The Biggest Years by the Smallest Players
Jose Altuve joins an illustrious club
Jose Altuve, second baseman for the World Champion Houston Astros, rightfully claimed the 2017 AL MVP award by posting a wonderful all-around season. In addition to capturing his third batting title in four years, Altuve paced the league in Wins Above Replacement (8.3) and hits (204), while peppering the leaderboards in most of the offensive categories that matter (throwing in 24 home runs for good measure). He played strong defensive at a key position, and with 32 stolen bases in 38 tries, burnished his contributions at bat and in the field with fine base running. That he did all this with enthusiasm and aplomb seems an embarrassment of riches for baseball fans lucky enough to catch Altuve in action.
Altuve, as you may know, is not a large man. Listed at 5’6”, 165 lbs., he’s tiny as compared to the average major league player. What he did — what he’s done for several years now — relative to his physical stature is remarkable, and his 2017 campaign ranks among the very best seasons ever by such a short player (we’re not taking shots at Jose Altuve; as of 2010, MLB player height averaged just under 6’2”).
But is it the best season ever those not blessed with excessive verticality? Some contenders:
10) Willie Keeler, 1897. Listed at 5’4”
.424/.464/.539/164 OPS+/7.1 WAR
At five-foot-nuthin, a hundred-and-nuthin, Wee Willie was smaller than a ball boy. It didn’t stop him from becoming one of the bigger stars of his day. Keeler in 1897 lashed 239 hits for an absurd .424 average. One of the greatest contact hitters who ever lived, he whiffed but five times over the course of his 618 PA (that wasn’t even a career best: In 1899 he whiffed twice in 633 PA).
We’re hesitant to include pre-1900 seasons on any list, but, well, .424. It was obviously a very different game, but relative to his time Wheeler was an excellent player.
9) Eddie Stanky, 1950. Listed at 5'8"
.300/.460/.412/130 OPS+/8.0 WAR
A superlative defender, aggressive baserunner, and fearless competitor, Eddie “The Brat” Stanky played with clenched teeth and quick fists. A player in the John Evers mode, Stanky infuriated opposing players, but teammates and his home fans loved his unflagging intensity and drive. The second baseman was also an on-base machine, leading the league in walks (144) and OBP in this, his best season.
8) Tim Raines, 1987. Listed at 5'8"
.330/.429/.536/149 OPS+/6.7 WAR
Tim Raines, coming off a year that saw him pace the league in batting and on-base percentage (while stealing 70 bases), found himself without a job to start the 1987 season. MLB owners had colluded in the 1986 offseason to suppress player salaries by refusing to sign free agents. Raines, one of the five best players in the game, had no choice but to re-up with the Montreal Expos for a below-market rate — and rules at the time prohibited him from signing before May 1.
Without the benefit of Spring Training — and forgoing a minor-league stint to whip himself into playing shape — Raines made his 1987 debut on May 2, famously going 4–5 with an 11th inning, game-winning grand slam. He never really let up from there: Despite missing the first month of the season, Raines led the league in runs scored while finishing in the top-5 in a host of hitting categories.
7) Hack Wilson, 1930. Listed at 5’6”
.356/.454/.723/177 OPS+/8.4 WAR
As wide as he was tall, Wilson was not a small man (he approached 200 lbs). Wilson in 1930 set the single-season RBI record with 191, and the National League home run record (56), which would stand for 68 years. It’s a fine season (8.4 WAR), but feel free to attach an imaginary asterisk: National League teams scored 5.7 runs per game in 1930 — the highest scoring season on record (for context, NL teams averaged a historically healthy 4.58 R/G in 2017). How crazy was 1930? In a league where 63 men qualified for the batting title, 17 of them drove in 100 or more runs. Wilson was helped enormously by his home park: In 78 games at Wrigley, Hack hacked .388/.501/.796, with 33 HR and 116 RBI.
6) Kirby Puckett, 1988. Listed at 5’8”
.356/.375/.545/153 OPS+/7.8 WAR
Puckett was listed at 5’8”, but we might attach an asterisk to this statistic as well. A line-drive machine, his best season was probably 1988 (7.8 WAR), when the Minnesota icon batted .356/.375/.545, with 234 H/24 HR/121 RBI. Puckett never took a walk and wasn’t a great baserunner, lowering his overall offensive value. He was probably overrated as a defensive outfielder. But, as Bill James once wrote, .350 is .350.
5) Yogi Berra, 1956. Listed at 5’7”
.298/.378/.534/142 OPS+/6.3 WAR
Berra’s post-baseball persona as a diminutive, cuddly fount of absurdist Zen koans bears no resemblance to the man in his playing days. He was revered by the writers (and his teammates) for his toughness, intelligence, and leadership on the field, and he dominated the MVP vote during his prime. His year-by-year MVP finishes, 1950–1956: Third, first, fourth, second, first, first, second. His 1956 line (.298/.378/.534, with 30 HR/105 RBI) slots in nicely with half a dozen other seasons, but gets the mention here because he set career highs in WAR and OPS+.
4) Jose Altuve, 2017. Listed at 5'6"
.346/.410/.547/162 OPS+/8.1 WAR
There was some gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in the Bronx when Altuve was announced as the runaway winner in the AL MVP race over Yankees rookie Aaron Judge (52 HR). We can forgive Yankees fans their allegiance to the titanic Judge (Altuve’s physical opposite in every way), but there’s no controversy to be had: Altuve was the league’s best, claiming his third batting title and leading his team to a World Series title while setting or tying career highs in runs scored, home runs, batting average, slugging and on-base percentage, adjusted production and WAR.
3) Dolf Luque, 1923. Listed at 5'7"
27–8/1.93/151K/201 ERA+/10.6 WAR
Adolfo Domingo de Guzman Luque wasn’t quite a one-hit wonder — he led the league in ERA in 1925. But take away his wonderful 1923 season, and he was a sub-.500 pitcher (despite an adjusted career ERA 18% better than the league average). Luque was the first Cuban-born player to gain a measure of stardom in the majors, and his 1923 masterpiece (leading the league in wins, ERA, ERA+, shutouts, H/9) is the reason why.
2) Bobby Shantz, 1952. Listed at 5’6”
24–7/2.48/152K/1.048 WHIP/159 ERA+/9.1 WAR)
‘The Tiny Titan.’ ‘The Little Lefty.’ ‘The Magnificent Midget.’ ‘The Wee Wizard.’ Nicknames were a little less enlightened in Shantz’ day. But you get it: Shantz was a small guy (about 140 lbs., give or take lunch). He pitched like a titan in 1952: In addition to leading the league in pitcher WAR (9.1) wins (24), WHIP, and K/BB ratio, Shantz placed in the top-five in just about every other meaningful pitching category. He won 24 games for a fourth-place Philadelphia Athletics team that went a dreary 79–75 (and they weren’t as good as their record suggests; the Athletics went 54–67 in games Shantz didn’t start). Shantz was awarded the AL MVP award for his yeomen’s efforts.
1) Joe Morgan, 1976. Listed at 5’7”
.320/.444/.576/186 OPS+/9.6 WAR
Morgan stands, um, head and shoulders above the other players on this list in terms of career value: He’d own four of the top five spots on this list if we included multiple seasons. He’s not just the best short player ever, he’s one of the best 30-or-so players of all time. Morgan averaged 9.5 WAR/Season during his 1972–1975 peak, so choosing his best year is no easy task. WAR rates his 1975 season as his best, but we’ll go with 1976 and his .320/.444/.576/186 OPS+ batting line, which includes 27 HR/111 RBI/114 BB/60 SB. His superb season netted him a second consecutive NL MVP award.
Best Seasons Ever by Super-Tall Players
It seems only fair that we recognize the players on the other end of the physical spectrum, the giants. For our purposes, we’ll restrict the list to MLB players standing 6'7" or taller. In 2017, the aforementioned Aaron Judge, listed at 6'7", established rookie records for home runs (52) and walks (127) while leading the league in runs scored. His 8.1 WAR was fractionally less than league-leader Jose Altuve. Taken in summa, Judge’s 2017 season is probably the greatest season ever for a hitter of his physical stature.
As great as Judge was in 2017, he fails to crack this list. That’s not a knock on Judge; as you’ll note, it’s tough to get an invite to this party:
Randy Johnson. Listed at 6'10"
1995: 18–2/2.48/294K/193 ERA+/8.6 WAR
1997: 20–4/2.28/291K/197 ERA+/8.0 WAR
1999: 17–9/2.48/364K/184 ERA+/9.1 WAR
2000: 19–7/2.64/347K/181 ERA+/8.1 WAR
2001: 21–6/2.49/372K/188 ERA+/10.1 WAR
2002: 24–5/2.32/334K/195 ERA+/10.7 WAR
Take your pick. Or mix-and-match.
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