Ever since the season ended, I’ve had a post on the back burner about the worst 40+ home run seasons of all-time. It was inspired by the 2010 efforts of the Toronto Blue Jays’ Aaron Hill and Adam Lind (each of whom managed a wRC+ below 90 while hitting more than 20 homers). Earlier this week, I decided Friday would be the day… then yesterday, the dastardly Daniel Moroz posted on the Worst 30 Home Runs Seasons of All-Time at Beyond the Box Score. After a struggle to sublimate my fury, I decided that I would throw all my best-laid plans to the wind and, instead, compile a short list of the best offensive seasons with zero home runs of recent times.
As one might expect, a truly “all-time” list of greatest zero home runs seasons is dominated by early baseball. That is an interesting tale in itself, but since the game was so different back then, and I don’t have the historical chops to bring that context alive, I decided to go with the best zero home runs seasons since 1955. Historically, it’s a nice way to make the “break” because it is post-integration-of-the-game (although it would probably be more accurate to say that integration was under way). Statistically, it has the advantages of being the first season in which intentional walks were recorded separately and is also after the recording of caught stealing. This gives us a more accurate picture of offense contributions as measured by linear weights, particularly with caught stealing, since (as you might expect) some of these players get a lot of their offensive value from basestealing. These seasons do not come close to the greatest seasons of Bonds, Ruth, Williams, Mays, Mantle, et. al. However, they are surprisingly valuable given their lack of home runs.
Here are the top five seasons as measured by Batting Runs above average (park-adjusted wRAA).
5. Ozzie Smith, 1987: +18.9 batting runs, 118 wRC+ (.302/.393/.393), 43 steals, 9 caught stealing. I’m not sure what else this guy was good at… According to wRC+, this wasn’t Ozzie’s best offensive season. In 1991 he had a 122 wRC+, but also received about 60 fewer plate appearances. He also hit three home runs that season. I know it has been said before, but while Smith’s glove rightly gets the lion’s share of the attention, he had a surprising number of above-average offensive seasons, almost all of them coming since he was in his 30s. Smith’s offensive career is a good reminder that not every player ages the same way.
4. Richie Ashburn, 1960: +19.3 batting runs, 120 wRC+ (.291/.415/.338), 16 steals, 4 caught stealing. A charter member of the All-Time OBP>SLG Club, Asburn is perhaps best described as “Brett Gardner on Steroids,” except (a) that phrase seems utterly inappropriate for two players so utterly devoid of power, and (b) as much as I enjoy Brett Gardner, he can’t carry Ashburn’s jock. It is easy to find and read all the great stories about Ashburn the player and person (Google richie ashburn foul ball). In lieu of repeating any of them, I will simply quote one of my favorite passages from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract page 735:
Richie Ashburn combined the Pete Rose virtues and the Pete Rose style of play with the virtues of dignity, intelligence, and style. Like Rose, he was a three-hundred-hitting singles hitter who ran out every ground ball of his career, a player who got out of his body every pound of ability that the Lord had put in there. Unlike Rose, Ashburn did not extend his career beyond its natural boundaries to break any records. At the time he retired, he had only 188 hits fewer than Rose had at the same age, and had more than many of the 3,000-hit men had at the same age. He didn’t need records to tell him who he was. Ashburn was a reader, a family man, a man of restraint and taste.
(Incidentally, Ashburn’s 1957 would have been seventh on this list, and Rose’s 1981 would have been ninth.)
3. Matty Alou, 1968: +21.2 batting runs, 129 wRC+ (.332/.362/.396), 18 steals, 10 caught stealing. Bad base-stealing, low walk rate, no power, but a ton of singles. One more reason runs above and below average is necessary to compare across era: the league wOBA in 1968 was .292 (and we thought .321 in 2010 was low…).
2. Willie Randolph, 1991: +21.4 batting runs, 131 wRC+ (.327/.424/.374), 4 steals, 2 caught stealing. Some players miss the Hall of Fame because the voters couldn’t look past their batting average to see their secondary skills. Bobby Grich is one classic example of this, but there’s a decent case to be made for his second-base compatriot Randolph. Randolph didn’t have Grich’s power (although 1991 was his only season as a full-timer that he didn’t hit a home run), but he played good defense and was an on-base machine. Randolph stole more bases when he was younger, but by 1991, the speed was pretty much gone, which makes this 1991 performance with the Brewers (his penultimate season) that much more impressive.
1. Miguel Diloné, 1980: +23.5 batting runs, 131 wRC+ (.341/.375/.432), 61 steals, 18 caught stealing. I’m not going to lie: before I started working on this, I had never heard of Miguel Diloné. His 1980 season with Cleveland was the only thing resembling a full-time job he ever got as a major league player (the next-closest was his 1982 stint in Cleveland when he got 412 plate appearances over 104 games and managed a -1.1 WAR), but he made the most of it. When your batting average is .341, it really doesn’t matter how empty it is, you are going to end up being above average. Add in 61 steals, and while Diloné’s career may not be in the same league with two Hall of Famers (Smith and Asburn), one maybe-should-have-been Hall of Famer (Randolph), and a guy with a few decent seasons from a famous baseball family (Alou), this one season earns him eternal glory atop of the No Homers Club.