In doing some prep work for an article I had planned on penning that involved generating Weighted On Base Averages for some 19th century hitters (thanks, Matt!), I came across a season that I've seen pop up in various Play Index results but never really dug into. Today, I'm going to do just that.
If I asked you to name the best hitter from Canada in baseball history who would you choose? Most of you would probably say Larry Walker, right? After that, no one really springs to mind. Don't go beating yourself up, however, because there's only been ten hitters born in Canada to amass at least 75 Batting Runs since 1871 in an entire career.
But even Larry Walker couldn't match what is probably the greatest season in baseball history that rarely gets acknowledged. In fact, this season was so great that few players, regardless of their birth place, can stack up against it.
The season: Tip O'Neil's 1887 season in the American Association.
Tip O'Neil was born in Springfield, Ontario but was dubbed the Woodstock Wonder during his playing days. Though, O'Neil's career spanned just a decade from 1883-1892, O'Neil had the fortune - and talent - to put together one of the all-time great seasons.
The St. Louis Browns were lapped the field in the American Association in 1887, winning the league by 14 games over second-place Cincinnati before the Browns bowed out to the Detroit Wolverines in the 1887 Dauvray Cup series.
James Edward O'Neil - he got his nickname Tip due to his penchant for just tipping a ball out of play in order to get a pitch he liked enough to drive with authority or until he drew a walk - hit .435/.490/.691 which for any era was amazing. Consider that even before you use advanced metrics to judge O'Neil's season, the raw OPS of 1.180 is still 26th all time in baseball history for a single season.
But shining the sabermetric light on his season sheds even more greatness.
O'Neil's OPS+ that year was 211(!) and good for 20th best single season ever (min. 550 PA's). Even better: only seven players in the history of the game own a better season than O'Neil; Barry Bonds (four times), Babe Ruth (eight times), Ted Williams (three times), Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gerhig, and Mark McGwire (all one single season each).
Using B-Ref's Wins Above Replacement metric, we can isolate their linear weights-based Batting Runs. Tip O'Neil totaled 100 of them that year, which is 16th all time - tied with Rogers Hornsby's 1922 season behind only five players: Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gerhig, and Rogers Hornsby.
Did I mention that all of the stars above accomplished their feats with plate appearance numbers totaling between 600 and 700 per year? That's important because Tip O'Neil accomplished his phenomenal totals in just 572 PA's.
If we extrapolate his Batting Runs out to, say, 650 PA's, Tip O'Neil was on pace for about 114 Batting Runs which would be even more rarified air. Here's a list of players to slug 110 Batting Runs or more in a single year, in order:
Babe Ruth, 1921, 126 BR
Barry Bonds, 2001, 119 BR
Babe Ruth, 1923, 119 BR
Babe Ruth 1920, 115 BR
Tip O'Neil was on pace to do something that even Barry Bonds could accomplish once in his career.
What makes this outburst even more memorable is that O'Neil only accrued 310 batting runs in his entire career.
If you don't remember or know the name Tip O'Neil, I wouldn't blame you. He's kind of a Brady Anderson of the 19th century. Still, his 1887 season is one worth knowing if only for it's uniqueness and unexpectedness.