Here’s the direction I took with this one: I chose the most iconic seasons over the past two decades. These aren’t necessarily the best seasons of the decade — although all are certainly great seasons — but the ones we remember with a little more sharpness than others that might have been just as statistically impressive. I then broke down each player’s performance into four categories to help define the iconic nature of that particular season:
Statistical dominance: How great was he, compared to other great seasons of that year and all time? Postseason play can be part of the consideration.
Historical significance: Did the player set some records? Did he lead the league in anything? Was it one of the best seasons in franchise history? Was he a key performer on a great team?
Aesthetic quality: How enjoyable was the player to watch? Did he play the game in a singular style or with a particular elegance? Was he popular? Did you feel like you had to watch him play?
Cultural impact: How big was he beyond his home city? Did he resonate with fans of other teams? Did he resonate with non-baseball fans? Did his team achieve something out of the ordinary?
All, of course, are subjective. And I could choose each player only once.
Pedro Martinez, 2000 Red Sox (18-6, 1.74 ERA, 217 IP, 284 K’s)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 19
We concluded our 90 seasons for the 1990s with Pedro, and we begin this list with Pedro, which is fitting because his 1999 and 2000 seasons are arguably the two most dominant for a starting pitcher. FanGraphs gives the edge to 1999, with 11.6 WAR, Baseball-Reference to 2000, with 11.7 WAR. In 1999, his 2.07 ERA was 1.37 runs better than the No. 2 pitcher in the American League. In 2000, his 1.74 ERA was 1.96 runs better than the No. 2 pitcher. His .167 batting average allowed and .213 OBP allowed remain records.
“Three pitches,” Pedro wrote in his autobiography. “My fastball up and in or spotted on the outside corner, down or up; my changeup, thrown with the same arm action and speed as the fastball but thrown about 10 to 12 miles per hour slower and with nasty tailing action away from a lefty, in on a righty; and my breaking ball, which I was able to command at another level in 1999 and 2000.”
Pedro loses one point on our 20-point scale only because the Red Sox failed to make the postseason. Otherwise, it was about as perfect a season as a pitcher could have, with Pedro starts not only must-watch events at Fenway Park but for all baseball fans. Pedro put it simply: “In 2000, I was the alpha male of the American League.”
Barry Bonds, 2001 Giants (.328/.515/.863, 73 HR, 137 RBI)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 2 | Impact: 2 | Total: 14
While the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase in 1998 was joyous and wonderful, the Bonds chase was like a slog up the side of a muddy mountain. First, McGwire and Sosa had just broken Roger Maris’ record. We didn’t need somebody to do it again so soon — and we certainly didn’t need the unlovable Bonds to do it. So, yes, he holds the single-season records for home runs and slugging percentage, and this season kicked off an unprecedented four-year run of batting prowess the likes of which we had never seen from even Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, but when it was all over we just felt cold and dirty.
Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Mariners (.350/.381/.457, 242 hits, 56 SB)
Statistical: 3 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 5 | Total: 18
Here came Ichiro, the first position player from Japan in the majors, this small, skinny guy in the midst of all these pumped-up sluggers of the era, playing this different kind of game — beautiful and brilliant and utterly unique. “He does seem to have an old soul,” wrote David Shields in the New York Times Magazine. “Before every pitch during every at-bat, he swings the bat over his head clockwise, points his right arm directly at the pitcher, stretches his left arm, bends his elbow to touch his right shoulder and tug on his uniform, holds that position and then releases and cocks the bat to hit. While he’s doing this, the world seems to stop momentarily, and we seem to be going back in time to — or is this only my very Western projection? — some ancient purification rite.”
He made The Throw, “something out of Star Wars,” as Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus exclaimed. Ichiro received the most votes for the 2001 All-Star Game, the first rookie ever to do so. On Ichiro bobblehead night at Safeco Field, fans arrived four hours before the game in a line that stretched six city blocks. The section of seats in right field became known as Area 51 (for his uniform number) and was filled with Japanese and Japanese-American fans (and other Asian-American fans), many holding up signs such as “Ichi-Hero,” some in English, some in Japanese. He was the MVP on a team that won 116 games and so much more.
Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, 2001 Diamondbacks (43 wins, 665 strikeouts)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 3 | Total: 16
With apologies to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, baseball had never seen a 1-2 punch like these two. They finished 1-2 in the National League in ERA, 1-2 in strikeouts, 1-2 in innings pitched, 1-2 in WAR and 1-2 in the Cy Young voting. Their biggest test came in the World Series, where they had to dethrone the evil Yankees, winners of three straight titles and four in five years. Asked about the Yankees’ mystique and aura before Game 1, Schilling responded, “Those are dancers in a nightclub.”
Schilling started Games 1, 4 and 7. He won Game 1 and left Game 4 after seven innings with a 3-1 lead. Johnson won Games 2 and 6. In Game 7, Schilling made his second career start on three days’ rest — his first had been in Game 4. He had pitched nearly 300 innings for the season. He was great, but left trailing 2-1. Johnson came on in relief, retired the final four batters, then picked up his third victory after the Diamondbacks’ dramatic rally in the bottom of the ninth. Schilling and Johnson shared World Series MVP honors. Over the entire postseason, the pair went 9-1 with a 1.30 ERA. “I just hope that was as fun to watch as it was to play in,” Schilling said after the game, “because that’s got to be one of the greatest World Series ever played.”
David Ortiz, 2004 Red Sox (.301/.380/.603, 41 HR, 139 RBI)
Statistical: 3 | Historical: 2 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 5 | Total: 15
This is more about Ortiz’s postseason heroics and helping lead the Red Sox to their curse-breaking World Series title than his regular-season dominance. While Ortiz certainly was great in the regular season, those numbers were not especially unique for that era. Even on his own team, Manny Ramirez hit more home runs and had a higher OPS. Even in the regular season, however, Ortiz had been clutch, hitting .324/.380/.634 in “late and close” situations.
Then came the postseason:
— He hit the series-ending walk-off home run to beat the Angels in the ALDS.
— In Game 4 of the ALCS against the Yankees, he had four RBIs, including the walk-off home run in the 12th inning.
— In Game 5, he homered in the eighth inning and delivered the walk-off hit in the 14th.
— He hit .308/.471/.615 in the World Series, including a three-run homer in the bottom of the first of Game 1 that got the Red Sox going in their four-game sweep.
Ortiz’s regular season might not have historical significance, but the impact of his great October run scores high. The legend of Big Papi was born.
Alex Rodriguez, 2007 Yankees (.314/.422/.645, 54 HR, 156 RBI)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 3 | Impact: 3 | Total: 14
It might have been Rodriguez’s best season, one of the best in the storied history of the Yankees, as he won his third MVP award after leading the AL in home runs, RBIs, runs, OPS, slugging percentage and total bases. Heck, he even threw in 24 stolen bases. He was the best player in the game and an early-season walk-off grand slam seemed to get Yankees fans to finally warm up to him.
In true A-Rod fashion, however, there was always something to distract from the remarkable numbers. In a May game against the Blue Jays, with the Yankees up 10-5 in the ninth inning, Jorge Posada popped up to third base. As Rodriguez ran past third baseman Howie Clark, he shouted “Ha” and Clark backed off, the ball falling for an RBI single. “It’s bush league,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “That’s not Yankee baseball.”
Then, on the night the Red Sox clinched the World Series title, Rodriguez exercised his option to opt out of his contract. As the Red Sox celebrated in Denver, a few hundred Red Sox fans gathered behind the dugout and chanted, “Don’t sign A-Rod.” He ended up going back to the Yankees.
Tim Lincecum, 2008 Giants (18-5, 2.62 ERA, 227 IP, 265 K’s)
Statistical: 3 | Historical: 2 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 3 | Total: 13
The Sports Illustrated cover said it perfectly: The Freak.
How did somebody his size throw that hard? “Lincecum does not throw a baseball as much as he launches it, 98 mph rockets somehow expelled, with finely tuned kinetic energy, from a batboy’s body,” wrote Tom Verducci.
In his first full season, Lincecum captured the attention of baseball fans like no young pitcher since Dwight Gooden. He did it with an unusual wind-up, taught to him by his dad and modeled on Sandy Koufax’s delivery. Lincecum led MLB pitchers in WAR, strikeouts and home run rate and won the first of his back-to-back Cy Young Awards. While the Giants weren’t good that season (72-90), Lincecum had helped usher in a golden era of Giants baseball.
Joe Mauer, 2009 Twins (.365/.444/.587, 28 HR, 96 RBI)
Statistical: 4 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 3 | Impact: 3 | Total: 14
Mauer had already won two batting titles, but his third one came with a career-high .365 mark and easily the best power season of his career as well. Based on current qualifying standards, the .365 mark is the highest ever for a catcher. He led the AL in OBP and slugging and was the near-unanimous MVP winner (27 of 28 first-place votes). His 7.8 WAR ranks tied for fourth all time for catchers, and he and Buster Posey are the only catchers to win MVP honors since 1976. To top it off, he was the homegrown icon playing in front of his hometown fans and his All-American image led to national commercials for PlayStation, Head and Shoulders and ESPN, not to mention more than one local commercial with his mom.
He had the simple swing with minimal movement, preferring to hit the ball to the opposite field (16 of his home runs went to left field). He rarely swung at the first pitch. “I just try to see how the ball moves, especially my first at-bat,” he said that year. “I always like to see a couple of pitches before I offer at one. I think ever since I can remember I’ve always felt pretty comfortable with two strikes.” He hit .259 that season with two strikes. Well played, Mauer.
Albert Pujols, 2009 Cardinals (.327/.443/.658, 47 HR, 135 RBI)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 3 | Total: 15
In some fashion, picking Pujols’ best season is like picking the best apple on the apple tree. His first 10 seasons he finished fourth, second, second, third, first, second, ninth, first, first and second in the MVP voting. The year he finished ninth? He led NL position players in WAR.
In 2009, he led the NL in home runs, runs, OBP, slugging, total bases and intentional walks — 44 of them. He still managed to drive in 135 runs, hitting .361 with runners in scoring position. With the bases loaded, when there was no way to pitch around him, he went 10-for-17 with five grand slams. The All-Star Game was in St. Louis that summer. “Last year, it was a celebration of Yankee Stadium,” said Derek Jeter. “This year, it almost seems like a celebration of Albert.”
The only negative? While the Cardinals made the playoffs, the Dodgers swept them in the NLDS. Pujols went 3-for-10 … with three intentional walks. The Dodgers weren’t about to let him beat them.
Jose Bautista, 2010 Blue Jays (.260/.378/.617, 54 HR, 124 RBI)
Statistical: 4 | Historical: 2 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 4 | Total: 14
Proof that it’s not always MVP seasons that make the biggest impact. The AL MVP in 2010 … Josh Hamilton. Good choice, he probably deserved it. Bautista wound up fourth for a Blue Jays team that finished 85-77. Bautista, however, was the biggest story of the regular season, because he was the most interesting story. He was 29 years old with a career high of 16 home runs entering the season. He had been a utility player for the Jays in 2009, playing left field, right field and third base, but starting just 92 games.
But his career started to change that season. One day that summer, Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy implored Bautista that he needed his swing to be shorter and more direct. Pitchers were able to overpower him with inside fastballs to his long, looping swing. “He always had power,” Murphy said in 2010. “He just needed a couple of tweaks.” In the final month of 2009, Bautista hit 10 home runs.
The home run total didn’t match the best of the PED era, but by 2010, offense was starting to decline as the pendulum swung back to pitchers. Bautista hit 15 more home runs than Paul Konerko, the No. 2 slugger in the AL. Bautista’s impact also was greater than simply being a big season on a non-playoff team: He helped usher in the launch-angle revolution as one of the first prime examples of a player altering his swing and hitting more fly balls in the process.
Justin Verlander, 2011 Tigers (24-5, 2.40 ERA, 251 IP, 250 K’s)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 19
Verlander had been one of the better pitchers in the game since his rookie season in 2006, but his career didn’t really enter a Hall of Fame trajectory until his monster Cy Young and MVP season in 2011, when he became the first starting pitcher to win MVP honors since Roger Clemens in 1986. Verlander always had great stuff, but his breakout came as the result of maturity: doing a better job of controlling his emotions and realizing he didn’t have to throw every fastball from the first inning on at 99 mph. He learned to rein things in earlier in the game, that throwing 95 was just fine — and then cranking it up to 99 later in the game when needed. Or sometimes even hitting triple digits in the seventh or eighth inning.
Like others on the list, the only negative is the postseason. After dispatching of the Yankees in the division series, the Tigers lost to the Rangers in the ALCS, with Verlander going 1-1 with seven runs allowed in 11⅓ innings. In a fashion, however, Verlander became the spiritual father of a new generation of power pitchers. The best pitchers of the late 2000s didn’t necessarily rely on an upper 90s fastball — Roy Halladay had the diving two-seamer, Felix Hernandez threw hard when he first came up but his best pitch was a changeup, Cliff Lee sat in the lows 90s. But guys like Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole are all pitchers who can crank it up. And Verlander himself. Eight years after 2011, he finally won his second Cy Young Award.
Miguel Cabrera, 2012 Tigers (.330/.393/.606, 44 HR, 139 RBI)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 4 | Total: 18
The first Triple Crown season since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 says it all, right? A historic, unprecedented season for the ages.
Except in this case, it didn’t. The story of the 2012 season became not so much Cabrera’s chase for the Triple Crown, but the MVP debate between Cabrera and Mike Trout. Even that discussion was about more than just who deserved a trophy, it was a debate at the heart of the quickly changing culture wars within the game and by those who cover it.
“There has never been anything like it. Has there?” wrote Jayson Stark on ESPN.com. “Maybe it started out as a debate over the credentials of Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. But now it’s erupted into your basic civil war between new-age and old-age thinkers. On one side, you hear the self-appointed enlightened minds of a new millennium screaming, ‘The Triple Crown is meaningless.’ On the other side, you hear the Carl Yastrzemski Fan Club roaring, ‘WAR is just a bunch of sabermetric baloney.'”
The thing I always found most frustrating about the whole debate that year is that Cabrera received extra credit in the eyes of some voters for leading the Tigers to the playoffs while the Angels fell short. But the Angels won one more game. They were just in the wrong division. Anyway, Cabrera won the MVP vote in decisive fashion, with 26 of 28 first-place votes, and the Tigers reached the World Series, where they fell to the Giants in a four-game sweep. Baseball, however, would never be the same.
Mike Trout, 2012 Angels (.326/.399/.564, 30 HR, 83 RBI)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 18
Trout has been the best player in the game since his rookie season and while he didn’t win that MVP in 2012, he has since captured it three times — and is still just 28. The interesting thing with him, however, is that, as good as he has been, there is no signature Mike Trout season. He has never really had a magic number chase — 50, 60 home runs, a .350 season, 40-40, anything to track on a daily basis or to get the casual sports fans more interested. He has never won a batting title, never won a home run title. He’s just the best player.
But 2012 was special. He had been a highly rated prospect, but we didn’t expect this, not as a rookie and not at 20 years of age. Instead, after a 40-game cameo in 2011 in which he hit .220, he suddenly emerged in 2012 as a fully formed superstar. He hit .326 (still his career best) and led the AL with 49 stolen bases and 129 runs. With 10.5 WAR and nobody else close, he was the best player in the league and depending on how you want to define “valuable,” also the most valuable.
Clayton Kershaw, 2014 Dodgers (21-3, 1.77 ERA, 198.1 IP, 239 K’s)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 3 | Total: 17
Here’s how good Kershaw was in 2014: He won Cy Young and MVP honors even though he made just 27 starts and pitched fewer than 200 innings. He was the first NL pitcher to win the MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968, although the historical significance loses a little luster since Verlander had broken through three years prior.
Kershaw didn’t allow an RBI to a left-handed batter until his 23rd start. He had a stretch of 41 consecutive scoreless innings. On June 18, he threw a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts — the perfect game marred only by an error. The three games he lost that year? He was bad in one of them, but in the other two he allowed three runs in seven innings and three runs in a complete game. He allowed three runs in seven innings in each of his three no-decisions. He could have gone 26-1.
From 2011 to 2017 — more than 200 games started — Kershaw went 118-41 with a 2.10 ERA. Like Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson a generation before, every start of peak Kershaw became a show, as you knew you were watching a generational talent. The postseason that year? Two losses to the Cardinals, the only blemish on his greatest season.
Madison Bumgarner, 2014 Giants (18-10, 2.98 ERA, 217⅓ IP, 219 K’s)
Statistical: 3 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 3 | Total: 15
Like David Ortiz in 2004, Bumgarner is here because of his October run — the greatest postseason a pitcher has had. His regular season? It was fine. He finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, and that may have been a little generous. The Giants weren’t a great team. They won 88 games, sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card. Then MadBum took over. A shutout in the wild-card game. A scoreless outing in Game 1 of the NLCS. One run allowed in Game 1 of the World Series followed by a shutout in Game 5. Then five more scoreless innings in relief in Game 7. For the entire postseason, he went 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA in 52⅔ innings over 29 remarkable days of pitching.
“Now he belongs to history,” Tyler Kepner wrote in the New York Times. During Game 7, manager Bruce Bochy would say he deliberately tried to avoid Bumgarner between innings. He didn’t want Bumgarner to tell him he was tired. Bumgarner wasn’t about to. “You know what?” Bumgarner would admit after the game. “I can’t lie to you anymore. I’m a little tired now.” A good tired.
Bryce Harper, 2015 Nationals (.330/.460/.649, 42 HR, 99 RBI)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 17
For one season, it all came together. The power, the batting average, the hype, the potential, the health, the hair, the approach, the swing, the flair, the Body Issue. At 22 years old, Harper led the league in home runs, runs, OBP and slugging. His OPS remains the highest of the decade — even after the home run boom of the past three seasons. The Nationals missed the playoffs that year, but he was the unanimous MVP. The future: limitless.
Jake Arrieta, 2015 Cubs (22-6, 1.77 ERA, 229 IP, 236 K’s)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 3 | Total: 15
The headline in The New York Times late in the 2015 season read: “Can it be true? The Cubs are finally creating optimism in Chicago.” The Cubs would make the playoffs that year after five consecutive losing seasons, and while the World Series title came the following the season, it was 2015 that set 2016 in motion.
Arrieta was 6-5 in mid-June, but then he began an extended run of dominance that matched the best in history. Over his final 20 starts, he went 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA in 147 innings, including a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium. He allowed just two home runs over that stretch and held batters to a .150/.200/.210 line. This was peak Pedro with an exclamation point. He joined Bob Gibson as the second pitcher in 100 years to go 8-0 with a sub-0.50 ERA over eight starts.
“I look back at this season and I think, ‘This guy is single-handedly carrying us to the playoffs,'” Cubs catcher David Ross said. “He’s pitching in the best division in baseball and facing teams that have been in a playoff atmosphere, and he’s dominating them.”
Arrieta’s training regimen — and his fondness for Pilates, foam rolling and kale juice — became a story of the season. The Cubs were back, and Arrieta led the way.
Aaron Judge, 2017 Yankees (.284/.422/.627, 52 HR, 114 RBI)
Statistical: 4 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 5 | Total: 18
How popular was the Judge in 2017? He led all AL players in voting for the All-Star Game. He would end up with the top-selling jersey of the season. The broadcast of the Home Run Derby — which Judge would win — was the highest rated since 2009 and drew a rating 55% higher than the 2016 contest. Fans came early to games just to watch Judge take batting practice. Yes, it helped that he played for the Yankees, but that was part of the allure — the Yankees were interesting again for the first time in half a decade.
Judge broke Mark McGwire’s rookie record of 49 home runs — although Pete Alonso would break Judge’s record in 2019, so the historical impact didn’t last long. As Buster Olney wrote that summer, there was a little bit of the Babe in Judge. “When Ruth came to the plate, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. As one of his peers said, even his strikeouts were epic, with Ruth swinging so hard that he fell down. In the midst of his career — and even after it — fans gathered to watch him take batting practice, to see the strength and the power. Does any of this sound familiar?”
Jose Altuve, 2017 Astros (.346/.410/.547, 24 HR, 81 RBI)
Statistical: 3 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 16
Judge, however, did not claim MVP honors. Instead, the award went to his physical opposite, the diminutive Altuve, who led the AL in batting average and hits for a team that won 101 games. Much like Trout and Cabrera in 2012, it turned into a heated MVP debate. Both players were so likable, so fun to watch, you wanted both to win. After all, they represented the best of the sport: You could be big and strong and hit mammoth home runs or small and fast and powerful.
Judge led in WAR, 7.9 to 7.6, close enough to make it a coin flip. (After checking the voting results, I was surprised Altuve won so easily, with 27 first-place votes to just two for Judge. I remember it being a really good debate, but despite Judge’s enormous popularity, there was obviously an underlying narrative that favored Altuve.) Altuve followed up with a fabulous postseason, hitting .310 with seven home runs in 18 games, including a three-homer game in the ALDS. Of course, we look back now and …
Mookie Betts, 2018 Red Sox (.346/.438/.640, 32 HR, 80 RBI)
Statistical: 5 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 18
Oh, yeah, throw in 129 runs, 47 doubles, 30 stolen bases and a Gold Glove. He even out-Trouted Mike Trout, leading the world with 10.6 WAR (Trout was at a mere 10.2). Maybe the most shocking element in that WAR figure is that Betts played just 136 games. It was one of the best seasons in Red Sox history. The Red Sox even won the World Series.
So why doesn’t Betts get the first coveted perfect 20 score? First off, he had a lot of help that season — Chris Sale and J.D. Martinez were nearly as big a deal as Mookie that summer. Second, he didn’t quite have the same impact across baseball as Judge or even Altuve the season before. Third, he didn’t have a great postseason, hitting .210/.300/.323 and homering just once in 14 games. It was a big one, though, off Clayton Kershaw in the sixth inning of the clinching Game 5 to give the Red Sox a 3-1 lead.
Stephen Strasburg, 2019 Nationals (18-6, 3.32 ERA, 209 IP, 251 K’s)
Statistical: 3 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 4 | Total: 14
A third player who makes it on the strength of his postseason performance. Strasburg went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA over 36⅓ innings, striking out 47 with just four walks. Given everything he had gone through in his career — from most-hyped pitching prospect of all time to Tommy John surgery to the controversial decision to sit out the 2012 playoffs to the various dings through the years — stepping up and leading the Nationals to their first World Series title provided one of the most memorable Octobers of the decade.
So there you go. Twenty-one iconic seasons of the 21st century. Because nobody scored a 20 under my completely arbitrary and tough grading system, that means we’re still in search of the ultimate iconic season. (We all know that will be when Felix Hernandez comes out of retirement and pitches a perfect game in Game 7 of the 2022 World Series to lead the Mariners to their first championship.)