I used the same criteria for this group of great hitters that I used for the “worst lineup” posted earlier today: qualified for batting title, then best by bWAR. In fact, all but one of these lineup positions is manned by a member of the Hall of Fame.
C: Gabby Hartnett, 1930: 141 G, 577 PA, .339/.404/.630, 144 OPS+, 5.4 bWAR
1930 is an outlier of a season. The entire National League (pitchers included) hit .303 that year, and that was the year Hack Wilson set the N.L. record for homers in a season, a mark that stood until Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both broke it in 1998 (another outlier of a season, for different reasons).
Hartnett, by this measure, has four of the best seven seasons ever by a Cubs catcher. That’s what you would expect from a Hall of Famer. When Hartnett retired he was widely regarded as the best catcher in N.L. history, and even today he’s probably no worse than fourth (Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, Gary Carter are ahead of him).
1B: Derrek Lee, 2005: 158 G, 691 PA, .335/.418/.662, 174 OPS+, 7.7 bWAR
D-Lee finished third in MVP voting, and came within one hit of 200 and one extra-base hit of 100 of those, and that would have been a rare feat: only five men in major-league history have done that. Lee’s 393 total bases led the major leagues, as did his BA, SLG, OPS and OPS+. Only three other Cubs (Mark Grace, once, and Billy Herman, twice) have hit more doubles in a season than D-Lee’s 50 in this fantastic season.
2B: Rogers Hornsby, 1929: 156 G, 712 PA, .380/.459/.679, 178 OPS+, 10.4 bWAR
Hornsby was an irascible tough guy who got himself fired as Cubs manager in 1932 when they were on their way to a pennant.
But man, could he hit. This performance got him named National League MVP, and the Cubs won the pennant. It was the third time in the previous five seasons that Hornsby had hit at least 39 home runs; no second baseman would outdo that until 1973, when Davey Johnson broke Hornsby’s record of 42 by hitting 43.
Ryne Sandberg’s 1984 MVP season was second among Cubs second basemen by these criteria: 8.5 bWAR. Hornsby’s 10.4 bWAR is the best for a position player for a single season in franchise history.
SS: Ernie Banks, 1959: 155 G, 671 PA, .304/.374/.596, 156 OPS+, 10.2 bWAR
The second of Ernie’s back-to-back MVP seasons gave him slightly more bWAR than his first (10.2 to 9.4), but in some ways the 1958 season was slightly better -- that year he hit more homers, had more total bases and led the major leagues in SLG for the only time in his career.
The Cubs went 74-80 in 1959 and were briefly in contention in midsummer. They finished just 13 games out of first place; if they’d had maybe one more really good hitter and one more solid pitcher (Sam Jones, who they’d traded away three years earlier, had a great year for the Giants in ‘59), they might have made a run at the pennant.
Banks accounts for six of the top eight seasons for a Cubs shortstop by bWAR. Only Joe Tinker (1908) and Woody English (1930) interrupt that run.
3B: Ron Santo, 1967: 161 G, 697 PA, .300/.395/.512, 153 OPS+, 9.8 bWAR
Like his friend and teammate Mr. Cub, Santo dominates the list of best seasons by a Cubs third baseman, six of the top nine. In 1966 and 1967 you could have made a reasonable argument that Santo was the best player in baseball, given his offensive contributions and that he was a Gold Glove third baseman.
Kris Bryant’s 2016 season, 7.7 bWAR, ranks fourth. It’s not unreasonable to think that KB might top this list by the time he’s done playing.
LF: Billy Williams, 1970: 161 G, 714 PA, .322/.391/.586, 148 OPS+, 6.6 bWAR
Billy set career highs in runs, hits, homers, RBI and total bases while finishing second in MVP voting to Johnny Bench. Billy’s 1972 season was, in some ways, better, but again he finished second to Bench in MVP balloting. Williams once said he was disappointed not to have won at least once. I suspect, in those days when voters considered contributions to a playoff team to be more important, that Billy might have won at least once if the Cubs had made the postseason.
Like his Hall of Fame teammates Banks and Santo, Williams dominates the list of best seasons for a Cubs left fielder, four of the best six.
CF: Hack Wilson, 1930: 155 G, 709 PA, .356/.454/.723, 177 OPS+, 7.4 bWAR
To give you another idea of how much the 1930 season was an outlier, Wilson had 423 total bases that year, second in Cubs history (Sammy Sosa, 425 in 2001, broke that mark). The number ranked second in the N.L. in 1930, and it wasn’t close: Chuck Klein had 445. Of the 29 seasons in MLB history where a player had 400 or more total bases, four were in 1930.
Wilson was a great hitter, no doubt about it, but injuries and his well-known drinking problem pretty much ended his run of dominance after 1930.
Dexter Fowler’s 2016 season ranks 12th in this category by bWAR.
RF: Sammy Sosa, 2001: 160 G, 711 PA, .328/.437/.737, 203 OPS+, 10.3 bWAR
Sosa’s total bases in 2001 (425), as noted above, are the franchise record. His 160 RBI that year were the most since Wilson’s 191 in 1930. By most measures this is the greatest offensive season in Cubs history, though Hornsby’s bWAR number edges him out by 0.1. Sosa has six of the top 11 seasons by bWAR for a Cubs right fielder.
P: Fergie Jenkins, 1971: 39 G, 132 PA, .243/.282/.478, 102 OPS+, 1.7 bWAR
For those of you who like to watch pitchers hit, I thought I’d add this to the list. Obviously no pitcher has enough PA to qualify for the batting title, so I reduced the number to 100 PA. There are 39 pitchers in Cubs history who have had at least 100 PA in a season and positive bWAR -- just four of those have 1.0 bWAR or more. Those are Jenkins’ 1971 season, Lon Warneke in 1933, Claude Hendrix in 1918 and Orval Overall in 1909.
Since Fergie’s 1971 season, just three Cubs pitchers have had a positive bWAR season at the plate using these criteria: Rick Sutcliffe (0.5 in 1987), and Greg Maddux, twice (0.6 in 1991, 0.3 in 1992).