When examining the best lineups for one season, we have to be mindful of adjusting for era. If we just considered runs scored, we'd get this list:
1. 1931 Yankees: 1067
2. 1936 Yankees: 1065
3. 1930 Yankees: 1062
4. 1950 Red Sox: 1027
5. 1999 Indians: 1009
6. 1930 Cardinals: 1004
7. 1932 Yankees: 1002
8. 1930 Cubs: 998
9. 1996 Mariners: 993
10. 1929 Cubs: 982
If we looked only at this list, we'd think all the best lineups played in the 1930s or the 1990s. Of course, that's a not the case. Those were the highest-scoring eras in modern major league history, when various factors -- ballparks, lively baseballs, steroids, small strike zones -- helped generate higher levels of offense. Plus, simply relying on runs scored doesn't factor in ballparks. It was easier to score runs in Fenway Park in 1950 or Coors Field in 1999 than Dodger Stadium in the 1960s or Petco Park today, so we want to consider that as well.
We could use OPS+, which factors in each team's ballpark as well as the overall run environment of that season. OPS+ isn't the best offensive measurement, however, since it actually undervalues on-base percentage and overvalues slugging percentage. So, let's rely wRC+ -- weighted Runs Created -- from FanGraphs, a better measurement than OPS+ that considers a team's offensive components and then adjusts for ballpark and era. This gives us a little better list, although it doesn't factor in a team's actual runs scored or clutch hitting and includes five Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig Yankees teams in the top 10. Which ... well, Ruth and Gehrig were pretty dominant. We also have to consider DH lineups versus non-DH lineups.
My top five lineups:
5. 1965 Cincinnati Reds (89-73): .273/.339/.439, 825 runs (5.1 per game), 122 wRC+
I like when something surprising shows up like this club. It's never remembered as a great lineup for several reasons: (1) They didn't win, finishing in fourth place in the NL; (2) Their big season came in the pitching-dominant 1960s, so their raw runs scored total isn't historically impressive; (3) It was kind of a one-year fluke as they traded Frank Robinson after the season and fell to fourth in the league in runs.
But consider: The Reds scored 117 runs more than the No. 2 NL team and 169 more than the average team. They hit .273 when the league hit .249 and led the NL in OBP, slugging, walks, doubles and triples, while ranking second in home runs. If we remove pitchers' hitting from the numbers, their wRC+ ranks tied for 13th all time -- and fourth highest since World War II.
The neat thing is all eight regulars produced an OPS+ above league average with seven of those at 115 or higher. And these were regulars: Six of them played 156-plus games. The lowest OPS belonged to Tommy Harper, who merely led the NL with 126 runs. Robinson (.296, 33 home runs) finished fourth in the NL in OPS and Deron Johnson (.287, 32 home runs) ranked ninth. Pete Rose hit .312/.386/.446 and scored 117 runs while Vada Pinson hit .305 and joined Rose in the 200-hit club. Heck, the lineup was good enough that future Hall of Famer Tony Perez couldn't even crack it on a regular basis.
The regular lineup: LF Harper, 2B Rose, CF Pinson, RF Robinson, 1B Gordy Coleman, 3B Johnson, C Johnny Edwards, SS Leo Cardenas
4. 2003 Boston Red Sox (95-67): .289/.360/.491, 961 runs (5.9 per game), 121 wRC+
There were no shortage of high-powered offenses during this era -- the 1995 Indians, the 1996 Mariners, the 1999 Indians, various Yankees teams -- but I'll take this group by a small margin. The 1999 Indians scored more runs, averaging 6.23 runs per game against a league average of 5.18; these Red Sox scored 5.93 runs per game against a league mark of 4.86. They scored 67 more than the No. 2 Blue Jays and 173 more than the league average.
Like the 1965 Reds, the Red Sox relied on a stable group of regulars: All nine regulars batted at least 500 times, including David Ortiz, who began the season backing up Jeremy Giambi at DH. Seven of the nine played at least 142 games, including catcher Jason Varitek. The Red Sox led the AL in average, OBP, slugging, doubles, hits and ranked second in home runs and triples. Six players hit at least 25 home runs -- the only team in history to do that. Manny Ramirez (1.014), Trot Nixon (.975), Ortiz (.961) and Bill Mueller (.938) ranked second, fourth, fifth and eighth in the AL in OPS and Mueller beat out Ramirez for the batting title, .326 to .325. Varitek, the No. 9 hitter, hit .273/.351/.512 with 25 home runs.
The regular lineup: CF Johnny Damon, 2B Todd Walker, SS Nomar Garciaparra, LF Ramirez, DH Ortiz, 1B Kevin Millar, 3B Mueller, C Varitek. (Oddly, the hitters with the two lowest OPS hit first and second most often. Gotta love Grady Little.)
3. 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers (105-49): .285/.366/.474, 955 runs (6.2 per game), 126 wRC+
The best Brooklyn team scored 187 runs more than the No. 2 team, outhomered the No. 2 team by 32, hit 19 points above the league average and led the league in walks and steals as well.
How powerful was this lineup? Duke Snider was at the apex of his powers and led the NL in OPS, runs and slugging percentage while batting .336/.419/.627 with 42 home runs. Roy Campanella won MVP honors by hitting .312 with 41 home runs and a league-leading 142 RBIs. Jackie Robinson was second in OBP at .425 and Carl Furillo won the batting title with a .344 mark. Snider, Campanella, Furillo, Gil Hodges and Robinson all ranked in the top 10 in OPS. The lowest OBP among the regulars was third baseman Billy Cox’s .363 mark.
The regular lineup: 2B Junior Gilliam, SS Pee Wee Reese, CF Snider, LF Robinson, C Campanella, 1B Hodges, RF Furillo, 3B Cox
2. 1927 New York Yankees (110-44): .307/.384/.488, 976 runs (6.3 per game), 135 wRC+
They topped my list of best outfields and they nearly get my best lineup as well. I could have picked from several Yankees teams of this era -- the 1927, 1931, 1930 and 1928 squads hold down four of the top five highest wRC+ totals since 1901 once you remove pitcher hitting, and the 1933 and 1928 clubs also rank in the top 10. That’s a testament to Ruth and Gehrig. The 1927 team, however, ranks first and earned the nickname Murderer’s Row with good reason.
Ruth hit .356/.486/.772 with 60 home runs, 137 walks and 165 RBIs. Gehrig hit .373/.474/.765 with 47 home runs and 173 RBIs. Earle Combs hit .356 with 36 doubles and 23 triples. Tony Lazzeri was the fourth Hall of Famer in the lineup and he hit .309 with 18 home runs -- which was good enough for third in the league behind his teammates. Yes, that’s how much Ruth and Gehrig towered over the league: The Yankees hit 158 home runs; the No. 2 team hit 56, fewer than Ruth himself.
So why aren’t they No. 1? Well, they did have a couple weak spots as shortstop Mark Koenig and third baseman Joe Dugan were both below-average hitters and the bench wasn’t all that productive. Plus, I like making a timeline adjustment: It was easier for the stars to dominate back then, so factoring in that and the lack of depth in the lineup puts this team at No. 2 on my list.
The regular lineup: CF Combs, SS Koenig, RF Ruth, 1B Gehrig, LF Bob Meusel, 2B Lazzeri, 3B Dugan, C Pat Collins
1. 1976 Cincinnati Reds (102-60): .280/.357/.424, 857 runs (5.3 per game), 130 wRC+
Sure, compared to the '27 Yankees, the Reds’ raw numbers pale in comparison. But 1976 was a low-scoring season. The Reds averaged 5.29 runs per game in a league where the average was 3.98; the Yankees scored 6.30 against a league average of 4.92. The Reds were also the most well-rounded offensive team in history: They led the NL in every major stat: runs, average, OBP, slugging, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, walks and steals. Heck, they even led in strikeouts. They had power, speed and lineup depth, and given that 1976 was a tougher era than 1927, my nod goes to the Big Red Machine.
Joe Morgan was the MVP and the league’s best hitter: His 1.020 OPS was more than 100 points higher than the No. 2 guy, Bill Madlock. He hit .320/.444/.576, pacing the circuit in both on-base and slugging, while adding 60 steals in 69 attempts. George Foster (.306/.364/.530), Pete Rose (.323/.404/.450) and Ken Griffey Sr. (.336/.401/.450) ranked fourth, fifth and seventh in the NL in OPS. The remarkable thing is they had the best-ever offense without Hall of Famers Johnny Bench (.234, 16 home runs) and Tony Perez (.260, 19 home runs) having big seasons. Strong years from Cesar Geronimo (.307/.382/.414) and Dave Concepcion (.281/.335/.401) helped make up the difference.
Yes, it was no accident that five Reds started the All-Star Game and seven of the eight regulars were selected to the team. (Bench, Morgan, Concepcion and Geronimo also won Gold Gloves, although we were considering only offense here.) Like the 1927 Yankees, they capped off their season with a World Series sweep.
The regular lineup: 3B Rose, RF Griffey, 2B Morgan, LF Foster, C Bench, 1B Perez, CF Geronimo, SS Concepcion