This list goes along with the piece I did about Jose Bautista and the meaning of 50 homers.
* * *
So, I came up with a formula to determine the 32 flukiest home run season. I would tell you the formula except I kind of forgot how I did it. I know I incorporated the player’s average homers per 162 games and the player’s second highest home run season and things like that. I would give a hat tip to my friend Bill James, who helped me come up with the formula, but I suspect Bill would not want to be considered an accomplice to this mathematical crime.
Anyway, here’s the list:
32. Duane Kuiper, 1977 (1 homer)
Comment: Kuiper, my favorite player ever, has never come out and explained his power surge of 1977. He, hit 0 homers the year before, and 0 homers the year after and, frankly, 0 homers in the other 3,753 plate appearances of his career. So what happened in 1977? I prefer to believe he was clean.
31. Willie Montanez, 1971 (30 homers)
Comment: This is the way to do it: Get your fluke season out of the way early so that everybody keeps waiting for you to do it again. Montanez hit 30 home runs as a rookie — he was runner up in the Rookie of the Year balloting to Earl Williams — and he never again hit more than 20. While most players start by hitting line drives and then developing power, Montanez was the other way around. As a rookie he hit .255 with those 30 homers, and the next year he hit .247 and led the league in doubles. But the next three years he hit .300 and his home run power plunged — he hit 28 homers COMBINED from 1974-76.
Then again, was there ever a cooler defensive first baseman than Willie Montanez? Those behind-the-back moves? Awesome. It was like the Globetrotters Meets The Mets.*
*Though, Montanez only played with the Mets for 268 games … that’s strange. I always pictured him with the Mets.
30. Wally Joyner, 1987 (34 homers)
Comment: Joyner had the fortune — and odd misfortune — of coming into his own in that crazy home run season of 1987. That was his second year, he mashed 34 homers for the Angels, built up his Wally World legend, it was a lot of fun. But it also gave the impression that Joyner was a home run hitter, and he wasn’t. He was a good player, defensively solid, got on base, hit a lot of doubles, but he only once more hit 20 homers in a season and the rest of his career had a whiff of underachiever, which probably wasn’t fair. The 34-home run season was out of character.
29. Felix Mantilla, 1964 (30 homers)
Comment: Fenway Park was good to Mantilla. He had never hit more than 11 homers in a season when in ’64 he mashed 30 — 19 of them at home. The next year he hit 18, which was still out of character, and then he was traded to Houston for Eddie Kasko. He hit six home runs for the Astros and his career was over.
28. Bill Hall, 2006 (35 homers)
Comment: The career is still going, and so he could fall off the list. But I sense that 35 homer season in 2006 will always stand out. Hall has power; this year he has hit 17 home runs in part-time duty for the Boston Red Sox. The question is will he ever again get 600 plate appearances in a season?
27. Cy Williams, 1923 (41 homers)
Comment: Sometimes the fluke has less to do with the player and more to do with the conditions. Cy Williams was a legitimately great home run hitter. He led his league in home runs four times. But it was a different era. In 1915, during Deadball, he led the league with 12. And in 1920, as the league was emerging from Deadball, he led with 20. So while his 41 homers in 1923 stands out — he never hit more than 30 in any other season — and while a big part of that season was the home run heaven that was the Baker Bowl (he hit 26 of his 41 homers there), there was nothing fluky about Cy Williams himself. He was a legit power hitter for his era.
26. Andre Dawson, 1987 (49 homers)
Comment: Everything about the 1987 season felt fluky, including the MVP Award. That was basically the one year over the last 50 years when National League MVP voters decided to ignore the guidelines as they had long followed them and choose an MVP from a losing team.* Much has already been written and said about how overrated in some ways Dawson’s 1987 season was — he had a .328 on-base percentage just as a starting point — but the larger point is that it was very much out of character for the Hawk. He was a vicious line drive hitter whose second highest home run total was 32. That season was a combination of Wrigley Field (where he hit 27 home runs), the juiced ball and a compelling story line (Dawson famously signed a blank contract after being unfairly blackballed by owner collusion).
*Best I can tell, the last NL MVP from a losing team was ALSO a Cubs player — Ernie Banks in 1959.
25. Rich Aurilia, 2001 (37 homers)
Comment: That remarkable 2001 season — .324/.369/.572, a 146 OPS+ — came out of nowhere. It wasn’t only the spike in home runs. His Wins Above Replacement that year was 6.5 — that’s MVP territory. His WAR the rest of his career combined was 3.7.
24. George Foster, 1977 (52 homers)
Comment: Nobody is entirely sure why home runs jumped so absurdly in the National League in 1977. The league as a whole hit 500 more homers in ’77 than ’76, and the total would drop by more than 300 in 1978. Strange. Foster was a very good power hitter who finished second in the MVP voting to Joe Morgan in 1976, but his 29 homers in 1976 was a career high. Then, suddenly, he hit 52 — the only player between 1966 and 1989 to hit 50 homers.
When Foster hit the 52 homers, it did not feel like a fluke. It felt like we were seeing the emergence of a truly great home run hitter, a modern day Killebrew. In retrospect, we were not, at least not over a long stretch. The next year, Foster hit 40 homers to lead the league, and the next year he hit 30 in only 121 games. He was, for those four years — 1976-79 — the best power hitter in baseball, I think. After that, though he was still a very good hitter for Cincinnati, his home run power began diminished. And that, of course, is when the Mets gave him a lot of money to spend the decline phase of his career with them.
23. Barry Larkin, 1996 (33 homers)
Comment: This isn’t scientific, but I covered Barry at that time … and I’ll tell you that Larkin in the early to mid-1990s gave the distinct impression that he could do anything. Absolutely anything. I’m not saying he’s the BEST player I’ve seen because he’s not Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds or a few others. But I think there’s a difference between being the best and being the most adaptable. With Barry, like I say, you got the feeling that if he wanted to just start flying, he would take off. The only other player I covered on a regular basis who gave that impression was the young Carlos Beltran.
Larkin, because he played shortstop, was probably even more amazing. Whatever he wanted. Make amazing defensive plays? Check. Make every routine play? Check. Steal bases? Check. Draw walks? Check. Be a clubhouse leader? Check. Be a great interview? Check (if he felt like it). Whatever he wanted, he could do, if he was healthy, if the mood struck him. So, though I appreciate the absurdity of the premise, it just felt to me that in 1996 Barry Larkin decided he wanted to hit home runs. And he hit 33 of them, stole 36 bases, won the Gold Glove, had an even better year than he did the year before when he won the MVP. And once that was proven, he moved on and never hit more than 17 homers in a season again.
22. Ival Goodman, 1938 (30 homers)
Comment: Another Cincinnati Reds player, our third in a row. Goodman’s specialty was triples — he led the league with 18 as a rookie, then led the league with 14 his second year, then hit 12 his third year. Then, suddenly, he hit 30 home runs for the Reds — he had never hit more than 17 in a season. He would never hit more than 12 after that.
21. Brook Jacoby, 1987 (32 homers)
Comment: That was some year, 1987. It seemed to me — a semi-young Cleveland Indians fan — that Jacoby arrived in 1987. He hit .300, banged those 32 homers, walked 75 times, all as a third baseman. I was psyched. I thought the Indians had themselves an every-year All-Star. Didn’t happen, of course. Jacoby would have a couple more pretty good years, but he never hit more than 14 home runs in a season after ’87.
20. Tommy Harper, 1970 (31 homers)
Comment: Here were Harper’s home run totals in the four years leading up to 1970: 5, 7, 6, 9. Of course, those four years were smack dab in the heart of the pitcher’s era, and things did loosen up a big in 1970. Harper as player was not a big man — 5-foot-9, 165 — and his game was built around speed (he stole 73 bases in 1969). But he did have some strength, and did hit double digit homers in five other seasons. In 1970, he became only the fifth man to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases.
19. Joe Kuhel, 1940 (27 homers)
Comment: Conditions again … Kuhel had decent power, but he spent the early part of his career in the hitter’s dungeon of Griffith Stadium. He never hit more than 16 homers in a season. He came to Chicago, though, and Comiskey Field suited him better. He still hit most of his home runs on the road (15 of the 27) but at least he could hit SOME homers at home. From 1930-37, he hit a total — a TOTAL — of 13 homers at Griffith Stadium.
18. Terry Steinbach, 1996 (35 homers)
Comment: OK, this one’s strange. If someone had asked me “Was Terry Steinbach a home run hitter?” I would have said “Yeah.” I would have just instinctively put him in that catchers-with-power group, you know, Lance Parrish, Mickey Tettleton, that group. But you know what? He really wasn’t in that group. He had the huge home run season in 1996, but he never hit more than 16 home runs in any other year.
17. Adrian Beltre, 2005 (48 homers)
Comment: I’m actually a bit surprised this season didn’t rank higher on the system. Beltre has shown again this year that he does have quite a lot of power — he leads the league this year with 45 doubles and he has 28 homers — but for him to hit 48 home runs while playing half his games in Dodger Stadium, well, it’s just absurd. Only Shawn Green among Dodgers has hit more. And the 23 home runs Beltre hit at home that year ties him with Gary Sheffield in 2000 for the most any player has hit in Dodger Stadium in a season.
16. Wade Boggs, 1987 (24 homers)
Comment: Boggs hit .363/.461/.588 with 24 homers in 1987. Boggs hit .366/.476/.490 with five homers in 1988. Which was the better offensive year? According to oWAR — offensive WAR — it was extremely close but it was 1988. He led the league in runs, doubles and walks that year, and each run was worth more because scoring was down more than 1,000 runs across the American League. … Boggs only hit double digit homers in one other season, and that was with the Yankees in 1994, when he was 36 years old.
15. Willard Marshall, 1947 (36 homers)
Comment: The ball just flew out of the park for Marshall that year — especially at the Polo Grounds where he hit 25 of his 36 homers. He hit homers in three consecutive at-bats against Cincinnati in a July game, which at the time tied a National League record. He hit two homers against Pittsburgh in a June game. It was a good year. He never before and never again hit even half as many home runs in a season.
14. Tommy Holmes, 1945 (28 homers)
Comment: An easier one to explain — Holmes was a good big league player, who was playing in a war-torn league where most of the regulars were fighting in World War II. Holmes simply outclassed the league. That year he set the NL hitting streak record by hitting in 37 consecutive games, a record that would not be broken until Pete Rose did it more than 40 years later. He led the league in doubles, home runs, slugging and OPS+. He had 224 hits. And — this is almost unbelievable — he only struck out NINE TIMES all year. His 28-to-9 homer-to-strikeout ratio is by far the best in baseball history. By far. By a million miles. Nobody else in baseball history who struck out less than 10 times managed to hit 10 or more homers.
13. Hack Wilson, 1930 (56 homers)
Comment: Wilson was a terrific power hitter who led the league in homers four out of five years ending in 1930. The one year in that he did not lead the league, he hit 39 home runs which was his career high up to 1930. So that power, once he went to Chicago and played for Joe McCarthy (who he credited for rescuing his career), was very real.
Still: That 56-homer year was still shocking and out of character (as was the 191 RBIs, still the record). Wrigley Field was very good to him; he hit 33 of his homers at home. As a comparison, that is more home runs at home than Roger Maris hit in 1961.
12. Chico Fernandez, 1962 (20 homers)
Comment: Sometimes, things are hard to explain. Chico Fernandez, a light hitting shortstop from Cuba, had never hit more than six home runs in a season. And after 1962, he hit a total of two home runs. But that one year, he banged 20.
11. Tillie Walker, 1922 (37 homers)
Comment: Another context-based fluke. Tillie Walker had real power. He led the league in homers in 1918 — it just happened to be that you could lead the league in homers with 11 in 1918. He was not a big man, but he had pop, and as the game came out of Deadball, his home run totals rose. His 37 homers in 1922 was by far the most of his career (he hit 23 the year before) but he did not lead the American League in home runs (even though Ruth was injured that year and only played in 110 games). That’s because the endlessly fascinating Ken Williams hit HIS career high with 39 home runs. That was the year Williams became the first man to have 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season — nobody else would do it until Willie Mays did in 1956.
10. Barry Bonds, 2001(73 homers)
Comment: I have little doubt that if managers had actually pitched to Bonds in 2002, 2003 and 2004 he would have had more 60-plus homer seasons. As it turns out, except for 2001, Bonds never had even a 50-homer season.
In 2004, Bonds’ absurd dominance — however it was achieved — really did make a mockery of the game. He was intentionally walked 120 times. I’m willing to bet we will never see anything like that again in our lifetimes. Bonds’ at-bat-per-homer in 2001 was a comical 6.5 — and nobody, not even Bonds himself, has ever been close to that. Nobody else has even managed a homer every 7.0 at-bats. The only players in baseball history to have a homer even every 9.0 at-bats are: Bonds (four times), Mark McGwire (four times) and Babe Ruth (once).
9. Jay Bell, 1999 (38 homers)
Comment: Bell had made his bones as a perfectly fine hitting shortstop who played solid defense and played the game hard in Pittsburgh. From 1990-96, he averaged 11 homers a season, and it was pretty clear that was exactly who he was — a good-fielding shortstop who would play smart and give you 11 home runs a season. He came to Kansas City and though he pretty clearly was unhappy about it, he had his best offensive year. He mashed 21 home runs in what was then a kind of absurd home run ballpark (they had moved in the fences). It was very good for him. He signed a big money deal to play in Arizona and he muscled up and he had his massive 38 home run season in ’99. To give you an idea about the time, those 38 home runs tied him for 16th in baseball.
8. Roger Maris, 1961 (61 homers)
Comment: It has been well-reported that many Yankees fans treated Maris abominably during his home run chase in 1961. Their feeling was that Maris was having a fluke season, and a fluke season should not force the great Babe Ruth from the record books. It’s awful that Maris — a good man and a good player — had to deal with that, but ask yourself this: Would we really be any different now? The truth is that Maris WAS having a fluke season. He never hit 40 homers in any other season, and he only twice hit 30. He was a good player who had a charmed home run season (he was at least as good in 1960, but without the home runs). What if, a good player in the midst of a fluke season had broken Maris’ record? What if Jay Buhner or Ben Oglivie or Dwight Evans or Kevin McReynolds had been the one to hit 62 home runs in a completely out-of-character season? I don’t think they would have been treated quite like Maris — the Ruth connection in New York made it much more emotional in 1961 — but I also don’t think people would have liked it much.
Now, of course, it has changed. The whole home run record has changed. People despise Bonds enough that if someone like Jose Bautista or Dan Uggla came along and hit 74 homers, well, there would be ugly suspicions because that’s the time we live in. But, in the end, most people probably would be happy to get Bonds out of there.
7. Wally Moses, 1937 (25 homers)
Comment: Moses was a small and fast outfielder (he stole 56 bases at age 32) and he stung the ball for extra bases — he led the league in doubles and triples in two separate years during World War II. But the 25 homers was one of the all-time flukes. He never before and never again again hit double digit homers.
6. Bert Campaneris, 1970 (22 homers)
Comment: He hit two homers in 1969. He hit five homers in 1971. That more or less describes his career. Where that 22 homer season in the middle came from … nobody knows. And you have to understand that up that before Campy, only 12 shortstops in baseball history had hit more than 20 home runs in a season.* So it was quite the thing, and still inexplicable. His next-best home run season was eight.
*In case you are wondering: 33 different shortstops have done it since. Cal Ripken did it 12 times.
5. Jose Bautista, 2010 (49 homers and counting)
Comment: The system actually ranks Bautista’s season No. 1, but for reasons I explain in my other story, I don’t think it’s fair to put him at No. 1 just yet. We have to see how his career progresses from here. I think it IS fair to say that no home run season — not even the Top 4 flukes — has ever come from out of the blue quite like this one.
4. Ned Williamson, 1884 (27 homers)
Comment: Well, 1884 is undoubtedly the flukiest home run season ever. Or anyway, it is in Chicago. Bill James sent me his own list of the 10 flukiest home run seasons, and four of the Top 10 played on the Chicago Cubs in 1884 (Fred Pfeiffer, Cap Anson and Abner Dalrymple joined Williamson). I left the other three off for reasons that will become clear, but I’ll include Williamson because — you probably know this — his 27 home runs was the official record in baseball until Babe Ruth broke it by hitting 29 for the Red Sox in 1919. Ruth then obliterated the record with 54 in 1920.
Williamson became the first player to hit three homers in a game in 1884 — and three other players on his team did it that same year. But it was all a farce. Williamson (along with Pfeiffer, Anson and Dalrymple) all played for the Chicago Cubs, who played that year in Lakefront Park. Right field was only 200 or so feet away. It was so close that up to 1884, any ball hit over that fence was called a ground rule double. But that year, Anson decided that everything hit over the fence would be considered a home run. And Anson, as we know, had the power to make up his own rules then — hell, he was as responsible as anyone for keeping African Americans out of professional baseball.* So, for that one year, balls that went over the fence were home runs. The Cubs hit three times more home runs than any other team in the league, and Williamson set a record that would take 35 years to break. The Cubs moved to West Side Park the next year.
*Though, in some ways, I think Anson has gotten too much blame for the banning of black players. Yes, Anson was a virulent racist who spoke loudest. But America at that time was unlikely to accept black players in the Major Leagues. If it hadn’t been Anson, it almost certainly would have been someone else.
3. Luis Gonzalez, 2001 (57 homers)
Comment: Of the 25 players who have hit 50 homers in a season, only four did not hit at least 40 in another year. Two have already been mentioned — Roger Maris and Hack Wilson, who topped out at 39 in their next-best season.
Then there’s Luis Gonzalez. Before he turned 30, his career high was 15. Then, he hit 23 for the Tigers in 1998 and he was traded to Arizona for Karim Garcia. Yes, Karim Garcia. His next three years, he would hit 26 homers, 31 homers (his second highest total) and finally 57 homers in that remarkable 2001 season when the Diamondbacks won the World Series. After that, it’s like he went into the cool down pool — he hit 28 homers, 26 homers, 17 homers, his super powers were wearing down. People have for some time now whispered about Gonzalez and a connection to steroids — whispers that Gonzalez has angrily denied. There’s no stopping people from believing what they will believe*, but Gonzalez was a class act as a player, and while this is a hackneyed phrase that has lost its meaning, well, there is no proof that he used performance enhancing drugs.
*On Twitter, someone sent me a message about Jim Thome saying something along the lines of: “I cannot wait for the day when this fraud is exposed as a steroid user.” I can’t help but feel sad for that kind of person. I don’t know, can’t know, if Thome or anyone else used steroids. I’ve never seen a steroid needle. But to root for one of the game’s great people to be exposed — to basically want to throw a party for a wonderful player’s downfall — well, I don’t see what joy sports can bring to you if you think like that.
2. Brady Anderson, 1995 (50 homers)
Comment: The Luis Gonzalez comment is even more true here. Anderson never hit more than 24 homers in any other season. It should be said, though, that Anderson had legitimate power. He hit double digit home runs for nine straight years, and averaged more than 30 doubles a season over that time. He hit the ball hard. But the 50 homers, yeah, that does stand out.
Here’s an odd thing I didn’t know about that season: Brady Anderson actually hit 31 of those 50 home runs AWAY from home. He hit 10 of those homers in 12 games in Kansas City and Texas.
1. Davey Johnson, 1973 (43 homers)
Comment: Put it this way — in 1973, Johnson hit 26 of his 43 home runs in Atlanta, the launching pad, that probably doesn’t surprise you. That year, the Braves became the first team to have three players hit 40 home runs in a season — Johnson (43), Darrell Evans (41) and Hank Aaron (40). The Braves hit 118 home runs at home.
But this might surprise you: Those 17 home runs he hit on the road were more home runs than he hit in any other FULL SEASON, excepting 1971 when he hit 18.
Johnson’s 43 homers were the most ever hit by a second baseman, and believe it or not that is still true. Only three second basemen have ever hit 40 homers. Ryne Sandberg hit exactly 40. Rogers Hornsby hit 42. Johnson hit 43. For some reason, I just always thought Jeff Kent had done it — but he topped out at 37. Johnson’s 1973 is is the most bizarre home run season in baseball history, I think.
But then everything about Davey’s baseball career is kind of bizarre. Look at his managing career. He managed one of the best teams in baseball history, the 1986 Mets, led them to 100 wins against in 1988, and he was shoved out just a little more than a year after that. He went to Cincinnati where I covered him — he was very kind to me — and led the Reds to back-to-back first places (one of those was in the strike year of ’94) and the NL Championship Series. He was shoved out. He went to Baltimore and guided the Orioles to a 98 win season. He was shoved out — resigned the day he was named A.L. Manager of the Year. He went to Los Angeles, the Dodgers had a losing season (the first for Davey) and then he guided the Dodgers to rebound year where they won 86 games. And he was shoved out again.