While we all sit here waiting in baseball purgatory for the Red Sox to waste this golden opportunity to nix the Mookie Betts trade, I hear from the occasional fan who claims Betts is not that good in the first place.
I cannot understand why anyone who actually has watched Betts attentively during his 5½-year career here would have even a fleeting thought that he might be overrated. I know he doesn’t have the postseason heroics of David Ortiz or the ’60s/’70s-child admiration of Carl Yastrzemski. And Ted Williams stands alone.
But Betts is already a generational superstar, entering his age-27 season. The only players to accumulate more Wins Above Replacement through their first six seasons are Williams, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Jackie Robinson, Wade Boggs, and Joe DiMaggio. From what I understand, all of them are or were quite good at baseball.
I know WAR is an unappealing statistic for many, but it does allow for greats to be compared across eras, usually confirms what aesthetics and our memories tell us, and sometimes helps you understand why a player had more or less value than you thought.
My friend Bob Ryan is going to yell at me for leaning on WAR, and I know it’s not the be-all-end-all, but it is a valuable tool. I like it in moderation.
And it can be fun, believe it or not, such as when we do something like this: Using it to identify the best single seasons by a position player in Red Sox history — and confirm, one more time, why the Red Sox are making such a grievous mistake by trading Betts.
There have been 26 seasons in Red Sox history in which a position player has delivered a WAR of 8.0 or more. Here are the top 12.
1. Carl Yastrzemski, 1967
Key stats: .326/.418/.622, 44 HRs, 121 RBIs, 189 hits, 112 runs
This is one of those special situations in which analytics and nostalgia meet up in perfect agreement. Yaz’s iconic Triple Crown season, during which he led the Red Sox to an improbable pennant, inspired a generation of fans, hit .560 with 13 RBIs over the final seven games, and more than occasionally made a tremendous catch in left field, is remembered with the warmest of sentiments from anyone lucky to live through it.
The memories are so sweet that you almost don’t want to let them get tangled up with cold, hard data, but the data only reassure you that his season deserves to be remembered with reverence.
That 12.5 WAR is the third-best season by a position player in baseball history, behind two Babe Ruth seasons, 1923 (14.1) and 1921 (12.9).
“Carl Yastrzemski, Carl Yastrzemski, Carl Yastrzemski the man we call Yaz . . .’’
2. (tie) Mookie Betts, 2018
Key stats: .346/.438/.640, 32 HRs, 80 RBIs, 180 hits, 129 runs, 30 SBs
So we’ve established and agree that Yaz had the best season in Red Sox history, yes? Good. Now let’s make a Yaz Bread sandwich and remind ourselves why Betts ties Teddy Ballgame for second: Because he did everything extremely well, and some things even better than ’67 Yaz.
Betts stole 30 bases while getting caught just six times. He played equally brilliant defense, but at a far tougher position at Fenway, right field. He led the league in batting and slugging, and finished second to Mike Trout (.460) in on-base percentage.
He was the best player on the winningest team in Red Sox history, a 119-victory World Series champion.
2. (tie) Ted Williams, 1946
Key stats: .342/.497/.667, 38 HRs, 123 RBIs, 176 hits, 142 runs, 156 walks
To be honest, I figured his .406 season in 1941 would rank as his best, for the very simple reason that he hit .406!
But this one might be even more impressive for this heroic reason: He served his country as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II from 1943-45 and missed three full seasons. Imagine the numbers he would have put up in those seasons. And think how unfathomable it is that ballplayers would be drafted into the military today.
4. (tie) Ted Williams, 1941
Key stats: .406/.553/.735, 37 HRs, 120 RBIs, 185 hits, 135 runs, 147 walks
Well, here it is, the last .400 season in the MLB annals, one of the most storied seasons in baseball lore. But did you know that Williams actually had a higher batting average in another season? It’s true: In 1953, he hit .407 — but in just 37 games and 110 plate appearances. He returned that August from another wartime stint, this time as a fighter pilot in Korea. Williams hit 13 homers in those 37 games, with a 1.410 OPS. Mercy.
4. (tie) Ted Williams, 1942
Key stats: .356/.499/.648, 36 HRs, 137 RBIs, 186 hits, 141 runs, 145 walks
In claiming the Triple Crown, Williams led the majors in batting, homers, RBIs, runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases. Also: He finished second in the MVP balloting for the second straight year. And you like to give sportswriters grief nowadays because one of us left Derek Jeter off a Hall of Fame ballot.
6. Carl Yastrzemski, 1968
Key stats: .301/.426/.495, 23 HRs, 74 RBIs, 162 hits, 90 runs
The Year of the Pitcher, man. Those numbers aren’t out of line with what we generally expect from Andrew Benintendi, which is why it’s so important to be able to adjust for the circumstances of the era. Yaz led the league in batting (the league average was .230) and on-base percentage, and finished fourth in slugging.
7. Tris Speaker, 1912
Key stats: .383/.464/.567, 10 HRs, 90 RBIs, 222 hits, 136 runs, 52 steals, 53 doubles
That total of 10 homers would seem modest nowadays. In 1912, it led the American League. In a span of four years, the Red Sox traded Speaker to the Indians (in 1916) and sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. That kind of inept team-building makes Haywood Sullivan “forgetting’’ to mail Carlton Fisk his contract in the winter of 1980 look quaint.
8. Rico Petrocelli, 1969
Key stats: .297/.403/.589, 40 HRs, 97 RBIs, 159 hits, 92 runs, 98 walks
Bet you weren’t expecting to see the popular Petrocelli on this list, but this was a truly extraordinary season, enhanced by the fact that he made just 14 errors in 749 chances at shortstop. He led the AL in WAR (Oakland’s Reggie Jackson was second, with 9.2), but finished seventh in the MVP balloting. Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew collected the hardware.
This season reminds me a lot of John Valentin’s awesome 1995, which also was better than we remember. Look it up.
9. Tris Speaker, 1914
Key stats: .338/.423/.503, 4 HRs, 90 RBIs, 193 hits, 101 runs, 46 doubles
Another brilliant season in a brilliant career, though I must admit, I do dock a few points from players who put up all of their numbers before baseball integrated in 1947. The modern players who show up on Speaker’s most similar players list on baseball-reference include Paul Molitor, George Brett, and Tony Gwynn.
10. Ted Williams, 1947
Key stats: .343/.499/.634, 32 HRs, 114 RBIs, 181 hits, 125 runs, 162 walks
Williams led the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging in the same season five different times (1941, ’42, ’47, ’48 and ’57). Yet he didn’t win the AL MVP award in any of those seasons. This oversight was particularly egregious. The Triple Crown winner finished second this time to Joe DiMaggio, who hit .315 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs and contributed not even half as many WAR (4.9).
11. (tie) Mookie Betts, 2016
Key stats: .318/.363/.534, 31 HRs, 113 RBIs, 214 hits, 122 runs, 26 steals
Consider this a were-you-even-paying-attention? rebuke for those who like to suggest Betts — the runner-up to Mike Trout for AL MVP — had only one great season. I’ll grant you this: Not all of Betts’s first five full seasons have been extraordinary. Some were merely outstanding. His worst season was his first full one in 2015, when he provided 5.9 WAR. Lou Brock, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, never had a season of more than 5.8 WAR in his 19-year career.
11. (tie) Ted Williams, 1957
Key stats: .388/.526/.731
What’s a greater accomplishment: hitting .406 at age 22, or .388 at 38? I’m going to take the diplomatic (or wimpy, if you prefer) way out, call it a tie, and admire both seasons.
Williams didn’t make a particularly suspenseful run at .400. His .388 average after the Sept. 29 finale was his highest since he was at .390 on Aug. 20, and the last time he was at or above .400 was when he checked in at .401 on June 5. But he did pull his batting average up from “just’’ .343 on July 7 by hitting .451 over his final 61 games. Don’t know about you, but I’m glad the Red Sox never traded him to the Dodgers, you know?