During the 1971 season, Willie Stargell helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to their fourth World Series title. Along with his 1973 output, it was peak performance for the man they called “Pops”. He set a career high in home runs and RBIs, while finishing second in the NL MVP race. Here’s a breakdown of his outstanding season.
Stargell was solid throughout the season, with no prolonged slumps. He set the tone for the year in April. It didn’t take long for him to do something special. In the third game of the year, Stargell went 3-for-4 with a homer and four runs scored. The next day was even better. He had three hits, all of them homers. It was the third three-homer game in his career. His fourth would come just 11 days later on April 21st, and both games were against the Atlanta Braves. He finished the month with a .347/.398/.813 slash line in 20 games, collecting 11 home runs. He was voted as the April Player of the Month for the National League.
In May, Stargell hit .247/.296/.534 in 20 games. He had a bit of an excuse for the “down” month. In the middle of May, Stargell missed four games in a row with a sprained right thumb.
June was quite a month for big RBI games. He had three games from June 20th through the 25th in which he drove in four runs each game. He also had three games with three RBIs from June 2nd through June 7th. From June 18th through the 27th, he had a streak of ten straight games with an RBI. By the time the dust settled on June 30th, he had a .333/.441/.752 slash line for the month, with 11 homers, 11 doubles and 36 RBIs. On the 25th, he hit the longest home run in the history of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. That performance through the first three months led to his first All-Star appearance in five years. He also received his second NL Player of the Month award.
In July, Stargell hit .305 with eight homers and 19 RBIs in 24 games. He had another big day against Atlanta on the 9th, collecting three hits, including a home run, while driving in four runs and scoring three runs. He would homer in the next two games, then finish the month with another three-game home run streak.
August got off to a strong start with two homers in the second game of a doubleheader on the 1st. He had another two-homer game two weeks later, then followed that up with four RBIs the next day. Pitchers started giving him a bit more respect at the plate and he finished with 24 walks for the month. His final line was .266/.425/.511 in 28 games. Going into the final month, the Pirates single-season home run record was a possibility with another big month. He trailed Ralph Kiner’s 1949 total by 12.
Stargell had some big days early in September, with four walks on the 3rd and a grand slam on the 6th. He missed five games while resting a sore right knee in the middle of the month, returning to the lineup with eight games left in the season. He hit three homers and drove in five runs over those final eight games. His monthly slash line was .261/.402/.565 in 20 games. He finished with six homers in September, falling short of the 50-homer mark for the season. Stargell hit at least six homers in every month of the season.
For the season, Stargell hit much better against right-handed batters, with a .330 average and 36 homers in 309 at-bats. He saw plenty of lefties during the season, and they held him to a .243 average and 12 homers in 202 at-bats. You could say he struggled against lefties, but that’s only in comparison to the lofty standards he set against righties. Stargell still had an .804 OPS against southpaws.
He hit more homers on the road, but he did better at home. He hit .318/.426/.644 in 67 home games at Three Rivers Stadium, with 21 homers in 239 at-bats. On the road, he had a .276/.372/.614 slash line in 74 games, with 27 homers in 272 at-bats. With the extra at-bats, the home run rate was only slightly better on the road.
Stargell brutalized the Atlanta Braves, hitting .432/.537/1.205 in 12 games, with 11 homers. The Cincinnati Reds were the only team that held him in check all season. He hit .194, with a .590 OPS in ten games against the Reds.
In the playoffs against the San Francisco Giants, Stargell all but disappeared, going 0-for-14 with two walks. The Pirates won though in four games and moved on to face the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. In the Fall Classic, Stargell got on base at a good clip (.387) but he hit .208 with one RBI in the seven-game series. It wasn’t the great ending to a great season that he hoped for, but it’s safe to assume that winning the World Series more than made up for the poor postseason hitting. He was saving his postseason heroics for the 1979 Series.
The NL MVP in 1971 went to Joe Torre, who didn’t have the highest WAR for position players, but it’s hard to argue him getting plenty of attention. Torre won the NL batting title with a .363 average and he drove in 137 runs, which also led the league. He also led with 352 total bases and 230 hits. His lower WAR actually came from poor defense at third base, where he played full-time for the first time after catching for ten years. Stargell also had below average defensive metrics and his offensive WAR was lower than Torre’s, so voters were basically trying to decide between two elite bats and the batting/RBI title won out over the home run title. The Pirates also had Roberto Clemente and Manny Sanguillen finish among the top eight in voting.
Stargell’s 1971 season ranks well on some all-time Pirates single season charts. He sits fourth in slugging with his .628 mark. He ranks ninth in OPS (1.026). His 48 homers only trail two seasons from Ralph Kiner. He had 125 RBIs, which ranks fifth in team history and it’s the highest total in the last 70 years.