New York Yankees — 1941 First Basemen
The Yankees are the team of slugging first basemen. Think Lou Gehrig, Moose Skowron, Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira. Even the unjustly maligned Wally Pipp won a home run title. In 1941, the Yankees were still reeling from Gehrig’s unexpected retirement two years before and were casting about for a long-term solution at the position. The team had a glut at second base, with a veteran star, Joe Gordon, and a top prospect named Gerry Priddy. Manager Joe McCarthy figured that Gordon hit nearly well enough for a first baseman, and maybe the Priddy kid would do enough at second to make up for whatever was missing.
This move proved to be a disaster. Priddy would turn out to be a very good player at times in the future, but he slumped badly in his first major league trial and Gordon had to be returned to the keystone. McCarthy went to another rookie to take over at first, the 25-year-old Johnny Sturm. Sturm kinda-sorta hit at first, averaging .282/.340/.348 through the end of June, along with one home run. The team took off, though, and McCarthy seemed to associate that with Sturm to the point that he was willing to double down on the rookie, apparently looking at him and thinking, “He hits like a leadoff hitter, so might as well use him that way.”
Sturm spent the rest of the year batting at the top of the order, even though his bat died – permanently, as it turned out – at the end of June. He hit a pitiful .216/.267/.274 the rest of the way. Of course, it was the Yankees in Joe DiMaggio’s big year, so they won the World Series in spite of Sturm’s miserable .239/.293/.300 final line. World War II then swept Sturm away. When he returned in 1946, the Yankees parked him in their farm system and forgot about him. The Yankees probably haven’t had a worse season from a first baseman, and certainly didn’t have one nearly as bad until (and it is painful to say this) Don Mattingly’s back led him to hit .256/.308/.335 in 1990.
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Boston Red Sox — Wade Boggs
Wade Boggs was one of the greatest contact hitters of all time, riding his career .328 batting average to twelve All-Star Games and the Hall of Fame. He was also an extremely patient hitter, walking in 13.1% of his plate appearances and leading the league in on-base percentage six times. One thing Wade Boggs was not, however, was a home run threat. He averaged eight home runs a year and reached double-digit home runs just two times. This makes his 1987 season, where he hit 24 home runs, one of the most uncharacteristic seasons of all time.
In 1987, Boggs was 29 years old, a veteran of five seasons, and in the prime of his incredible career. He had led the league in batting average and on-base percentage two years running and helped carry the 1986 Boston Red Sox all the way to the World Series, but he had never hit more than eight home runs in a season. Boggs had an extreme opposite-field approach that was very effective at producing singles and doubles, but it made dingers a rarity. Before the 1987 season, Boggs said that he was going to focus more on hitting home runs. He then proceeded to triple his previous career high.
He blasted seventeen home runs before the All-Star game and finished the season with 24, thirteen more than he would hit in any other season in his career. His newfound power did not come at the expense of contact or patience, either. He won the American League batting title with his .363 average, drew 105 walks, and once again led the league in on-base percentage. He also hit forty doubles, the second highest total in the league. In every other respect, it was a typical season for the Red Sox' star third baseman.
If Boggs’s power surge was the result a new focus on hitting home runs, he quickly abandoned that strategy. He hit just five home runs in 1988 and only three in 1989. This spike in home run production is among the most drastic in baseball history, even more extreme than the famous case of Brady Anderson’s fifty home run season in 1996. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that a livelier baseball was actually the main cause of this surprising outburst, rather than Boggs’s new approach. Home runs in both leagues spiked sharply in 1987. The American League saw a 15% rise in home runs from 1986 to 1987 and the National League saw almost a 20% rise. At some point in the 1987 season, the lively balls were supposedly eliminated and home run production dipped 28% in the AL and 30% in the NL. Aside from Boggs, ten other American League players reached career highs in home runs that season.
Whatever the cause, Wade Boggs’s 1987 season is an outlier on his stat sheet and one of the strangest seasons any player has ever had.
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Toronto Blue Jays — John Olerud
The most out of character season for a Blue Jay? There was a moment in time when I worried that would describe Jose Bautista's 2010 season: 54 home runs from a guy that had never hit more than 16 in a season before? Thankfully, Jose has shown that is his new level of ability. Then there's Roy Halladay, who threw a one-hitter in his second career start, went 8-7 with a 3.92 ERA the next year, but went on to post a 10.64 ERA in 2000, buying him a ticket all the way back to A-Ball.
Let's look instead at John Olerud. John came up to the Jays in 1990 as a decent-hitting first baseman who got on base fairly well. He hit .265/.364/.430 as a rookie, good enough for fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year vote. His next couple of seasons were much the same, with OPS marks of .791 and .825, solid numbers but nothing that'll earmark a spot for you at Cooperstown.
Then, in 1993, everything broke right for Olerud. He flirted with the .400 mark for most of the season. On August 27 he was still hitting .391. He slumped a bit in September, but he finished with a .363/.473/.599 line, 200 hits, 24 home runs, 54 doubles, 107 RBI, and 114 walks, helping the Jays win their second straight World Series.
After that, he fell back to the .800s in OPS, for the next eight of the next nine seasons. He did keep he on-base percentages around the .390 mark. His oWAR, by season, for his time with the Jays read: 1.4, 1.6, 3.1, 7.4, 2.9, 1.9, and 2.3. Any child raised on Sesame Street could tell you which number just doesn't belong here.
There were some mitigating circumstances, however. Manager Cito Gaston wasn't a big fan of Olerud's. He would have preferred John to be a little (okay, a lot) more aggressive at the plate. Cito likes batters to look for a pitch to pull and to turn on it. That works well with some batters — Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion spring to mind — but some batters do better waiting for their pitch but taking a walk if offered.
By the 1996 season, Joe Carter was getting a little too slow to play in the outfield and Cito, for reasons that defy logic, preferred Carter at first base over Olerud and told GM Gord 'Spineless' Ash to trade Johnny after that season. The best Gord could do was to move Olerud to the Mets for someone named Robert Person. Person was, for lack of a better term, a pitcher. In three seasons with the Jays, Person posted a 6.18 ERA in 177 innings.
Away from Cito's influence, Olerud put up oWARs of 3.8, 7.3, and 5.4 in his three seasons with the Mets before moving on to Seattle. For comparison's sake, Joe Carter posted oWARs of -0.8, -0.4, and 0.4 over the same seasons. Cito wasn't always the best judge of talent.
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Baltimore Orioles — Melvin Mora
Casting back into recent Orioles memory, the most surprising season turned in was that of Melvin Mora in 2004. In a lot of ways, Mora is the player most representative of the 2000s for Orioles fans. That's not necessarily a good thing, given the fate of those teams. He was acquired from the Mets for Mike Bordick in 2000, and at the time his playoff experience (a 1.143 OPS in the 1999 ALCS) was touted. Some year around 2001, his name was featured in a “let the kids play” advertising campaign. He was 29 at the time. But Mora was also a family man, a father of quintuplets, a presence on some bad teams – 1,256 games worth of presence over ten seasons.
When there's nobody better around, you can root for a guy like that even when he's batting .233/.338/.404, which he did in 2002 as the O's stumbled their way to a 67-95 record. He always seemed to have a sad look on his face, which is also quite fitting for the 2000s Orioles teams for which he played.
As the 2004 season rolled around, Mora finally found himself with a steady position: third base. He had been an outfielder before that, but that offseason, the big-name (sorta) free-agent signings of Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, and Javy Lopez put the roster in a place such that Mora didn't have to keep bouncing around the diamond. Mora – or Melmo, as we liked to call him in Baltimore – had neither the pedigree nor the big contract, but he turned in the best offensive season out of everyone on the team that year.
It was a career year at age 32 for the Venezuelan, perhaps not surprising for a late-bloomer who did not debut in MLB until he was already 27. He had a cool .981 OPS, leading the American League with an on-base percentage of .419 while batting .340 – itself good for second in the AL. 27 home runs and 41 doubles made up his power, and he both scored and drove in over a hundred runs. Improbably, Melvin Mora was one of the best hitters in the league that year.
Much more in-character for the Orioles, that successful season was ultimately parlayed into an absurd contract extension before Mora became a free agent, paying him way too much money for way too many years into his 30s. $8 million to put up a .679 OPS, as he did in 2009, his last season in Baltimore, is great work if you can get it. Sadly, that's the Melmo that's freshest in everyone's memory.
In a career full of decent years on bad teams, Mora's great 2004 stands out. The vast majority of baseball players would like to be able to hang their hat on a season like that. What analysts might call a year of fluke success is better than no success at all.
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Tampa Bay Rays — Carlos Pena
At the time, the 2007 season was a breath of fresh air for long-time Devil Rays fans. Yes, the team lost 96 games and finished in last in the AL East for the ninth time in ten tries. Yes, the team was still a hot mess, with Casey Fossum, Jae Seo, and then-starter J.P. Howell combining for 30 games started and a 7.79 ERA. And, yes, one of the most memorable moments of the season involved Jonny Gomes and a sombrero.
But still, if you were watching closely enough, there was the faint glimmer of hope. For the first time in, erm, ever, the Devil Rays had a legitimate front of the rotation in Scott Kazmir and James Shields. B.J. Upton flourished in his first full big league season, and Aki Iwamura proved to be a valuable infield addition at a bargain price. And, most importantly, Carlos Pena hit 46 home runs and had a .431 wOBA — good enough to make him the fourth best hitter in the majors that season.
Going into the 2007 season, Carlos Pena was a mere afterthought on an afterthought of a team. He was signed by the Devil Rays to a minor league deal in early February, a few weeks before spring training began, as insurance in case of injuries. He performed poorly enough in the spring to be initially sent down to the minors, but a last-minute knee injury to Greg Norton got him called up to the majors. Expectations were low, so, of course, Pena then proceeded to have the best offensive season in Rays franchise history.
It's difficult to call the 2007 season "out of character" for Pena, because in many ways, he was the same player in that season that he's been every year of his career. He struck out a ton, walked a bunch, and hit for a boatload of power. The only difference was that Pena was performing at the absolute peak for himself. He never hit for quite that much power again with the Rays, and his strikeout rate climbed higher and higher in the seasons that followed. Pena always had the potential to break out like he did in 2007; it's just rare for a player to do so in such a dramatic fashion.
Pena's time with the Rays is likely over now, but he gave the Rays' fanbase a much needed dose of hope and enthusiasm in 2007. It may have been an unlikely, odds-defying season, but, hey, the Devil Rays were surely due for a break.
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