It's better to burn out...than to fade away! [unintelligible] - The Kurgan, Highlander
One of the myriad, pointless baseball thoughts going through my head last week was this: "What if Jose Bautista suddenly went back to being 2009's Jose Bautista? How would we look at him, historically?" Don't get me wrong, I don't believe that this would actually happen...but it would be absolutely fascinating if it did.
There are plenty of average players who string together successful streaks, solid weeks, or even whole seasons. Then they go back to being what they were before, fairly average (or worse) big leaguers. That goes back to the quote I led with, about how it is better to burn out, to have a flash of greatness, than to fade away into mediocrity. Some players would trade anything for a short period of success, but does a short period of excellence translate into a memorable career years later?
These thoughts in mind, I decided to create a Hall of Flame, one that could celebrate players who were transcendent for a couple of years, and then saw their performance sit at average or worse. It's a lot different than just having a transcendent streak (Kevin Maas), game (Don Larsen), or moment (Endy Chavez). Using Baseball-Reference's inimitable Play Index, I pulled up a number of players who had two or three seasons with an rWAR above 5.0 (All-Star level), or a single season above 7.5 rWAR (near-MVP level). I only pulled players from after 1947, to give myself a smaller pool to work from. I winnowed the list based on their previous and later seasons, giving more credit to players who had replacement- or average-level production throughout the rest of their careers, or who didn't stay in the league for very long.
I also hold the (maybe misguided) opinion that pitchers who fit my criteria would be much easier to find than hitters. I'll delve into a pitcher Hall of Flame later, but for now I limited myself to just position players.
As a result, I found more than enough players who had brief, but not insignificant, periods of greatness surrounded by years of average-ness. Here are some of my selections for a Hall of Flame.
Peak period: 2003-2005 (15 rWAR)
You might remember Marcus Giles as the second baseman for the Braves for much of the mid-2000s and as the younger brother to Brian Giles. For a three-year period from 2003 to 2005, Marcus was a middle infielder who also carried a solid bat, delivering solid power to go with a healthy walk rate. In 2003, his first full season as the Braves' starting 2B, he put together one of the best seasons that a second baseman has seen in major league history, an effort that propelled him all the way to a 18th-place finish in the MVP voting.
To put how excellent Giles's transcendent 2003 was, I now present to you a list of second basemen who have had a better season (by rWAR) than Giles over the last ten years:
Yep. No one. How about over the last thirty years? Only three seasons by a second baseman (Bret Boone in 2001, Chuck Knoblauch in 1996, and Ryne Sandberg's 1984) have outstripped Giles in terms of rWAR. That's it, everyone. Marcus has gone to places that Cano, Utley, and Pedroia fear to tread.
And yet, he was out of the majors before he played his age-30 season. Marcus Giles, believe it or not, only had seven seasons in which he got major league plate appearances! He was effectively a replacement-level player before his outstanding 2003 season. After three seasons of success, Giles lost his hitting stroke in 2006, played poorly for two seasons, and then was out of the majors. If that's not suitable for the Hall of Flame, I'm not sure what is.
Peak period: 1965 (7.6 rWAR)
If you're a Twins fan, you probably know of Zoilo. Versalles was a fixture at shortstop for the Senators-come-Twins through much of the 1960's. "Zorro" was a pretty unspectacular hitter for much of his career, and his OPS+ never broke 100 until he was 24 in 1964. Despite that, in 1963 Zoilo won a Gold Glove and made an All-Star team. But I don't count this as a real peak-type year for him, he only managed 2.6 rWAR and his defensive numbers don't look terribly impressive (0.0 dWAR) in hindsight.
It was in 1965, during Minnesota's championship season, when Versalles performed at a phenomenal level, and helped catalyze the team's run into the record books. Zoilo hit for power (45 doubles, 19 HR), scored 126 runs, led his league in AB, 2B, 3B, R, and total bases, and even added 1.8 defensive wins above replacement, all of which added up to a rWAR of 7.6 and an MVP award. To put that rWAR score in perspective, Versalles would not be worth that many wins above replacement in all other seasons he played in the majors...combined. After that one magical MVP season, Zoilo was actually worse than he had been prior to that year. He only had two more years above replacement level, and was playing in Japan by his age-32 season.
Peak period: 1982-1983 (12.4 rWAR)
Dickie Thon is about as prototypical of a Hall of Flame player as I could draw up. During his age-24 season in 1982, Thon played his first whole season. Primarily playing shortstop, Thon combined good defense with a solid batting line (.276/.327/.397, 10 triples) to post a 5.6 rWAR. The next season, Thon increased his power, hitting 20 home runs and making the All-Star team. Thon even had a run at the MVP, finishing seventh in the year's voting.
1984...that wasn't such a good year for Dickie. Five games into the season, Thon was hit in the face by a pitch that dramatically altered his career trajectory. After breaking an orbital bone in his face, Thon missed the entire rest of the 1984 season with the injury, and when he came back in 1985, he wasn't the same player. Depth perception issues hampered him for the rest of his career, and he rarely got more than 400 plate appearances in a season over the rest of his career.
Thon actually had a fairly long ML career, totalling 15 years in all. That's probably due to the fact that once a player has success, they are perceived as successful long after their performance drops off. Though Thon's career arc was altered by that one, terrible injury, he still managed to hang around as a semi-regular for another decade. But he never again reached the pinnacle of his prime years in '82 and '83.
Peak period: 1996-1997 (10 rWAR)
True power-hitting catchers are a rare commodity, but the New York Mets had two during the 90's. While most people focus on Mike Piazza, his predecessor behind the dish, Todd Hundley, provided one of the best home run-hitting seasons by a catcher as part of a two-year span of excellence in the mid-90's. During 1996 and 1997, Hundley's only two career seasons with over 500 PA, he let balls fly with alacrity. Hundley hit 71 home runs combined over those two seasons, and racked up 5.0 rWAR in each season despite below-average defense. His skills earned him two All-Star appearances, and even a few MVP votes in '96, the year he hit 41 home runs. This total is still the third-most in a season by any player who earned 50% or more of their plate appearances at catcher.
The Mets added Mike Piazza in 1998 after Hundley suffered a career-changing injury to his elbow. When Hundley came back, the Mets tried him out as a left-fielder. If you watched Daniel Murphy try to play left field for the Mets in 2009, and saw how poorly that went, you probably have some idea of how bad the Hundley-in-the-outfield experiment went back in '98. It was awful. The Mets bounced Hundley over to the Dodgers (where he'd have another terrific offensive season in limited action in 2000), and later the Cubs. He battled through several injuries, and never played another ML game after 2003.
Todd Hundley's deficiencies as a defender were made up for by his prodigious power. Unfortunately, he never managed full seasons of superb offensive output and continued health aside from those All-Star seasons of '96 and '97.
So there you have it! I'm sure you have plenty of ideas about other possible future inductees for the Hall of Flame, so please share your thoughts in the comments below.
All data in this article is from Baseball-Reference.com.