Bucs position players with the best seasons

December 1st, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- Whether you prefer the early 1900s greatness of Honus Wagner, the early ‘90s dominance of Barry Bonds, the graceful excellence of Roberto Clemente or the powerful presences of Ralph Kiner and Willie Stargell, there’s no doubt that the Pirates have had some historically great position players take the field over the years.

And that short list of names is just scratching the surface for a franchise that has featured Hall of Famers all over the diamond. So it’s no wonder that putting together a list of the top five individual position player seasons in Pirates history was a tall order. You could arguably fill out a list with just Wagner’s five best seasons in Pittsburgh, and it would stack up quite well against that of most franchises.

But here, we’re not just listing the five best seasons in order. Instead, we’ll look at the five position players who put together the best individual seasons in Pirates history. The five players listed below are actually responsible for 20 of the best seasons by a player wearing a Pittsburgh uniform, according to Wins Above Replacement.

1. Honus Wagner, 1908

Baseball-Reference WAR: 11.5, the 11th-best season in Major League history

Wagner’s additional top 20 individual seasons in franchise history: 1905 (10.2 WAR), ’06 (9.3), ’09 (9.2), ’07 (9.0), ’04 (8.2), ’12 (8.0)

No surprise that Wagner tops this list. As the franchise’s greatest overall player ever, he’s responsible for a lot of the top seasons in Pirates history. There are multiple candidates for his best season ever -- he holds the top two spots, by WAR, and seven of the top 20 -- but his 1908 campaign stands out even for an inaugural-class Hall of Famer.

Wagner led the Majors in the following categories: hits (201), doubles (39), RBIs (109), stolen bases (53), total bases (308) and all three triple-slash categories (.354 average, .415 on-base percentage, .542 slugging percentage). He led the National League with 19 triples. Over the 151 games Wagner played in 1908, his adjusted OPS was 105 percent better than the league-average mark. And he did all that at the age of 34, while playing shortstop for a team that went 98-56.

Simply put, this was the greatest season ever by one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.

2. Barry Bonds, 1990

Baseball-Reference WAR: 9.7, tied for the third-best season in Pirates history

Bonds’ additional top 20 individual seasons in franchise history: 1992 (9.0 WAR), ’91 (8.0), ’89 (8.0)

Before he became the Majors’ home run king with the Giants, Bonds was an unbelievable all-around superstar for the Pirates. It’s fair to say he was a better hitter in ’92, when he slashed .311/.456/.624 with 34 homers on his way to another NL MVP Award, but his first MVP year was slightly better by WAR.

In his age-25 season, Bonds did it all. He hit .301/.406/.565 for an NL-best .970 OPS (170 OPS+). He hit 33 homers and 32 doubles along with three triples in 151 games. He drove in 114 runs and scored 104, stole 52 bases, walked more than he struck out (93 to 83) and recorded 14 assists in left field.

The first-time All-Star won just about every piece of hardware you can earn that season: NL MVP Award, his first Gold Glove Award and his first Silver Slugger Award. There was, as it turned out, a whole lot more where that came from.

3. Arky Vaughan, 1935

Baseball-Reference WAR: 9.7, tied for the third-best season in Pirates history

Vaughan’s additional top 20 individual seasons in franchise history: 1938 (9.0 WAR), ’36 (8.1)

Vaughan’s age-23 season might be the best in franchise history for some clubs. With the Pirates, it’s the third-best season by any shortstop and tied for the third-best overall. The Hall of Famer was an incredible player throughout his decade in Pittsburgh, but never better than he was in 1935.

That season, Vaughan slashed .385/.491/.607 for a 1.098 OPS -- all the best marks in the Majors. (And yes, that’s a .491 OBP; he reached base nearly half the time he stepped up to the plate.) In 137 games, he totaled 192 hits, 108 runs, 34 doubles, 10 triples, 19 homers, 99 RBIs and a whopping 97 walks to 18 strikeouts.

As hard as it might be to believe, Vaughan finished third in the 1935 NL MVP voting behind Gabby Hartnett and Dizzy Dean.

4. Roberto Clemente, 1967

Baseball-Reference WAR: 8.9, the 10th-best season in Pirates history

Clemente’s additional top 20 individual seasons in franchise history: 1968 (8.2 WAR), ’66 (8.2)

You could pick a bunch of Clemente’s seasons as the best, or your personal favorite, and you wouldn’t be wrong. “The Great One” was that consistently great, playing at a high level for a long time.

It’s tough to put aside his 1966 NL MVP Award season or his 1971 campaign, when he hit .341/.370/.502 and won another Gold Glove Award then dominated in the Pirates’ World Series victory. But his 1967 campaign grades out statistically as his best overall.

Clemente won his fourth and final batting title that season, hitting .357 on 209 hits. His .400 OBP and .554 slugging percentage were the third-best of his career. He hit 23 homers, 10 triples and 26 doubles, scored 103 runs and drove in 110 -- both the second-highest totals of his career -- in 147 games. He accumulated 324 total bases, behind only the ’66 campaign (342) for his most ever. On top of that, the 12-time Gold Glove Award winner threw out 19 runners from right field.

5. Ralph Kiner, 1949

Baseball-Reference WAR: 8.1, the 14th-best season in Pirates history

Kiner’s additional top 20 individual seasons in franchise history: 1947 (8.1 WAR), ’51 (8.0)

Technically, WAR grades it a tie between Kiner’s 1947 and ’49 campaigns, but let’s go with the latter for a simple reason: Nobody in a Pirates uniform has ever hit more home runs in a single season than Kiner’s 54 in 1949. The slugging left fielder also drove in 127 runs, a feat he matched in ’47, and one surpassed in franchise history only by Paul Waner (131 in ’27).

Overall, Kiner hit .310/.432/.658 that season. He led the Majors in home runs and slugging percentage, and he topped the NL leaderboards in RBIs, walks and OPS. The three men who finished in front of him in the NL MVP voting that year were Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter.

Kiner's 1947 season was remarkably similar: a .313/.417/.639 slash line with an MLB-best 51 homers to go along with 127 RBIs. He also led the Majors that season with 361 total bases. But Kiner’s ’49 campaign came right in the middle of a seven-year stretch during which he led the NL in homers, and it stands out as his best -- and one of the best offensive seasons in Pirates history.

Honorable mention

• Willie Stargell’s 1971 season (7.9 WAR) checked in at 21st on the list, according to Baseball-Reference. He was named NL MVP in ’79, but before his first run to the World Series, “Pops” hit .295/.398/.628 with 125 RBIs and an MLB-leading 48 homers in '71.

• Andrew McCutchen’s 2013 season (7.8 WAR) was easily the Pirates’ best individual campaign since Bonds’ run in the early 1990s. “Cutch” slashed .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers, 38 doubles, 84 RBIs, 27 steals and excellent center-field defense, winning the NL MVP Award as the Bucs snapped a 20-year losing streak.

• This list wouldn’t feel complete without Dave Parker, whose 1977 (7.4 WAR) and NL MVP-winning ’78 (7.0 WAR) both ranked among the top 35 seasons in franchise history. Playing all-around excellent baseball as one of the game’s most feared sluggers, “Cobra” also fulfilled a promise those two years: When the leaves turned brown, he was wearing the batting crown.

• What’s more impressive about Waner: his 1927 MVP season with 237 hits and 131 RBIs, his ’36 campaign with a .373 average and .446 OBP or the fact that he won the batting title in those years with nearly a decade in between?

• Kiki Cuyler’s regular season with the 1925 World Series champions was simply absurd, statistically: a .357/.423/.598 slash line with 18 home runs, 26 triples, 43 doubles, 102 RBIs, 144 runs and 41 steals.