Friday, March 25, 2011

Top 10 One Hit Wonders

I'm back from the dead!  Returning to school was a lot tougher than I thought it would be, and so I haven't been able to update in a (very long) while.  I still can't promise normally-timed updates--that will certainly commence once the season rolls around, however--but I will do my best to get out at least one post per week.  And so, without further rambling, I give you the top ten one-hit wonders.
  • Note 1: A "one-hit wonder" is described as a player who had one season that is far greater than all of his other ones.  Two great seasons is a dis-qualifier, as would be one great season and a lot of above average ones.  A good general benchmark was to examine what percentage of a player's career WAR was contained in his best year, though that, of course, is still never an exact science.
  • Note 2: All active players are excluded.  Who knows what the future will hold for them?
  • Note 3: These are ranked both in terms of how good the season was, and how good it was relative to the rest of their career.  There's no statistical method for this.  Remember, guys: subjective baseball.

1. Bill James, SP, 1914 (BSN): 7.4 WAR/150 ERA+/1.90 ERA
No, this obviously isn't the famous statistician.  Nor is it even "Big Bill" James, a fellow deadball era pitcher.  The Bill James (nicknamed "Seattle Bill") to which this entry refers had himself a heck of a season in 1914.  Pitching for the Boston Braves, James posted a 26-7 record with a 1.90 ERA, and led the league in WAR (7.4) and W-L % (.788), and finished second in ERA (to Bill Doak's 1.72) and wins (Pete Alexander had 27, that dastard).  So... cool.  We've established that James had a good season.  Great, even.  And he was only twenty-two years old at the time!  Clearly he had a bright future in the majors, right?  Not exactly.  His 1915, in which he only started nine games and pitched to a 5-4 record with an ERA+ of 89, was decidedly mediocre. Then World War I hit, though James still managed to play a year of minor league ball for the Portland Beavers in 1917.  In 1919, after the allies had finished off the Central Powers, he was back in the majors... for one game.  And that was it.  James pitched in the minors until 1925, when he retired and lived happily (one hopes) until 1971.  There are a lot of players on this list (nine, in fact) who had a few decent seasons to compliment their great one.  James, however, didn't have that luxury.  For his excellent 1914, and complete lack of other productivity, I am happy to declare Bill James to be the ideal one-hit wonder.

2. Mark Fidrych, SP, 1976 (DET): 8.5 WAR/159 ERA+/19-9
You all know him: he's Mark "The Bird" Fidrych!  As previously discussed in the article on the ten best rookie seasons, Mark Fidrych's 1976 was amazing.  He led the league in ERA (2.34), pitched an astounding 24 complete games, won the Rookie of the Year, finished second in the Cy Young voting, and helped engineer the election of Jimmy Carter (one of these things is untrue).  After that year, however, he fell apart--and it's not hard to understand why.  Here, let me spell it out for you: he pitched 24 complete games in his rookie season.  Impressive?  Yes, very.  But, as we've come to appreciate more recently with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, early-career dominance can be a double-edged sword, easily derailed by an overeager manager.  That's not to blame Ralph Houk for Fidrych's appearance on this list.  He had an electric ace who people loved to watch, and who won the team a lot of games.  But remember, kids: don't throw 250 innings when you've never pitched in the majors before.

3. Dick Ellsworth, SP, 1963 (CHC): 10.3 WAR/167 ERA+/22-10
In the twelve years of his career that weren't 1963, Dick Ellsworth had a 3.97 ERA (94 ERA+) with a 93-127 record, a K/9 of 4.6, and a WHIP of 1.379.  Not horrible, but certainly below average.  His best WAR during that period was 3.8 in 1961, when he had ten wins and an ERA+ of 109.  Let's now look at what Ellsworth managed to do in 1963: aside from the stats listed above, Ellsworth had a WHIP of 1.025, a K/9 of 5.7, and an ERA of 2.11.  He didn't lead the league in many categories, mostly due to the presence of one Sandy Koufax, but Ellsworth placed in the top five for many stats (WAR-2nd, ERA-2nd, wins-5th, WHIP-4th, CG-3rd, HR/9-4th, and WPA-3rd) and led the league in ERA+.  Ellsworth, he of the mediocre career, was far and away one of the best pitchers in 1963.  He earns the number two spot on this list for his stellar play during his one-hit wonder season, as well as how much better he was in that year than in any other.  (Also, his WAR is tops on this list.  Maybe somebody can explain that stat to me some day so I can understand what that really means.)

4. Dutch Leonard, SP, 1914 (BOS): 7.9 WAR/279 ERA+/19-5
Continuing my fascination with WAR, this just proves how little I understand that stat that I love to use.  Despite having the second-lowest WAR on this list, I still put Leonard #3 (a very good ranking, considering the strong competition).  His 1914 was amazing, whereas the rest of his career was rather pedestrian.  Just how big was the gap?  His next best ERA+, 123, came in his 1913 rookie season.  Out of the ten seasons in which he started at least 15 games, he had an ERA+ over 100 seven times, and an ERA+ over 120 only twice.  So it's clear that his 1914 was far and away his best year, with none of his other years coming close.  Let's now examine that season.  If the 279 ERA+ didn't already tip you off, Leonard was fantastic in 1914.  His WAR was second in the AL, and he led the league in WHIP (.886), ERA (0.96), K/9 (7.05), and, of course, ERA+ (Walter Johnson was second with a mere 164).  Despite never coming close to replicating his numbers, Leonard will forever be remembered (by me, anyway) for his fantastic 1914 season.

5. Marcus Giles, 2B, 2003 (ATL): 8.2 WAR/136 OPS+/.316 AVG
As a Mets fan in the 2000s, Marcus Giles was a constant object of my hatred.  Perhaps that's why I remember him having been very good for a decent amount of time, when in reality he only had one good year.  In 2003, after having been a scrub for the Braves for two years, Giles broke out by being on the NL leaderboard in the following categories: WAR (3rd), AVG (8th), OBP (4th), OPS (9th), doubles (2nd), triples (9th), and OPS+ (7th).  For a young second baseman to do all of this was nothing short of incredible, and it seemed as if Giles would be a major force for many years to come.  Unfortunately for him, his success would be shortlived.  He puttered to an OPS+/WAR of 111/3.0 and 114/3.8 over the next two seasons, which he then followed up by two very bad years with the Braves and Padres in 2006 and 2007.  And then, almost as quickly as he had emerged as a star, he was out of baseball.  Let's examine his numbers, not including that magical 2003 season: .268 AVG, .751 OPS, 95 OPS+, 8.5 WAR.  Also, while Giles was good for a FV of 22 in 2003, he only contributed a total FV of four in the other six years of his career.  While Giles may have never panned out to his potential, he is clearly deserving of a prominent spot on this list.

6. Terry Turner, SS, 1906 (CLE): 8.4 WAR/123 OPS+/.709 OPS
Oh good, another deadball-era player nobody's ever heard of.  We get a lot of those on this site, don't we?  Anyway, Turner played for seventeen mediocre seasons, amassing a career WAR of 30.2 and OPS+ of 89.  I know that there wasn't a lot of offense from 1904-1919, but those numbers are just sad.  In 1906, however, Terry Turner was far from pathetic.  He ranked fourth among all NLers in offensive WAR, as well as first in defensive WAR.  While he didn't dominate the league in any offensive categories, his stats (10th in RBI, 8th in XBH, 9th in RC) were clearly solid, especially for a shortstop not named Honus Wagner.  Terry Turner might not have obviously overwhelmed with his game, especially in the other years of his career, but his 1906 was a splendid aberration.

7. Tommy Harper, 3B, 1970 (MIL): 7.7 WAR/146 OPS+/31 HR
Tommy Harper was mostly known for his speed.  In his career he stole 408 bases (including 73 in 1969 and 54 in 1973), but only hit .257 with 146 home runs and an OPS+ of 101.  He was, by definition, an average player.  In 1970, however, he had his normal speed (38 steals) as well as power (31 home runs) and average (.296 AVG) that never came together in any of his other seasons.  He had career-high numbers in every category (except for stolen bases) in 1970  His 146 OPS+ wasn't huge, but it was sixth in the league (behind three hall of famers and two very good players, no less) which is still pretty good.  Also, his next highest OPS+ was 112 in 1972 and 1973.  Clear improvement, there.  His 7.7 WAR in 1970 stands in stark contrast to the WAR of 17.3 that comprises the other fourteen years of his career.  He loses some points because his peak season wasn't as high as the others on this list, but make no mistake: Tommy Harper is a great example of a one-hit wonder, and is well deserving of a spot on this list.

8. Chris Hoiles, C, 1993 (BAL): 7.2 WAR/162 OPS+/1.001 OPS
Wow, that was a good season.  I had heard of Hoiles, but when I saw his WAR I assumed it was due to defense (I don't know why).  As it turns out, it was because he tore it up in 1993.  His offensive WAR was 6th in the AL, sandwiched between Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez (among others).  His OPS was filthy, and he placed in the top five for both OBP and SLG, a nice feat.  He doesn't rank in the top ten in many other categories, but regardless of rankings his numbers can still be appreciated as quite good: .310 AVG, 29 HR, 82 RBI (and all in just 126 games, due to being a catcher).  Hoiles was rewarded with a $1.65M jump in salary from 1993 to 1994, but the Orioles' faith was not rewarded.  While Hoiles was serviceable in his nine other seasons (some complete, some not), he never recaptured the glory of 1993.  His next-highest WAR is 3.5, and in that year he hit .250 with 19 HR and an OPS+ of 114--clearly a step down from his 1993.  A one-hit wonder, indeed.

9. Justin Thompson, SP, 1997 (DET): 7.2 WAR/152 ERA+/15-11
Thompson is a very interesting case of who should and shouldn't qualify for this list.  On one hand, he earns his place here due to his arm basically falling apart the year after he tore up the league with his pitching.  Yet, on the other hand, I can't give him a pass due to misfortune, mostly owing to the fact that his non-1997, pre-injury years were just not that good.  His 1997, though, was truly great: his W-L record might be underwhelming, but he was in the top five for many pitching categories that actually matter (WAR, 4th; ERA, 5th; WHIP, 4th; ERA+, 5th).  As for the rest of his career?  He was a very mediocre pitcher in 1996, 1998, and 1999 (combined WAR: 5) and then resurfaced in 2005 to make two relief appearances for the Rangers.  His 1997 WAR is 60% of his career WAR (12), an impressive feat that gives him good cred for this list.  No, his case isn't overwhelming, but that's partly due to the competition falls off after the top six.  That, however, shouldn't take away from Thompson's stellar 1997, and how good it is when compared to the rest of his muddled career.

10. Irv Young, SP, 1905 (BSN): 7.0 WAR/106 ERA+/20-21
"Okay," you might say, "in 1905 Young lost more games than he won and had a very underwhelming ERA+.  His WAR might have been third in the league, but so what?  That doesn't mean anything if he doesn't have the stats to prove it."  Well, friend, have I got a rebuttal for you!  He started 42 games and completed 41 of them.    Yeah, wow.  In addition to that accomplishment, he finished fifth in strikeouts, second in shutouts, sixth in WHIP, and third in K/BB.  And that 7.0 WAR looks a lot better when compared to the -1.3 WAR he amassed over other five years of his career.  His ERA statistics may not be impressive, but his other numbers are filthy enough to land Young the tenth and final spot on this list.

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