Here at Beyond The Box Score, I am beginning a new series. Over the next few weeks, I will look at the best injury-shortened seasons by decade from 1900 to the present. Using WAR, I will analyze all the best injury-shortened ideas and consider what they could have been.
Like almost all of my article ideas, this article began with a baseball-related rabbit hole.
You probably won’t believe it, but this series started with the trade of Yangervis Solarte to the Blue Jays. After seeing this news, I began researching Blue Jays infielders and came to Troy Tulowitzki’s FanGraphs player page. In 2014, while he was still with the Rockies, Tulowitzki posted 5.3 fWAR in just 91 games, having his season cut short with a hip injury. Had “Tulo” finished the season, he may have won the MVP award.
This inspired me to dive into baseball history — where, I’ll admit, I’m not the best at recalling myself — and “remember” some of the best short seasons in Major League Baseball history. (You’ll have to wait a few weeks before you get to see where Tulowitzki’s 2014 season ranks among the players of his decade.)
Fair or not, I’m considering only seasons in which the player missed at least 40 percent of his team’s games. MLB began playing a 140-game schedule in 1900 before upping to 154 in 1904 (with an odd 140-game season in 1919) and again to today’s 162-game season in 1962. For 140-game era players, this allows them to play up to 84 games; 154-game era players can play up to 92 games; 162-game era players can play up to 97 games. Yes, 40 percent is a completely arbitrary number, but I wanted to allow players to have the time to accumulate enough fWAR to really have made an impact, all the while having them miss a significant amount of time. That’s how I settled on 40 percent, rather than 50 percent or even 60 percent.
Eligibility aside, games played differences within the rankings will be alleviated by using WAR/600, or how much WAR the player would have been worth in a 600-plate appearance season. As a result, I am forced to establish a minimum number of plate appearances to become eligible, too. This I am setting at 100, which would require players to have played in approximately 33 games (at a minimum) to work.
Of course, players will be omitted if it was determined that their missed games were due to a circumstance other than injury (i.e. military service, demotion to the minor leagues, etc.). For historical players, I will use the information that I have available to me, but just note that it’s likely some of these players missed time to something other than injury, especially the older ones.
All tie-breakers will be settled by which player played more games.
With the rules finally laid out, I present to you the best injury-shortened seasons from 1900 to 1909.
10. 1902 Davy Jones, 3.0 fWAR in 79 games, 5.1 fWAR/600
Davy Jones had a law degree while in the Major Leagues. As the Chicago Tribune wrote in 1902, “He signed so many contracts last winter that a half dozen lawyers could not have made a worse tangle.” Unfortunately for Jones, he was only good while on the field. He contracted typhoid in August of 1902 and missed the remainder of the season. In the 79 games he did play, though, he slashed .291/.384/.363 over 351 plate appearances with the St. Louis Browns and Chicago Cubs, switching teams midseason.
9. 1901 Nixey Callahan, 1.2 fWAR in 42 games, 5.5 fWAR/600
“Nixey” Callahan wasn’t actually called Nixey during his career. He was known as Jimmy Callahan, his actual name, and Nixey became his nickname after his playing career. Prior to the 1901 season, Nixey became one of the first players in Major League history to jump to the newly-formed American League, as he went to go play for the Chicago White Sox. Callahan was a great two-way player, and even though he missed the first few weeks of the 1901 season due to a broken bone in his forearm, his pitching and hitting contributions (only the offensive are listed in the fWAR total above) helped lead the White Sox to the American League pennant that year. He slashed .331/.383/.466 in 132 plate appearances, the greatest offensive season of his career. Had he played the field more often, and without the injury, he could have been one of the best offensive players in the new league.
8. 1902 Frank Chance, 2.6 fWAR in 75 games, 5.5 fWAR/600
Frank Chance is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame — thanks in large part to this poem — but his 1902 season was unfortunately cut short by numerous broken fingers and hand injuries suffered while attempting to catch foul tips while playing catcher. Chance was a great utility player, as he could catch, play first and occasionally man the outfield. It wasn’t until the Cubs got a new catcher in 1903 and moved Chance to first base did he ever play a full season. He did, however, still manage to slash .289/.401/.372 in 1902, as he was on the verge of his offensive breakout. The four best offensive seasons of his career would come in the four years after this season.
7. 1904 Ducky Holmes, 2.6 fWAR in 68 games, 5.6 fWAR/600
Other than the fact that he had a great name, there isn’t a lot of other information out there on Ducky Holmes. In 1904, he was playing the outfield in Chicago with the White Sox and hit .311/.354/.438 in 277 plate appearances.
6. 1904 Jack Dunn, 1.9 fWAR in 64 games, 5.7 fWAR/600
Jack Dunn, who played his final Major League season in 1904, was another two-way player, though the WAR listed above is just for his position player contributions. Like many of the players on this list, he had the best offensive season of his career in 1904, when he slashed .309/.356/.414 over 283 plate appearances for the New York Giants. By this time, though, most of his value came at the plate, after he stopped pitching regularly in 1900 following an arm injury.
5. 1908 Jim Delahanty, 3.1 fWAR in 83 games, 5.8 fWAR/600
Jim Delahanty is known just because of his older brother, Ed, who is a member of the Hall of Fame and one of the best players in Phillies history. Jim was more of a journeyman than Ed, but he still spent parts of 13 seasons in the Major Leagues. It’s unclear why Jim missed games in 1908, but he did slash a very strong .317/.376/.394 over 323 plate appearances that year.
4. 1905 Nap Lajoie, 2.9 fWAR in 65 games, 6.4 fWAR/600
Lajoie is one of the greatest players in MLB history, and he was the first “superstar” that the American League ever had. He consistently played over 100 games for the Cleveland Naps. Lajoie was having a “down” season in 1905, but it could have been much worse when his leg was nearly amputated after blue dye in his socks poisoned a spike wound. Ouch. Little did he know, many of his league-leading seasons were behind him, but he was still slashing .329/.377/.418 when he went down. After returning in 1906, he went on to play another 11 seasons.
3. 1908 Buck Herzog, 2.5 fWAR in 64 games, 7.0 fWAR/600
It appears that Herzog wasn’t injured in 1908, but he only played 64 games that year, as it was his MLB debut season. He was an excellent rookie, though, slashing .300/.448/.363 to kick off a career that included 1,493 games played and 320 stolen bases. He was “one of the most versatile infielders in the history of the major leagues,” Gabriel Schechter of the Society of American Baseball Research writes.
2. 1902 Nap Lajoie, 5.3 fWAR in 87 games, 8.3 fWAR/600
Lajoie missed games in 1902 over a legal dispute, as opposed to his injury in 1905. Both the Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians believed that they “owned” Lajoie at the time because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gave the Athletics an injunction which banned Lajoie from playing baseball for any team in the state other than the Phillies. Lajoie circumvented the injunction by signing with Cleveland, where he played 86 of his 87 games that year. A peace agreement between the American and National Leagues after 1902 kept him in Cleveland for the majority of his career. He still managed to win the batting title, slashing .378/.419/.565 in 385 plate appearances.
1. 1906 Nig Clarke, 2.8 fWAR in 57 games, 8.6 fWAR/600
My No. 1 doesn’t have a story! I am not sure why Clarke only played in 57 games in 1906, but he hit .358/.404/.486 that year. It’s likely that he was a backup for the Indians and his performance earned him a starting job in 1907, when he played in a career-high 120 games. Still, he holds the greatest shortened season of the decade, with his performance worth nearly nine wins when expanded out to an entire season.
Be sure to check out the next edition, when I look at the best shortened seasons from 1910-1919.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.
All biographical information courtesy of SABR’s Biography Project.