Lightning in a bottle – baseball’s one-year wonders

In 2011, Blue Jays’ starter Ricky Romero had a breakout season with 6.2 WAR and an All-Star selection, but this year … not so much. Perhaps, another in baseball’s rich history of players who suddenly shine brightly on the biggest stage, then just as quickly fade away, never again to approach that brief flirtation with stardom?

You’ve probably heard that sentiment expressed in various ways and, perhaps, without thinking a great deal about it, presumed there was some measure of truth to it. Well, I’m here to tell you – it ain’t necessarily so. In fact, the true one-year wonder may indeed be about as likely as catching lightning in a bottle.

After the jump, I’ll look more closely at the one-year wonder phenomenon (or non-phenomenon). If you’re like me, I suspect you may be surprised.

Cutting to the chase, here are the one-year wonder hitters.

Player Year WAR OPS+ Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
Jacoby Ellsbury 2011 8.0 146 27 BOS 158 732 660 119 212 46 5 32 105 52 98 39 15 .321 .376 .552 .928 *8/D
Franklin Gutierrez 2009 6.2 105 26 SEA 153 629 565 85 160 24 1 18 70 46 122 16 5 .283 .339 .425 .764 *8
Rich Aurilia 2001 6.5 146 29 SFG 156 689 636 114 206 37 5 37 97 47 83 1 3 .324 .369 .572 .941 *6
Rick Wilkins 1993 6.5 151 26 CHC 136 500 446 78 135 23 1 30 73 50 99 2 1 .303 .376 .561 .937 *2
Billy Grabarkewitz 1970 6.2 134 24 LAD 156 640 529 92 153 20 8 17 84 95 149 19 9 .289 .399 .454 .852 *564
Aurelio Rodriguez 1970 6.2 102 22 TOT 159 663 610 70 152 33 7 19 83 40 87 15 6 .249 .302 .420 .721 *5/6
Zoilo Versalles 1965 7.1 115 25 MIN 160 728 666 126 182 45 12 19 77 41 122 27 5 .273 .319 .462 .781 *6
Bob Cerv 1958 6.1 159 32 KCA 141 571 515 93 157 20 7 38 104 50 82 3 3 .305 .371 .592 .963 *7
Eddie Lake 1945 6.3 137 29 BOS 133 586 473 81 132 27 1 11 51 106 37 9 7 .279 .412 .410 .822 *6/4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/21/2012.

Certainly, the names of Versalles and Grabarkewitz on the list have become somewhat synonymous with this topic. Versalles famously parlayed this campaign into an MVP season for the AL champs.  Also, I’d be willing to bet the first name on the list won’t be staying there for long. But, that’s all the names there are, back to 1901.

Surely, there must be more than these, you say. Well, here are my criteria – these are the only players since 1901 with careers of 5 or more seasons with exactly one 6+ WAR season and no other 3+ WAR seasons. I chose those definitions since, in most seasons, players will need a least 6 WAR (or more) to make the WAR top 10 for MLB. Similarly, seasons of less than 3 WAR are usually just noise in terms of identifying a season’s top performers, and seldom will attract more than passing attention. Obviously, those criteria can be debated, but I don’t believe they’re terribly unreasonable.

For the pitchers, using the same criteria.

Player Year WAR WHIP SO/9 BB/9 SO/BB Age Tm G GS CG SHO GF W L W-L% SV IP BB SO ERA ERA+
Joe Mays 2001 6.3 1.151 4.74 2.47 1.92 25 MIN 34 34 4 2 0 17 13 .567 0 233.2 64 123 3.16 143
Justin Thompson 1997 7.4 1.137 6.09 2.66 2.29 24 DET 32 32 4 0 0 15 11 .577 0 223.1 66 151 3.02 152
Kevin Tapani 1991 6.6 1.086 4.98 1.48 3.38 27 MIN 34 34 4 1 0 16 9 .640 0 244.0 40 135 2.99 143
Mark Eichhorn 1986 7.1 0.955 9.52 2.58 3.69 25 TOR 69 0 0 0 38 14 6 .700 10 157.0 45 166 1.72 246
Mark Fidrych 1976 9.3 1.079 3.49 1.91 1.83 21 DET 31 29 24 4 2 19 9 .679 0 250.1 53 97 2.34 159
Wayne Twitchell 1973 6.4 1.213 6.81 3.99 1.71 25 PHI 34 28 10 5 0 13 9 .591 0 223.1 99 169 2.50 152
Jim Merritt 1967 6.2 0.993 6.36 1.19 5.37 23 MIN 37 28 11 4 4 13 7 .650 0 227.2 30 161 2.53 138
Hank Aguirre 1962 7.2 1.051 6.50 2.71 2.40 31 DET 42 22 11 2 13 16 8 .667 3 216.0 65 156 2.21 185
Bobby Shantz 1952 8.7 1.048 4.89 2.03 2.41 26 PHA 33 33 27 5 0 24 7 .774 0 279.2 63 152 2.48 159
Ken Heintzelman 1949 6.0 1.328 2.34 3.35 0.70 33 PHI 33 32 15 5 0 17 10 .630 0 250.0 93 65 3.02 130
Cy Blanton 1935 7.0 1.081 5.02 1.95 2.58 26 PIT 35 30 23 4 3 18 13 .581 1 254.1 55 142 2.58 159
Jim Shaw 1919 6.1 1.223 3.76 2.96 1.27 25 WSH 45 37 23 3 6 17 17 .500 5 306.2 101 128 2.73 117
Lefty Tyler 1918 6.5 1.058 3.41 2.24 1.52 28 CHC 33 30 22 6 3 19 8 .704 1 269.1 67 102 2.00 138
Ed Karger 1907 6.5 1.025 3.93 1.86 2.11 24 STL 39 32 29 6 5 15 19 .441 1 314.0 65 137 2.04 123
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/21/2012.

Rather more seasons across a broader range of years. But, still, not a huge number of players. As with the hitters, one MVP season here (Shantz). Also, one WS champion (Tapani). Note that Romero is not on the list as he does not yet have 5 years in the majors.

One interesting sidenote is Jim Merritt, the only liveball era pitcher on this list who garnered no award votes or All-Star recognition for his 6 WAR season. Ironically, Merritt’s 1970 All-Star season when he went 20-12 and finished 4th in the Cy Young (and even got some MVP votes) is, at 1.6 WAR, in the top 10 for lowest WAR in any liveball 20 win season.

My take from this is simply that cream rises to the top. Thus, a player who is good enough to compile a 6 WAR season is also, in most instances, good enough to also compile at least one other 3 WAR season. This can be seen in the charts below. First, for the hitters.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chart on the left shows the number of players achieving a 6 WAR season. Of those who do, almost half (47%) achieve only one such season. The right chart is a breakdown of those players with one 6 WAR season, showing how many 3 WAR seasons were compiled. This chart shows that having a 6 WAR season as the only 3 WAR season in a career is the least likely result – only 6% of these players did that, or only about 3% of all players with a  6 WAR season. Far more common is for that one 6 WAR season to be among several 3 WAR seasons. In fact, over 85% of players with exactly one 6 WAR season have at least two other 3 WAR seasons, and over 70% have at least three other 3 WAR seasons.

Now, the same measures for the pitchers.

Pretty much the same story as with hitters. Achieving a single 6 WAR season accounts for 60% of all players with 6 WAR seasons. But, for that 60%, having the 6 WAR season be the only 3 WAR season is the least likely scenario, accounting for about 10% of players with one 6 WAR season, or about 6% of all players with 6 WAR seasons.

So, remember, only cream rises to the top. A “fluke” 6 WAR season is a very, very unusual occurrence.

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49 Comments on "Lightning in a bottle – baseball’s one-year wonders"

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mosc
Guest

How many of those pitchers were relievers? Seems likely they didn’t pan out as starters but could have had long careers as relievers. Mark Eichhorn I’ve never heard referred to as a one-year wonder before, found that kind of insulting to him. They don’t let relievers throw 150 innings anymore. His WAR per inning rate probably didn’t change much throughout his career.

Jimbo
Guest

Yeah Eichorn is the odd fit as he has a 2.5 WAR, a 2.6 WAR, and a 2.9 WAR season.

Richard Chester
Guest

I really don’t think Bobby Shantz should be classified as a one-year wonder. He never again reached the heights of his 1952 season but he did pitch for another 12 years with moderate success. In 9 of those years his ERA+ was greater than 100 including his highs of 214, 153 and 148. He was a big contributor to the Yankees pennant in 1957 when he led the league in ERA and posted an 11-5 W-L record. And then there were his 4 gold glove awards.

Artie Z
Guest
Can we add batting WAR and pitching WAR together (I know we can’t add oWAR and dWAR together in the new version of WAR)? If we can do that then Bobby Shantz falls off of the list as he has a 0.5 batting WAR and a 2.9 pitching WAR in 1957 (his 1951 season would also jump to 3.0 with 2.3 pitching and 0.7 batting) . Not that I think about it, where is the defensive contribution of the pitcher counted, in pitching or batting WAR? I’m guessing the batter value, since that is where the dWAR is.
Brent
Guest

I know he doesn’t quite reach your 6.0 standard, but Al Cowens’s 1977 season sticks out like a sore thumb in his career. WAR 5.0 (no other seasons above 2.6). OPS+ 137, no other seasons above 114. WAA 3.0, no other seasons above 1.0 and most of them are negative. When you look at his counting stats on his page on baseballreference.com, pretty much every category it looks like the profile of another player was stuck in there at age 25.

OK, time to check out Norm Cash’s 1961 season and see why he doesn’t qualify

Richard Chester
Guest

Pitcher Gene Bearden also missed the 6 WAR cut-off but his 20-7 year in 1948 combined with his league leading 2.43 ERA (ERA+ = 168) led the Indians to a pennant. He played 5 more years with a record of 25-31 and an ERA+ of 90.

Brent
Guest

Missed one. Actually, his teammate from the Miracle Braves (Lefty Tyler, who is on your list, but not for 1914) got me to thinking about him. Bill James, the ace of the 1914 Miracle Braves. He had a 7.7 WAR in 1914 and surrounded that with nothing more than 0.3 in his other 3 seasons. I see why you missed him, he didn’t meet your seasons played criteria, but he is the ultimate in one hit wonders or lightning in the bottle guys.

topper009
Guest

True but his HAAR (Historical Abstracts Above Replacements) led the league for 25 years

topper009
Guest

Some close calls were:
Chris Hoiles with top WAR seasons of 6.5, 3.1, 3.1, 2.6
Terry Turner 9.2 (aided by the best ever single season defensive WAR of 5.4 according to rWAR), 4.1, 3.0, 3.0
Dick Ellsworth 9.9, 3.4, 1.9
Mark Prior 7.2, 3.4, 2.9 (exactly 5 year career)
Dontrelle Willis 7.0, 3.8, 3.7, 1.1

Bronson Arroyo 6.5, 3.1, 2.4
Ryan Dempster 6.7, 3.9, 3.2

Tmckelv
Guest

For this subject, I always think of one name – Joe Charboneau, AL ROY from the 1980 Indians.

He doesn’t fit any of your criteria as he only lasted 3 seasons and never even had a 3 WAR season (mostly because of his Left Field/DH positioning). But I remember him as lightening in a bottle.

Brent
Guest

Or the Royals version of same, Bob Hamelin, who you could have written almost the exact same sentences about.

Doug
Guest

Absolutely, Tmckelv.

What’s curious though (at least to me) is that 10 years before Joe, the Indians had another rookie left-fielder nobody remembers whose rookie season and career look startlingly like Charbonneau’s. Take a look at Roy Foster and see if you don’t agree.

Tmckelv
Guest

Although he was just before my time, I always knew of Roy Foster because he came in 2nd in the 1970 AL ROY race to my favorite player, Thurman Munson.

Roy had a really good year in 1970. He had a great case for that award (because of his 23 HR and 50+ point lead in SLG) until the WAR stat came about as Munson dominated in that regard (5.3 to Foster’s 0.9).

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Versalles was a defensive whiz, which contributed to the hype.
Yes he led the league in oWar, as well.
And clearly it was a ‘good’ season with the stick – but a lot of that black ink came from being the leadoff hitter on BY FAR the best offense in the league. Versalles easily led the league in Plate Appearances.

Minnesota scored 4.78 runs per game.
Detroit was #2 at 4.20
Huge.

But his OPS+ was only 115.
That was good for 20th among qualifying hitters.

Yes I am cherry picking.
________________________

Richard Chester
Guest

Roberto Hernandez had 5.9 WAR and 148 OPS+ in 2007. His next best is 2.5 and 105 in 2010. I already posted a comment on July 14 that he had a seasonal high which exceeded his lifetime WAR (4.4).

Brent
Guest

Just to avoid confusion, it might be helpful to say Roberto Hernandez nee Fausto Carmona.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Doug this is fantastic research, thank you.
The more we use WAR as a comparative statistic the more I become wary of it, particularly the ‘full’ WAR stat, with dWAR fed into it.

Jacoby Ellsbury?
His 2009 season was worth 2.5 wins above a AAAA scrub?
And his 2008 season was worth more?
I’m more of an intuitive sabermetrician than a literal one, and that just doesn’t seem right.

Brooklyn Mick
Guest

Voomo, I agree that the dWAR component is extremely dicey, to the point of being nebulous. I wish I knew more about how the figure is reached. Range factors, ballpark adjusted factors, this factor, that factor. Do teams of statisticians actually watch every play of every game and make statistical analyses on every defensive play? And if so, what are the parameters, or is there some subjectivity involved?

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Aurilia was the 2 hitter on that Giants team.
The 3 hitter hit 73 homeruns.

For his career, Aurilia did this with men on base:

.286 .341 .433 .774

In 2001:

.331 .369 .609 .978

And with just a runner on first:
.414 .454 .829 1.283 (119 PA)

birtelcom
Guest
How about Eddie Lake? 6.3 WAR in 1945 (when many major league caliber players were more focused on war than WAR), but never more than 2.2 WAR in any other year in his 11-season career. Total career WAR: 9.7. Also, Bob Cerv, 6.1 WAR in 1958, and never more than 1.9 in any other season in his 12-season career. Among all non-pitchers since 1901 with a season of 6 or more WAR, only Grabarkewitz (career WAR 5.2) ended his career with a lower career WAR thn Lake, though Cerv was close (career WAR 10.2). Other retired guys with a 6+… Read more »
JDanger
Guest

This is great. So many great stories in this post.

I was considering doing something like this for BTB, but more along the lines of finding peak-season WAR minus second-highest-season WAR.

Ken
Guest
My understanding of what constitutes a one-year wonder differs somewhat from Doug’s. One reason you never heard from them again after their break-out year was that they so completely lost their magic that they left baseball. This is typically a rookie phenom that was on the roster LESS than 5 years, not more. So maybe a survey of the rookie blazers that soon bombed out would result in more than 7 position players since 1901? More likely to explain the perception that this is not so rare? As others have stated, it is almost considered an insult to call some… Read more »
e pluribus munu
Guest

I also had thought of the term differently, Ken, and more along your lines. For me, though, the term is dismissive – it would never apply to a pitcher like Fidrych, but might fit Bo Belinsky, even though he was really more of a one-month wonder: it was his first month.

Not that there’s any problem with Doug approaching it as he did. But the 6.0 WAR threshold does rule out the rookie sensations whose flashy first year was a partial one, and whose sophomore slumps never came to an end.

e pluribus munu
Guest
Another really interesting post, Doug. But I’m going to nitpick on a point, which I think has broader implications: your characterization of Jim Merritt’s record and the tension between advanced and primitive stats. You summed up Merritt in 1970 by suggesting that it wasn’t much of a year for him because he had a low WAR, implying that CYA and MVP award voters who gave him a nod had not misguidedly focused on W-L. The reason his WAR is low seems to be primarily because his 4.08 ERA was mediocre. But what award voters were looking at could have been… Read more »
Hartvig
Guest
Just on a whim, I checked Rick Helling’s 20 win season (1998) where he had a 4.41 ERA in a higher offensive context In 20 wins (average 7 innings pitched) ERA 2.71 In 6 no decisions (average 5 IP) ERA 8.01 In 7 loses (average (average 6.1 IP) ERA 7.48 I guess that tell us that Helling had a lot of offensive support to bail him out of a loss 6 times when he gave up an average of 4.5 runs in 5 innings, at least. By my calculations in Merritt’s 15 combined non-win games ERA would be just over… Read more »
birtelcom
Editor
epm: One way to use advanced stats to measure what you are seeking to measure, and to adjust for the possible weakness in WAR you have identified, is to look at Win Probability Added (WPA). Instead of awarding one Win, one Loss, or one No Decision for every start, WPA awards some percentage of a win or a loss for each start depending on the extent to which a pitcher increased or decreased his team’s chances of winning that particular start. It’s not a perfect stat (no stat is perfect), but it tries to get at what you are observing… Read more »
Doug
Guest

Great stuff, birtelcom. Thanks.

e pluribus munu
Guest
WPA is an interesting stat, birtelcom, and I appreciate it single game contexts. Because I understand its goals but not its mechanisms, I’m wary of using it in season contexts, but your use of it here shows that it can contribute to close analysis. I won’t be able to debate you on those grounds in this response. Next life. I’m not sure why run support is particularly relevant when we already know how many “cheap wins” Merritt had (defining that as W’s with 4+ runs allowed). Merritt’s W’s were rarely *the product of* good run support, and that seems to… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
Great post, Doug! (And I’m not just saying that in loving memory of Mark Fidrych and Aurelio Rodriguez.) Like Richard, I was surprised that Gene Bearden didn’t make the list. According to Bill Veeck (yes, I’m reading “Veeck as in Wreck” again), Bearden’s downfall was initiated by Casey Stengel, who had managed him in the PCL the 2 years before Bearden’s breakthrough ’48 season. Casey took over the Yankees in ’49, and told his guys to lay off Bearden’s knuckler until they had 2 strikes, because it usually broke out of the strike zone. Word got around the league, goes… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest

Casey was not affiliated with the Yankees at the time but he was on good terms with Yankee GM George Weiss who had been trying to convince Yankee owners for a couple of years to hire Stengel. After Larry MacPhail quit as owner Weiss convinced Topping and Webb to hire Stengel.

Luis Gomez
Guest

John, now that I know that you are Tigers fan, I’m curious to know what are the Tigers fans’ perception of two of the most beloved players in Mexico’s baseball history: Aurelio Rodriguez and Aurelio Lopez.

Tmckelv
Guest

Lopez has one of my all-time favorite nicknames – Senor Smoke

Tmckelv
Guest

I used to emulate the original A-Rod during wiffle ball games growing up. you catch a grounder at 3rd and wait until the last possible second and whip the ball side-arm as hard as you can to 1st. I think that caused me to blow out my elbow. 🙂

Jim Bouldin
Guest

Aurelio Rodriguez was an absolute joy to watch play 3rd base. Talk about a cannon. Guy had one of the best arms I’ve ever seen. He was the best defensive 3rd baseman I’ve seen, outside of Brooks Robinson, although I admit that were/are other very good ones I saw rarely or not at all.

John Autin
Editor
Luis — Both were very popular with Tigers fans. Aurelio Rodriguez came to us in the big trade in which we dumped the troubled Denny McLain, who had worn out his welcome; in the same deal, we picked up Eddie Brinkman (giving us a slick-fielding, if light-hitting, left side), and Joe Coleman, who averaged 21 wins over the next 3 years and tossed a shutout in the ’72 ALCS when our backs were to the wall. So there was a positive aura around Rodriguez from the start, and while we would have cheered him even harder if he could hit… Read more »
Luis Gomez
Guest

Tmckelc, Jim B., John, Muchas gracias.

As you must know, both Aurelios suffered untimely deaths, Lopez in a car accident, in the state of San Luis Potosi while serving as Mayor of his home town. Here in Mexico he was known as “El buitre” (the voultrum). Rodriguez was killed in Detroit before an Old Timers Tigers reunion. His tomb is located in the Los Mochis stadium (Winter League).

John Autin
Editor

Luis, thanks for sharing that about Lopez & Rodriguez. I only knew a little; I didn’t even know that Lopez had been mayor or was named to the Mexican League HOF.

A lot of people, even Tigers fans, might be surprised to know that the 2nd-best relief WAR in Tigers history (after Hiller ’73) was *not* the MVP/CYA Guillermo Hernandez in ’84, but Aurelio Lopez in ’79, with 5.2 WAR. That mark has been topped just 4 times since then, last by Eichhorn in ’86.

Que en paz descanse, mis estimados amigos.

kds
Guest

Doug, good stuff but some of the numbers don’t add up. Shouldn’t the total in each right hand chart equal the one 6+ WAR season of the left hand chart minus the number of seasons in the table above. The hitters add up to too few, the pitchers too many.

Doug
Guest

The numbers in the chart include players who did not (or do not yet) have 5 year careers. That’s why there are 9 hitters on the list, but the “1 season” pie slice in the right-hand chart is 10, and 14 pitchers on the list and a pie slice of 17.

The totals for all slices in the right hand pie equal the total for the “1 season” slice in the left-hand pie.

Jim Bouldin
Guest

Fidrych’s WAR in 1976 would have been even higher if he had started his first game before mid-May, and I don’t think there’s any question that he would have had continued success for years if he hadn’t hurt his arm. Clearly, guys who sustain a serious injury, which is most likely to happen to pitchers, need to be separated from guys who do not, when labeling them as “one year wonders”, no?

Doug
Guest

To be sure, Jim, there are many reasons for a player’s performance to decline. Perhaps my term is too loaded, and people see it as a label and, especially, as a pejorative. What I was really searching for were players whose play rose far above their norm (hence, a 5-year career requirement) for one glorious season – that’s all. I expected there would be more of them than what I found.

For the other interpretation of one-year wonder, I prefer the term “flash in the pan”. I may follow-up with a piece on those guys.

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