PEAK and PRIME SEASONS
I am revisiting today a subject that I have visited before, but I have a new and better approach to the subject, so I’m doing it again. My Greatest Living Player poll came down to two players whose best seasons are essentially impossible to find, because EVERY season was at the level of their best. This is what most defines Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, that their best season was. . . .well, just pick one. Mickey Mantle was better than Mays or Aaron in his best seasons, but Mantle had only four prime seasons. It is hard to point to specific facts that back that up, however, because you don’t have an exact count on how many prime seasons Aaron had or Mays had, nor do you have counts of any other player to compare them too.
This research, then, addresses questions like:
1) Which players had the most Peak and Prime seasons in their careers?
2) What is the normal number of Peak and Prime seasons for a Hall of Famer?
3) How many players—and which players—have peak and prime seasons at what ages?
Again, I have addressed these questions many times over the years, and others have as well, but I just spotted another approach ramp to the issue, so I decided to try to take a run at it
Explanation of the process. I started by summarizing each player/season (nonpitchers) by combining three evaluations into one. The three evaluations are:
1) Season Score,
2) Win Shares, and
3) WAR. Or sometimes estimated WAR; for some players I have their actual Baseball Reference WAR in my data; for other players it is an estimate.
The Season Scores averaged 82, and the Win Shares averaged 8.2. The WAR averaged 1.09. To combine them into one measurement—one statement of the player’s season—I used
Season Score,
Plus 10 times Win Shares,
Plus 80 times WAR,
All of that divided by 10.
So that the three elements carried essentially equal weight. The "division by 10" is purely cosmetic, since it does not change the comparison between any two player/seasons. For example, David Ortiz in 2016, his last year with the Red Sox—which was a monster season—had a Season Score of 399, 24 Win Shares, and 5.2 WAR. Run the numbers; that makes 399+240+415=1054, divided by 10 equals 105.4. So the season shows at 105, although the .4 is still hiding in there.
The greatest seasons ever by this combination system. . .it doesn’t matter; it’s the same seasons that would be the greatest ever by any the other methods. Bonds great years and Ruth’s rank at the top of the list. I’m not going to get into that.
So we have a number for each player/season. We add together each and every threeseason span by each player, and divide the total by three. Then we find the highest point for each player—that is, the highest threeseason average. For David Ortiz, the highest threeseason total is 2005 to 2007.
Having done that a PEAK season is any season which exceeds the average of the three best consecutive seasons.
A PRIME season is any season which is at least 85% of the peak number.
You might think that, since the peak is based on a threeseason run, no player could have more than three peak seasons, but this is not true. There have been players who have had as many as six peak seasons. Think about the series of numbers 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2. The average for any three consecutive numbers is 1.67, but there are six "twos" in the sequence.
There are five players in history who have had six "Peak" seasons. The most recent was Ellis Burks, 19872004. These are Burks’ career stats, with the six "peak" seasons in bold face:
YEAR

G

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

Avg

OBA

SPct

OPS

1987

133

558

94

152

30

2

20

59

41

.272

.324

.441

.765

1988

144

540

93

159

37

5

18

92

62

.294

.367

.481

.848

1989

97

399

73

121

19

6

12

61

36

.303

.365

.471

.836

1990

152

588

89

174

33

8

21

89

48

.296

.349

.486

.835

1991

130

474

56

119

33

3

14

56

39

.251

.314

.422

.736

1992

66

235

35

60

8

3

8

30

25

.255

.327

.417

.744

1993

146

499

75

137

24

4

17

74

60

.275

.352

.441

.793

1994

42

149

33

48

8

3

13

24

16

.322

.388

.678

1.066

1995

103

278

41

74

10

6

14

49

39

.266

.359

.496

.856

1996

156

613

142

211

45

8

40

128

61

.344

.408

.639

1.047

1997

119

424

91

123

19

2

32

82

47

.290

.363

.571

.934

1998

142

504

76

147

28

6

21

76

58

.292

.365

.496

.861

1999

120

390

73

110

19

0

31

96

69

.282

.394

.569

.964

2000

122

393

74

135

21

5

24

96

56

.344

.419

.606

1.025

2001

124

439

83

123

29

1

28

74

62

.280

.369

.542

.911

2002

138

518

92

156

28

0

32

91

44

.301

.362

.541

.903

2003

55

198

27

52

11

1

6

28

27

.263

.360

.419

.779

2004

11

33

6

6

0

0

1

1

3

.182

.270

.273

.543

A player who has six peak seasons—or five peak seasons, or even four—is a player who has had an upanddown career, rather than a period of concentrated excellence. If a player has his three best seasons in order, 123, then he will have only one or two "peak" seasons.
A "prime" season, on the other hand, is any season which is 85% of the average of the three best consecutive seasons. What I am really interested in here is not peak seasons, but prime seasons.
I would have guessed that Henry Aaron had more prime seasons than any other player, but actually he didn’t. He is second on the list. The player who had the most prime seasons is Jake Beckley, a Hall of Fame first baseman who played 113 years ago.
Actually, I have two counts of the number of "prime" seasons by each player. One count is simple, straightforward, and easy to explain. The other count more accurate, more precise, but not as handy to reference because you can’t tick off what the prime seasons were.
The first count, as I said, is that a peak season is any season in which a player’s value number is 85% of his peak threeyear average. For the second count, each season is compared to the "peak" number, the threeyear average. Paul O’Neill, 1996. O’Neill hit 302 with 19 homers, 91 RBI, also 104 walks—a pretty good season. O’Neill’s 1996 season has a value number of 80.36. O’Neill’s threeyear peak average if 94.69. That’s not 85%. It’s 84.9%.
Well, but is it reasonable to say that at 85% you’re over the line so it’s a prime season, but 84.9%, that’s nothing? Is it reasonable to say that if Paul O’Neill had drawn one more walk, that would be a "prime" season, but that since he didn’t, it isn’t? It’s not ideal. It’s arbitrary. You’d rather not have entirely arbitrary magic lines drawn through the data.
So here’s the second count. First, any season in which the player meets or exceeds his threeseason peak is counted as 1.0000 prime seasons; in other words, having a score of 150 with a threeseason peak of 75 doesn’t make it two prime seasons; it is still just one prime season. If it is less than 1.00, however, what we do is "scale it down". .90—that is, a season that is 90% of the threeyear peak—counts as .75 prime seasons. .80—that is, a season that is 80% of the threeyear peak—counts as .50 prime seasons. .70—a season that is 70% of the peak—counts as .25 prime seasons. .60 counts as zero. Whatever the percentage is, we subtract that from 1.000, multiply the remainder by 2.5, and subtract that from one again. Seasons below .600 don’t count at all as prime seasons, but seasons between .60 and 1.00 are all given SOME credit as prime seasons, but not FULL credit as prime seasons.
The intent of this is to create a number which is on the same scale as the simple count of prime seasons, but which is more careful, more precise.
The five players who had the most prime seasons are
First

Last

Prm Ct

Prime Total

Jake

Beckley

12

12.10

Hank

Aaron

11

11.73

Willie

Mays

12

10.97

Chili

Davis

9

10.41

Patsy

Donovan

10

10.01

Mays and Aaron, the two greatest living players, are at the top of the list (2^{nd} and 3^{rd}) in terms of prime seasons. Beckley had 12 prime seasons by count, and 12.10 by the weightedvalue system; Aaron had 11 by count, and 11.73 by the weightedvalue system. A second purpose of this, as well as to give definition to what it is that sets Mays and Aaron apart, is to give recognition to guys who are NOT Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, but who had a large number of prime seasons. Chili Davis and Patsy Donovan.
Of the top 12 players on the list, 9 are Hall of Famers.
First

Last

Prm Ct

Prime Total

Jake

Beckley

12

12.10

Hank

Aaron

11

11.73

Willie

Mays

12

10.97

Chili

Davis

9

10.41

Patsy

Donovan

10

10.01

Lou

Gehrig

9

9.91

Al

Kaline

9

9.63

Joe

Judge

9

9.53

Mike

Schmidt

9

9.47

George

Davis

8

9.43

Reggie

Jackson

7

9.29

Sam

Rice

8

9.07

All Hall of Famers except Chili Davis, Patsy Donovan and Joe Judge. But the 13^{th} name is interesting:
First

Last

Prm Ct

Prime Total

Jake

Beckley

12

12.10

Hank

Aaron

11

11.73

Willie

Mays

12

10.97

Chili

Davis

9

10.41

Patsy

Donovan

10

10.01

Lou

Gehrig

9

9.91

Al

Kaline

9

9.63

Joe

Judge

9

9.53

Mike

Schmidt

9

9.47

George

Davis

8

9.43

Reggie

Jackson

7

9.29

Sam

Rice

8

9.07

Manny

Ramirez

7

9.03

When I joined the Boston Red Sox in 2002, Manny Ramirez, I believe, was the highestpaid player in baseball—and we were committed to pay him at that level for years into the future. Frankly, we did not think there was a snowball’s chance in hell that he would earn the money. We thought that the contract was a nightmare.
But you’ve got to hand it to Manny. Manny was a constant pain in the ass for the organization to deal with, but on the bottom line, he was productive every year. He was one of the MOST consistently productive players in baseball history. He’s in the middle of a Hall of Famer’s list.
After Manny, there are three more Hall of Famers:
First

Last

Prm Ct

Prime Total

Jake

Beckley

12

12.10

Hank

Aaron

11

11.73

Willie

Mays

12

10.97

Chili

Davis

9

10.41

Patsy

Donovan

10

10.01

Lou

Gehrig

9

9.91

Al

Kaline

9

9.63

Joe

Judge

9

9.53

Mike

Schmidt

9

9.47

George

Davis

8

9.43

Reggie

Jackson

7

9.29

Sam

Rice

8

9.07

Manny

Ramirez

7

9.03

Luis

Aparicio

9

9.00

Fred

Clarke

8

8.96

Mel

Ott

7

8.93

And then there is somebody who definitely is not a Hall of Famer, and who you would never think of as a player of exceptional consistency, but here he is. I’ll even give you a huge hint: he has a fivesyllable, 12letter last name, and is a recent player. You still won’t guess it:
First

Last

Prm Ct

Prime Total

Jake

Beckley

12

12.10

Hank

Aaron

11

11.73

Willie

Mays

12

10.97

Chili

Davis

9

10.41

Patsy

Donovan

10

10.01

Lou

Gehrig

9

9.91

Al

Kaline

9

9.63

Joe

Judge

9

9.53

Mike

Schmidt

9

9.47

George

Davis

8

9.43

Reggie

Jackson

7

9.29

Sam

Rice

8

9.07

Manny

Ramirez

7

9.03

Luis

Aparicio

9

9.00

Fred

Clarke

8

8.96

Mel

Ott

7

8.93

Mark

Grudzielanek

9

8.93

Here’s the rest of the top 25:
First

Last

Prm Ct

Prime Total

Jake

Beckley

12

12.10

Hank

Aaron

11

11.73

Willie

Mays

12

10.97

Chili

Davis

9

10.41

Patsy

Donovan

10

10.01

Lou

Gehrig

9

9.91

Al

Kaline

9

9.63

Joe

Judge

9

9.53

Mike

Schmidt

9

9.47

George

Davis

8

9.43

Reggie

Jackson

7

9.29

Sam

Rice

8

9.07

Manny

Ramirez

7

9.03

Luis

Aparicio

9

9.00

Fred

Clarke

8

8.96

Mel

Ott

7

8.93

Mark

Grudzielanek

9

8.93

Stan

Musial

7

8.69

Gary

Matthews

7

8.67

Mark

Grace

9

8.67

Tom

Brunansky

9

8.64

Dan

Brouthers

8

8.58

Reggie

Smith

9

8.57

Pete

Rose

7

8.55

Babe

Ruth

7

8.54

Generally speaking, players who have a large number of prime seasons are great players—not always, not 100%, but generally. An allstar team of players who were not Hall of Famers or strong Hall of Fame candidates, but who had many prime seasons relative to their own skills:
C—Don Slaught
1B—Joe Judge or Mark Grace
2B—Mark Grudzielanek
3B—Ron Cey
SS—Tommy Corcoran
LF—Gary Mathews
CF—Reggie Smith
RF—Patsy Donovan or Tom Brunansky
DH—Chili Davis
A round of applause is in order for those men. We’re not doing pitchers here.
Players who had a very high peak, and also had many prime seasons.
There are 14 players in history who had (a) a peak score of 109 or higher, which puts them in the top 5% of all players at their peak, and (b) also had eight or more prime seasons. Those 14 players are:
First

Last

Hank

Aaron

Barry

Bonds

Dan

Brouthers

Sam

Crawford

Lou

Gehrig

Vladimir

Guerrero

Willie

Mays

Stan

Musial

Mel

Ott

Manny

Ramirez

Frank

Robinson

Pete

Rose

Babe

Ruth

Mike

Schmidt

Players who had a very high peak, but very few Prime Seasons.
This group of players is even more interesting than the one above. The one above is the alltime greats; this list is the alltime shouldhavebeens, the players who were great for a little while and then disappeared:
First

Last

Peak

Prm Ct

Pr Tot

Ken

Caminiti

113

2

2.25

Bobby

Murcer

111

2

2.44

Roger

Maris

116

2

2.69

Luis

Gonzalez

124

3

2.72

Benny

Kauff

113

2

2.85

Joe

Medwick

145

3

3.05

Bill

Nicholson

116

3

3.09

Al

Rosen

122

3

3.11

Ken

Williams

123

3

3.13

Ted

Kluszewski

110

3

3.15

Babe

Herman

117

2

3.37

Dave

Parker

126

3

3.42

Home Run

Baker

146

3

3.53

Jason

Giambi

143

3

3.55

Gavvy

Cravath

109

3

3.64

Frank

Howard

113

3

3.70

Will

Clark

125

3

3.80

Hack

Wilson

132

3

3.83

Jack

Fournier

117

4

3.83

George

Sisler

130

3

3.92

There are four Hall of Famers on that list, and 16 other players who ought to have had Hall of Fame careers but for one reason or another didn’t. Well, not 16; three of them are steroidera players who maybe had an artificially induced period of exceptional peak performance (Giambi, Gonzalez and Caminiti.) Benny Kauff was a Federal League superstar, although he was a very good player in the National League as well. Bill Nicholson was a War Time star during World War II.
There is an old saying that a happy life makes a boring biography. For the same reasons, a highly successful career is, in a certain sense, boring. Failure is easier to talk about than uninterrupted success. These are the players who had a volatile mix of success and failure. There is always a reason why they didn’t have a longer period of success—illness (Sisler), injury (Kluszewski and Rosen), career interruptions (Home Run Baker), drinking (Hack Wilson), late getting a chance to play (Gavy Cravath). Those guys all have stories to tell.
A similar and related list with some overlap is players who had successful careers based on the career total of the season rating scores, but who had only a few prime seasons:
First

Last

Peak

C Tot

Prm Ct

Pr Tot

Luis

Gonzalez

124

1162

3

2.72

Joe

Medwick

145

1176

3

3.05

Norm

Cash

107

1060

2

3.38

Dave

Parker

126

1048

3

3.42

Jose

Canseco

97

1000

3

3.46

Home Run

Baker

146

1094

3

3.53

Jason

Giambi

143

1169

3

3.55

Jimmy

Sheckard

107

1056

3

3.67

Will

Clark

125

1171

3

3.80

George

Sisler

130

1151

3

3.92

Norm Cash had a long and very successful career, hitting 377 career home runs, but he had only two prime seasons, separated by five years—1961, and 1966. Sorry, I have just to get Norm Cash into every article if I can; it’s like a nervous tic.
An opposite list is players who had five or more prime seasons by their own standards, but who had very modest careers. I think I’ll do 25 of those:
First

Last

Peak

C Tot

Prm Ct

Pr Tot

Rip

Williams

22

132

5

5.24

Rowland

Office

27

172

6

5.27

Don

Kolloway

26

198

6

5.19

Lou

Criger

30

200

3

5.05

Brooks

Kieschnick

36

213

6

5.58

Bobby

Reis

37

215

6

5.50

Greg

Norton

27

217

4

5.34

Don

Zimmer

25

217

6

6.00

Ken

O'Dea

29

219

5

5.07

Val

Picinich

23

221

7

6.48

Clint

Courtney

32

225

4

5.00

Buddy

Rosar

27

229

5

5.40

Greg

Myers

25

233

5

5.19

Charlie

Ganzel

27

236

5

5.70

Pop

Schriver

25

247

6

6.20

Jamey

Carroll

29

253

5

5.53

Tom

Jones

37

257

6

5.65

Frank

Bowerman

28

257

5

5.91

Jerry

Grote

31

266

4

5.08

Ed

Brinkman

31

268

5

6.05

Tommy

Helms

34

269

4

5.17

Damian

Miller

34

270

5

5.64

Red

Dooin

34

274

5

5.28

Miguel

Cairo

27

280

5

5.80

Jim

Spencer

31

284

6

6.25

I don’t know how many of those guys you remember. A lot of them were either lighthitting catchers or lighthitting middle infielders. Rip Williams (19111918) was never a regular. He got quite a bit of playing time as a rookie first baseman/catcher with the 1911 Red Sox, a good team, but didn’t hit enough and got traded to Washington, where he was a backup catcher. All of his seasons count as prime seasons because they are all about the same. Least distinguished careers, seven or more peak seasons:
First

Last

Peak

C Tot

Prm Ct

Pr Tot

Jim

Dwyer

27

294

7

7.17

Ed

Kranepool

30

317

8

7.47

Spike

Owen

33

331

7

7.25

Michael

Tucker

37

347

6

7.07

Don

Slaught

37

411

8

7.70

Ozzie

Guillen

39

442

5

7.11

Charlie

Grimm

52

588

7

7.79

Mark

Grudzielanek

51

597

9

8.93

Tom

Brunansky

58

605

9

8.64

Claudell

Washington

53

614

6

7.08

Patsy

Donovan

54

656

10

10.01

Todd

Zeile

60

661

6

7.01

Tommy

Corcoran

52

676

6

8.14

Fred

Pfeffer

63

677

7

7.32

Willie

Kamm

66

689

7

7.72

In my study there are 3,088 players (years 18762016; only eliminations are that a player must have a career of some minimal quality to be included.) Those players had a total of 5,939 "peak" seasons, or just short of two peak seasons per player.
Of those 3,088 players, two had peak seasons at age 19: Chubby Dean in 1936, and Sibby Sisti in 1940. Twenty players have had peak seasons at age 20. Seven have done that since 1950: Al Kaline (1955), Ken Hubbs (1962), Tony Conigliaro (1965), Rick Manning and Claudell Washigton (1975), Butch Wynegar (1976) and Clint Hurdle (1978). Mel Ott’s sensational season when he was 20 years old in 1929 (he hit .328 with 42 homers, 151 RBI) actually does NOT qualify as a peak season. Ott had five seasons later on with more WAR; his stats just don’t look as flashy because the league batting totals dropped sharply after 1930. Ted Williams’ 145RBI season at age 20 does not count as a peak season, because Williams had better years.
Fiftynine players have had peak seasons at age 21. The most notable of those are Joe Jackson (1911), Eddie Mathews (1952), and Cesar Cedeno (1972). The most recent players to have peak seasons at age 21 are Rocco Baldelli (2003), Jose Tabata (2010) and Brett Lawrie (2011).
149 players have had peak seasons at age 22. The most recent of those are Sean Burroughs (2003), Rocco Baldelli (2004), Wily Mo Pena (2004), Melvin Upton Jr. (2007), Blake DeWitt (2008), Everth Cabrera (2009), Travis Snider (2010), Jose Tabata (2011), Brett Lawrie (2012) and Oswaldo Arcia (2013).
149 players out of 3,088 is five percent, basically; a low 5%, but over 4½. Five percent of players have peak seasons at age 22. Three percent of players have peak seasons at ages 20 or 21.
Bob Boone, 1989, is the only player in the study to have had a peak season at age 41. Three players have had peak seasons at age 40: Deacon White (1888), Johnny Cooney (1941), and Bob Boone (1988).
Only four players have had peak seasons at age 39—William Hoy (1901), Jim Dwyer (1989), Barry Bonds (2004) and Omar Vizquel (2006). Only five players have had peak seasons at age 38: Joe Start (1881), Fred Jacklitsch (1914), Jake Daubert (1922), Rico Carty (1978) and Craig Counsell (2009). So altogether, only 14 players have had peak seasons at ages 38 or higher—less than onehalf of one percent.
This is a full distribution of the number and percentage of players who have had a peak season at each age, repeating for full understanding that a "peak" season as used here does not mean that it is within his peak period; it means that the value of the season meets or exceeds the average value of his three best consecutive seasons.
AGE

Count

Pct

Pct 2

19

2

0%

0%

20

19

1%

0%

21

59

2%

1%

22

149

5%

3%

23

285

9%

5%

24

464

15%

8%

25

633

20%

11%

26

711

23%

12%

27

758

25%

13%

28

677

22%

11%

29

588

19%

10%

30

480

16%

8%

31

423

14%

7%

32

249

8%

4%

33

179

6%

3%

34

120

4%

2%

35

63

2%

1%

36

47

2%

1%

37

18

1%

0%

38

5

0%

0%

39

4

0%

0%

40

3

0%

0%

41

1

0%

0%

The two percentages there. . ..the first is a percentage of players; the second, a percentage of seasons. The first column means that 25% of all players have a peak season at age 27. The second column means that 13% of all peak seasons occur at age 27.
Moving on now to PRIME seasons. An average player has 1.92 Peak Seasons, but 3.15 Prime Seasons. Mel Ott’s 1929 season as a 20yearold (42 homers, 151 RBI, .328) is not a PEAK season, but it is a PRIME season. David Ortiz wonderful last season as a 40yearold (.318, 38 homers, 48 doubles and 127 RBI) is not a PEAK season, but it is a PRIME season. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is important because, while MOST players have no prime seasons outside of their peak period or only one, there are SOME players who have many prime seasons outside of their peak period. Henry Aaron had only 2 peak seasons, but 11 prime seasons. He’s an outlier, obviously, but Reggie Smith had 2 peak seasons, and 9 prime seasons. Kent Hrbek had 2 and 9; Mike Schmidt had 3 and 9. We’re trying to measure both things, even though, for many players, they’re all the same.
Altogether there are 9,783 Prime Seasons within the study. Johnny Lush (1904) is the only hitter to have had a prime season as an 18yearold; Lush converted to pitching a year later, although he continued to play some at first base or in the outfield as time permitted. Chubby Dean, Sibby Sisti and Ed Kranepool (1964) have had prime seasons at age 19. (Chubby also converted to pitching.) 36 players have had prime seasons at age 20; the list of those who have done it since 1950 is the same as I showed you before, except that it adds Vada Pinson (1959), Dalton Jones (1964), Ed Kranepool (1965), and Alex Rodriguez (1996). This is the full spectrum of prime seasons by age:
AGE

Count

Pct

Pct 2

18

1

0%

0%

19

3

0%

0%

20

36

1%

0%

21

101

3%

1%

22

259

8%

3%

23

471

15%

5%

24

726

24%

7%

25

946

31%

10%

26

1112

36%

11%

27

1196

39%

12%

28

1067

35%

11%

29

1009

33%

10%

30

826

27%

8%

31

688

22%

7%

32

455

15%

5%

33

343

11%

4%

34

235

8%

2%

35

143

5%

1%

36

89

3%

1%

37

42

1%

0%

38

17

1%

0%

39

10

0%

0%

40

7

0%

0%

41

1

0%

0%

39% of all players have a Prime season at age 27, but only 12% of all prime seasons occur at age 27.
Hall of Fame players typically have two to three Peak Seasons, and five to six Prime Seasons—higher than the averages for other players, even though the standards for what is a "peak" or "prime" season are much higher for a Hall of Famer than for other players. In addition to Beckley, Mays and Aaron, discussed at the start of the article, six Hall of Fame players had nine prime seasons—Luis Aparicio, Dan Brouthers, George Davis, Lou Gehrig, Al Kaline and Mike Schmidt. On the other end of the scale, Freddie Lindstrom had only two prime seasons (1928 and 1930), and twenty other Hall of Famers had only three. Carl Yastrzemski, while no one questions his status as a Hall of Famer, has only three prime seasons by his own standards (1967, 1968 and 1970). Roy Campanella has only three—his three MVP seasons. Robin Yount has only three (1982, 1983 and 1989), and Cal Ripken has only three (1983, 1984 and 1991).
Thanks for reading. And, thanks for not rioting.