The term career season usually denotes the best of a player’s career. For this post, though, I’m looking at single seasons equal or better than a player’s entire previous career. While such seasons may be fairly common early in a player’s career, they become scarcer as a player ages, so much so that only late bloomers are likely to post such campaigns when approaching or passing age 30. After the jump, more on players having this unusual type of career season.
For this study I considered players who had established themselves as major-leaguers and used 3000 PA and 1000 IP as the qualifying standards. I then picked a minimum age for which this type of career season might be meaningful and settled on age 28. The rationale is that it might be interesting to identify players able to reach qualifying playing time but who nonetheless compiled so little career value that a career season (of the type I’m studying) might be possible. It seems evident that such players must be survivors and be perceived as having value (or potential) to justify their playing time, notwithstanding their modest accomplishments. But, would posting such a career mark the start of a sustained period of improvement, or be just a peak from which descent quickly followed?
For assessing season and career value, I’ve used Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, using offensive WAR for position players (to remove defensive influences on WAR) and pitching WAR for pitchers. To make a career season worth noting, I set a minimum standard of a 2 oWAR (or 2 WAR for pitchers) season matching or exceeding a player’s prior career oWAR or WAR. Here’s what the numbers show for seasons since 1901.
The batters are on the left and pitchers on the right. The number of careers reaching the qualifying standard increases with age as more players reach that threshold. But, those additional players tend be to hangers on as the percentage of players with such careers who record a 2 oWAR or 2 WAR season shows a steady decline. Finally, a very small number of those 2 oWAR or 2 WAR seasons are “career” years, matching or exceeding the player’s previous career oWAR or WAR. Here are those players and seasons, starting with the batters.
- Alfredo Griffin, famous for being plucked out of the stands to replace injured Alan Trammell in the 1984 All-Star game, makes the list with his 1986 season, the best of his career. This was the fourth season in five years that Griffin played every game, so his teams evidently believed he was providing value, presumably defensively, though his Rfield scores don’t support that notion. Griffin finished his career with 6.1 oWAR and 3.0 WAR, both lowest among all modern era players with 7000 PA.
- Chief Wilson makes the list with his famous 1912 season of 36 triples. This was Wilson’s second straight year batting .300 with 50 extra-base hits and 90 RBI. His drop off started the next season and he was done at age 32, possibly surprisingly as he his Rfield scores suggest he was a competent outfielder.
- Jose Guillen‘s 2004 campaign was his lone season as an Angel and second of three straight years with 20 HR, 50 XBH and 75 RBI. Guillen would have two more such seasons later in his career but a declining BA and low walk totals would lead to career end at age 34. For his 5-year peak (age 27-31), Guillen posted a respectable 14.2 WAR, though he enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only player to record 4 seasons or more with 3+ WAR and 8 or more seasons with zero or negative WAR.
- Travis Lee‘s 2003 campaign was his last of three straight years with 40 XBH and 70 RBI, matching the totals he posted in his rookie season. This was the best oWAR season of Lee’s career which ended at age 31 with declines in his last two seasons in all three slash components. Lee is the only player with 300 games played for the expansion cousin Rays and D-Backs.
- Ed Brinkman’s 1970 season was his second straight with 2 oWAR and 3 dWAR, one of twelve players to post those totals in consecutive seasons (Quiz: which modern era player has the most consecutive seasons with those marks?). Brinkman moved to Detroit the next season in the Denny McLain trade, where he remained a solid defender but didn’t approach the offensive totals he posted in his last two seasons in Washington. In addition to McLain, Brinkman was later traded for three other notable players: Nate Colbert, Sonny Siebert and Willie Davis.
- Larry Bowa makes the list twice, at age 28 and age 29, both seasons reaching 175 hits and a .275 BA. Like Brinkman, Bowa was noted for his defense, reaching 15 Rfield three times in his career. Unlike the other players we’ve seen, Bowa hung around for a long time, playing his final game just two months shy of his 40th birthday and posting a 3 WAR season as late as age 37.
- Clete Boyer‘s 1965 season was the first of three straight years topping 2 oWAR, the only such seasons of his career. As with Brinkman and Bowa, Boyer’s value was in his defense, reaching 15 Rfield 6 times in his career and 1.5 dWAR 8 times, both results tied for 3rd most among third baseman. Boyer was traded to the Braves following the 1966 season where, at age 30, he posted his career best totals in HR, RBI and total bases. But, that was his last season with a significant offensive contribution, and his career was over four years later.
- Manny Trillo‘s 1980 season was his first of two straight topping 2 oWAR, the only such seasons of his career. Like several of the other players, Trillo’s value was in his defense as an above average second baseman. Trillo hung around until age 38, though he posted only two qualified seasons in his thirties, the last at age 34.
- Lou Finney‘s 1940 season was easily the best of his career, recording his best qualified marks in all three slash components, while reaching 50 XBH and 70 RBI, both for the only time in his career. With Finney in the Red Sox outfield with Ted Williams, 1940 was the second time in three years that Boston had a pair of outfielders posting qualified .320 batting averages, matching the total of such seasons since. Finney batted .285 each of the next two years, but with declining slugging, and managed to hang around until age 36, mostly on the strength of a respectable but empty BA. At his retirement, Finney’s 2.3 career WAR was second lowest of all players with 5000 PA.
- Terry Pendleton‘s 1991 season was the best of his career, garnering MVP honors as the NL’s top batter in leading the Braves to their first World Series in more than 30 years. Pendleton posted another solid offensive season in 1992, totaling 4.5 WAR as he again led the NL with 199 hits, while topping 100 RBI for the only time in his career. Like many of these players, Pendleton was a defensive whiz, one of fourteen third basemen to reach 10 dWAR before their age 30 season; he continued to be an above average defender for another 6 years, though the 1991 season was his last with 1.0 dWAR.
- Howie Shanks had easily his best season in 1921, topping 100 OPS+ for the only time in his career as he posted his best slash totals, most hits and extra-base hits, and most runs, walks and RBI. He posted decent rate stats the next year in limited playing time in a season frequently interrupted by injury. Washington managed to get great value in trading Shanks to Boston following the 1922 season, landing pitcher Allen Russell, who posted a career best 2.8 WAR the next season, and Muddy Ruel, who would be the Senators’ primary catcher for the next five seasons, totaling 14.7 WAR over that stretch.
- Justin Smoak is the only active player on this list, coming off a 2017 season in which he posted career best totals in pretty much every offensive category and earned his first All-Star selection. Smoak’s career .223 BA before last season was second lowest among all first basemen with 2500 PA thru age 29, while his career .134 BA with the bases loaded is second worst among all players with 75 bases loaded PA. More positively, Smoak’s 38 home runs last year is tied for the second most among players exceeding 20 home runs for the first time when aged 30+. Quiz: which player has the most home runs in such a season?
- Ethan Allen‘s 1930 season was his first of two straight with 190 hits, including 55 XBH and 40 doubles. Those seasons coincided with a move to the Baker Bowl and were also Allen’s two best years in runs, total bases and OPS+. But, Allen’s career petered out quickly after that, totaling only 0.7 WAR over his final three seasons in Chicago and St. Louis.
- Babe Dahlgren‘s 1943 season, his only year in Philadelphia, saw him post his then career best BA that he improved on the next year in Pittsburgh in his only 100 RBI season. Those two seasons and his 1941 campaign with the Cubs netted 7.6 oWAR, compared to -1.5 oWAR over the rest of his career, including his 1939 season with a .235 BA as the Yankee first baseman. Quiz: who is the only first baseman with a lower qualified BA for a WS champion?
So, what conclusions can be drawn from these handful of players? These thoughts come to mind for me:
- Players who compile little career oWAR over their first 3000 PAs very seldom (obviously) have a later season posting significant oWAR. Lowering the qualifying threshold would, of course, add additional players; for example, 2500 PA brings in Jose Bautista‘s 7.3 oWAR age 29 season in 2010, a season and subsequent career quite different from those presented here.
- Those few that do post the career years we’ve looked at here tend to be players valued for their defense. Offensive improvements may aid to some degree in extending careers of these players, but decline in defensive prowess remains the far stronger influence.
- A career year may signal or be part of two or three seasons of improved offense, but a decline to previous offensive norms follows quickly. Frequently, it is a very short journey from career year to career end.
Watch for the next post, focusing on the pitchers posting these career seasons. To whet your appetite, it’s a bit different and more interesting story for moundsmen.