Will Leitch took an in-depth look at the game in 2019 with a series exploring Major League Baseball's Data Decade. From the best World Series, to the best starting pitchers and more, Leitch ranked, dissected and celebrated all the things we loved most about the Great American Pastime during the past 10 years.
Every player wants that one season, that one perfect season, when everything falls exactly right. It’s easier to be a great player to have that year -- there’s a reason three of the best four WAR seasons of all time were notched by Babe Ruth -- but sometimes you just have to be excellent and have everything land in the correct place. We all want long, sustained careers. But sometimes the one perfect season is enough.
As part of our ongoing Data Decade series looking back at the last 10 years of baseball, we attempt to rank the 10 best individual seasons this decade. These are the great seasons, one player who starts the season on a roll and never lets up. These are the ones where it all went perfect. (Note: Players are listed with the team they played with at the time.)
1. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals (2015)
.330/.460/.649, 42 homers, 99 RBIs, 10 bWAR
Why do we never entirely believe when Harper has a down season? Why do we always think: One of these years, he’s going to turn into the superstar that we once thought was a better phenom than Mike Trout? Look no further than this 2015 season, which becomes more and more remarkable the farther we get from it. At the age of 22 -- 22! -- Harper topped the National League with 42 homers and led the league in on-base percentage and runs and slugging and played an excellent right field. People were excited about Harper coming into '15, obviously, but who in the world could have possibly seen this coming? After this year, it looked like we had our next Barry Bonds. In a way, Harper has been punished for this season ever since. He has been an excellent player every season since '15. He just hasn’t been this.
2. Mookie Betts, OF, Red Sox (2018)
.346/.438/.640, 32 homers, 80 RBIs, 10.9 bWAR
Part of the reason that it might feel like Betts (who is sixth in the American League in WAR, per Baseball Reference) is having a “down” year in 2019 is because of just how amazing he was last year. He not only won the AL Most Valuable Player Award, his team was one of the best in recent memory and cruised to a World Series title. Oh, and his 10.9 WAR total (per Baseball Reference) is, in fact, the highest of any player this decade. Check out the extra-base hits here: 47 doubles, five triples and 32 homers. Also, he stole 30 bases to boot.
3. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2018)
.312/.460/.628, 39 homers, 79 RBIs, 10.2 bWAR
Picking between Trout seasons is difficult, because he is so famously consistent. His seasons all seem to look the same, just the regular otherworldliness over and over and over. Picking your favorite is like picking your favorite child: You just love them all. That said, the 2018 season does stand out. It’s the highest OPS of Trout’s career (1.088), as well as the highest OBP (.460) and the second-highest home run total (39). He did all that while missing 22 games, which makes it all the more amazing. Every year we wonder what happens if Trout has a true consolidation season, in which everything he does just peaks at the same time. Then you look back and realize that’s every year. (Fittingly, Trout did not win the AL MVP Award after the '18 season.)
4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (2012)
.330/.393/.606, 44 homers, 139 RBIs, 7.1 bWAR
Any other decade, you’d probably just give the top spot to the guy who won the Triple Crown and not sweat it. But this decade marked the mainstream acceptance of metrics that maybe told us a little bit more about how great a player was than the RBIs statistic. But sheesh, we’re not going any lower than fourth place for a Triple Crown winner. Cabrera may have been helped out by not having that much competition in the batting average category -- his .330 mark was the lowest of the three straight years he won batting titles -- and it’s also of note that in terms of Baseball Reference’s WAR, this is actually third among Cabrera seasons this decade. But come on, man: He won the Triple Crown. Still, he … [whispers] … might have been even better in 2013? (Look it up, the only traditional stat where he was better in '12 than '13 was in RBIs.)
5. Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets (2018)
10-9, 1.70 ERA, 269 strikeouts, 9.6 bWAR
This might be the most confounding historic season in recent memory, in which deGrom threw 217 innings with a 1.70 ERA and … won only 10 games? (And lost nine!) Even in the world of baseball today, which is less win-driven than ever, how is that even possible? deGrom just kept getting stronger as the season went along, and by the end he had the sort of ERA you would have only thought possible in the raised mound era of the late 1960s.
6. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2014)
.287/.377/.561, 36 homers, 111 RBIs, 7.6 bWAR
All right, time for another Trout season. This was the year when it became clear that he was just going to keep putting up years like this over and over. Honestly, it’s tough to find the differences between any of these, but we’ll go with this one because he finally won an AL MVP Award (after finishing second to Cabrera his first two full seasons) and because this is the best team Trout has ever played on, one that won 98 games but, alas, couldn't string together a win in the postseason. His Angels would have another winning season in 2015, but none since, which grows wilder the more you think about it.
7. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (2011)
24-5, 2.40 ERA, 250 strikeouts, 8.6 bWAR
Verlander is giving his 2011 season a run for its money with Houston in '19, remarkably, but it shouldn’t be forgotten how truly overwhelming he was in back in '11. Verlander threw 251 innings, more than any other pitcher in a season this decade, and went 24-5. (The 24 wins is the decade’s highest mark as well, and I’d be surprised if any other pitcher comes within three of it in the next 15 years.) He struck out 250 batters that year before it was cool to strike out 250 batters, and he was rewarded with the AL MVP Award, one of two pitchers to win one this decade. And remember: This was eight years ago and he is still out there doing this.
8. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2016)
.315/.441/.550, 29 homers, 100 RBIs, 10.5 bWAR
Let’s sneak in one more Trout season while we’re here. He won his second AL MVP Award in 2016, edging out Betts while missing out on his second 30-30 season by just one homer.
And while we are at it, let’s just rank Trout’s seasons:
All but the last one -- his abbreviated debut -- could have very easily made this list.
9. Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers (2010)
.359/.411/.633, 32 homers, 100 RBIs, 8.7 bWAR
Hamilton would have two more years of glory before injuries caught up with him in 2013, but of the peak Hamilton era, the years when he was laying waste to the league, this was the best one. He won the AL MVP Award in '10 and led the Majors in OPS (1.044) while still hitting .359, the highest batting average of the decade by a full 11 points. He’d also end up playing in the World Series. Hamilton’s story is one of the most dramatic in all of baseball history, but we shouldn’t forget just how staggering a hitter he was at his best. This was him at his best.
10. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins (2017)
.281/.376/.631, 59 homers, 132 RBIs, 7.9 bWAR
There are so many terrific seasons that didn’t make this list -- it hurts me not to have Clayton Kershaw’s 2014 NL MVP Award-winning year on here -- but in an era of home runs, it’s tough to ignore the 59-homer NL MVP Award-winning season that Stanton put up his last year in Miami. This was the power year we had always been promised from Stanton -- if he could just stay healthy for a whole season -- and we finally got it ... just in time for him to head to New York and get hurt again. We’ll always have '17.
Honorable mentions: 2017 José Altuve; 2010 José Bautista; 2011 Ryan Braun; 2016 Kris Bryant; 2019 Cody Bellinger; 2011, 2013 Miguel Cabrera; 2015 Josh Donaldson; 2015 Paul Goldschmidt; 2015 Zack Greinke; 2011 Roy Halladay; 2013-15 Clayton Kershaw; 2010 Albert Pujols; 2012-13, 2015, 2017, 2019 Mike Trout; 2010 Joey Votto; 2019 Christian Yelich.