60! I think his name was Roof or something.
Wilson would go on to hit 56 himself 4 years later. That’s also the year he would drive in an absolutely unassailable 191 runs. That year alone seems to have been enough to get him into Cooperstown.
#1 – Stolen Bases, 15, Dom DiMaggio, Red Sox, 1950
Most anyone acquainted with a little baseball history knows that steals were something more associated with the Dead Ball Era, dropped off after baseball discovered the long ball, and didn’t really come back into fashion until the 1960s. What’s striking, though, is how low the totals were (4 were in the teens) and how long they lasted (arguably, from ’27 through ’59).
By the way, Dom’s the one with the glasses. Vince was the oldest one. Joe’s the one who’s in the Hall of Fame.
Final embarrassing total: 9 Hall of Famers / 10 nobodies