15 greatest first-half starts over the past 40 MLB seasons

Angels outfielder Mike Trout leads all MLB players in wins above replacement for the third straight season.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Calling Mike Trout’s 2014 season to date a fast start seems like a bit of a disservice. The Angels superstar has been playing like this since he began his rookie season in 2012. For Trout, leading all MLB players in wins above replacement could simply be described as a start. This is normal.

However, with the 22-year-old off to his second straight five-win campaign prior to the All-Star break, it does bring up the question: Just how fast are the starts of Trout (.310/.400/.606, 5.5 WAR) and Seattle ace Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12 ERA, 5.2 WAR) this season? 

To get an idea of how these active players stack up historically, let’s take a look back through the first-half starts for every season dating back to 1974, revealing a 40-year sample size. Looking at both pitchers and hitters and using metrics like WAR, weighted runs created and fielding-independent pitching to help sort through the numbers, here’s a list of the top 15 first-half numbers over the past 40 years.

(A few quick notes: All were statistics gather via FanGraphs, meaning its advanced metrics, which can differ based on source, are referenced. Also, FanGraphs’ first-half statistics track back to 1974, hence the 40-year sample size. For position players, offensive numbers were leaned on more heavily due to the reliability of historical defensive stats — don’t worry, there are some notable Gold Glove winners in here. As for pitchers, best record was not a determining factor. Here we go.)

First-half stats: .331/.409/.619, 22 homers, 5.7 WAR, 183 weighted runs created

In what turned out to be the Hall of Famer’s greatest season, Winfield was head and shoulders above the field at the ’79 break — the only player close to him was Mike Schmidt, another future inductee in Cooperstown who had slugged 31 homers through 92 games. The Padres were a rather awful bunch that season, but Winfield carried them as far as he could, driving in 72 runs by the All-Star break as well as playing solid defense and creating a few extra scoring chances on the basepaths.

In the 11 seasons from 1976 to 1986, he claimed the highest single-season first-half WAR of any position player in baseball.

He was the sport’s most dangerous offensive presence that season, but credit was slow to follow. All things held equal, Winfield likely walks away with his first and only MVP Award that season, as his final numbers — .308/.395/.558, 34 homers, 7.8 WAR — were better than those of NL winner Keith Hernandez (slightly) and runner-up Willie Stargell (by a substantial margin), both of whom played for winning clubs. Of course, Winfield’s first half put him in the All-Star Game for the third time in what would become 12 straight appearances in the Midsummer Classic.

First-half stats: 15-3, 1.47 ERA, 2.60 FIP, 5.1 WAR

Two years removed from his first Cy Young Award, Perry looked like he was on track for yet another remarkable season. (He was, sort of, just not quite as remarkable as 1972.) The Hall of Famer was averaging nine innings pitched in his 21 first-half starts, including an extra-inning affair against Milwaukee in which he went 15 frames, and opposing hitters simply couldn’t figure him out. Strange thing about this campaign? Perry stumbled out of the gate, allowing five runs and pitching only 6 1/3 innings (gasp) in a loss to the Yankees. His response was to rattle off 15 straight wins from April 12 through July 3.

His second half wasn’t quite as dominant, finishing up fourth in the AL Cy Young voting behind Catfish Hunter (Athletics), Fergie Jenkins (Rangers) and Nolan Ryan (Angels). Still, for this list’s purposes, he was the first pitcher until 1988 to post a five-win first half. Not bad.

First-half stats: .345/.439/.639, 24 homers, 6.0 WAR, 172 weighted runs created

In fairness to Darin Erstad, he deserves, at the very least, an honorable mention here. There have been only 12 six-win first-half performances since 1974, and both Erstad, the Angels star outfielder, and Rodriguez hit the mark in 2000. Still, even in Erstad’s greatest season, the Mariners shortstop gets the nod after taking the slight offensive edge and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at a premium position. (It’s also difficult to ignore Erstad falling off in the second half after his batting average on balls in play regressed back below .400.)

What stands out for Rodriguez here — and really over the course of his career; keep in mind this is the same guy who owns a career .384 first-half OBP and a career .384 second-half OBP — is the consistency. He was strong across the board in 2000, back when he was still three seasons away from taking his first of three MVP Awards. He finished the campaign with 41 homers and 132 RBI … and he was just getting started.

First-half stats: .334/.468/.702, 31 homers, 5.8 WAR, 209 weighted runs created

Purely in terms of WAR, there are multiple half-seasons which missed the cut due to Bautista’s place here — ’74 Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan, ’93/’01 Barry Bonds, ’94 Kenny Lofton, ’97 Larry Walker, ’01 Darin Erstad and ’08 Lance Berkman come to mind. But the Toronto Blue Jays slugger was in hallowed territory in terms of offensive production, eclipsing the 200-wRC+ plateau that only six players have finished the season above since 1950.

In 84 games, he led all qualified MLB players in home runs, on-base percentage, slugging and WAR at the 2011 break and he led the league in All-Star voting. And much of that production came with opposing pitchers pitching around him, which helped him lead all of baseball in walks. As Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Bautista at the time, "Phenomenal is a pretty good word. The last time I saw anything like that was 2002 with the Angels going into the World Series against Barry Bonds, where every time he swung the bat it looked like it could be a home run."

Bautista slowed down in the second half, eventually finishing with 43 homers and a third-place position in the AL MVP vote behind Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander (winner) and Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

First-half stats: 10-5, 2.12 ERA, 2.00 FIP, 5.6 WAR

In 2009, Greinke entered his name into the best-pitcher-in-baseball conversation. The 25-year-old enjoyed a ridiculous season, one of the 10 best single-season pitching performances since the turn of the century, and it got off to an equally excellent start.

Pitching for a pretty terrible Royals team, Greinke entered the break leading all pitchers in value (5.6 WAR) and in the things-you-can-control department, boasting a 2.00 FIP. (As a reference point, only three qualified players have finished a season with a 2.00 FIP or better since 1974: Pedro Martinez, Dwight Gooden and Matt Harvey. It’s pretty difficult.) Greinke could not keep up at that pace, but he still went on to win more than a quarter of the Royals’ games and take home the Cy Young Award.

First-half stats: .348/.405/.596, 18 homers, 6.0 WAR, 172 weighted runs created

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken won his second MVP Award in 1991 — his first since 1983, when he dominated the American Leagle in his age-22 season — and they could have handed him the trophy in Toronto, where the 1991 All-Star Game was being held. In terms of WAR and offensive production, Ripken was miles ahead of the pack during a stellar first half. Only the late great Tony Gwynn (.358/.388/.485, two homers) came within two wins of Ripken’s WAR at the break.

Sure, there are better offensive seasons on this list — though don’t forget, Ripken took home a Gold Glove that season after leading all players in defensive WAR, according to FanGraphs — but when a player practically laps the field, it’s worth mentioning.

First-half stats (Trout): .322/.399/.565, 15 homers, 5.9 WAR, 168 weighted runs created

First-half stats (Cabrera): .365/.458/.674, 30 homers, 5.8 WAR, 206 weighted runs created

The War of WAR, as it has come to be known in the annals of history, was at a standstill by the 2013 All-Star break. 21-year-old superstar Mike Trout had already established himself as the best all-around player in baseball, while reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera was posting better offensive numbers than he did during the first Triple Crown season since 1967. Cabrera was much better with the bat, Trout was much, much better in every other category … and the battle raged on.

Both players finished the first half neck-and-neck in the WAR category, with Baltimore’s Chris Davis, the owner of 37 home runs, coming in third (5.2 WAR). Cabrera was simply a machine for what looked to be a World Series type of year for the Tigers, driving in 95 runs by the break and getting on base nearly 46 percent of the time — good enough for 206 wRC+. Trout, on the other hand, just kept getting better and better, stealing 21 bases, playing solid defense and developing into one of the most feared hitters in the game.

Of course, the story is written by now. Cabrera went on to win his second straight MVP Award despite Trout (again) putting up a much better second half and being the better all-around player — it’s hard to know just what premium the Angels would have paid to wrap up Trout to an extension if he had two MVP Awards already in the bag at age 22 — and the War of WAR continues to smolder.

First-half stats: .335/.440/.601, 17 homers, 6.1 WAR, 196 weighted runs created

Pacing a field of fast-starting power hitters that included Bonds, Cecil Fielder and Lenny Dykstra, nobody could catch speedster Rickey Henderson at the 1990 break. In what proved to be the fastest start for baseball’s all-time stolen bases king, Henderson, at 31 years old, was well on his way to his best individual season and only MVP Award. Along with note-worthy power numbers (17 homers, .601 slugging), he still swiped 39 bases by the All-Star break while leading all players in weighted runs created by a significant margin and playing quality defense.

Basically, when Rickey Henderson reaches base 44 percent of the time, opposing pitchers (and catchers) are going to have nightmares.

First-half stats: .345/.562/.780, 27 homers, 6.6 WAR, 234 weighted runs created

In all honesty, there could be four or five Bonds seasons on here. Based on numbers alone, nobody would blink. In terms of a full season of work, his back-to-back-to-back-to-back MVP seasons (2001-2004) are the four greatest offensive seasons of the past 30 years, so there were bound to be plenty of fast starts involved — and that’s not even including his excellent first half in 1993 en route to his third MVP Award.

In short, unless this list was going to be 33 percent Bonds, some decisions had to be made. Perhaps most surprisingly: his ’01 season, that one where he hit 73 home runs to break the all-time record didn’t make the Bonds-specific cut.

That’s some perspective on just how good, regardless of the circumstances, his numbers were.

Pitchers were already avoiding Bonds at all costs in 2002, but not at the rate it would eventually become: this gave Bonds, fresh off hitting those 73 homers with less offensive efficiency, a chance to reach another gear in 2002. Comparing his numbers at the break to his record-breaking mark in 2001, his average jumped up 17 points, he was reaching base almost five percent more and his power was still very much there despite seeing fewer and fewer pitches inside the strike zone. As a result, he entered the All-Star break with the highest wRC+ of any other player on this list. Not bad.

First-half stats: 14-2, 1.80 ERA, 2.39 FIP, 5.9 WAR

After winning his third of four straight Cy Young Awards (1999-2002), The (Understated) Big Unit acknowledged the dominant first half that landed him on this list: "I wish I would have finished a little bit stronger, but I still feel I had, from start to finish, a pretty good year. Obviously, I didn’t finish like I started." In fairness to Johnson and other humans playing the sport he so excelled at, that’s an extremely high bar.

By May 16 that season, he claimed a 0.97 ERA through his first nine starts, including eight outings with double-digit strikeouts. (He finished the year with 347 Ks.) By the All-Star break, he had 14 wins and was striking out 12.32 batters per nine innings while walking just 2.24 per nine. For perspective on just where pitching was at the time, only three other players — Pedro Martinez, David Wells and Greg Maddux — had even surpassed the three-win mark entering the break. Johnson, thanks in part to Martinez missing a few starts, was far, far ahead of the field, and after 12 seasons in the books, opposing batters still couldn’t catch up.

First-half stats: .383/.516/.795, 32 homers, 6.4 WAR, 228 weighted runs created

The list’s top-five truly did distinguish themselves, starting with Frank Thomas, the freshly inducted Hall of Famer who followed up his 1993 MVP season by dwarfing his own production. Thomas finished the ’93 campaign hitting .317/.426/.607 with 41 homers … just glance at the numbers above and see the type of year-to-year leap he made. Thomas hurt his cause defensively and it still didn’t matter: he posted the fifth-highest WAR on this list.

The interesting thing about the ’94 season is that there were quite a few players off to scintillating starts. Kenny Lofton was reaching base nearly half the time and stealing bases (45) pretty much every opportunity he got, young superstar Ken Griffey Jr. was hitting .329 with an MLB-leading 33 homers while playing Gold Glove defense and Jeff Bagwell was slugging just about every pitch he could in the NL … and none of them really came close to Thomas. Prior to the All-Star break, he hit at least one home run in five straight games — on two separate occasions. When he was hot, Big Hurt couldn’t be stopped.

Despite the strike-shortened season (he played in 113 games), he edged Griffey for his second straight MVP with 38 homers and a 7.0 WAR. With the pace that Thomas was on, it’s not hard to envision him posting the 11th 10-win season since 1974 — a feat that only players on this list (Bonds, Trout, Ripken, Henderson and Morgan) have matched.

First-half stats: 12-5, 2.42 ERA, 1.77 FIP, 6.9 WAR

It should come as little surprise that the pitcher who owns a record seven Cy Ypung Awards made a habit of getting off to some pretty fast starts. But in 1988, there wasn’t a single pitcher at the All-Star break in the same stratosphere as Clemens. He led the league in strikeouts (10.48 per nine innings) and held the fifth-best walk rate (1.58 per nine) in the league — by comparison, strikeout king Nolan Ryan was second in the league and still 56 Ks behind Clemens while walking three more batters per nine innings. Clemens pitched six complete game shutouts through his first 16 starts.

In terms of WAR, Frank Viola, Bret Saberhagen and Tom Candiotti were having some pretty good years at the All-Star — and the next-closest guy, Viola, was a full three wins behind Clemens. The 12-5 record didn’t dazzle anyone, but it’s the second-best first-half pitching start of this particular era we’re dealing with. The Rocket had two Cy Youngs in the bag and was only getting better.

The cruelness of it all? In arguably Clemens’ best season in a Red Sox uniform, he was denied a third straight Cy Young. Call it Rocket fatigue or record bias (18-12), but Clemens is just one of five players over the past 30 years — Johnson, Phil Niekro, Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling — to not capture the Cy Young after posting a single-season 9.0 WAR or better.

First-half stats: .345/.487/.547, 13 homers, 7.0 WAR, 191 weighted runs created

Who was expecting that? After years of knocking on the MVP Award’s door, the Hall of Fame second baseman left zero doubt in 1975, perhaps the quietest season of excellence found here. Sure, he eventually captured the league’s top honors, but the way he simply ran away from the field (his teammate, Johnny Bench, claimed the next-highest first-half WAR at 4.8) was surprising.

On top of reaching base nearly 49 percent of the time — he would finish ’75 with the highest OBP of his career, a career in which he already held a .392 all-time mark — Morgan, even at 31, continued to unleash his speed on the basepaths. He swiped 40 first-half bases, setting the template for Rickey Henderson to follow 15 years later. On top of all of this, Morgan was a standout defensively, winning his third straight Gold Glove. By the time the 1975 season came to a close, the Reds were once again World Series champs and Morgan had posted one of the most valuable seasons (11.0 WAR) in the Live Ball Era up to that date.

First-half stats: .365/.628/.794, 23 homers, 6.1 WAR, 233 weighted runs created

Bonds morphed into the next level of baseball superhuman during the first half of 2004. After "suffering" through a difficult season in 2003 — cough, he still ran away with the MVP despite a 37-point drop in his OPS+ — Bonds’ most jaw-dropping offensive campaign came despite his declining defensive work and the oft-utilized opponent strategy of simply throwing him four balls and sending him and his body armor 90 feet up the line. He dominated not just in numbers, but in narrative. He was the talk of baseball — both the good and the bad — and nothing anyone said or wrote helped to get him out.

If his WAR and weighted runs created value trailed his 2002 first half, that’s simply because he was given fewer opportunities to do damage: his average, on-base percentage and slugging were each significantly higher at the respective All-Star breaks. In 2004, opposing pitchers made it blatantly obvious that they would rather wave a white flag than pitch to the Giants star.

He went into the break reaching base in an absurd 63 percent of his plate appearances. He was walked 40 percent of the time he grabbed a bat. Of course, he finished with the highest on-base percentage in MLB history and claimed his seventh and final MVP honor. And through all of that, he still managed to hit 23 first-half homers, 10 of which came in the opening month before the baseball version of Hack-a-Shaq kicked into high gear. Terrifying.

First-half stats: 15-3, 2.10 ERA, 1.48 FIP, 7.3 WAR

Nothing is better than ’99 Pedro. From start to finish, ’99 Pedro is the pinnacle of baseball pitching achievement in the modern era. He had one truly bad start the entire campaign, a seven-run outing that the Red Sox still won against Montreal, and the rest is, in the literal sense, history.

In the Live Ball Era, only Steve Carlton’s 1972 season — in which he pitched 346 1/3 innings in 41 starts — bests Martinez’s 1999 campaign in terms of WAR. That being said, Martinez’s 1.39 fielding-independent pitching that season is 30 points lower than the next-best qualified season (Dwight Gooden, 1984). And let’s just say Martinez was pitching in a much more offense-friendly environment than Carlton did. It’s a remarkable single-season achievement.

And it was all built on a first-half start for the ages.

Martinez does not hold the best ERA on this list, but no other pitcher controlled the game’s controllable factors better than he did. His 7.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio while fanning an AL-leading 184 batters is baffling. His 15-3 record was a borderline disservice. His 7.3 WAR was nearly two wins better than Randy Johnson’s, who was in the midst of his own Cy Young-winning season. (For some additional perspective on his 7.3 WAR at the break, consider this: since 1974, only 39 other pitchers have completed an entire season worth 7.0 WAR or better. Pedro did it in 132 2/3 innings pitched. That’s called efficiency.)

In brief conclusion, nothing is better than ’99 Pedro. Nothing.