Monday, September 27, 2004

1994 Career Years

Doing research for a different project that should be ready some time this week, I noticed that Paul O'Neil was having a massive career year in 1994. When the strike aborted the season on August 12, 1994, O'Neil was hitting .359/.460/.603, good for a .354 EqA. O'Neil was a very good player for a long time, but that was O'Neil's only season with an EqA above .305. Moreover, Baseball Prospectus' rate stats indicate that O'Neil had his best season in the field, with a Rate2 of 110, his career high. O'Neil's season was good for 10.5 WARP3, which calculates wins contributed above a replacement player adjusted for season length and historical competition levels. But since BP only adjusts for (162/season-length)*2/3 (to account for skewing the totals for players from 19th century short seasons), that total is artificially low if used as a pro-rating comparison, so O'Neil arguably should be credited with 12.5 Wins Above Replacement using WARP3. His second-highest single-season WARP3 was 9.7. 12.5 is pretty darned good; Barry Bonds only topped that total three times before he became super-human in 2001, and twice his total was "only" 12.6.

What would Paul O'Neil's season look like if he'd kept up that level of play and the strike hadn't occurred? The Davenport Translations, which adjust for park and era, have O'Neil belting 34 home runs and 32 doubles, driving in 108 runs, and putting up a .369/.468/.641 line (good for a .360 EqA). How did O'Neil accomplish that? Well, the .369 batting average should be a bit of a tip-off that he perhaps had good luck with balls in play. He had a .376 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 1994, well above his career .306 mark. That was only part of it, though, as he had his third best AB/2B year, his second best AB/K year, his best PA/BB year, and his best AB/HR year by a longshot. He was probably helped by the small sample size and perhaps he would have slumped a bit in September as he typically had to that point in his career, but he almost certainly would have had his hands-down career year had the season continued.

Who else had career years in 1994 that were cut short? The one you probably know about is Matt Williams, who had a decent shot at breaking Roger Maris' then-record for home runs in a single season. Using the same adjustment as with Paul O'Neil, Williams' WARP3 should perhaps have been 10.8 when adjusted for full season-length.That would best his 1993 career best of 9.4, but that should be taken with a pinch of pepper since Williams had played 112 of SF's 115 games to that point and it probably would have been a struggle to keep him in the lineup that frequently without a decline in his productivity. If you're familiar with the WARP scale, that 10.8 figure probably strikes you as too low for someone on pace to tie Maris. Well, Williams wasn't much for getting on-base. His OBP in 1994 was .319, only slightly better than his career .317 OBP. Between his above average whiff rate and his below average walk rate, his actual value probably was less than his perceived value.

Frank Thomas was in the middle of an historic season when the strike began. He was hitting .353/.487/.729, all career highs, with a .379 EqA and 38 home runs. His full-season adjusted WARP3 amounts to 13.2, easily a career high.Offensively, this was Frank Thomas' best year, but defensively it was his career lowpoint, a pretty remarkable accomplishment for a fielder as unaccomplished as Thomas. His EqA adjusted for all time was .397, which tops every season of Ted Williams' career except his magical 1941, every season of Babe Ruth's career except his first with the Yankees, and every pre-2001 season of Barry Bonds' career (have you heard? Bonds has been pretty good lately). Thomas' season, like O'Neil's and Williams', was fueled by a career high in AB/HR. He also had his second best year for doubles power and for PA/BB. He also benefited from a higher than normal BABIP, .336 versus his career .311. Thomas probably wouldn't have finished the season with an era-adjusted .397 EqA had the strike not occurred, but it was nonetheless one of the five or so best offensive seasons by a player not named Bonds in my lifetime.

Jeff Bagwell's 1994 was only slight less historic than Thomas'. He had a .382 EqA (.381 adjusted for all time) while playing excellent defense at first base. He posted a career high in AB/HR and was enjoying a 2-year period in which he didn't strike out too frequently. His walk rate actually wasn't all that impressive and wasn't close to his level since. BABIP certainly aided his season, as his was .353 versus his career .317 mark.

Kenny Lofton easily had his best season in 1994, with a career high .315 EqA and one of his better years defensively. Lofton managed a career high in WARP1 (wins above replacement not adjusted for era) despite the short season. Lofton posted career highs with a .349 AVG, a .412 OBP and a .536 SLG (his next best year for SLG was at .453), as well as a career high in Isolated Power. In keeping with our implicit theme, Lofton had a .369 BABIP, well above his career .335 BABIP.

A few others come close to this dubiously-dubious distinction. You may have heard about the season this Tony Gwynn fellow had. Gwynn's .394/.454/.568 line constituted three career highs and his EqA was likewise a career high. This wasn't Gwynn's best year overall, though, as his defense at age 34 was lagging and his age 27 season in 1987 still takes the cake. Gwynn also benefited from the BABIP fairy, with a .388 versus his career .340. Albert Belle also had a monster year, posting a career-best EqA. But Belle's bad defense in 1994 makes it his second best year behind 1995. Ken Griffey, Jr. had probably his best offensive season, but his superior defense in 1991 and 1993 make those years more valuable than his 1994. Will Clark had an outstanding year, but accounting for the influence of The Ballpark in Arlington shows his 1988 and 1989 to be clearly superior. Mickey Tettleton had an excellent year, but his raw .248/.419/.463 line is inflated by the overall offensive increase in 1994, and his offense and defense were both superior in 1989 and 1991. Chili Davis had an excellent year, but it was pretty much matched by his 1995. Bob Hamelin quite clearly had a career year, but his career was too brief and mercurial for that to matter. Shane Mack had his best year for rate stats but only played 81 games and didn't contribute much defensive value. Kevin Mitchell had an amazing year, but it didn't match his 1989. Plenty of other players had career years without managing to have great years and thus didn't catch my eye, pero asi es la vida.

You remember listening to Paul Harvey on the radio and how he would always have that nice conclusion? "And ... now ... you know ... the rrrrrrrrest ... of the story." Anyway, I don't have one of those, so just go ahead and move right along.

Song of the Day: "The Sea Horse," Yo La Tengo

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