Out-Of-Character Season: National League Central

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Baseball's a funny game: robotically consistent in some cases, random and adventitious in others. Sometimes, a player comes out of nowhere — or, at least, seemingly nowhere — and has a season no one could have anticipated. These are the stories of those players.

Milwaukee BrewersBill Hall

Names like Derrick Turnbow and Dan Kolb consistently come up as once-dominant closers whose hot streaks ended so abruptly that many fans still have whiplash. Fernando Vina's 1998 season saw him set career highs for hits (198), runs (101), doubles (39), stolen bases (22), and walks (54) and was sandwiched between two years where he was off the field more often than on. Looking back further, Tommy Harper was a 30/30 hitter in 1970 and never had an OPS over .800 again.

With that said, when you're talking about unlikely Brewer seasons, one name has to rise above the rest: Bill Hall.

Hall was a career .265/.310/.442 hitter in something of a super-sub role at the start of the 2006 season, when his power suddenly blossomed. He crushed 35 home runs that year, the tenth most in the National League; it was the only time he's ever had more than 18. He also blew away what would otherwise have been his career highs for runs scored (101 to 69), RBI (85 to 63), and walks (63 to 40). It was only his age 26 season, so there was a lot of optimism surrounding his future.

The Brewers, faced with the possibility of having a young breakout star under team control for a long time, bought high on Hall and signed him to a four-year contract extension after the season. They also made a curious decision to play him every day in center field despite the fact that he had played just seven major league games out there.

At first the move to center was blamed for Hall's offensive downturn, but even after returning to the infield he couldn't replicate anything approaching his 2006 production levels. Hall hit .229/.291/.391 over the first three years of his new deal and Milwaukee was forced to eat most of the last year-and-a-half of the contract when they gave him away to the Mariners in August of 2009.

Since his remarkable 2006 campaign Hall has been a .231/.295/.396 hitter as a member of six teams. He's been traded twice, released by the Astros, and opted out of a minor league deal with the Yankees. He appeared in seven games as a member of the 2012 Orioles, and is a free agent this winter.

—Kyle Lobner

For more Brewers coverage, please visit SB Nation's Brew Crew Ball.


St. Louis CardinalsWoody Williams

At his best, Dave Duncan — the high priest of the Cardinals' ground ball cult — generated out-of-character seasons from thirty-something junk-ball pitchers once or twice a year. But the really preposterous one stretched out over parts of three seasons, and it involved turning Woody Williams, a 34-year-old with a career record of 58-62, into Greg Maddux.

When the Cardinals traded for him, in August 2001, Woody Williams had allowed 28 home runs in his previous 145 innings; in his first start with the team, he threw six scoreless. From that moment until June 2003, when the spell finally wore off, he was 24-6 with an ERA of 2.28 over 40 starts.

What was most mystifying about Dave Duncan's collection of one-hit wonders was that the secret coaching he's supposed to have given them, by the time it got through the broadcasters to Cardinals fans, was rarely more complex than, "Start throwing the ball into the strike zone, instead of out of it," or, "You should make it so that he hits the ball, but not very hard. That way, someone will catch it."

And while that might make most people skeptical of his wizardry, that rudimentary advice does an excellent job of describing what a pitcher in the midst of a Dave Duncan Season looks like. His 88-mile-an-hour fastball — they all had 88-mile-an-hour fastballs — doesn't get any faster, or sneakier. His command doesn't look any better. He just throws that 88-mile-an-hour fastball right into the hitter's bat, somewhere in the bottom half of the strike zone, over and over. Two hours pass and he's allowed nine hits, struck out one batter, and allowed two runs.

Some of Duncan's protégés had purer Duncan seasons — Joel Pineiro's 2009 was the perfect No True Outcomes year — but none of them were as effective as Woody Williams. At the height of his powers, which didn't look like powers at all, he was the most unhittable hittable pitcher in baseball.

—Dan Moore

For more Cardinals coverage, please visit SB Nation's Viva El Birdos.


Chicago Cubs — Rick Wilkins

In this corner, stat line number one:

149 G, 547 AB, 81 R, 174 H, 24 2B, 35 HR, 112 RBI, .318/.370/.561

In the other corner, stat line number two:

136 G, 446 AB, 78 R, 135 H, 23 2B, 30 HR, 73 RBI, .303/.376/.561

Now, you're probably thinking: Those could be two different seasons from the same player, or two seasons from future Hall of Famers, or...

I'll skip the suspense. Line 1 was posted by Mike Piazza in 1993. Piazza had one of the greatest careers for a catcher in major league history; he had a really good chance to be elected to the Hall Of Fame this winter. Line 2 could be another season in Piazza's career — he had seven or eight others much like it, or better — but it's not.

Line 2 was posted by the Cubs' Rick Wilkins, also in 1993. Piazza won the National League Rookie of the Year award that year; Wilkins wasn't a rookie, having posted nearly 500 at-bats in the two previous seasons, but there were some who were comparing the two as possible perennial All-Stars after the 1993 season.

Instead, Wilkins barely hit that many home runs over the next eight seasons combined; he fell from that .937 OPS in 1993 (he ranked third in the NL) to .227/.317/.387 with just seven home runs in 1994. After starting out even worse for the Cubs in 1995 — .191/.340/.315 — he was dumped on the Astros in a trade that actually landed on the positive side of the ledger for the Cubs. They acquired Scott Servais (who was the starting catcher on their 1998 NL Wild Card club) and Luis Gonzalez, who put up two decent years in Chicago before departing as a free agent.

But those 30 home runs — wow. Wilkins is one of just two Cubs catchers to ever hit that many in a season (Gabby Hartnett, who hit 37 in 1930, is the other). They included an 11th-inning walk-off grand slam August 30 against the Phillies, and a week later, also against the Phillies in Philadelphia, an inside-the-park job. Cubs fans hoped that they had found a starting catcher for years to come; instead, they got was not only what is likely the biggest fluke season in Cubs history, but one of the flukiest in the history of baseball.

—Al Yellon

For more Cubs coverage, please visit SB Nation's Bleed Cubbie Blue.


Cincinnati Reds — Pete Schourek

I’m not sure what you think of when you think of Pete Schourek. If you’re a Mets fan over the age of 30 or so, you may remember him from such roles as “well-regarded prospect who overcame Tommy John surgery early in his pro career." If you’re almost any other team, you might have a foggy notion of him. If you’re a fan of the Reds, he’s the closest to smelling a Cy Young award your team has had in almost 25 years.

Schourek had just one season in his career in which he was better than league average and threw more than 136 innings. That was his 1995 campaign as a Red, in which he went 190 strong, won 18 games, and finished second in Cy Young voting to Greg Maddux. That season, he racked up twice as much bWAR as his next best season and set career marks in K/9 and BB/9. He also struck out 70 more batters and won 10 more games than his next best seasons.

Following his 1995 season, Schourek started Opening Day in Cincinnati — an occasion that’s essentially a local holiday. After seven pitches, home plate umpire John McSherry collapsed and was later pronounced dead. Schourek ended up a trivial footnote to that terrible day.

“Cy” Schourek went on to wear five different numbers for six different teams in a major league career that was contained mostly to the 1990s. But he was able to bottle up good health and a prime year for one sweet summer, which is why we haven’t forgotten Schourek. This was the same year Barry Larkin won his MVP award and the last time the Reds won a playoff series. There's a reason we're stuck in the mid-90s.

—Josh Shreve

For more Reds coverage, please visit SB Nation's Red Reporter.


Pittsburgh PiratesJose Bautista

I have to admit, this was a tough assignment. A few days after the Pirates clinched their 14th-straight losing season in 2006, I banged my head against a wall when Jeromy Burnitz failed to run out a grounder, and I'd been in a coma until I woke up 20 minutes ago. So I was pretty surprised when I trudged over to my Dell Optiplex GX1, logged into Eudora, and saw an email asking me to write about an out-of-character season by a Pirate. "Well, that's easy enough," I thought, and I hopped on Baseball-Reference.com. I don't know what was going on, but my internet was super-slow. It was worse than the Devil Rays, know what I mean? So I couldn't click on many pages. Snakes on a plane, dude.

But anyway, the good news is that I found an out-of-character season really fast! And, I mean, wow! When I bashed myself into oblivion, Jose Bautista was just a super-utility player without any real utility — he couldn't field at any position, he couldn't hit for average, and all he really had to recommend him was a little bit of power and a willingness to take a walk.

But in 2010, he hit 54 home runs?! Jim Tracy for Manager of the Year, am I right? He and Jeff Manto must have finally helped Bautista adjust the timing of his swing and realize his power potential. And I doubt even they suspected he had that much power in him. The Pirates certainly never got luck like this when I was awake! With Tom Gorzelanny, Nate McLouth, Ronny Paulino, Chris Duffy, and a 54-home-run hitter, the Pirates surely snapped their streak of losing seasons long before it hit 20. And I mean, thank goodness, because if that hadn't happened, I'm sure Pirates bloggers would probably be writing all kinds of fantastical crap, purely out of self defense.

All right, well, I'd look into this a little more closely, but no one's going to notice this anyway. I mean, SB Nation is just a handful of amateurs who have like 15 blogs. Who cares? Their email to me came from a "baseball editor," which is adorable. And anyway, I've got like eight seasons of The O.C. to catch up on, so it's off to the DVD section of Tower Records! Later!

—Charlie Wilmoth

For more Pirates coverage, please visit SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.

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