August 17, 2015
It's been a fraction of an eternity since the Boston Red Sox released Bryan LaHair, and while everyone has one more comeback attempt locked inside them, it might be time for him to call it a career. A glove-second 39th round draft choice by the Mariners in 2002, his ascent to extremely relative stardom was particularly plodding: He spent three years in Triple-A before getting his first shot at the majors, and another two before returning. It's impressive he made it at all, but sharing a clubhouse with the likes of Jose Lopez and Ian Stewart isn't what people will remember about LaHair's career. One achievement dwarfs all others for the man with the career negative WARP.
In 2012, Bryan LaHair made the All-Star team for the first time. In 2013, Bryan LaHair was out of the majors, never to return.
No hitter in MLB history has ever played in as few seasons (three) or received as few plate appearances (599) while earning the honor. It almost seems irreproducible: A terrible team in need of a representative, a single hot month (April 2012, when he slashed .390/.471/.780), and some questionable managerial choices (Paul Goldschmidt, in his first full season, was plenty deserving) all conspired to earn LaHair his spot on the roster. The mirage quickly dissipated, as LaHair hit .202/.269/.303 the rest of the way and had his position usurped by one Anthony Rizzo. He played in Japan in 2013 but struck out a ton and got released halfway through his contract. Then he hurt his wrist and discovered, along with the world, that he was already well into his thirties. He toiled in Triple-A in 2014, but that was all.
This is not the point. We come not to bury Bryan LaHair, but to praise him. And so the question: Has there ever been another Bryan LaHair? And will we ever see one again?
Our closest approximation is also the most recent: Ken Harvey, 2004 Kansas City Royals representative. Harvey was a rough draft of LaHair from the opposite side of the plate: catcher power from the first base position, defense like a first baseman wearing a catcher’s mitt. Because the Royals were so bad they needed an extra year to replace him, and because his numbers are polluted by the swampy offensive environment of the early aughts, Harvey was in fact far, far worse than LaHair. But he played four seasons and entered the box 1,078 times, so he’s not quite there.
No one else really makes the cut. Greg “One G” Olson earned the NL All-Star berth as a rookie catcher for the Braves in 1990, despite being tenth in fWAR among catchers in the first half. He plodded along as a one-win player for a few years until Javy Lopez arrived, and was gone. Junior Spivey seems like he fits the list, having a slight five-year career, but he was legitimately great in 2002, especially in the first half. Kosuke Fukudome was 31 when he came stateside, so he doesn’t count.
Perhaps the most interesting member of the five-years-or-less club is Eddie Kazak (born Edward Terrance Tkaczuk), who spent his prime in a hospital recovering from a left arm speared by a bayonet and right elbow shattered by shrapnel. The doctors told him to forget about baseball, so of course he spent years in the minors. Then, as a 28-year-old rookie, he not only made the All-Star team but started, leading NL third basemen in 1949’s favorite statistic, batting average. Kazak wasn’t that good, of course; he had an average eye at best and underwhelming power. But a mere week after the break, he chipped bones in his ankle sliding, and that did to his career what the Axis powers couldn’t. Relegated to pinch-hitter for the rest of his career, he was out of the majors by 1952, and spent his thirties roaming the Pacific Coast League.
Whether by injury or regression, none of these players, with the exception of Spivey, deserved their honors. It’s just the price you pay as a sport when you award your medals in the middle of the season, and then vote weeks ahead of that. But while hot first halves have occasionally fooled an adoring public, a similar second half confers no such honors. What, then, if there were two All-Star games, each rewarding half a season’s labor? Would we find any hidden LaHairs among this unappreciated crowd?
There’s no shortage of long-lived, forgettable players who never earned recognition due to their poor timing. Bill Doran hit .340/.448/.550 in the second half of 1990 for the Astros and Reds. J.T. Snow outhit Albert Pujols and Todd Helton down the stretch in 2004 through the Giants’ failed pennant chase. That same year Craig Monroe had a 159 wRC+ after the break in the AL, second among outfielders. Guys like Steve Buechele, James Loney, and Gene Richards similarly sequenced their way out of being remembered, alongside Scott Cooper. But almost all the names were players with long, indistinct careers, serving enough time to get lucky for a few months. Short-termers are in surprisingly small supply.
Luke Easter of the 1952 Cleveland Indians put up a 1.044 OPS in the second half of his third and final full season in the majors, making him an easy All-Star choice. He doesn’t really count, though, because he spent most of his career in the Negro Leagues, and his play in his mid-thirties would easily translate into some All-Star Game berths in his prime. Reds outfielder Jim Greengrass put up a 130 wRC+ in the second half of 1955, and had his career quickly cut short by injury, so he doesn’t qualify either way. Joe Charboneau, whose name arrives surprisingly late in this article, was only 13th among AL outfielders in wRC+ (137) his celebrated rookie season, so no luck there.
Assuming that his career is already in its twilight, our best example of neo-Harvey might be second baseman Jedd Gyorko. But as exciting as he was in his debut, his 102 wRC+ the second half of his rookie season probably wasn’t enough to get him honors, and the Padres weren’t terrible enough to send him as their lone representative.
Research often ends in failure, and sometimes the story is that there is no story. There are no hidden LaHairs, or even the more alliterative Hidden Harveys. But there is hope: LaHair, and his story, are very much a product of these heartless modern times. The expansiveness of the modern All-Star roster, as well as the critical eye cast on flawed, streaky hitters, translate into an environment friendly to a career like LaHair’s in the future. In the meantime, we should pause to celebrate a man whose career was, if not great, certainly unique.