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The 10 best individual seasons in Chicago Cubs history

Some of these might surprise you.

This man had the best individual season in Cubs history, by bWAR
Chicago Daily News Collection

The Cubs have a long and storied history, despite the 108-year World Series drought that ended in November 2016.

That includes quite a number of Hall of Fame players, who posted great seasons while playing for our favorite team.

The current group of Cubs could eventually join these players from team history, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the top individual years from Cubs history as we get ready for another season to begin.

To take any subjectiveness out of this ranking, I’m doing this strictly by WAR, the baseball-reference version, and this also eliminates 19th Century Cubs, as the game was played quite differently from today’s in that era.

Here, then, from 10th to first, are the 10 top bWAR seasons by a Chicago Cub from 1901 through 2017.

10) Jack Taylor, 1903. 23-11, 1.29 ERA, 206 ERA+, 0.953 WHIP, 9.3 bWAR

Taylor is best known for throwing 187 consecutive complete games from June 20, 1901 through August 9, 1906 (though he also had 15 relief appearances in this span). The 1903 season was probably his best, as he led the league in ERA, ERA+, WHIP and shutouts (eight). If there had been a Cy Young Award then, he’d certainly have won it.

Taylor’s biggest contribution to the Cubs, though, was probably made after this stellar season, when he was traded to the Cardinals for some guy named Mordecai Brown.

9) Rick Reuschel, 1977, 20-10, 2.79 ERA, 158 ERA+, 1.218 WHIP, 9.4 bWAR

Rick finished third in Cy Young voting for this season, but like a lot of his teammates, he declined after August 1. As of July 28 he was 15-3 with a 2.14 ERA and 1.102 WHIP, but after that date went 5-7 with a 3.90 ERA and 1.419 WHIP. It was by far the best year of Reuschel’s career.

8) Ernie Banks, 1958, .313/.366/.614, 47 HR, 129 RBI, 9.4 bWAR

This was the first of Ernie’s two MVP seasons; he led the league in HR, RBI and SLG. Unfortunately, the team apart from him wasn’t any good, though they did smack 182 home runs, which set a franchise record that stood until 1987.

7) Ron Santo, 1967, .300/.395/.512, 31 HR, 98 RBI, 9.8 bWAR

While those numbers from a 2018 standpoint look very good but maybe not great, the 1960s were a lower-offense era. Santo led the N.L. in walks and bWAR and finished third in home runs and sixth in OBP and SLG. He also won his fourth Gold Glove that year.

6) Ernie Banks, 1959, .304/.374/.596, 45 HR, 143 RBI, 10.2 bWAR

This was the second of Ernie’s MVP seasons; he led the N.L. in RBI, SLG and defensive WAR. The team was 50-48 in late July and only 4½ games out of first place. If they’d had any decent pitching, they might have made a run at the pennant, as they finished only 12 games out of first place.

5) Dick Ellsworth, 1963, 22-10, 2.13 ERA, 167 ERA+, 1.025 WHIP, 10.3 bWAR

Ellsworth turned in this spectacular season at age 23 and was being favorably compared with another lefty, Sandy Koufax. Koufax won the Cy Young that year (there was at the time only one such award for both leagues), but Ellsworth was not far behind Koufax in several categories. Unfortunately, like a lot of pitchers in that era, Ellsworth was overworked and never again had a season anywhere close to that.

4) Fergie Jenkins, 1971, 24-13, 2.77 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.049 WHIP, 10.3 bWAR

This was Fergie’s best year and he won the Cy Young (by this time, there was one such award in each league). He threw 30 complete games, which was a lot even for that time (Tom Seaver was second with 21). Comparison point: Cubs pitchers have thrown 30 complete games... combined... since 2007.

Also, you could make an argument that Fergie’s 1971 season should rank higher on this list, because that year he put together a great season with the bat: .243/.282/.478 (28-for-115), with seven doubles, a triple and six home runs (the six homers is still the team record for pitchers, tied by Carlos Zambrano in 2006). That was worth 1.7 bWAR, which is the best ever for any Cubs pitcher.

3) Sammy Sosa, 2001, .328/.437/.737, 64 HR, 160 RBI, 10.3 bWAR

No matter what you think of Sammy, this spectacular season set a number of “bests” for a number of Cubs marks: most RBI in a season since 1930, highest SLG ever, highest OBP since 1945... and yet, with Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs, Sammy finished second in MVP voting. He is still the only player to hit 60 or more home runs three times, and he didn’t win the HR title in any of those seasons — the only times he won that title was in 2000, when he hit 50, and 2002 with 49.

2) Rogers Hornsby, 1929, .380/.459/.679, 39 HR, 149 RBI, 10.4 bWAR

Hornsby’s .380 batting average remains the franchise record (post-1900) for a single season, nearly 90 years after he reached that mark. He led the National League in runs (156, also a franchise record), SLG and OPS. Hornsby’s MVP season helped lead the Cubs to the National League pennant.

1) Pete Alexander, 1920, 27-14, 1.91 ERA, 166 ERA+, 1.112 WHIP, 12.1 bWAR

The deadball era was ending by 1920, but Alexander was still pitching like it was in its heyday. He led the N.L. in wins, ERA, ERA+, innings, strikeouts and complete games (33). Unfortunately, the rest of the team wasn’t very good and they finished 75-79, in fifth place.

Honorable mention: Greg Maddux, 1992 (9.2), Ron Santo, 1966 (8.9), Ron Santo, 1964 (8.9), Jake Arrieta, 2015 (8.7), Ryne Sandberg, 1984 (8.5).