In a belated sequel to my earlier post for batters, this post looks at established pitchers who recorded a different kind of career year: a single season with more WAR than for their entire preceding career. More after the jump.
For this study I considered pitchers who had established themselves as major-leaguers and used 1000 IP as the qualifying standard. 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 pitching WAR statistic. To make a career season worth noting, I set a minimum standard of a 2 WAR season matching or exceeding a player’s prior career WAR. Here’s what the numbers show for seasons since 1901 (I’m also showing equivalent results for batters with a 3000 PA minimum).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 WAR season shows a steady decline. Finally, a very small number of those 2 WAR seasons are “career” years, matching or exceeding the player’s previous career WAR.
- Jack Taylor‘s season was his fourth as a regular in the Cub rotation and is easily distinguished from the first three by his winning record (23-11) and league-leading ERA and WHIP marks. Taylor followed that season with another 20 win campaign, then was shipped to St. Louis to acquire future HOFer Mordecai Brown. Taylor recorded two more 20 win seasons for the Cardinals before being reacquired by Chicago where he posted stellar numbers (12-3, 1.83) in a half-season’s work for the 1906 NL champs in their famous 116-36 campaign. Taylor famously completed just about every game (279 of 287) that he started, including a 5-0 record to begin his career, the best in any debut or rookie season with a CG in every appearance. Quiz: who is the only live ball era pitcher with a better record in such a season, at any point of a career?
- Jimmy Ring‘s season is one of the more mysterious 7 WAR campaigns that you’re likely to find. Nothing really stands out, other than posting a winning record for a team that lost 104 games playing in the Baker Bowl (Ring did record 15 starts of 8+ IP allowing 3 runs or less, and 7 more allowing 4 runs, so that no doubt helped his WAR). Ring followed that season with two decent campaigns (combined 6.7 WAR) before tailing off badly in his last three seasons. Ring was one of three pitchers who. in as many consecutive games of the infamous 1919 WS, recorded a three hit shutout in his post-season debut; no more than one pitcher has recorded such a game in any other post-season series.
- Sad Sam Jones‘s season was the best of his career and came after showing promise in his age 25 season (16-5, 2.25 ERA) but regressing in the next two (25-36, 3.85). But, that one big season was enough to attract the attention of the Yankees who ponied up $100,000 to land Jones in a blockbuster deal with the Red Sox that also included the likes of Bullet Joe Bush, Everett Scott, Rip Collins, Roger Peckinpaugh, and Jack Quinn. Jones would go on to post a very creditable journeyman career of almost 4000 IP, 229 wins and 40.3 WAR, compiling 100+ games and 700+ IP for the Red Sox, Yankees, Senators and White Sox, with his top 4 WAR seasons comprised of one season for each of those clubs.
- Sheriff Blake‘s season was easily the best of his career, with his 2.47 ERA more than one-and-a-half runs better than his career ERA before and after this season. This was Blake’s fourth season as a regular in the Cub rotation, with the right-hander showing steady improvement in each of those campaigns. So, aged only 28 and sporting low miles on the odometer, the Cubs might have held reasonable hope that Blake would continue posting solid seasons for several more years. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be as Blake’s control, never a strong suit, regressed over the next two seasons in tandem with his ERA. After being plucked off waivers, Blake finished the 1931 season with the Phillies. He would toil for 10 more seasons after that, but only one of them in the majors.
- Darryl Kile‘s season was the seventh of his career, all with Houston and each with at least 20 starts and 125 IP. In the last year of his contract and coming off three seasons with a combined 86 ERA+, Kile was probably playing to extend his career and he came through big-time, topping 150 ERA+ with a 19-7 record. Kile parlayed that big year into a big money free agent signing with the Rockies, but found that pitching in Coors Field wasn’t the same as pitching in the Astrodome. After two forgettable years in Denver, Kile was fortunate to be traded to another pitcher-friendly ballpark in St. Louis where he posted his only 20 win season in 2000. Quiz: Since the division series were instituted in 1995, Kile is one of five pitchers to begin his post-season career with two 7+ IP starts allowing two runs or less. Which one of those pitchers accomplished that feat in this century?
- Tom Murphy‘s season was his first as a full-time reliever and would turn out to be the only 2 WAR season of his career. Murphy’s success in this season likely derived from a career best 1.90 ERA that was more that two runs better than any seasonal ERA he would post for the rest of his career. His only comparable result was a 2.17 ERA in his 1968 debut season that included a run of 50.2 consecutive IP without allowing an extra-base hit, the longest such streak by an expansion era rookie pitcher.
- Alex Kellner‘s season featured career best qualified marks for FIP, HR/9 and BB/9, the first two also league-leading results that year. Kellner’s career high 3.6 WAR was twice the 1.8 mark that he posted in his 20-12 rookie season that earned him a runner-up finish in the 1949 RoY vote. Otherwise, Kellner’s career year (11-12, 3.93) looked a lot like the rest of his career (39-40, 4.33) that ended in St. Louis in 1959.
- Joe Oeschger‘s season came in 1920, the year that he famously (and fruitlessly) dueled Leon Cadore for 26 innings (you can rack up a lot of WAR with 26 innings of one-run ball, but I’m not going to begrudge him one iota, despite an unimpressive 87 ERA+ for the season). Oeschger followed up with an even better 1921 season of 20 wins and 4.6 WAR, but he hit the wall after that, totaling -2.3 WAR over almost 500 more innings to end his career.
- Lew Krausse‘s season is one of only 10 in the expansion era with 20 starts, 20 relief appearances and ERA under 3.00. Several of those 10 pitchers (Phil Niekro, Pete Vuckovich, Orel Hershiser, Dean Chance, Stan Williams, Hank Aguirre) would go on to post notable careers, but not Krausse, who posted a 5.15 ERA in only 129.1 IP over the rest of his career. Quiz: which one of those 10 pitchers posted those totals in the past 30 seasons?
- Mike Caldwell‘s season was just his second as a full-time starter in a career that began as a swing-man in 100+ games for the Padres and Giants. Caldwell responded to the opportunity with 22 wins for the Brewers, a league-leading 23 CGs and a runner-up finish in the CYA vote. He posted another solid season the next year before tailing off as he became more vulnerable to the long ball. Still, Caldwell was durable and effective (when he kept the ball in the yard) and could be counted on for 200+ innings every year; he stands second in Brewer franchise wins and IP, behind only teammate Jim Slaton.
- Joaquin Andujar‘s season featured career best marks in WAR, ERA, WHIP and BB/9, reflective of control that had eluded him as an Astro earlier in his career, but which he suddenly found in St. Louis. Andujar regressed his next season, but came back with two 20 win seasons, the second leading the Redbirds to an NL pennant. He posted one more decent season in Oakland before returning to Houston to close out his career.
- Steve Blass‘s season, like Andujar’s, feautured career bests in WAR, ERA, WHIP and BB/9. Blass extended his stellar performance into the 1971 post-season, rebounding from an ugly outing in the NLCS to record a pair of one run CG wins in the WS, in game 3 with his Bucs down 2-0 in the series, and in the deciding game 7 to best the defending world champion Orioles. Blass matched his best WAR total again in 1972 before the wheels came off his career the next season as he suddenly could no longer find the plate, recording the lowest SO/BB ratio (min. 60 IP) in franchise history.
- Glendon Rusch‘s season was his first with the Cubs, landing there after a 3-team, 11-player trade. Rusch had hit rock bottom the year before (1-12, 6.42), relegating him to the bullpen for the first time in his career, so a change of scenery was probably welcome. Used as a swing-man in Chicago, Rusch recorded two decent seasons before finishing up in his career in San Diego and Colorado.
- Harry McIntire‘s season featured 20 losses and an 87 ERA+, but 288 IP allowed him to collect a career best 3.0 WAR. His next two seasons, the latter with the Cubs where he finished his career, featured qualified ERA+ under 95 despite WHIP below 1.30 and H/9 under 8.0, one of only 5 pitchers with a pair of such seasons. Quiz: which one of those five recorded those seasons in the live ball era?.
- Dan Spillner makes the list twice, at age 29 and 30, the first the more remarkable for coming in the strike-shortened 1981 season (that said, it was a minimally qualifying 2.0 WAR season). The second season was the real career year, with 4.4 WAR from a 2.49 ERA in 133.2 IP over 65 relief appearances. But, that was about it for Spillner’s career, as he totaled only 1.5 WAR over his last four seasons. Quiz: who is the only pitcher this century with a season averaging 2 IP per 50+ relief appearances?
- Max Butcher‘s season marked the start of a career renaissance for the big right-hander, posting a 123 ERA+ starting in his age 30 season compared to only 86 thru age 29. Unsurprisingly, Butcher is the only modern era pitcher to post ERA+ under 90 thru age 29 and ERA+ of 120 or better aged 30+, in 800+ IP for both periods.
- Edinson Volquez posted an outstanding rookie season (17-6, 3.21) at age 24, then regressed to only 75 ERA+ over his next 5 seasons. His age 30 career year (2.6 WAR) was followed by an almost identical age 31 season, but his next two years looked like his age 25-29 seasons, likely why he is still waiting for the phone to ring this year. Volquez (2015) and Andy Pettitte (2000) are the only starters with a pair of World Series NDs, each with 6+ IP allowing 3 runs or less, that supported game and series wins.
- Mike Scott‘s season was a monster year that garnered the Astro right-hander a CYA win on the strength of majors-leading results for IP, SO, ERA, FIP, H/9, SO/9 and SO/BB. This was the second season in Scott’s career peak that netted over 25 WAR for ages 30-35, one of 54 such pitchers all time. Of that group, only Scott recorded more WAR aged 30-35 than he did for his entire career.
- Ryan Dempster was a failed starter (85 ERA+ in almost 1000 IP thru age 26) who switched to relief for four seasons with middling results (one good year as a closer in 2005, and the next two with inconsistent results, the first struggling in save situations and the second in non-save situations). Dempster’s career year was his first in his return to the rotation as he posted career bests as a starter in Wins, W-L%, ERA, ERA+ and H/9. Like Max Butcher in the age 30 group, Dempster’s career year was the start of a late career renaissance with 110 ERA+ for age 31+, compared to 89 ERA+ thru age 30, in 1000+ IP in both periods.
- Flint Rhem‘s career looks something like that of Edinson Volquez in the age 30 group, with one solid early season (20-7, 3.21 at age 25), then regression over his next two years leading to a demotion to the minors at age 28. He was better when he returned to the bigs at age 29, but not by a lot. Rhem’s career year at age 31 looked, on the surface, a lot like the year before, but WAR liked it better, likely because St. Louis sold him to the Phillies early that season. But, the Baker Bowl took its revenge, as Rhem posted dreadful results the next year, with -3.1 WAR in only 125 IP to close out his time in Philadelphia, before splitting his last two seasons between the Braves and Cards.
- Frank Castillo‘s career year came after a season in the minors that followed a 6,83 ERA for Detroit in 1998, the third highest ERA by a Tiger in a 100+ IP season (the four highest such ERAs are all from the 1995 to 1999 seasons). Before that, Castillo had posted mostly weak results for the Cubs with one notably good year (3.6 WAR at age 26). Castillo’s career year came in limited innings with the Blue Jays and was followed by similar totals in another tough pitcher’s park in Boston. The Red Sox increased his workload the next season, but with disappointing results as Castillo’s 6-15 record placed him among the franchise’s ten worst qualified seasons in W-L%, with his 5.07 ERA the worst of those unsuccessful seasons.