This is a two part series looking back at the top 20 seasons since 1903 by retired hitters not currently in the Hall of Fame (the first part covering #11-#20 is here).
You will see a number of familiar names here and some that even the most knowledgeable baseball fan has never heard of. To see, the top fantasy baseball seasons, please see our Historical Fantasy Baseball Player Rater. MVFH is an award we made up that stands for Most Valuable Fantasy Hitter. You can see the full list of retroactive award winners here.
#10 – Harry Davis – 1906 Philadelphia Athletics – 1B – $44.4
This is yet another late bloomer in the mold of Cy Seymour and Gavvy Cravath. Harry Davis had an undistinguished career up through 26 (with only 19 MLB games in his 24-26 years and a unique 10 double/28 triple year at 23) when manager Connie Mack convinced him to leave his railroad job to be 1B for the Philadelphia Athletics. From ages 27-33, he was a very good slugging 1B for the era – leading the AL in HRs for 4 consecutive years (1904-1907), doubles three times, and finishing top 4 in SLG 4 times.
1906 marked his best offensive year but he was just 9th in MLB in offensive WAR (HOFers Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie were #1 and #3). The reason he was so valuable in fantasy baseball is that he had 12 HRs when only 5 other players even had 7. That earned him the max value ($23.8) for HRs. He also led the majors in RBIs, finished 6th in Runs, and was above average in SB/AVG.
From all I’ve read on him, he was well-liked and respected, unlike…
#9 Barry Bonds – 1993 San Francisco Giants – OF – $45.3
It is admittedly odd (and maybe ironic) that this season is more fantasy valuable than his roided-up 2001. Aside from HR, the two years aren’t that different. Same runs, the 1993 AVG a little better (plus more ABs), more steals in 1993, 14 more RBIs in 2001. It’s just he hit 73 HRs in 2001 vs. 46 in 1993. But 2001 was such a huge offensive year that it depressed the $ contribution of all his stats. His 2001 $ for HR was only worth $3 more than in 1993.
This was Bonds’ 3rd MVP and MVFH season and he’d have to wait 8 years before his next one. The next player also won the MVFH and shared some other things in common with Bonds…
#8 – Sherry Magee – 1914 Philadelphia Phillies – 1B/SS/OF – $46.1
Born at a time when ‘Sherry’ was preferable to being called ‘Sherwood’ (Woody? Irish?), Magee was a borderline HOF candidate who didn’t make the cut for several potential reasons such as: 1) reputation as a “crab” (see punching an ump unconscious), 2) quick post-30 decline (about 1,800 of his 2,100 career hits were in his 19-30 years), and 3) didn’t win a championship.
This was one of 5 $30+ years for Magee (only Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds and Albert Belle have as many for HOF-eligible retired players) but the only one in which the career OF had SS eligibility. That was key because he finished top 5 in baseball in HR/RBI while only no other SS had more than 4 HR and only 3 had even HALF his RBI total. His HR/RBI represents about $30 of his $46 value with his R/AVG delivering most of the rest.
While Magee might be infamous for his crabbiness, the next fellow is known for his clams…
#7 – Howard Johnson – 1989 New York Mets – SS/3B – $46.2
Unlike some of the pre-Ruthian players that fluked onto this list, HoJo definitely earned it. He tied Kevin Mitchell (#20 on this list) with the highest oWAR in baseball, was tied for 2nd in HR, tied for 3rd in Runs, tied for 9th in SBs, and just missed the top 10 in RBI.
While any year with 36 HRs and 41 SBs will net serious fantasy $, the SS eligibility puts this season into another stratosphere. His SS-eligibility – unlike Magee – wasn’t a 1 year fluke. He played about 20-40 games/year at SS from 1985-1991. He wasn’t a particularly great-fielding SS but he wasn’t a great-fielding 3B either. Despite there being a lot of big names still active at SS (Ripken, Trammell, Ozzie, Larkin, Fernandez), no one was particularly close to HoJo in 1989. Only one hitter (Ripken with 21) had more than half his HR total. Only 2 SS topped 80 runs. Ripken was the only other SS with more than 64 RBIs. And Ozzie Guillen was the only other SS to reach 30 SBs. The only SS to top HoJo for fantasy value in any category was Larkin’s .342 (in 325 ABs).
To put this into perspective, this was the 3rd highest $ for a SS season between 1903-2013 with the only two higher seasons by Honus Wagner (1907/1908). Higher than any SS season by Ernie Banks or Alex Rodriguez. Nuts!
HoJo managed to hit 30/30 two more times – in 1987 ($25.6) and 1991 ($36.8) – albeit with weaker averages (.259 and .265). 1987 was a much stronger year for offense which kept the $ down. His 1991 season was the 2nd best SS season in the 90’s (A-Rod 1998) and would have approached 1989’s value if not for the average and stealing only 30 bases.
After 1991, HoJo played 4 more years of below replacement baseball (as in negative WAR). And he had never topped 400 AB in his first five years (1982-1986). There are 3 players with more career fantasy value accrued in only 7 $0+ seasons. Nomar Garciaparra, Harry Davis (#10 on the list), and….
#6 – Gavvy Cravath – 1913 Philadelphia Phillies – OF – $46.7
Yo Gavvy Gavvy! I already covered Cravath in the first post as his 1915 season finished #12 on the list. Cravath was the Most Valuable Fantasy Hitter in 1913 and finished 2nd in 1914 (Sherry Magee) and 1915 (Ty Cobb). He finished 1st in HR/RBI and 6th in AVG.
While Cravath’s power couldn’t be STOPPED, the next fellow did his best to STOP PED…
#5 – Jose Canseco – 1988 Oakland A’s – OF – $47.8
Canseco had a solid fantasy peak (6 $20+ seasons) but this season and his 1991 line of 115/44/122/26/.266 ($38.6) were easily his two most valuable. He was an unlikely player to break the 40-40 barrier (Bobby Bonds 1973 season – #18 on list – was 39/43) given he never stole 30 SB again. I recall him predicting this in the pre-season and imagine that several other players (Bonds, Mays, Aaron, Mantle if he didn’t hurt his knee) would have accomplished this if they wanted 40/40 half as much as Canseco did.
Canseco led the league in HR/RBI while finishing 2nd in Runs and in the top 15 for fantasy value in SB/AVG (his AVG value was boosted by his high # of AB). It was the most valuable fantasy season in the 1980’s aside from Mike Schmidt’s 1981 strike-shortened year. All at the age of 23. He then ruined Rudy’s 1989 fantasy baseball season with only 227 AB from the 1st pick in the draft.
Never a great fielder, he transitioned fairly young to a DH and was a reliable power source when healthy. While his 462 HRs and 132 OPS+ are high for a non-HOFer, his rWAR of only 42.3 is a testament to his injury-shortened career + defensive futility. The WAR case is much better for….
#4 – Jeff Bagwell – 1994 Houston Astros – 1B – $48.0
400/104/39/116/15/.368 (MVP, MVFH)
Part of the 2nd worst trade in Red Sox history, Bagwell’s 1994 season was by far the most valuable of his four $30+ seasons as his HR/RBI/AVG were the best of his career for fantasy purposes. Bagwell had some stiff competition that year for MVFH with Bonds, Griffey, Belle, (Frank) Thomas, and McGriff all hitting above .310 and 35+ HRs. But Bagwell edged them all out in almost every category (Bonds’ 29 SBs the only far superior stat).
What makes this season most impressive – and it is reflected in the ridiculous 210 OPS+ – is that it was when then Astros still played in the Astrodome versus Enron/Minute Maid Park. He was fortunate for the player strike as he broke him hand on August 11th and would have missed at least a month of games.
While his 79.5 rWAR should get him into the HOF at some point (he is already in the Baseball Think Factory Hall of Merit), he is a first ballot Fantasy Baseball HOFer. He is #5 overall for career fantasy value for a 1B (not counting Ernie Banks who accrued a lot of value at SS) behind Gehrig, Foxx, Murray, and Pujols. Amongst great 1Bs, only George Sisler provided more speed out of the 1B position.
If only the Boston faithful could have seen him play like some of their grandfathers got to see…
#3 – Tommy Holmes – 1945 Boston Braves – OF – $49.7
If you are a baseball fan who has never heard of Tommy Holmes, you are in the majority. After being buried in the Yankee farm system during the 1930’s (when they had a stacked OF led by Dimaggio), he was traded to the Boston Braves where he was a solid OF from 1942-1952 totaling 34.5 rWAR. 8.0 of that rWAR occurred in 1945 – the epitome of a career year.
He hit 28 HRs when the best 2-year combined total across his other 10 years was 22 HRs. He hit .352 when his best other season is .325. It was also the only season he surpassed 93 runs, 80 RBIs, and 7 SBs. His next best fantasy baseball year was 1944 with a $17.5. His fantasy value rankings were: 3rd in Runs, 1st in HR, 1st in RBI, 10th in SB, and 1st in AVG.
It couldn’t have hurt that many MLB hitters and pitchers were serving in the military. Holmes was not drafted because of a sinus condition. Not sure how Phil Rizzuto couldn’t get out of WWII with something similar given the size of his schnozzola.
The craziest stat of Holmes’ 1945 year – he only struck out 9 times in 636 ABs. Amongst hitters who started their career after 1940, only Nellie Fox had a lower career K% (2.1% vs. 2.2%). That’s rarified air much like what the next guy played in…
#2 – Larry Walker – 1997 Colorado Rockies – OF – $49.8
Colorado has been home to many valuable fantasy baseball hitter seasons. Here are the runner-ups to Larry Walker’s 1997 masterpiece:
5th place – Todd Helton 2001 – 587/132/49/146/7/.336 – $35.8
4th place – Carlos Gonzalez 2010 – 587/111/34/117/26/.336 – $36.6
3rd place – Dante Bichette 1995 – 579/102/40/128/13/.340 – $37.4
2nd place – Ellis Burks 1996 – 613/142/40/128/32/.344 – $38.9
This was only the second post-war season to earn $6.5 or more in all 5 categories (Hank Aaron’s 1963 was the 1st). Only three other players have accomplished this – oddly, all in 2011 (Kemp, Braun, Ellsbury). His fantasy value per category was as follows: 1st in Runs, 3rd in HR, 3rd in RBI, 5th in SB, 2nd in AVG.
This was his only $30+ season though he did have 6 other $20+ seasons including a huge 1999 where health was the only thing holding him back from another $30+ season (438/108/37/115/11/.379).
While the Mile High air was responsible for making average-to-good hitters look great (Galarraga, Bichette, Castilla, Burks, Preston Wilson, Atkins), Larry Walker (along with Todd Helton) was a legitimately great player. His career road split was .278/.370/.495. That’s comparable to Ken Griffey Jr. (.272/.355/.505) who played in the same era. Walker’s 72.6 rWAR – aided by his great defense – puts him in the HOF consideration set but the combination of the Coors effect + injuries/low counting stats + the crazy counting stats of the era (Bonds, Sosa, Griffey, etc) will likely keep him out. (He did make the Hall of Merit). He does have a solid case for the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars but not as good a case as….
#1 – Ken Williams – 1922 St. Louis Browns – OF – $51.2
585/128/39/155/37/.332 (2nd in MVFH)
Here’s your answer to the trivia question: Who was the first hitter to go 30/30? This was the only 25/25 or 30/30 season prior to Willie Mays in 1956.
Not to be confused with the White Sox GM, Williams toiled in the minor leagues for most of his 20’s – aside from some cups of coffee with the Reds. His first full season was at age 30 with the 1920 St. Louis Browns. For the next 8 years, he was a legitimately great player – averaging 4.8 WAR. He bested Babe Ruth (who missed a chunk of the season due to a suspension) in HRs this year and finished 2nd to him in 1921 and 1923 seasons (which were both $30+ seasons thanks to the HRs).
His HR totals had a large home/road skew (32/7 in 1922 as he took full advantage of the short right field in Sportsman’s Park. This reminds me of playing softball where I could not hit a ‘real’ HR but could take advantage of a short porch on certain fields. This type of extreme home/road split for HRs seemed common back then since the ridiculous dimensions of some fields rendered them immune to HRs.
Despite finishing 4th in Runs, 2nd in HR, 1st in RBI, 3rd in SB, and 4th in AVG, Ken Williams wasn’t even the most valuable fantasy hitter (MVFH) of the year. He wasn’t even the MVFH of St. Louis as 2B Rogers Hornsby of the Cardinals had the 5th best fantasy season of all-time ($57.3) with an insane 141/42/152/17/.401 season that won the NL Triple Crown and only missed the MLB Triple Crown thanks to Williams 3 RBI advantage and an amazing AVG season from Williams’ teammate George Sisler (.420).
His HOF case is weak – like Gavvy Cravath and probably a number of other players of that day – unless you give him some type of credit for his minor league stats in his 20’s. His only chance to get into the HOF was if the writers of the day loved his narrative or he had an ex-teammate who lobbied for him on the Veteran’s Committee. He isn’t even on the HOM radar.
But he’ll always have the first 30/30 MLB season….and likely the title of best non-HOF fantasy baseball season.