March 14, 2012
The Lineup Card
12 Great Seasons by Mediocre Players
1. Brady Anderson: 1996
In 1996, Brady Anderson, the left fielder for the Baltimore Orioles during their most recent stretch of relevance, had one of the most bizarrely ephemeral power surges in baseball history, transforming from the mild-mannered .260/.360/.430-ish hitter he'd been the previous three years into a .297/.397/.637 monster. In 1997, he took off the cape, put the glasses back on, and hit an entirely respectable .288/.393/.469.
His 50 home runs in that 1996 campaign were good for ninth in MVP voting (if you'll remember, 1996 was the year Juan Gone robbed A-Rod and Ken Griffey, Jr. of equally deserved honors), and were the only real outlier in his stats that year, leading lazy writers to often point to Anderson as a steroids user. Thankfully, it seems Anderson had the good sense to only juice for one season over the course of his 15-year major-league career, rejecting an awesome and mighty power that might have consumed him whole; he hit 18 home runs in 1997 and never broke 25 any season before or after the '96 campaign. Thus spurned, the excesses of steroids would lurk dormant in the cold earth until 2004, when Barry Bonds hit a baseball so hard it destroyed the world.—Jonathan Bernhardt
2. Wilcy Moore: 1927
His name doesn't show up in professional baseball until his age-25 season, and he made his big-league debut about a month before his 30th birthday... and all Wilcy Moore did after that was immediately become arguably the most important part of the pitching staff of the team that many still consider the greatest ever assembled. Moore appeared in 50 games for the 1927 Yankees, all but 12 of them in relief, yet his 213 innings were second on the team (to Waite Hoyt's 256 1/3), as were his 19 wins (to Hoyt's 22, and tied with Herb Pennock). Had the stat existed, his 13 saves would have led the American League, and his 2.28 ERA is now recognized as having led the league (under the rules at the time, which required a minimum of 10 complete games, Hoyt's 2.63 claimed that title, too). It has to be considered one of the greatest mostly-relief seasons of all time.
And it was an exaggerated version of the type of iron-man season a lot of us wish modern relief aces could have. But Moore (according to several internet sources) blamed his being overworked in that season for his subsequent arm troubles. Injuries and a tired arm kept Moore to 60 or so ineffective innings in both 1928 and '29, and he was back in the minors for all of 1930, before resurfacing in 1931 with the Red Sox and putting up one more pretty good year in a swing role very similar to the one he filled in 1927. He was 34 by then, though, and lasted just two more poor years (with the Red Sox and then back with the Yankees), then hung around in the minors until age 43. But it's his status as one of baseball's first relief aces, and the fact that it happened for the 1927 Yankees, that makes Moore's rookie year my favorite great season by an otherwise mediocre player in baseball history. —Bill Parker
3. Darin Erstad: 2000
During his first few seasons in Anaheim, Darin Erstad looked like a decent chip on a middling Angels ballclub. Coming off a down year in 1999, Erstad teamed up with the Y2K bug to become a pest at the plate and make the turn of the century the season of his life. In 2000, the former first overall pick established career highs in all three slash categories (.355/.409/.541), homers (25), triples (6), and even stolen bases (28). With the aid of a .375 BABIP, Erstad crossed the 200-hit mark for the first and only time in his career, collecting 240 hits in 747 plate appearances. Awards season was kind to the lefty, who picked up a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger to go with his All-Star appearance, but despite his 8.3 WARP effort, Erstad finished eighth in MVP voting.
Erstad was never able to replicate his magical season. During the last nine years of his career, he averaged a .267/.319/.367 line and finished off his playing days where careers go to die: Houston. —Stephani Bee
4. Corey Patterson: 2006
Once one of the brightest prospects in the game, Corey Patterson has been teasing clubs with his raw tools for more than a decade. He's never developed a reasonable approach at the plate, so Patterson has largely disappointed in nearly 4,500 major-league plate appearances, over which he's been worth exactly one win above replacement. The Orioles acquired Patterson from the Cubs prior to the 2006 season, and he rewarded them with his finest big-league season, a 2.4 WARP campaign that brought his career value back into the black for the first time in three years.
Unfortunately, the next three years were all below replacement level. Patterson currently qualifies as one of only three players since 1950 (minimum 4000 PA) to have a single season worth more than 200 percent of his career WARP, joining Gary DiSarcina (2.4 WARP in 1995, 0.5 for his career) and Bob Aspromonte, who did it twice (1.9 WARP in 1967, 2.4 WARP in 1962, 0.8 career WARP). —Bradley Ankrom
5. Rick Wilkins: 1993
Nothing about Wilkins’ career made sense, least of all his career year in 1993. It isn’t often you see a player hit 14 home runs over his first 509 major-league plate appearances, then 30 over his next 500, and then 37 over his next 1,426, but again: nothing about Wilkins’ career made sense. Wilkins hit his first home run during that 1993 season on April 29. He hit his 10th on June 9. His 20th came on July 26. His 30th on September 28. The lessons learned: 1) Hit about five home runs a month and you, too, can have a 30-homer season and 2) You may never do it again. —R.J. Anderson
Who says you can know a man by the company he keeps?
Five Hall of Famers, a player with Hall of Fame numbers that are filled with cork, a long-time star, the best college pitcher of his generation, and… Rick Wilkins, whose improbably incandescent 1993 ranks among the 30 best Cubs season since the dawn of the nuclear age. On the strength of his .303/.376/.561 line, Wilkins earned 6.2 WARP that year—the same as Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar—while joining Gabby Hartnett as the only Cubs catchers to launch 30 home runs in a season. How’s that for name-dropping?
Wilkins had never shown much power but had been moderately productive the previous season in a job-share with Joe Girardi, and when the Rockies stole Peoria Joe in the expansion draft, the 25-year-old Wilkins was handed the job and ran with it as few have ever done. Typically for the Cubs, their cornerstone catcher slumped badly the next year and face-planted in 1995, posting a career .220/.319/.364 after his breakout season and haunting seven more organizations before hanging ‘em up in 2002. He was an unlikely hero, but for one magical summer when he never missed his pitch, Rick Wilkins was the best catcher Chicago had seen in a generation. —Ken Funck
6. Jeff Ballard: 1989
Once upon a time, the Baltimore Orioles were not synonymous with "flaming train wreck." In 1989, they were less than a decade removed from their last World Series championship, and despite coming off an awful 54-win season, there was cause for optimism. Cal Ripken was 28, Camden Yards was on the drawing board, and young talent had percolated to the major-league team. There was Steve Finley, Craig Worthington, Brady Anderson, and, if you'll come all the way back with me to the summer of '89, Jeff Ballard.
For one sunny season, Ballard was a major-league ace. In 215 1/3 innings, Ballard went 18-8 with a 3.43 ERA, a full 10 percent above league average, and helped the Orioles win 87 games. He finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting behind Nolan Ryan and in front of Dennis Eckersley. But here’s the thing: Ballard did all that with a strikeout rate of—and I hope you're sitting down for this—2.6 K/9. The average K rate that year was just under 6. In 1990, Ballard was essentially the same pitcher, and his strikeout rate rose a bit, but his Oriole Magic was gone. His ERA spiked to 4.93, 22 percent below league average, and his record fell to 2-11. Undeterred, the O's trotted him out again in 1991 with predictably awful results. That was enough, and Baltimore cut bait. Ballard bounced through St. Louis, Oakland, and Pittsburgh, where he pitched in relief for the Pirates, but for all intents and purposes, at the age of 27, Jeff Ballard was finished as a major-league starting pitcher. —Matthew Kory
7. Davey Johnson: 1973
From 1969 to 1972, Davey Johnson hit 40 homers in 2,190 plate appearances for the Baltimore Orioles. After being traded to Atlanta in 1973, he went deep 43 times for the Braves. Although Johnson had strong enough secondary skills to make him a valuable second baseman throughout his career, he never came close to matching that performance before or after. His OPS jumped by more than 250 points from the previous season and would plummet by more than 150 the next. Had Johnson played 30 years later, chemicals would have been blamed for this anomaly. Instead, his 1973 is remembered for what it was: one of the great fluke seasons in baseball history. —Geoff Young
8. Bill Mueller: 2003
In September 2002, the Cubs traded Bill Mueller to the Giants for Jeff Verplancke. Verplancke was a minor-league reliever and, so far as I can tell, never threw another pitch after the trade. He's a college pitching coach now. Mueller played a few September games for the Giants, then signed with the Red Sox over the winter. He was not the team's starting third baseman on Opening Day 2003. He spent much of the season batting eighth and... finished 12th in MVP voting. He batted .326/.398/.540, the second-highest slugging percentage ever for a Red Sox third baseman.
Mueller, it turned out, was just the perfect Fenway Park hitter. Said Theo Epstein many years later, "The ultimate was a guy like Bill Mueller, who from the left side was an opposite-field guy and was a pull guy from the right side. All of a sudden he gets to Fenway and hits .325." That explains the 31 doubles—31 doubles!—he hit at home that year, and it explains the .344/.415/.579 line he had at Fenway the next year. But Mueller's astounding 2003 season—he was 32—can't entirely be waved away as a Fenway illusion: He hit .309/.373/.530 away from Fenway, with 13 road homers. He never hit 13 home runs in any other season of his career. —Sam Miller
9. Billy Grabarkewitz: 1970
The second-place 1970 Los Angeles Dodgers had two representatives at the All-Star Game: Claude Osteen, making his second of three appearances, and third-baseman Billy Grabarkewitz. Grabarkewitz—often called "Grabby"—was a 24-year-old kid from Texas who, by the break, was batting .341/.445/.498. Grabby's first half was so out of the blue that his name wasn't even featured on the All-Star ballots; the Dodgers launched a write-in campaign for him, but with a name like Grabarkewitz, it proved a bit difficult. Cincinnati's Tony Perez earned the start, but Grabby was named to the team anyway. He even played a key role in the extra-inning affair, moving Pete Rose over to second with a single only one batter before the famous Ray Fosse collision.
Grabby ended the 1970 campaign with a .289/.399/.454 line, 17 home runs, 95 walks, and 6.7 WARP (10th-best it the National League). As a minor leaguer, Grabby hit well in the A and Double-A leagues (with OPS marks of 921, 924, and 963 in the three seasons), but looked barely average in Triple-A (a 767 OPS at Spokane) in 1969. In a brief callup that year, he managed a measly .092 batting average in 70 plate appearances. The best explanation for Grabby's 1970 season seems to be an insanely high BABIP (.470 at the All-Star break and .368 overall despite a .188 August).
In 1971, Grabarkewitz injured his shoulder early in spring training and failed to hit when given the opportunity. After the 1972 season, the Dodgers traded him to the Angels along with Frank Robinson and Bobby Valentine—Grabby had managed a .186 average in 93 games over the prior two years—but it didn't help. Despite Robinson's claim, "If he could talk his way to first base, [Grabby] would be batting 1.000," he was out of baseball after the 1975 season. —Larry Granillo
10. Daniel Cabrera: 2006
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Corey Patterson and Daniel Cabrera eventually found themselves sharing a clubhouse. While years of unrealized potential had caused Patterson to wear out his welcome in Chicago, Cabrera's frustrating career was still in its infancy when the two became Orioles teammates in 2006. Cabrera posted the finest numbers of his career that year, and his 2.6 WARP proved to be more than 370 percent of his career total of 0.7. Nine pitchers (minimum 500 IP) have accomplished that feat, and given that Cabrera hasn't thrown a major-league pitch since 2009, he appears likely to maintain his place in history. —Bradley Ankrom
11. Xavier Nady: 2008
The 2008 edition of the Annual stated: "At age 29, [Xavier] Nady has passed the expiration date for reaching major league stardom. He has become a useful player with moderate power, but his refusal to take a walk and his average-at-best defense in right field limit his opportunities to start to second-division clubs." If only the Yankees had listened. The thing is, Nady started off the 2008 season hitting like there was no tomorrow; he had a .330/.383/.535 line with 13 home runs, convincing many that he was simply a late bloomer. The Yankees, needing some help in their outfield, opted to trade for this Pirate (along with Damaso Marte, who also largely fizzled), instead of Jason Bay (whom the Red Sox would net in a three-way deal that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers); Boston went on to the postseason while the Yankees remained at home. Nady fell flat after a hot start with the Yankees, and an elbow injury necessitating a second Tommy John surgery in April 2009 cost him his job in the Bronx. —Rebecca Glass
12. Rich Aurilia: 2001
I don’t have much against Barry Bonds. I don’t particularly mind that he may have experimented with every performance-enhancing substance available (and some he probably had to synthesize himself). I don’t care that he could be cold in the clubhouse or reticent with reporters. I’m even over the fact that his withdrawal from the union licensing agreement forced me to play as fictional right-handed hitter Jon Dowd in MVP Baseball 2005, forever tainting the legacy of the real, pointillistic player with almost the same name.
The only thing I can’t forgive Bonds for is showing up Rich Aurilia by setting the single-season home run record in the same uniform* that Aurilia was wearing when he was possessed by the ghost of Honus Wagner. Aurilia entered the 2001 season as a 29-year-old with over 2,000 plate appearances of .270/.327/.419 hitting under his belt. He finished it as a 30-year-old with a .324/.369/.572 line, 37 home runs, and a league-leading 206 hits. As a shortstop. Aurilia racked up 65.2 VORP that season. Current Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford will probably play his whole career without accumulating 65 VORP.
*Not literally the same uniform. Because Bonds’ head never would have fit through Aurilia’s collar. No one has ever made fun of Bonds’ head for being big before, right? Side-effect-of-steroids joke!
Aurilia’s offensive explosion may have been even less predictable than Bonds hitting 73 homers at age 36. We can't blame BABIP for much of it. Alternate explanations abound—maybe Aurilia was just feasting on fat pitches from hurlers who were afraid to face Bonds and Jeff Kent batting behind him. (Aurilia hit out of the two-hole in almost every game.) Maybe he slipped and fell on Barry’s syringe. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be repeated.
In Aurilia’s Baseball Prospectus 2002 comment, we confidently predicted, “Even regressing to the mean this year, he’ll be the best shortstop in the league.” As it turned out, Aurilia would be worth -0.2 WARP, which qualified him for a 24th-place tie. He was still batting in front of Kent and Bonds, and if he had been on something in 2001, the 2002 testing policy didn’t offer much incentive to stop. So why didn’t he hit? In another comment we’d like expunged from our record, we blamed it on the bone chips in BP2003, writing that he was “a good bet to rebound and be the NL’s best-hitting shortstop.” He rebounded all the way to 0.6 WARP.
Aurilia usually wasn’t a bad player. He also usually wasn’t one of the 10 best in his league. Except for that one year when he was. —Ben Lindbergh