Babe Ruth changed the game of baseball back in the 1920s. He became so dominant that he led the league in 1920 with 54 home runs, and the second-ranked player, George Sisler, finished with 19. It’s only natural, then, that he had some of the best seasons for a player in the history of the game.
Initially, this exercise was supposed to be about the top seasons by a Yankees player in history, using FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as the filter. However, Ruth not only had the five best individual seasons for the Yanks, but he had the 7th, 10th, 12th, and 13th.
Instead, we will examine the Babe’s top season and the best individual performance for the next four non-Ruth players. Now that the nature of the exercise is now clear, let’s proceed with the rankings.
5. Rickey Henderson, 1985 (9.7 fWAR)
The eighties weren’t particularly kind to the Yankees, but that doesn’t mean they were bad. In fact, in 1985, they finished 97-64, second in the AL East narrowly behind Toronto, with Don Mattingly being voted as the American League MVP.
Donnie Baseball wasn’t the best player on that team, though. Rickey Henderson hit .314/.419/.516 and was an all-around threat, mashing, running, and fielding, en route to a 9.7 fWAR season. He finished that season with a 159 wRC+, hit 24 home runs, scored 146 runs (!), drove in 72, stole 80 bases, posted a 15.1 percent walk rate and a 9.9 strikeout rate. Mercy.
4. Joe DiMaggio, 1941 (9.8 fWAR)
It’s hard to believe that Joe DiMaggio didn’t have a 10-fWAR season. But he came awfully close several times, with 1941 being his best overall campaign. He accrued 9.8 fWAR that year, in just 139 games.
“The Yankee Clipper” had his record 56-game hitting streak that year, and clubbed 30 home runs. He slashed .357/.440/.643 with a 181 wRC+, scored 122 runs, and drove in 125. He won the AL MVP and the World Series that year, so it was a success both individually and collectively.
3. Mickey Mantle, 1956 (11.5 fWAR)
“The Mick” couldn’t miss the party, and we finally see someone break the 10-win threshold. Mantle had three such seasons, and the best one came in 1956. He accumulated a whopping 11.5 fWAR that year, by hitting .353/.464/.705 with a 202 wRC+, 52 home runs, 132 runs, 130 RBI, and 10 steals.
Mantle also drew 112 walks that season, and was a net positive in hitting, fielding, and baserunning. The legend was not only the AL MVP and a World Series winner that year, but he also earned another major honor: the Triple Crown.
2. Lou Gehrig, 1927 (12.5 fWAR)
In 1927, the Yankees had one of the best lineups in history, led by the Murderers’ Row: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Ruth, Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri. The Babe was the best of the bunch, with 13.0 fWAR.
Gehrig, for his part, was entering his prime, and had the most impressive season of his career and the best one for a hitter not named Babe Ruth. He accumulated 12.5 fWAR, hitting .373/.474/.765 with a 209 wRC+, 47 home runs, 149 runs, 175 RBI, and 10 steals for good measure. Those are video game numbers.
Gehrig was the AL MVP that year, and the Yankees won the World Series. It was a truly remarkable year by one of the greatest Yankees in franchise history.
1. Babe Ruth, 1923 (15.0 fWAR)
Ruth, as we mentioned, had the five best seasons in Yankees’ history by fWAR: 12.5 (1924), 13.0 (1927), 13.3 (1920), 13.9 (1921), and an absurd 15.0 mark in 1923. That year, he slashed .393/.545/.764 with a 231 wRC+, 41 dingers, 151 runs, 131 RBI, and even 17 thefts.
The Bambino was a man among boys, leading the league in homers alongside Cy Williams. It was also the only time Ruth won the MVP award in his illustrious career due to the rules of awards voting at the time limiting players to one career MVP honor.
For reference, here are the top 20 individual seasons by a Yankees’ position player, a ranking on which Ruth’s name appears nine times.