By Jeff Riger

It was no surprise Tuesday when the American League Cy Young Award went to Justin Verlander — and for great reason, of course. Verlander was dominant in 2011, posting a 24-5 record while striking out a league high 250 batters in a league high most 251 innings.

Oh, did I forget to mention that Verlander also led the game in ERA, games started and WHIP?  The 28-year-old also won 12 consecutive starts, no hit the Blue Jays on May 7th and took a no hitter past the 8th inning 2 other times.  The pride of Goochland, Virginia, he also became must-see baseball every time he toed the rubber at Comerica Park or on the road.  Verlander’s 2011 season was magnificent, unforgettable and to me ranks as one of the greatest single season performances that I have ever seen.

OK, I won’t make you beg, you want to know what my other greatest single seasons are, don’t you?  Of course you do!  So in no particular order, below I have listed the top three all-time greatest single season performances seen in my lifetime.

Cecil Fielder

They called him “Big Daddy” and for good reason as Cecil Fielder captivated Detroit baseball fans everywhere by hitting 51 home runs in 1991.  And that was when 50 plus homers meant something. It didn’t happen all the time with all the steroid speculation that followed later in the decade.  In ’91, Fielder didn’t have a fantastic average, he hit just .277, but he raked for 132 RBI and led the league in total bases and slugging percentage.

“Big Daddy” also won the Silver Slugger award that year and came in second place in MVP voting, losing to just Ricky Henderson who hit .325 and swiped 65 bags.  Of course Fielder also struck out a league high 185 times that season, but who wants to focus on the negative?  Nobody!  I think it’s more important to mention that he took a picture on the Tiger Stadium roof, a place that he hit numerous times in left field throughout the course of his career.

Cecil was so much fun to watch, and as a high school freshman at the time, I cherished every moment that he dug in knowing that I could very possibly see a home run for the ages.  But Fielder was more than just a long ball hitter to me, he represented a time when I was becoming a huge baseball fan.  Sure I remember the 1984 World Series Championship and the 1987 heartbreaking series loss to the Twins, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that I was fully invested in Tigers baseball.  Before that I watched, but it didn’t mean as much to me.  In the early 90’s it seemed to matter so much more and that ’90 team seemed like it had players that would allow Detroit to eventually make the postseason rather quickly.  OK, so I was really wrong about that part…

Of course later in that year it was less about trying to go to the playoffs, because they had no chance, and instead it became about Fielder trying to get 50 homers.  I remember it so vividly, it was the top of the 4th inning at Yankee Stadium and Fielder took Steve Adkins deep for big number 50.  Myself and my brothers were going nuts watching it on Yom Kipper night.  We had to sneak into the other room while our family celebrated the Jewish holiday, we watched baseball as it should be.  Who knew in that 8th inning of that game Fielder would hit another one as he went yard on Alan Mills in the top of the 8th inning.  Cecil Fielder, that season was unforgettable, as he had one of the greatest single seasons by a Detroit athlete that I have ever seen.

Barry Sanders

As much as I rip on Barry Sanders and try to point out the negatives in his career, he did have one season for the ages, one season that stuck out so much more than the rest.  Of course, I still hold a grudge against Sanders for the way he retired.  In case you don’t remember, let me bring back the bad memories.  It was the day before training camp was set to begin in 1999.  Word had gotten out that Sanders was done, as he faxed a letter of retirement to his hometown newspaper.  I to this day have a hard time remembering Barry for the good, because it’s that day that sticks out to me so much.  Although who can forget 1997?

In the first two games of that season, Sanders rushed for just 53 yards on 25 carries.  Those were actually two home games to start the year at the Silver Dome against Atlanta and Tampa Bay.  However, after those first two games, Sanders put together 14 consecutive 100 yard rushing games which to this day is a NFL record.

In two of those contests, Sanders scampered for over 200 yards, 215 in Tampa Bay and 216 in Indianapolis later in the season.  It came down to the last game against the Jets for Sanders to have a chance at joining the “2000 rushing yards club,” a group to this date that only has six players. In that final game, Sanders needed 131 yards to reach 2000; He ran for 184 yards, finishing with 2,053 yards for the season.

Making that game even more special was the fact the Lions needed to beat the Jets that day to go to the playoffs.  Detroit won it 13-10.  Of course the next week they went to Tampa Bay and lost in the first round of the postseason 20-10 to the Buccaneers.  Lions’ quarterback Scott Mitchell went just 10 of 25 for 78 yards.  Don’t know why I felt the need to bring up the Mitchell stat there…sorry!

However that playoff loss doesn’t take away from the greatness that Barry Sanders accomplished that season!

Jalen Rose

I know what you are thinking!  When mentioning the greatest single seasons, why would I type Jalen Rose’s name?  Well, let me tell you!  I know that the ‘Fab Five’ cheated and never really won anything but I can’t forget them.  Back when the ‘Fab Five’ were making a name for themselves, to me there was nothing more exciting and Rose led it all.  That first year, the 1991-92 season, Rose burst out on the scene leading the Wolverines in scoring, 3 pointers and assists. He was the unquestioned leader of those freshman that later went on to infamy.

Sure, people gravitated to Chris Webber because of his talent, size and ability to post up anybody in the game at that time, but Rose, to me, made it all possible.  Heck, it was Rose who got Webber to go to Michigan in the first place.

Who can forget that 1991 mid-December matchup against Duke in Ann Arbor?  It was truly good vs. evil!  Michigan for the first time donned the all maize uniforms and ended up losing to the Blue Devils 88-85 in overtime.  It was after that game that Jalen and Michigan basketball seemed like something very special.

Michigan finished that season 24 and 5 and went 11 and 7 in the Big Ten.  The Wolverines were a 6 seed in the NCAA tournament and defeated Temple, East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Cincinnati before getting crushed by Duke in the Championship game 71-51.  While it wasn’t Rose alone who was the reason Michigan had such a great season that year, it was him that I always related the fab five to.  It was Rose who started the trend of the baggy shorts, shaved heads and black socks and for that, even though he didn’t have one of the best statistically best seasons, he, to me had a great single season and deserves to be on this list.

Other honorable mentions that did not make my top three were…

  • Scott Mitchell in 1995 with the Lions.  Mitchell that year threw for 4,332 yards and 32 touchdowns
  • Serge Federov in ’93-94.  Federov that year scored 56 goals and 120 points.  He won the Hart Trophy.
  • Miguel Cabrera this year and every season with Detroit.  He has truly been sensational!

So who did I miss?

Comments (2)
  1. Manny says:

    you missed 88-89 Steve Yzerman, 65 goals, 90 assists, 155 pts.

  2. John says:


    I appreciate the article, and Verlander was fun to watch this year, but FYI if you examine the real stats behind the stats, you can actually make the statistical case that Sabathia’s season was just as good as, if not slightly better than, Verlander’s. Compared to C.C., overall Justin faced *significantly* weaker hitters and benefited from *significantly* more random luck that cannot be explained by pitching ability or defense.

    All considered, Verlander’s 2011 season was great and exciting, and the standard numbers look all pretty and shiny, but he might not have been the best pitcher in the A.L. And it could be argued that neither’s performance ranked as one of the top TEN pitching seasons over the past 20 years, let alone the best.


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