Earlier in the season I wrote a piece about Bryan Lahair and the possibility of his place in baseball history as a potential member of the always heart-warming late-bloomer phenomenon. This was back on May 8th, of course, when LaHair was scalding the baseball regularly with a torrid slash line of .388/ .479/ .800. The Cubs first basemen continued to hit well over the next few weeks slowly converting some of his skeptics, but as June rolled around Lahair had finally cooled off.
And I mean, like, really cooled off.
Naturally, baseball expected LaHair to regress, but I'm not sure how many people expected the free-fall that was to follow. After hitting for a ridiculous 1.175 OPS through May 15th, Lahair has hit a mere .572 OPS from that point on. That drop of .603 OPS points finds Bryan Lahair a new place in baseball history, instead, as a member of a not-so-heart-warming phenomenon: the Flash in the Pan.
We've all heard this story before. We all remember the players that came out of nowhere-- sometimes rookies, sometimes quad-A lifers, sometimes quiet role-players or utility-types that are finally given a chance. Maybe there was no book on them upon their arrival, maybe the scouts hadn't decoded the holes in their swing yet, or maybe it was as simple as small sample size aberration. Either way, these players streaked like future hall of famers, then flamed-out in a blink of an eye before the season was over.
I looked at the past 10 years to see which players experienced these gigantic OPS drops after a strong early season performance using five (admittedly arbitrary) dates as benchmarks as the dividing point.
PAN FLASHERS SINCE 2002
|#||First||Last||Year||Streak PA||OPS||Split Date||Slump PA||OPS||OPS Drop|
min 100 streak-PA and 100 slump-PALaHair really takes care of the competition here, partly because the 15th of May happened to be the date Lahair's OPS peaked, and partly because his fall from grace has actually been that historic.
Johnny Gomes hit for a .904 OPS in his rookie season as a 24 year-old, likely convincing the Devil Ray's front office into believing they had struck prospect gold. He continued to impress to open up his sophomore season, hitting .316/.461/.759 and setting a franchise record with 11 home runs before April 29th. Gomes then suddenly appeared to make the inexplicable decision to close his eyes for the remainder of the season's at bats hitting .637 the rest of the way. The right-handed outfielder blamed shoulder soreness for his abrupt collapse, but even after returning to full health he never again experienced the level of production that he managed in that rookie season.
For Cub fans the story of Bryan Lahair in 2012 may sound eerily similar to the epic tale of Hee-seop Choi from 2003. Choi, also a first basemen for the north-siders at the time, came out of the gate scorching hot as a rookie in 2003 hitting a monstrous 1.055 OPS through mid-May. Much of Choi's subsequent regression that season would be attributed to a collision with teammate Kerry Wood on June 7th in which Hee-Seop suffered a concussion. But Choi had begun to cool off considerably before then, hitting just .191/.296/.277 from May 15th to June 7th. Choi would later be shipped off to the Florida Marlins for Derrek Lee in a trade and would never find any lasting success in the major leagues. Before his age-27 season Choi had left the MLB for good, opting instead to pursue a career in the Korean Baseball Organization.
Clint Barmes saw his 15 minutes of fame over 7 years ago now, and is likely nearing the end of his career at 32 years of age in Pittsburgh.
Chris Shelton is one name I was hoping to see show up when I ran this query. In 2006 the city of Detroit was celebrating the break-out of their 26 year-old first basemen as he hit 10 home-runs (including 9 in his first 13 games) and posted a Ruthian 1.186 OPS in that first month of April. Sadly, Shelton would only eke out 8 home runs for the rest of the season and just 18 more for the rest of his career beyond 2006. By July, the Tigers had optioned Shelton back to AAA and that began a series of moves to and from the minors over the next couple of years that ultimately ended with Shelton hanging it up in 2011.
Morgan Ensberg at #6 may be the flashiest flash in the pan if we are looking to find a ceiling for this phenomenon. His 1.232 eclipses any of the other hot streaks on this list and it also followed a fantastic 6 WAR break-out season in 2005. But Ensberg, too, quickly fizzled in the second half of 2006 and never again demonstrated that caliber of performance and was out of baseball 400 PA later.
Austin Kearns and Eric Byrnes actually went on to have modestly-productive major league careers at 9 and 11 career WAR respectively, but nothing close to the sort of all-star potential they had flashed back in early 2003. The same may be said one day of Brennan Boesch, Matt Joyce and Brett Wallace-- players who demonstrated real ability to clobber the baseball as recently as 2011, but seem to have been sidelined to platoon roles in 2012 once the league made its adjustments.
If you are holding out hope for any one of these three players, consider this: without really another criteria for this search beyond strong beginning/poor ending, not many of these players rebounded from their post-flash regression to become even a league-average player for an extended period of time. Alex Gonzalez (the Marlin), and Juan Uribe were full-timers for many years, but of course they played solid defense at a premium position as shortstops.
I also find it fascinating that, without making it a requirement, most of these streak-to-slump seasons occurred in the player's rookie season or very soon after. It seems that once that fabled 'league-adjustment' is made, it's game over for the new guy. Once the league discovers your weakness, they will exploit it, mercilessly, to no end.
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