Players collapse all the time, we just don’t see it usually. Their skills don’t simply erode, they go to hell in a hand basket quicker than you can say cliff dive. Usually, however, these collapses involved go from having a job riding the MLB pine to riding buses from Scranton to Columbus. But sometimes, when it’s a really good player, there’s a kind of gaper-delay effect, and we find ourselves saying “Wuhhappend?!”
Injury, often. Getting old. Maybe a very minor degradation in their eyesight. Whatever, it happens, to everyone, but in some cases it happens fast. I want to know, who’s the fastest it happened to.
Now it turns out that one of our newly eligible players for 2010 fit this description in a way baseball ain’t ever seen before, and in a moment I’ll tell you who that is. In the meantime, what’s this kind of epic-fail collapse look like? Here’s my criteria:
- Player had a sustained level of high performance.
- From one year to the next, the player plummets four or more WAR in something like a full season (i.e. so that we can try to rule out mere injury as best we can).
- The player slides below the All-Star level (if he wasn’t already there).
- And there’s no dead-cat bounce.
In a moment I’ll share some of the worst collapses in history, but let’s see what this looks like in action with the famous case of Dale Murphy. In 1987, 31 year-old Murphy racked up 7.7 WAR. In 1988, 32 year-old Murphy tumbled to 3.1 WAR. But surely it was just an off year? Nope. Murphy hung around another five years, earning 1.5 more Wins before the league made it clear to him that he was finished. To give you a sense of how far he fell, from the moment he went into decline in 1988 to the end of his career, he earned just 62% of the WAR he earned in 1987 alone. Ouchee!
So let’s look at the five worst collapsers among pitchers and hitters.
- Max Carey
Scoops Carey’s last hurrah in 1925 didn’t look out of the ordinary. Yet another fine season with the bat, the glove, and on the bases. His fifth straight with at least 4.0 WAR. Everything fell apart in 1926, and he lost 5.4 wins of value, going from 4.2 WAR to -1.2. His base running recovered a little, as did his glove, but his bat, not so much. He received 1485 PAs during his collapse in which he produced -39 runs versus average. The result was four years and 0.5 WAR to show for it before bowing out in 1929.
- Sal Bando
They say that third basemen age fast, and their aging curves do show a precipitous drop in their early to mid 30s. Sal Bando, meet the cliff. In 1978, he rebounded from an off year with a banner season, racking up 5.6 Wins. In 1979, he lost his power stroke and plopped to 0.7 Wins. He never regained the sting in his stick, and in his last three years, he coughed up a mere 0.2 WAR and was gone after the 1981 strike year.
- Jim Rice
The fear? The Red Sox had it in 1987. In 1986 Jim Ed returned to All-Star form after bouncing around average for a couple years. In 1987, the now 34 Rice shed 5.4 Wins of value to finish the year of the rabbit ball barely above replacement. Over the next two years, he added -0.2 WAR to the ledger, truly tipping over the deep end with a 70 OPS+ in 56 games in 1989 that resulted in -0.7 WAR and his retirement.
- Ted Simmons
Perhaps in 1984, Simmons’ bat fell into a memory hole? How else to explain a 61 OPS+ immediately after a 126 OPS+ in 1983? Simba didn’t do much else well either, so add the slack stick to the iron glove, and his value fell from 4 Wins to -2.6 in his age 34 season. His bat actually rebounded to about average a year later, and his last four years added up to 0.3, leaving him with -2.3 WAR during his five year decline. Let’s put Simba’s amazingly awful 1984 season into sharp relief. It was, believe it or not, only the 24th worst season by a hitter in history. The list is mostly guys like Jerry Royster (-4.0, 1977, worst ever), Jose Guillen, and Tommy Thevenow. He’s the only HoME level player among the 90 worst seasons of all time. Craig Biggio and Pete Rose both crapped out -2.1 WAR seasons, but they were age 41 and 42 respectively, and they are the only other HoMErs among the top 200. Among near-HoMErs in the worst 200, you’ve got Brian Giles at #168 and…no one. In other words, Simmons’ 1984 was a very special season.
- Roberto Alomar
While Alomar may not have fallen to the depths below replacement that Simmons did, he fell from a much greater height. Plus, because he didn’t catch, so we can’t even blame it on the rigors of backstopping. By BBREF’s estimation, Alomar’s 7.3-WAR 2001 season was his second finest, trailing his 1999 WAR total by 0.1 Wins. He placed fifth in the AL in that category and fourth in the AL MVP balloting. The next year he “earned” 0.6 Wins with the Mets. He lost 6.7 Wins of value, which in raw runs meant he fell from 75 runs above replacement to 8. The next two years, the Mets, White Sox, and D’Backs kindly allowed him to bat 788 times, returning -0.9 WAR. In total, his three-year free fall yielded -0.3 WAR and cost him what appeared at the end of 2001 to be a near lock on 3,000 hits. That, my friends, is how we do it.
- Kid Nichols
The Kid left the majors for two years but returned triumphantly at age 34 with 20 wins and a 2.02 ERA in 1904. But it didn’t last, and in 1905, between two teams, he managed just 1.4 WAR. The next year, addled by pleurisy, in just 11 innings, he gave up 16 runs, worth -0.9 Wins and he left the game.
- Vic Willis
Sure, Vic Willis dropped off from 4.5 WAR in 1909 to 0.0 in 1910. Kid Nichols fell off by much more. But I have Willis here because he didn’t just fall, he fell off the map. He never pitched another major league inning after 1910.
- Wes Ferrell
By 1937, Wes Ferrell could look back on six seasons in the last eight of outstanding production, and he other two were good too. By the end of 1937, Wes Ferrell could look back at the worst six months of his career…up to that point. He lost 5.7 WAR, and worse yet, he’d never get it back. He was just 29. Bone chips and other ailments caught up to him later and in his final five campaigns, he earned just -0.7 WAR.
- Christy Mathewson
A shocker to me, quite frankly, but Matty lost it in a hurry at age 33. He fell from 6.9 WAR, 25 wins, and a league-leading ERA in 1913 to a league worst 16 homers and 104 earned runs. The net result? 0.7 Wins, 6.2 fewer than the year before. However, this alarming trend was obscured by his 24 wins for an outstanding Giants team. Bix Six never recovered. His collapse added up to -1.0 WAR over three seasons before he left the game at age 35.
- Jim Bunning
No contest, kids. Bunning’s 1967 was awesome. Despite a blah 17–15 record, he posted a 2.29 ERA, completed 16 of his league-leading 40 starts, tossed a league-leading 6 shutouts, all while topping the NL in innings and strikeouts (and hit batsmen, as was his wont). He was 35, and the next year the mileage might have caught up to him. He only threw 160 innings, but he went 4–14 with a wretched 75 ERA+. He actually did have a little daed-cat bounce with 3.1 WAR in 1970, but it was too little too late, and he was done after an awful -2.0 WAR 1971 season with a 65 ERA+ in 110 innings. He managed just 0.5 WAR after his outstanding 1967 campaign, but he went on to many more successful campaigns in Kentucky and national politics, the quality and substance of which I won’t comment on in this space.
Surprised to see so many outstanding players on this list? I was, but when you think about it, they have further to fall. Then again, these guys were so good that they still managed to play at a HoME level long enough to earn our plaque. Well except for Rice, but he got a bronze in some other Hall.