It may seem dumb in hindsight, but 2004 began as a hopeful season for the D’Backs. If newly acquired Richie Sexson stayed healthy, he would add 40 home runs to the lineup (oops). If Casey Fossum, acquired for Curt Schilling from the Red Sox, lived up to his potential, the rotation would be solid (double oops). But one of the brightest hopes for that season was Brandon Webb.Webb came off a great rookie season in 2003 where he finished third behind Dontrelle Willis and Scott Podsednik for NL Rookie of the Year. I am still bitter about that.
Brandon Webb, before he spent 2009 onward being thiiiiiis close to throwing off the mound again, was the Alpha and the Omega of sinkerballers during his all too brief career, but in 2004 he lost control of his sinker to the point that if his sinker was a Division I athletic program, it would have been SMU in the 80s. He walked 119 batters, which is just short of double his next highest number of walks in a season. Webb threw a not-insignificant 17 wild pitches, and had a WHIP of 1.51.
Webb’s 2004 definitely falls under the "sophomore slump" umbrella, considering the rest of his career, and it probably was a mechanical hitch or something similar that kept him from hitting the strike zone with regularity, but between 2004 and 2005 the front office for the D’Backs went into a knee-jerk spending spree. "Hey Russ Ortiz, here’s a pile of money that you definitely do not deserve!" "Hey Troy Glaus, here’s a long contract that we will totally not trade away later in 2005!" "Hey Javier Vazquez, we totally traded for you and you have said on multiple occasions that you don’t want to be here but… hey look at the shiny thing!"
I’m not saying Webb’s control problems were the main cause of this—the whole team was a smoldering pile of wreckage in 2004—but one might wonder if Webb had performed around the level of his rookie season, the team might not have thrown money into the Russ Ortiz furnace. Webb found his mojo in the next few seasons, won a Cy Young in 2006, and retired after the first game of the 2009 season so he could colonize Alpha Centauri for the betterment of mankind. You can’t convince me that wasn’t what happened.
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Colorado Rockies — Marvin Freeman
The year 1994 is remembered in MLB mostly as the strike year, where the season was brought to an abrupt close in mid-August after just 117 games. In Colorado, it was the Rockies’ second season as a franchise—and the final year in which they played at the old Mile High Stadium before moving to Coors Field. It was also the year that Marvin Freeman finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting.
Before coming over to the Rockies in October 1993, the 31-year-old Freeman—whose 6’7", 180-pound frame earned him the nickname "Starvin’ Marvin"—was at best a journeyman right-handed middle reliever. After breaking into the big leagues with the Phillies as a young starter and putting up a 6.27 ERA in his first significant action, Freeman was banished to the bullpen for the next several years for the Phillies and Braves. In 1993, a 30-year-old Freeman threw 23 innings of 6.08 ERA ball in relief and was released.
The Rockies scooped up Freeman a few days later, and when one of their incumbent starters suffered an injury, Freeman was able to win a spot in the starting rotation despite not having started since 1990. And in a ballpark that had a park factor of 118 in the two years Colorado played there, Starvin Marvin was a boss.
Specifically, Freeman was 10–2 with a 2.80 ERA (still a franchise record), 179 ERA+ (ditto), and 1.21 WHIP (2nd best) over 112 innings pitched. In Mile High Stadium he was 5–0 with a 2.98 ERA! This on a team whose ERA overall was 5.15 and whose home ERA was 5.77. All this was possible because his excellent control (1.8 BB/9) masked his poor strikeout rate (5.4 K/9). Freeman finished tied for a distant 4th—behind unanimous winner Greg Maddux—in the NL Cy Young balloting.
That season was worth 4.4 bWAR, an exceptional total given the low number of innings pitched. Again, this was a 31-year-old pitcher who had a career 0.5 bWAR entering 1994. It was so completely out of character, especially for a Rockies team that played its home games in the most extreme hitting environment in baseball, that of course it never happened again.
After the strike, Freeman lasted just two more years marred by injury and ineffectiveness in baseball, starting another 42 games… but he’ll always have that 1994 season to hang his hat on.
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Shawn Estes was almost a 20-game winner during the beginning of his (likely) Hall of Fame career. Rich Aurilia hit 37 home runs in 2001, and then he hit 34 over the next three seasons. Kevin Mitchell won the 1989 MVP by hitting 47 homers—six more than he’d hit for his entire career to that point.
But while those were out-of-character seasons, they don’t completely flummox people years later. Estes was a top prospect, Aurilia was a shortstop with power before his breakout season, and he was a shortstop with power after it, and Kevin Mitchell kept doing beastly things when he was healthy.
The out-of-character season to end all of them in Giants lore, though, was Andres Torres. After decades in San Francisco without a championship, the Giants won the World Series because of a 32-year-old minor league free agent who couldn’t even get a break with the Cubs after a decent Triple-A season in 2008. In 258 at-bats in the majors before joining the Giants, Torres had a .534 OPS. He had the third-worst OPS of any player with more than 150 at-bats … on the 2003 Detroit Tigers.
In 2010, though, he was amazing, electric. He stole 26 bases and hit 16 home runs. He played the best defensive center field for the Giants since at least Darren Lewis. Maybe since Willie Mays. He was a switch-hitting dynamo at the top of the order, something the Giants would have paid $100 million for if there was someone like that available at the same time they signed Barry Zito.
And then, poof, he disappeared as quickly as he arrived. He turned back into a low-contact, low-power, high-intensity guy who was probably overextended as a starter, which should have been his ceiling in the first place.
For one season, though, he was exactly what the Giants needed, exactly when they needed it. If the Giants had Andrew McCutchen or Torii Hunter—vastly superior players—playing center in 2010, they might not have won the NL West. Instead, they had the freakiest season of Andres Torres’s, or anyone else’s, career.
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Izturis through 2012 has hit .255/.294/.323—good for a 64 OPS+—and only once in his 12 seasons has he eclipsed even a 73 OPS+. That came in 2004, when Izturis was the leadoff hitter for the National League West winning Dodgers. In 2004 he hit .288/.330/.381, and while his 88 OPS+ seems rather ordinary, it is miles ahead of the rest of his career.
The 193 hits by Izturis that year were the fourth-most by a switch hitter in Dodgers history, and 53 more than he had in any other season in his career. His 32 doubles were eight more than in any other year, and his four home runs were more than any two-year stretch of his career.
No matter the preferred version of Wins Above Replacement, the bulk of Izturis’s career value came in that one season. In 2004, he had 4.0 of his 5.6 fWAR and 3.6 of his 4.5 bWAR.
Izturis wasn’t exactly the second coming of Maury Wills, but his 2004 season showed marked improvement and Dodgers fans had reason to be excited about the 24-year-old glove specialist.
Izturis kept it going with the bat in 2005, at least for a while. Through the first 52 games of the season he was hitting .345/.392/.426 and parlayed that strong start into his only All-Star Game appearance. But from there Izturis hit just .197/.242/.265 in his final 86 games as a Dodger and was shipped off to Chicago for Greg Maddux at the trade deadline in 2006.
But that 2004 season by Izturis will always stand out to Dodgers fans.
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San Diego Padres — Cito Gaston
With all due recognition to Bob Miller’s 1971 and Phil Plantier’s 1993, Cito Gaston’s 1970 was the most out-of-character season put up by a member of the Padres. He set personal highs across the board in virtually any statistic you can imagine, be it counting or rate, archaic or advanced.
Outside of 1970, Gaston was at best a slightly below replacement level center fielder—the kind of guy lousy teams put out there because the rules say you have to have nine men in the lineup. In his other ten seasons he never approached any facet of that year’s .318/.364/.543 slash line or his 146 OPS+; the only other season he surpassed 100 was a 147 plate appearance campaign with Atlanta in 1976. The 29 home runs he hit in his only All-Star season were an even dozen more than his second-highest total and his .318 batting average was sandwiched between marks of .230 and .228.
Gaston’s breakthrough season was mystifying at the time as it followed an atrocious rookie season with the inaugural Padres. Between his slash line of .230/.275/.309, his OPS+ of 67, and his scant pair of home runs over 419 plate appearances, nothing indicated what was to come. The confusion was compounded as Gaston regressed drastically in all departments in 1971. He continued putting up underwhelming numbers and by 1974 he had played his way out of an everyday job; he would have been benched years earlier on a better team. 1975 brought a new role in old surroundings—Gaston was traded back to Atlanta and was used primarily as a pinch hitter during his final four seasons.
After his playing days wound down, Cito turned to coaching at the urging of his old friend Hank Aaron. He spent the meat of the ’80s as Toronto’s hitting coach until getting bumped up to skipper, winning a pair of rings, and cementing a new legacy for himself. So, if Phil Plantier wants to be remembered for more than 1993, that’s what he needs to do.
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