We love to celebrate the great individual moments in sports.
Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series. Brandi Chastain’s winning goal to end the 1999 World Cup. Michael Jordan’s final shot as a Chicago Bull clinching the 1998 Finals. And on and on. Moments of wonder define our experiences as fans of sports.
But too often, the extended periods of greatness are overlooked in favor of those flashier splices of time. With this ranking, we looked through The Sporting News’ long history — we were founded in 1886 — to find the greatest individual seasons in sports history. They might sometimes lack the drama of the moments, but they showcase the level of dominance needed to succeed over the grind of a season.
The challenge of creating a list of the greatest seasons was daunting, but engrossing. What sports fan wouldn’t want to research and remember the best athletes we’ve ever watched, competing at elite levels and commanding the attention of fans and opponents alike? The list could have been hundreds of seasons long, and still worthy seasons would have been left on the cutting room floor.
We’ve chosen 50.
A ranking like this requires ground rules, so let’s dig in. We are looking at best seasons — however a sport’s season might be defined — and not best events, so let’s start with the big one: We did not include athletes whose primary success happened in the Olympic Games. So, no Michael Phelps and no Simone Biles. Again, we’re looking at seasons and the Olympic Games are an event. A massive, huge, world-stopping event, sure, but still essentially one event. Boxing and MMA don’t have set schedules, either, so they’re out. The line has to be drawn somewhere, so it’s drawn there. For some sports, the “season” doesn’t fit nicely into one calendar year, but we’re confining everything to 12-month stretches.
Also, humans only. Sorry, Secretariat.
We included, essentially, the sports we cover at The Sporting News: NFL, NBA/WNBA, MLB, NHL, college hoops, college football, soccer, golf, tennis and motor sports. No disrespect to other sports, but these are the ones we know best. Also, this: Each athlete included gets only one entry. So while superstars such as Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain and Wayne Gretzky had several unbelievable, transcendent seasons, we’re only picking one per athlete. Also, superstars who were superstars both in college and at the pro level only get one. So (spoiler!), in this list you’ll see Lew Alcindor’s UCLA greatness instead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Laker domination.
And here’s a note about championships: They are great, and were used throughout the process as tiebreakers to determine which individual season to use or which athlete to choose, but the lack of a title is not a disqualification. We are not holding the failings of a team against an individual, and we are not letting one or two games determine who makes the list. For example (another spoiler alert), LeBron James’ Cavaliers beat Steph Curry’s Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, but Curry’s overall season was FAR superior to James’ season by any objective measure. Steph’s 2015-16 is on the list, while James’ 2015-16 is not.
Here are the top 50 individual seasons of all time.
50. Walter Johnson, 1913
As ranked by WAR — the Baseball-Reference formula — Johnson’s incredible 1913 season stands alone with a 15.1 mark. No other hurler has even topped 12.5; Johnson’s 13.2 in 1912 is alone in second place. The tall right-hander known as The Big Train was unstoppable in both seasons, but especially so in 1913, posting a 1.14 ERA and 11 shutouts in 346 brilliant innings. Here’s how good Johnson was in 1913; in his 12th outing of the season, he gave up five runs in eight innings and that raised his ERA all the way up to … 0.81. Yeah. The highest his ERA was after a game all season was 1.37, and he followed that outing with 34 consecutive shutout innings, including 15 in one game. From the May 22, 1913 issue of The Sporting News: “During the first month of the American League season, 50 players had the misfortune to be compelled to bat against Walter Johnson, who was in the meantime hell-bent on shattering to infinitesimal smithereens every pitching record extant.”
49. Tim Tebow, 2007
The Tim Tebow stories will stand the test of time in Gainesville, and they will start with his unforgettable 2007 season. The lefty threw for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns as a sophomore, completing 66.9 percent of his passes and throwing just six interceptions. And he 895 rushed for 895 yards and 23 more touchdowns, becoming the first player in college football history to throw and run for at least 20 touchdowns in the same season.
48. O.J. Simpson, 1973
One year after reaching the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time in his career, Simpson became the first player in NFL history to reach 2,000 yards in a season, finishing with 2,003 in 14 games for Buffalo in 1973. In Week 1, he rushed for 250 yards and two scores on the road against New England. He capped the season with 219 yards at home against the Patriots and 200 on the road against the Jets. The Bills went 9-0 when he gained at least 123 yards and were 0-5 when he was under that total. Seven other players have reached the 2,000-yard mark since then, but all needed 16 games. Of that group, only Barry Sanders had a better yards-per-carry than Simpson (6.1 to 6.0).
47. Glen Robinson, 1993-94
The Big Dog was darn near unstoppable in his junior season at Purdue. Robinson averaged 30.3 points and 10.1 rebounds for the Boilermakers, becoming the first — and still only — player from a power-conference school ever to reach the 1,000-point plateau in the season. The Big Ten was brutally tough (seven NCAA Tournament teams), but that didn’t matter. In leading Purdue to a 29-5 record and No. 1 seed in March Madness, Robinson had 49 against Illinois and 40 against Ohio State, then dropped in a school-record (for the postseason) 44 points in the NCAA Tournament in a win against Kansas.
46. Cam Newton, 2010
Newton played just one full season of college football, but he made the most of it. He essentially duplicated Tebow’s season, but did everything just a little bit better. His coming-out party was against No. 12 South Carolina in Week 4, when he completed 16 of 21 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 176 yards and three TDs. His crowning moment was, without a doubt, the annual Iron Bowl, when he led the Tigers all the way back from a 24-point deficit, throwing three touchdown passes and rushing for another. He finished with 2,854 yards passing, 1,473 rushing and 50 total TDs (30 throwing, 20 running) and Auburn finished a perfect 14-0 to claim the national championship.
45. Lewis Hamilton, 2020
The 2020 season wasn’t the first time Hamilton won 11 races in a season, but it’s the only time he turned the trick amid a global pandemic. Hamilton finished fourth in the season-opener in Austria, then won the next three events: Syria, Hungary and Great Britain. He won two consecutive August races, in Spain and Belgium, then one in Tuscany in September and then rattled off five consecutive wins in October and November. And we can’t talk about his historic season of success on the race track without mentioning his passionate social activism, especially with racial injustice. Hamilton spoke — and acted — with devotion to the causes he believes in.
44. Serena Williams, 2002
The younger Williams sister showed what she was capable of in 1999, winning the U.S. Open, but she didn’t reach the final in a Grand Slam event in 2000 and only made it past the quarterfinal round once in 2001, losing to her older sister, Venus, in the U.S. Open final. Then in 2002, Serena missed the first major of the year, the Australian Open, with an injury. Unfortunately for everyone else on tour, she rebounded nicely. Serena won the final three majors of the season, beating her sister in straight sets all three times. And even though she defeated her sister in the singles final, she teamed up with Venus to win the Wimbledon doubles title. She added five more titles that season, finishing with a final record of 56-5.
43. LaDainian Tomlinson, 2006
Tomlinson, the lightning-quick 5-10 mound of muscle from TCU, was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. It was quickly obvious that he was a star; he rushed for 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 59 passes for 367 yards his rookie year. In 2003, he rushed for 1,645 yards and caught 100 passes for another 725 yards. But we’re here to talk about 2006, when Tomlinson was named the NFL MVP and set two records that are still on the books. Tomlinson scored 28 rushing touchdowns and added three more receiving touchdowns, for a total of 31 scores in 16 games. And he wasn’t just scoring on a series of one-yard runs; Tomlinson led the NFL with a career-high 1,815 yards rushing and caught 56 passes for 506 yards. Tomlinson had a streak of nine consecutive games with 100-plus yards rushing, and the Chargers won all nine contests. He had 187 yards and two TDs in San Diego’s playoff game, but Philip Rivers completed just 14 of his 32 passes and the Chargers lost to the Patriots.
42. Dominic Hasek, 1997-98
The Hart Trophy hadn’t been awarded to a goalie since Jacques Plante won it in the 1961-62 season when Hasek won the award for his stellar 1996-97 season. So how did he follow up that historic effort? He got even better, of course. Hasek dropped his GAA from 2.27 to 2.09, increased his save percentage from .930 to .932 while playing in 72 of Buffalo’s 82 games, and became the first goalie since Bernie Parent in 1974-75 to post more than 10 shutouts when he finished with 13. So it’s not surprising that he won the Hart again in 1997-98 and it’s not surprising that he won in a landslide over second-place Jaromir Jagr.
41. Annika Sorenstam, 2005
The best player in LPGA history was at her very best in 2005. She entered 20 tournaments and won 10 of them, including three in March, two in June and two in November. She finished second two more times and in the Top 10 an astounding 15 times. Sorenstam won two majors — the Kraft Nabisco Championship, by eight shots, and the McDonald’s LPGA championship, by three shots. Sorenstam went 4-1 at the Soleheim Cup in September, too. She led the LPGA in scoring average, at 69.33, for the fifth year in a row, and was named the AP Female Athlete of the Year.
40. Novak Djokovic, 2015
Djokovic spent the entire year ranked No. 1 in the world. He posted an 82-6 record and won 11 tournaments, with four more runner-up finishes. He won three of the four Grand Slam events, beating Andy Murray to win the Australian Open and topping Roger Federer in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. He beat clay-court wizard Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of the French Open — only the second time since 2005 that Nadal had failed to win at Roland Garros — and won the first set of the final, but faltered as Stan Wawrinka took control of the final three sets and won.
39. Diana Taurasi, 2006
Taurasi is synonymous with championships — at UConn, in the WNBA, overseas, for the U.S. national team — so it might feel strange that we’re going with a year that ended without even a playoff berth. But in 2006, Taurasi set a WNBA scoring record that still stands: 25.3 points per game. In fact, she’s the only player ever to reach 24 points a game (40 minutes in the WNBA). She set a record with 121 made 3-pointers (no other player has ever made more than 88 in a season). Her 860 points that season is a record, too; Maya Moore is the only other player to reach 800 in a season.
38. Randy Moss, 2007
No NFL fan will ever forget Randy Moss’ immediate impact on the NFL; he averaged 19.0 yards per catch and hauled in 17 touchdowns as a rookie out of Marshall in 1998. But his best season was 2007, his first year catching passes from future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Moss had 183 yards and one touchdown in Week 1 — catching all nine passes Brady threw his way — then caught two TD passes and topped 100 yards receiving each of the next three games. Moss had eight games with at least two TD receptions — with a high of four in Week 11 — and finished with an NFL record 23 to go with 1,493 yards for a Patriots team that finished the season with an undefeated record.
37. Richard Petty, 1967
You don’t earn the nickname “The King” by accident. Petty owns the record for most career NASCAR wins — with an even 200, he’s 95 Ws above second-place David Pearson — but that’s not why he’s here. In 1967, Petty won more than half of the races he entered — 27 of his 48 races, a total that’s easily the most in any era of NASCAR history and will never be matched. In 1972, the sport entered its “modern era” and cut the number of races down significantly, but it’s not just about volume for Petty. He won 56 percent of his races in 1967, and to match that winning percentage in 2021’s 36-race schedule, a driver would have to win 20 times. No driver has won more than 13 races in the modern era.
36. Peyton Manning, 2013
There aren’t many Hall of Famers who can claim their best statistical season came at 37 years old. But Peyton was never better or more efficient than he was for the Broncos in 2013, when he set the NFL record for most passing yards AND most passing touchdowns in a season: 5,477 and 55, respectively. Peyton’s club finished 13-3 in the regular season, set a record with 606 points in a year and marched to the Super Bowl — Manning knocked off rival Tom Brady of the Patriots in the conference final before the Broncos ran into the Seahawks buzzsaw.
35. Rod Laver, 1969
Rod Laver swept the four major tournaments in 1962 as an amateur competing against amateurs, then turned the trick again in 1969, this time as a professional. It’s the pro season that lands the Australian star on this list, because no other male tennis player has swept the four majors. Many have finished with three, but nobody else with four. Laver’s first title of the year was in his home country, and his signature win wasn’t the final, but in the semifinals against Tony Roche, who was another lefty from Australia. In the days before tiebreakers, their match lasted more than four hours in the blistering heat, with Laver finally prevailing, 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3. Laver won the French Open in straight sets and Wimbledon in four sets. At the U.S. Open, Laver beat Arthur Ashe in the semifinals and knocked off Roche, again, in the finals, 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
34. Michelle Akers, 1991
Akers was the first dominant goal-scoring superstar for the U.S. Women’s National Team, with her talents on full display at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. She scored five goals in the quarterfinals against Chinese Taipei — four in the first half — and scored twice in the final against Norway. The second came in the 79th minute — of an 80-minute game — that was tied at 1 apiece, giving the U.S. team a 2-1 victory and the championship. Akers finished the season with an incredible 39 goals in 26 games with the U.S. team.
33. Tony Dorsett, 1976
In Dorsett’s unforgettable senior season, he not only became the NCAA’s all-time rushing yards leader — his record was later broken by Ricky Williams — but he became the first back in history to pass the 2,000 yard mark in a season, capped by a 202-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl that helped the Panthers to a 27-3 win over Georgia, which clinched a perfect 12-0 record and the school’s only national championship. Including the Sugar Bowl, Dorsett finished with 2,150 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns. And, of course, the Heisman Trophy.
32. Cristiano Ronaldo, 2015-2016
With five Ballon d’Or awards on his resume, Ronaldo is no stranger to elite, jaw-dropping seasons. But his 2015-16 season was truly the stuff of legends. He scored 51 goals in 48 games for Real Madrid — becoming the club’s all-time top scorer during the season — and led the club to the Champions League title. And he became the all-time top scorer in Champions League history that year, too. His shootout goal clinched the title for Madrid. In September, Ronaldo helped lead Portugal to the Euro 2016 Final; Ronaldo won the Silver Boot, with three goals (and three assists) in the tournament.
31. Martina Navratilova, 1983
Navratilova’s dominance in 1983 almost defies belief. She played in 87 matches and won 86, which is the best winning percentage for any tennis player ever, male or female. She won three majors — Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open — and won all three in straight sets. She also claimed doubles titles at three majors, having not entered the fourth. Navratilova went 6-0 that year against Chris Evert, the No. 2 player in the world. Her only blemish was a fourth-round loss that was surprising then (and now), a 6-4, 0-6, 6-3 loss to Kathy Horvath, who wasn’t even ranked in the top 30 players at the time.
30. Jim Brown, 1963
Before Jim Brown took his first snap with the Cleveland Browns as a rookie in 1957, Spec Sanders owned the single-season record for most rushing yards, with 1,432 in 1947 for the New York Yankees, and nobody else had ever eclipsed 1,200. Brown smashed that mark in his second year, with 1,527 yards to go with 17 rushing touchdowns in 12 games. That remained the record until the 1963 season; Brown burst out of the gate with 394 yards and four touchdowns in the first two games. In Cleveland’s 14 games that season, Brown topped 220 yards twice both on the road and eclipsed 150 yards six times. He finished with an amazing 1,863 yards, and with his 268 yards receiving became the first player with more than 2,000 combined yards rushing and receiving.
29. Josh Gibson, 1943
Baseball owes a debt of gratitude to those who have researched tirelessly to collect statistics from the various Negro Leagues. These numbers help provide context and clarity for the stories and legends we’ve heard about these great ballplayers. We know now, for example, some of the numbers behind the legend of Josh Gibson. In 1943 for the Homestead Grays, Gibson produced an awe-inspiring .466/.560/.867 slash line in 69 games, to go with 20 homers, 109 RBIs, 93 runs scored, 22 doubles and nine triples. Even though The Sporting News essentially ignored Black baseball players at the time, even TSN, in its first-ever mention of Gibson, called him “the Babe Ruth of the Negro loop.” And we know about stars such as Bullet Rogan, who pitched and hit for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League; in 1925, Rogan posted a 1.74 ERA in 155 1/3 innings, and batted .360 with a 1.016 OPS in 145 plate appearances. Research on the Negro Leagues — seven were recognized as “official” major leagues by MLB in December 2020 — continues, and hopefully we’ll have a fuller picture and even more accurate statistical records in the future.
28. LeBron James, 2012-13
In his 10th season in the league, the kid from Akron turned in a virtuoso performance: 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game, with career-bests in field-goal percentage (56.5) and 3-point percentage (40.3). His PER (31.6) and Win Shares (19.3) were just a shade behind his 2008-09 season with the Cavaliers. The tiebreaker? James and the Heat won the NBA title. The Heat beat the Bucks in four, the Bulls in five and survived a rugged Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, as James averaged 29 points in the seven-game series. In The Finals, the Heat fell behind the Spurs, 3-2, and facing elimination, James was at his very best. In Games 6-7 — both Heat wins, obviously — James averaged 34.5 points, 11.5 rebounds. 7.5 assists and 2.5 steals.
27. Derrick Thomas, 1988
Sacks didn’t become an official NCAA statistic until the 2000 season, even though the NFL started recording the stat in 1982. So you won’t find Thomas atop any “official” lists, but you will find plenty of SEC lifers who will sing tales of DT’s pass-rushing ability at Alabama. Thomas, listed as a linebacker because “agent of chaos” wasn’t (and isn’t) technically a position, lined up all over field for the Tide, and he terrorized quarterbacks wherever he was. It wasn’t just sacks. Thomas, the Butkis Award winner as the nation’s best linebacker, even blocked two kicks that season — one field goal and one punt. He had 39 tackles-for-loss, including a school-record seven against Texas A&M, and 44 quarterback hurries.
26. Sandy Koufax, 1965
You want to choose 1963 or 1966? Sure, no problem. But we’ll ride with 1965 as Peak Sandy, when The Left Arm of God struck out a then-MLB-record 382 batters in 335 2/3 innings, with a 2.04 FIP, 1.93 FIP and 0.855 WHIP, throwing every fourth day as the Dodgers edged out the Giants for the NL pennant, 97 wins to 95 wins. And World Series Koufax was somehow even better, posting a 0.38 ERA that included complete-game shutouts in both Game 5 and Game 7; he struck out 20 of the 62 batters he faced in those two games, allowing just six singles and one double.
25. Joe Burrow, 2019
Seventeen D1 quarterbacks have thrown for at least 5,000 yards in a season, but Burrow is the only one who led his team to a national championship. He was at his best when it mattered most — and it often did, because LSU’s defense was not exactly air-tight — such as his showing against No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 9, when he passed for 393 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions in a 46-41 win. That wasn’t an aberration. In LSU’s final three games — vs. No. 4 Georgia in the SEC title game, then No. 4 Oklahoma in the playoff semifinal and No. 3 Clemson in the title game — Burrow completed 69.9 percent of his attempts for a combined 1,305 yards and 16 touchdown passes, against zero INTs.
24. Mario Lemieux, 1988-89
There have been 13 seasons in NHL history with 160 points or more: Wayne Gretzky has nine and Lemieux has four. Lemieux finished just short of the hallowed 200-point mark in his phenomenal 1988-89 season, and would have gotten there if not for two missed games in November (forearm injury) and two more in March (groin). Lemieux had nine hat tricks on the season — including a five-goal game even-strength, short-handed, power-play, penalty shot and empty net goals — and 26 games with at least four points. Special recognition to Super Mario’s 1992-93 campaign, when he missed nearly two months in the middle of the season for cancer treatments and still came back to finish with 160 points in 60 games.
23. Oscar Robertson, 1961-62
You probably already know why the Big O is here: In just his second season in the NBA, after a stellar college career at Cincinnati, Robertson became the first player in league history to average a triple double. He’d just missed out in his first year — 9.7 assists — but left no doubt in Year 2: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. He had 42 triple-doubles in his 79 games that season, and he had at least 15 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists an incredible seven times. His best game? How about the Feb. 13 showdown against Wilt Chamberlain’s Warriors? Wilt had 65 points and 22 rebounds, but Robertson countered with 42 points, 18 assists and 15 rebounds, and his team won by 20.
22. Deion Sanders, 1992
Prime Time’s dual MLB/NFL career lasted longer than Bo Jackson’s double dalliance; Sanders played both sports in eight different seasons. We’re going with his 1992 campaign on this list. He had not been good in the majors his first three years out of Florida State, batting just .183 with a combined minus-1.2 bWAR. The 1992 season was a completely different animal. Despite playing only 97 games with the Braves, Sanders led the NL with 14 triples and batted .304 with 26 stolen bases and a 3.2 bWAR. Then in the World Series between the Braves and Blue Jays, Sanders led both teams with a .533 average and a .588 on-base percentage, and tied for the lead in runs scored. On the football side, he was well-established as a lockdown corner in the NFL by that year, but in 1992 he made First Team All-Pro for the first time, picking off three passes.
21. Pete Maravich, 1969-70
Only one player in Division I history has averaged more than 42 points per game, and the legend known as Pistol Pete turned the trick three times: 43.8 as a sophomore, 44.2 as a junior and 44.5 as a senior in 1969-70. And this, of course, was long before the 3-point line was part of college basketball. It’s fun to think what Maravich, who had in-the-gym range — if he’s inside the gym, he was in his range — might have done if he was rewarded for shooting from deep. From the Dec. 6, 1969, issue of The Sporting News: “The Pistol has all the shots. He is most likely to score when on the business end of a fast break. Pete has perfected the “hanging” approach down the lane and this hesitation trick leads to many three-point plays and defensive errors. Pete puts up the conventional jumper with snowflake softness. He adds a forward floating flourish which is actually a charging violation if the defender is up close. Maravich can launch the old fashioned two-handed set shot from 35 feet out and is deadly from the corners.”
20. Cheryl Miller, 1985-86
Cheryl Miller was a revolutionary college basketball player, a superstar before she even set foot on the court. Somehow, the charismatic 6-2 star managed to exceed every expectation reasonably placed on her shoulders. She was the Naismith Player of the Year three times, on the All-America team four times and brought home two NCAA titles to the University of Southern California. How do we pick just one year, though? It ain’t easy. Miller led USC to titles as a freshman and sophomore, averaging 20-plus points and right around 10 rebounds per game. Her junior year, 1984-85, was statistically her best — 26.8 points, 15.8 rebounds, 2.7 blocks per game — and she wasn’t far behind her senior season. She averaged 25.4 points and 12.2 rebounds per game, but upped her field-goal percentage to a career-best 60.9 percent and added a career-best 4.0 steals per game, to go with 2.5 blocks and 2.6 assists per contest. Miller’s Trojans rolled into the NCAA Tournament title game, but they fell to an undefeated Texas squad.
Miller wouldn’t lose another title game that year; in July she led Team USA to the Goodwill Games title with 20.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, beating the previously dominant Soviet Union (the Soviets had a 152-2 record in major international competition over the three previous decades) in Moscow. In the FIBA World Championships a month later, Miller scored 23 points in the title game — again against the Soviet Union, again in Moscow — to give Team USA another title.
19. Lawrence Taylor, 1986
Taylor spent his career earning a legacy as one of the more feared defenders in the history of the NFL, and in 1986 became one of only two defensive players to win the NFL MVP award. With Taylor terrorizing opposing quarterbacks — he finished with 20.5 sacks for the season — the Giants rolled to a 14-2 record, then crushed San Francisco and Washington in the playoffs, winning by a combined score of 66-3. Taylor himself scored more points than those two teams combined; the linebacker returned an interception for a TD against the 49ers.
18. Pedro Martinez, 2000
Pedro’s raw numbers are jaw-dropping on their own, in any era: 1.74 ERA, 11.7 bWAR, 0.737 WHIP, 8.88 K/BB, to name just a few. But then, when you add a bit of historical context to his incredible season? Well, that’s why Pedro is on this list. Martinez led the AL with his 1.74 ERA. Roger Clemens finished second in ERA at 3.70. Martinez led the AL with 5.31 hits allowed per nine innings; Tim Hudson was second at 7.52. Martinez was first with a 0.737 WHIP; Mike Mussina was second at 1.187. Martinez was tops with his 8.88 K/BB ratio; David Wells was second at 5.36. The pattern repeats, over and over. In a year when AL hitters across the board were incredible, Martinez was better than everyone. The best representation of his brilliance just might rest with ERA+, a statistic that attempts to normalize a pitcher’s ERA, accounting for factors such as ballparks and opponents. An ERA+ of 100 is league average, and an ERA+ of 150 means that pitcher was 50 percent better than the average pitcher. Martinez posted a 291 ERA+, meaning he was 191 percent better than the average AL pitcher that year. Among all pitchers in AL/NL history with at least 162 innings in a season, Pedro’s 291 ERA+ stands at the very top of the list.
17. Ted Williams, 1941
Williams famously could have sat out the final day of the 1941 season and finished with a .400 batting average. He opted to play — because of course he did — and went 6-for-8 to push his final season average to .406, an iconic mark nobody has challenged since. Williams also famously didn’t win the AL MVP that year, finishing second to Joe DiMaggio and his 56-game hitting streak, despite that Williams actually had a better batting average than DiMaggio during that stretch (.412 to .408). And Williams’ .553 on-base percentage set a MLB record that lasted until 2002 and no player topped his .735 slugging percentage until Jeff Bagwell during the strike-shortened 1994 season. Just for good measure, a few other numbers from that incredible season: 10.4 bWAR, 37 homers, 135 runs, 120 RBIs, a 235 OPS+ and 147 walks, contrasted with just 27 strikeouts.
16. Roger Federer, 2006
In the debate about the greatest seasons in men’s tennis, some will argue for Novak Djokovich’s 2015 season (which made this list, too), and others will say it was John McEnroe and his 82-3 record in 1984 or Rod Laver’s Grand Slam season in 1969. We’re going with Federer’s 2006 campaign, though. He won 92 of his 97 matches for the year and three Grand Slam events. He won the Australian Open in four sets, dropping just two games in the final two sets. He won Wimbledon in four sets, avenging his lone Grand Slam loss of the season. And he won the U.S. Open in four sets, knocking off former Open champ Andy Roddick. Four of Federer’s five losses on the year — including the French Open final — came to Rafael Nadal, the rising superstar who put together one of the most incredible specific seasons ever: He finished 26-0 on clay, the only person to turn in an undefeated season on the surface. Nadal’s clay dominance is legendary; from 2005 to 2014, he won nine of the 10 French Open titles. Altogether, Federer won 12 of the 17 tournaments he entered in 2016; all four losses to Nadal were in a tournament final.
15. Steph Curry, 2015-16
Steph Curry didn’t just smash the NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a season, he changed the way an entire league thought about the 3-point line, which had existed for more than three decades heading into the 2015-16 season. Curry already owned the record for most made 3s — he’d topped Ray Allen’s previous record of 269 twice, with 272 in 2012-13 and 286 in 2014-15 — but nobody was ready for what Curry was about to do in the 2015-16 season. The Warriors started 24-0, and Curry hit at least five triples in 13 of those 24 games. He did not slow down. Curry broke his own record for made 3-pointers in a season in Golden State’s 58th game of the season — yep, 58th — with a jaw-dropping performance against Oklahoma City. He went 12-of-16 from beyond the 3-point arc — tying the NBA record for most 3s made in a single game — draining his last 3-pointer from 38 feet away with 0.6 seconds left in overtime to give Golden State, you guessed it, a 3-point win.
Curry finished the season with 402 made 3-pointers and an average of 30.1 points per game, while leading the NBA with 2.1 steals per game; he shot 45.4 percent from the 3-point arc, 90.8 percent from the free-throw line and 56.6 percent inside the arc. And remember how we said he changed how the league thought about the 3-point line? Allen owned the record for most 3-pointers in a season, with 269. Since Curry’s breakthrough season with 402 made 3s, Allen’s mark of 269 had been bested a dozen times, by five different players: James Harden (2x), Buddy Hield (3x), Damian Lillard (2x), Paul George and Duncan Robinson. Oh, and Curry’s done it three more times himself.
14. Bob Gibson, 1968
Gibson’s iconic 1968 season taught us two lessons. First, Gibson was already on a Hall of Fame track heading into that campaign, his Age 32 season. Setting the record for the best single-season ERA of the modern era just cemented his legacy and his spot in Cooperstown. Gibson led the NL with 268 strikeouts and just 5.8 hits per nine innings, while completing 28 of his 34 starts, including 13 shutouts. Check out his incredible 11-start stretch in June and July: 11 complete games, eight shutouts, 0.27 ERA and a 47-inning scoreless streak. Truly epic domination. That brings us to the second lesson of Gibson’s 1968 season: The pitcher W/L statistic is mostly worthless. Gibson finished 22-9, including a four-start stretch in May when he went 0-4 despite a 1.87 ERA. In eight of his nine losses, the Cardinals scored two or fewer runs, and in the other loss, two Cardinals errors led to three unearned runs.
Oh, and Gibson’s incredible season didn’t end in the regular season. Gibby had a 1.67 ERA in three World Series starts, including his 17-strikeout shutout in Game 1 that just might be the best individual pitching performance in World Series history, aside from Don Larsen’s perfect game, of course.
13. Lew Alcindor, 1966-67
Long before he became NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the build-up to Alcindor’s varsity debut at UCLA was incredible. He was a prep legend at Power Memorial High School in New York City; few who watched him doubted he could have jumped straight to the NBA, were that allowed. But not only would the NBA have to wait, college basketball fans would have to wait, too, because in those days freshmen didn’t play varsity basketball. So, yeah, by the time Alcindor’s sophomore season started, there was a tad bit of anticipation across the country. The 7-1 phenom blew everyone away. In his very first game, against rival USC, Alcindor scored 56 points, making 23-of-32 from the field, and grabbed 21 rebounds as the Bruins won 105-90. He finished the season averaging 29.0 points and 15.5 rebounds while shooting 66.7 percent from the field. UCLA finished a perfect 30-0, winning all four of their NCAA Tournament games by at least 15 points.
12. Barry Bonds, 2001
Barry Bonds already had three NL MVP awards and five other top-five finishes heading into the 2001 season, but nobody could have anticipated the type of video-game numbers he’d put up during an utterly unforgettable season. Bonds hit 11 homers in April, 17 in May and 11 more in June. He had his “worst” month in July and still managed six homers, a .492 on-base percentage and 1.143 OPS, then swatted 12 in August and 16 more to close out the season, chasing down Mark McGwire to claim the single-season record with 73 home runs. But it’s not just about the homers; McGwire had a 7.5 bWAR in his 70-homer season of 1998; Bonds posted an 11.9 bWAR in 2001. He posted a .515 on-base percentage — the first NL player since Rogers Hornsby in 1924 to top .500 — and an .863 slugging percentage that’s the all-time record for the AL or NL.
11. Babe Ruth, 1921
Splitting hairs to figure out Babe Ruth’s “best” season is an entertaining, yet mostly futile, endeavor. Using WAR as a measure — either Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs’ calculations — his 1923 season is the best in baseball history by a position player. But Ruth hit “only” 41 home runs, and how can you deem that the Sultan of Swat’s “best” season when he hit more homers in nine other years? Do we go with 1920, his first all-caps BABE RUTH season? In his first season as a position player, his 54 homers were more than every other AL team, and more than the Red Sox (22) and Tigers (30) combined. And, of course, you can’t count out 1927 and his iconic 60-homer season. But we have settled on 1921, for now. Ruth finished with 59 homers — he’d top that by a single dinger in 1927 — and 168 RBIs, to go with an eye-popping .378/.512/.846 slash line. Oh, and he had 44 doubles, 16 triples and 17 stolen bases, too. It was the second-best season, by WAR, of any position player in history (12.9 bWAR/13.9 fWAR). Yeah, that’ll do.
10. Steffi Graf, 1988
Numbers: 72-3 record, four Grand Slam titles, plus Olympic gold medal
For athletes competing solo, such as in tennis or golf, championships won are everything, especially major championships won. And you cannot do any better than Steffi Graf in 1988. The youngster from Germany became the first player in women’s tennis history to win all four major championships and the Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year: the Australian Open and French Open when she was 18, then Wimbledon and the U.S. Open after her 19th birthday.
The domination was impressive, though probably not surprising. In 1987, Graf had an overall record of 75-2, with her only two losses of the year in major finals: against Martina Navratilova in the final at Wimbledon and again to Navratilova in the final at the U.S. Open. Graf had bested Navratilova in the final at the French Open earlier in the year to claim her first major.
Graf did not compete in the Australian Open in 1987, and she lost the same number of sets in 1988 Australian Open: Zero. In 1988, of course, Graf actually played, rolling through the competition, including a 6-1, 7-6 win against Chris Evert in the final. She was even more dominating in the French Open, again rolling to the final without dropping a set, then dropping a double bagel on Natasha Zvereva, 6-0, 6-0. That entire match took 34 minutes.
Winning at Wimbledon was a more daunting challenge; Navratilova had won six consecutive singles titles at Roland Garros, and she took the first set from Graf. Less than three weeks after her 19th birthday, though, Graf showed beyond-her-years resolve and determination, roaring back to win the next two sets, 6-2 and 6-1, to earn her third major. Her U.S. Open final opponent was Gabriela Sabatini; she had already handed Graf two of her three losses on the year, in separate tournaments in Florida in the spring. And Sabatini did take the second set at the Open final, but Graf overpowered Sabatini in the end, winning the third set 6-1 to wrap up the greatest season in women’s tennis history.
9. Lionel Messi, 2014-15
Numbers: 58 goals in 57 matches overall, Ballon d’Or winner, Barca won three titles, led Argentina to World Cup final
Seven! That’s how many times Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d’Or as the best football/soccer player on the planet. The first one was in 2009, the most recent one was this year. No other player has won more than Christiano Ronaldo’s five, and Ronaldo’s the only one with more than three. Messi’s finished second five more times and third once.
But this isn’t a list of career accomplishments. It’s about the best individual seasons. How do you narrow that down for a super-duper star like Messi, though? Is it his 2011-12 season, when he scored 73 goals in 60 games overall? His 53-goal season in 2010-11? Maybe his breakthrough 2008-09 campaign with Barcelona? Worthy choices, all.
We’re going with his unforgettable 2014-15 season. Messi led Argentina to the World Cup final in July, with a team-high four goals along the way. Playing for Barcelona, Messi had 58 goals and 27 assists in 57 matches overall. He led the club to the Champions League title, the La Liga title — he was named best player — and the Copa del Rey championship. In that one, he scored twice in a 3-1 win.
The first goal was vintage Messi, weaving through defenders and burying an unreal shot past the keeper into the back corner of the net. The call, from commentator Rob Palmer, was perfect as Messi made the defenders look like newbies on the pitch: “Look at this, Kevin! It’s a brilliant run from Messi! Can he go all the way? (long pause …) It’s one of the great Copa del Rey Final goals, from the magical, mercurial Lionel Messi!”
8. Tom Brady, 2007
Numbers: 50 touchdown passes, 4,806 yards, 16-0 regular season
Fifteen NFL seasons ago, Tom Brady was a wet-behind-the-ears youngster who had “only” three Super Bowl titles and “only” three Pro Bowl selections on his personal resume. Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Well, 2007 was the year Brady became a bonafide superstar and a Hall of Fame lock, with future Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss as his primary target and head coach Bill Belichick determined to prove he could outscore any team any week.
Brady had at least three touchdown passes in each of the Patriots’ first 10 games of the season and completed at least 76 percent of his passes in seven of those 10 contests. New England won all 10, nine of those games by at least 17 points, a mind-boggling display of dominance, with their relentless quarterback leading the charge. In his first game with fewer than three TD passes — Week 12 against the Eagles — Brady still passed for 380 yards and completed 6-of-8 passes for 66 yards on the fourth-quarter drive that set up Laurence Maroney’s go-ahead touchdown to preserve the Patriots’ undefeated record.
The very next week, on “Monday Night Football,” New England trailed at Baltimore late in the fourth quarter, getting the ball back with 3:30 left on the clock. Brady threw for two first downs and ran for two more — no, really — and then, with 55 seconds left in the game, connected with Jabar Gaffney in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
Brady and the Patriots finished the season with a perfect 16-0 record. Brady became the first to reach the 50-touchdown plateau, throwing two in Week 17 to beat Peyton Manning’s record of 49. Brady had just eight interceptions opposite those 50 touchdowns, and he finished with 4,806 yards and a career-best passer rating of 117.2.
7. Bo Jackson, 1989
Numbers (in MLB): 32 homers, 105 RBI, 26 SB
Numbers (in NFL): 950 rushing yards, 5.5 ypc, 4 TDs
Few athletes have captured the nation’s attention like Bo Jackson, the two-sport star who seemed to perform mind-boggling feats on a daily basis, no matter which field he was playing on. Bo Knows, indeed. He played for both the Royals and Raiders from 1987 to 1990, but 1989 was the best of the two-sport years.
On the baseball diamond, Bo had eight homers and nine stolen bases by the end of April and led all AL players in All-Star votes. Tony La Russa, the AL manager, put Bo in the leadoff spot and, rising to the moment, he slugged a 450-foot home run to center field in the first inning and was named the game’s MVP. He finished just four stolen bases shy of a 30-30 season for the Royals.
Bo joined the Raiders at the end of the MLB season, in time for Week 6. He averaged 7.73 yards per carry in his first game and scored Oakland’s first TD of the game. In Week 8, his 144 yards rushing included a 73-yard TD run and in Week 8, he put up 159 yards on just 13 carries, including a 92-yard TD run in the first quarter, the second time he’d found the end zone in the contest. He took a pitch, raced around the left end and out-sprinted everyone to pay dirt.
For a man that big and strong to be that fast, too? And to be a star at two different sports requiring two vastly different skill sets? That’s something only Bo knows.
After Bo’s first game of the NFL season, TSN had this in the Nov. 6, 1989, issue: “Neither the Raiders nor the Royals are in a position to ask Jackson to give up football or baseball. The Royals don’t want to anger a man who hit 32 home runs with 105 runs batted in last season, and was voted most valuable player in the All-Star game. After watching Jackson gain 85 yards rushing and almost single-handedly carry Los Angeles past Kansas City, 20-14, October 15, the Raiders seem content to have Bo for 10 or 11 games a season.”
6. Barry Sanders, 1988
Numbers: 2,628 yards, 37 TDs, plus 222 yards and 5 TDs in bowl game, Heisman Trophy
Barry Sanders owns single-season rushing records for Division I college football, with 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns, and that alone would be enough for him to find a spot on this list. But he’s top 10 because his 1988 season remains almost unthinkably incredible even now, more than three decades later. Back then, stats in bowl games didn’t count as part of season statistics, so those totals of 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns don’t include the 222 yards or five TDs that Sanders posted in Oklahoma State’s bowl win against Wyoming. A pair of Wisconsin running backs slot behind Sanders on the career rushing yards and rushing touchdown lists; Melvin Gordon rushed for 2,587 yards in 2014 and Montee Ball scored 33 rushing touchdowns in 2011. Gordon and Bell compiled their stats in 14 games. Yeah. Barry was incredible.
Oklahoma State went 10-2 in 1988, losing only to Big 12 powers Nebraska and Oklahoma. Sanders was undaunted by these perennial powerhouses; he rushed for 189 yards and four touchdowns against the Cornhuskers and 215 yards and two TDs against the Sooners. He topped 300 yards in a game four times — not a typo — and his “worst” game included 154 yards and two TDS in an easy win over Missouri. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry for the entire season. And if all the rushing yards weren’t enough, Sanders dabbled in kick returns, too, running one kickoff and one punt back for a TD, compiling 515 yards as a returner.
In the Dec. 19, 1988, issue of The Sporting News, we wrote: “For him not to have been selected The Sporting News College Football Player of the Year, for him not to have won the Heisman, for him not to have dominated All-America teams, would have been a travesty. These awards were created just for this reason: to honor remarkable athletes doing remarkable things. And no one has ever been more remarkable in one season than Barry Sanders.”
5. Michael Jordan, 1990–91
Numbers: 31.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, NBA title, MVP, Finals MVP
This isn’t a list of the greatest seasons produced only by players who won championships, but when trying to figure out which epic season to use for an epic player such as Jordan — remember, we’re only doing one season per athlete — championships can be used as a tiebreaker. And besides, if we chose anything other than a year MJ won one of his six NBA titles, Jordan himself would vehemently disagree. So we’re passing on his 1986-87 season, when he averaged a career-best 37.2 points per game and became the first person not named Wilt Chamberlain to score 3,000 points in a season. And we’re not going with his 1988-89 campaign, when he averaged career-bests in rebounds and assists (8.0 in both categories).
The only real choice is 1990-91, his first championship season. That year, MJ averaged 31.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game while shooting a career-best 53.9 percent from the field. By advanced analytics — either PER or Win Shares, whichever you prefer — that season was just a whisker away from being his best year. The first title, his long-awaited title, tips the scales, though.
Jordan was great in the opening two rounds, and the sweep of the hated rival Detroit Pistons was probably the most cathartic series in his entire career; he had 29 points with eight rebounds and eight assists in the clincher. In the five-game Finals — the Bulls lost the opener and swept the next four — Jordan averaged 31.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and a jaw-dropping 11.2 assists per game. He’s the only player in NBA Finals history other than Magic Johnson to average at least 11 assists per game in The Finals.
4. Tiger Woods, 2000
Numbers: 3 major title victories, 9 total wins, 17 Top-10 finishes in 20 tournaments
Woods’ most iconic win was the 1997 Masters breakthrough, of course, but he was at his absolute peak during his stunning 2000 campaign. The 24-year-old won the season-opening Mercedes Championship in a playoff against Ernie Els, then authored a defining come-from-behind victory, rallying from seven shots back with seven to play at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. He won Arnold Palmer’s tournament (Bay Hill) in March by four shots, he won Jack Nicklaus’ tournament (The Memorial) in May by five shots and Canada’s tournament (Canadian Open) in September, thanks to an unbelievable 218-yard 6-iron out of the sand on the 72nd hole, over water to the back corner of the green near the pin, a jaw-dropping shot that led to a birdie and a one-shot win.
But nobody could have predicted the dominance Woods displayed in the final three majors of the year. The U.S. Open was at Pebble Beach that June, and Woods picked up right where he left off from his stunning comeback win in February. He finished 12-under in a tournament where every other golfer was at least 3-over par for the week; Woods was 15 shots ahead of the runners-up, Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez. The Open was held at St. Andrews in Scotland in July, an iconic course with 112 punishing bunkers. Woods didn’t find even one bunker all tournament, cruising to an eight-shot victory.
The PGA Championship in August had drama, even if the outcome always felt inevitable. Bob May’s long birdie putt on 18 on Sunday forced a three-hole playoff; Woods birdied the first hole and closed par-par to claim his third major championship in a row. Woods played 20 tournaments that year; he won nine, finished second four times and in the top 10 a total of 17 times. He was ranked No. 1 in The Sporting News’ year-ending Power 100. When told this, Tiger said, “Powerful? That’s kind of funny. I guess the only time I ever feel powerful is after a nice workout in the gym.”
Oh, and he won the 2001 Masters — the first major of the next season — to complete what became known as the Tiger Slam, holding all four major titles at once.
3. Wayne Gretzky, 1981-82
Numbers: 92 goals, 120 assists, 212 points in 80 games
Before The Great One entered the league, Phil Esposito owned the NHL’s single-season record for most goals and points in a season, with his spectacular 76-goal, 152-point effort for the Boston Bruins in 1970-71. Bobby Orr owned the record for most assists in a season, with his 102 as Esposito’s teammate on that Bruins team.
Gretzky didn’t break any all-time scoring records as a 19-year-old rookie in the 1979-80 season; “all” he did was win the Hart Trophy as the MVP with his 51-goal, 86-assist debut. In his sophomore season, Esposito’s points record and Orr’s assist record fell, surpassed by Gretzky’s 109 assists and 167 points. Still, that was nothing compared to what the Oilers star had in store for his third year in the league. He actually started slowly, with only four points in his first four games. Things picked up, you could say. The first season record to fall was his own points total, which went down during his five-point outing in Game 63. Three days later, with Esposito in attendance for the Oilers’ 64th game, Gretzky put up a hat trick to blitz past the Hall of Famer. His own assist mark fell in Game 74.
Gretzky had at least three assists in 15 games and a hat trick or better — his season-high was five goals in a game — 10 times. He had at least four points in 23 of Edmonton’s 80 contests. For the season, he finished with 92 goals — still the single-season record — 120 assists and 212 points. That’s an average of 2.65 points per game. Gretzky won the Hart Trophy, as he did for his first eight years in the league. Gretzky would top 200 points in a season three more times — nobody else has ever reached that plateau — and bested his own points record with 215 in 1985-86, when he recorded an absurd 163 assists. Mario Lemieux (spoiler: more on him later) is the only other player in NHL history with 163 points in a season.
2. Wilt Chamberlain, 1961-62
Numbers: 50.4 points per game, 25.7 rebounds per game
In Wilt Chamberlain’s most iconic photo, the basketball star is sitting in front of his locker, holding a piece of white paper with the number 100 written in black marker. The day was March 2, 1962, and the 7-1 force for the Philadelphia Warriors had just scored 100 points in an NBA game, something that had never happened before and has not happened since.
But Wilt the Stilt isn’t here because of that one game. He’s here because that 100-point game was just the signature moment in the most statistically dominating season we’ve ever seen in any North American sport. In the entirety of NBA history, there have only been six games in which a player scored at least 73 points, and Chamberlain had three of those in the 1961-62 season! In addition to the 100-pointer, he also scored 78 on Dec. 2, 1961, and 73 on Jan. 13, 1962. His “worst” scoring game of the season was a 26-point effort against Bill Russell’s Celtics, a game during which he grabbed 31 rebounds. His lowest rebound total in a game was 15, but he scored 41 points in that one.
Chamberlain scored 4,029 total points in 1961-62 on an average of 50.4 per game; second place on those lists is Michael Jordan in 1986-87, a very distant 3,041 and 37.1. His average of 25.7 rebounds per game was only his third-best season, but it was still better than anyone else in the history of the game; Bill Russel is next on the list, at 24.7.
1. Shohei Ohtani, 2021
Numbers (as a hitter): 46 homers, 100 RBI, 26 SB, 158 OPS+, 4.9 bWAR
Numbers (as a pitcher): 3.18 ERA, 23 GS, 130 1/3 IP, 98 H, 156 K, 4.1 bWAR
Day by day throughout his unprecedented 2021 season, Shohei Ohtani changed the way we evaluate great baseball seasons. Ohtani slugged 46 home runs as the American League’s best designated hitter and struck out 156 opposing batters as a Cy Young candidate and the Angels’ best pitcher.
Imagine Patrick Mahomes picking off passes as a safety or Alex Ovechkin putting on the big pads and posting shutouts as a goalie once a week. It’s silly to even think about. But Ohtani didn’t just compete at these two skills on the baseball field, he excelled.
“The only comparison is Babe Ruth, and it’s a weak comparison, actually,” Angels manager Joe Maddon told Sporting News. Maddon, of course, skippered the woebegone Rays from 66 wins to 97 wins and a spot in the 2008 World Series, and he was the manager of the Cubs team that finally ended its 108-year World Series drought. The always loquacious manager was nearly at a loss for words describing what Ohtani did in 2021.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Ohtani was an easy choice for the AL MVP, which is amazing considering Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. put together an epic season at the plate that might have given him the award — unanimously — most seasons. Ohtani was the AL Player of the Month in both June and July. He made 19 starts as a pitcher and allowed zero, one or two runs 15 times. In an incredible 21-game stretch at the plate in June and July, Ohtani hit 16 homers and had a 1.398 OPS.
Let it never be lost just how incredible that is, from one person, in one season.