Peak production: HOF candidates' most valuable seasons
By Andrew Simon
One season, no matter how amazing, isn't enough to take a player to the Hall of Fame. Rather, a case for Cooperstown is built on a large body of work -- or at least an impressive peak.
Yet nearly every player on this year's Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot, regardless of their chances for induction, put together some excellent individual seasons. Here then is a look at the best of those, based on wins above replacement (WAR)* -- with the caveat that only the top season from each player was counted.
The results of the 73rd BBWAA Hall of Fame election will be revealed Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET live on MLB Network, and simulcast live on MLB.com beginning at 5 p.m.
1 (tie). Barry Bonds, 11.9 WAR, 2001 Giants
That Bonds launched 73 home runs to break Mark McGwire's three-year-old single-season record was only part of what made this so impressive. He also set records for walks (177), slugging (.863) and OPS+ (259) -- the latter passing Babe Ruth's 81-year-old mark. Like the next two players on this list, some of Bonds' feats are now viewed through a lens of PED-related suspicion, but the numbers remain mind-boggling.
1 (tie). Roger Clemens, 11.9 WAR, 1997 Blue Jays
The Rocket accumulated a strong majority of his value with the Red Sox, won two World Series championships with the Yankees and enjoyed a fruitful late-career run with the Astros. But at least by WAR, his best work came in the first of his two American League Cy Young Award-winning seasons with the Blue Jays. Clemens signed with Toronto as a free agent in December 1996, and as a 34-year-old, he proceeded to lead the AL in wins (21), innings (264), ERA (2.05), ERA+ (222) and strikeouts (292, including 14 starts with 10 or more).
3. Sammy Sosa, 10.3 WAR, 2001 Cubs
Overshadowed by Bonds, Sosa didn't lead the National League in homers or win the NL MVP Award in 2001, but he surpassed his previous high value by nearly four WAR. Since then, only Bonds and Mike Trout have reached the 10.0-WAR plateau in a season. Besides becoming the only player to hit 60 homers for the third time, Sosa drove in a career-high 160 runs, a feat nobody has matched since. His .328/.437/.737 line, 203 OPS+ and 116 walks also were personal bests, and his 425 total bases rank seventh all-time, including first since 1950.
4. Larry Walker, 9.8 WAR, 1997 Rockies
A broken collarbone limited Walker to 83 games in 1996, his second year in Colorado. He roared back in '97 with a breakout season that saw him claim NL Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and MVP Awards, batting .366 while leading the NL in OBP (.452), slugging (.720) and homers (49). For good measure, the all-around All-Star went 33-for-41 (80.5 percent) stealing bases and racked up 12 assists from right field. Bonds ('96) and Hank Aaron ('63) are the only other players to combine 40-plus homers, 30-plus steals and an OPS+ of at least 175. And while Walker did play half his games at Coors Field, he still raked on the road -- .346/.443/.733 with 29 homers.
5. Curt Schilling, 8.8 WAR, 2001 D-backs
Traded by Philadelphia to Arizona the previous July, Schilling didn't even lead his own starting rotation in WAR, ERA or strikeouts in 2001 (thanks, Randy Johnson). Schilling also served up 37 homers. None of that should take away from a special season. The 34-year-old right-hander led the Majors with 256 2/3 innings pitched and a 7.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio while going 22-6 with a 2.98 ERA (157 ERA+). Johnson ran away with the NL Cy Young Award, but the two D-backs aces shared World Series MVP Award honors.
6. J.D. Drew, 8.3 WAR, 2004 Braves
Drew is one of the many players eligible for the first time this year who is almost certain to fall off the ballot by receiving less than 5 percent of the vote. But he won't be coming up short because of a lack of talent. The proof lies in Drew's 2004 campaign, when he stayed healthy to the tune of a career-high 645 plate appearances. In his only year in Atlanta following a trade from St. Louis, Drew paired 31 homers with 118 walks, hitting .305/.436/.569 while posting at least a .923 OPS each month.
7 (tie). Jeff Bagwell, 8.2 WAR, 1994 Astros
In only his fourth big league season, a 26-year-old Bagwell was putting together a special run when he was hit by a pitch that fractured his left hand. The players went on strike two days later, and Bagwell finished with just 110 games played. The first baseman certainly made the most of that time, hitting .368/.451/.750 with a 213 OPS+ that only Bonds, McGwire and Rogers Hornsby have exceeded in NL history. Bagwell's 39 homers, 116 RBIs, 104 runs and 15 steals helped make him the unanimous NL MVP Award winner, and he added Gold Glove Award honors for good measure.
7 (tie). Mike Mussina, 8.2 WAR, 1992 Orioles
Mussina's career was marked by a consistency that allowed him to post at least 3.4 WAR every year from 1994-2003 and 14 times overall. But it was the right-hander's first full season that was his best. Two years after Baltimore drafted him 20th overall out of Stanford, the 23-year-old shouldered a heavy load (241 innings) and went 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA (157 ERA+) while tossing four shutouts, including the first of his four career one-hitters. Mussina finished second in the AL to Clemens in pitcher WAR, and he placed fourth in the AL Cy Young Award race.
9. Derrek Lee, 7.7 WAR, 2005 Cubs
Prior to his age-29 season with Chicago, Lee had never posted more than 3.0 WAR. He left that total in the dust on his way to NL Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards, plus a third-place NL MVP Award finish. The big first baseman got off to a scorching start, with a .419/.490/.767 line in April, and he didn't fall too far off that pace. Lee led the NL in average (.335), slugging (.662) and OPS+ (174), and he remains just the sixth player to smack at least 45 homers and 50 doubles in a season.
10. Tim Raines, 7.6 WAR, 1985 Expos
Raines looks like a good bet to get in this year, his last on the BBWAA ballot, based on the array of skills he best displayed in 1985. The 25-year-old, who was already a four-time All-Star by that point, was a catalyst atop Montreal's lineup (.405 OBP). He created havoc, stealing 70 bases in 79 tries (88.6 percent) -- his fifth of six straight years at 70-plus. Raines hit for respectable power (11 homers, 13 triples) and played solid defense in the outfield. Put it all together, and he finished third among NL position players in WAR.
* Baseball Reference's version of WAR was used in this story.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.