There has been a litany of all-time great players who have been members of the Boston Red Sox across the franchise’s 119 seasons. From Cy Young to Mookie Betts, the list of current and future Hall of Famers is exhaustive. The collection of contributors isn’t all grouped in a handful of eras either. At just about every point in the franchise’s history, there have been at least a few legendary players running around, if not more.
However, even an organization like the Red Sox has some benefited from the occasional flash in the pan. Sometimes it was because the team itself wasn’t all that great and sometimes it was because a player who wasn’t expected to be a star shone brighter than anybody else.
An easy way to quantify such seasons is using wins above replacement. In this series, which borrows a bit of inspiration from the One Year Wonder series I began a few seasons ago, we will find and highlight the most surprising leaders in Baseball-Reference WAR in each decade of the organization’s existence. In contrast to the One Year wonder series, the players we’ll be highlighting here could have spent any amount of time with the Red Sox. In part one, we’ll be going all the way back and looking at 1901-09, 1910-1919, 1920-1929 and 1930-39.
Player: Chick Stahl
We’re cheating a little here as this is not a full decade, but with 119 seasons, we had to have one nine-year stretch instead of a decade. The Red Sox were still called the Boston Americans at this point and Stahl paved the way for the 1906 squad. He ended a five-year run for Cy Young as the team’s leader in WAR while also doing some managing for part of the season. It wasn’t a particularly successful one for the Americans, who went 49-105, but Stahl, who had a career average of .305 and accumulated 31.7 total WAR in 10 seasons, posted a 124 OPS+. Unfortunately this was the final season of his career as his life ended tragically the following year.
Player: Smokey Joe Wood
In a decade in which Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker both played for the Red Sox, Wood topped the Red Sox in WAR twice, doing so for the first time in 1911 and then again in 1912 for a World Series-winning squad. In that 1912 season, he won 34 games and threw 35 complete games, including 10 shutouts, which were all league-leading marks. He also surpassed 300 innings pitched for the only time in his career and posted a 1.91 ERA but finished just fifth in MVP voting. He would pitch three more seasons in Boston from there before finishing his career in Cleveland with 39.8 career WAR. It may not seem like Wood should be considered an outlier, but Speaker and Ruth were the only other players to lead the Red Sox in WAR during the decade.
Player: Topper Rigney
The 1920s were a brutal time to be a Red Sox fan. The Sox never had a record above .500 and lost more than 100 games three times during the decade. The list of WAR leaders across the decade is a mixed bag of Hall of Famers (Harry Hooper, Red Ruffing), players with long careers (Sad Sam Jones, Jack Quinn, Danny MacFayden), players who led in WAR more than once (Milt Gaston, Howard Ehmke) and then Rigney, who briefly ascended. Rigney wasn’t particularly spectacular by the numbers, slashing .270/.395/.377 with a 105 OPS+ after coming over from Detroit. However, he he did hit 32 doubles, record 108 walks and even get into the MVP discussion, albeit way down the ballot. He would begin the 1927 season with the Red Sox as well before moving over to Washington, but would not play in the majors again after that, ending his six-year career with 16 total WAR.
Player: Gordon Rhodes
The early 1930s continued the futility in Boston, but by the end of the decade, hope returned with players like Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx and someone named Ted Williams getting in on the action at Fenway Park. Before that, however, a different player led the team in WAR in each season between 1930 and 1935, although 1930’s leader Milt Gaston also led the team in 1929. While Earl Webb and Dale Alexander, who led in WAR in 1931 and 1932, respectively, have solid arguments to hold this spot, its tough to argue against Gordon Rhodes, who has the second-lowest WAR of any single season leader in the category in franchise history. He went 12-15 with a 4.03 ERA and an 109 ERA+ that season and accumulated 3.6 WAR. Considering he had 5.5 for his entire career, that is quite the standout campaign.