Searching for the strangest individual seasons in Blue Jays history

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While we wait to see what form major-league baseball takes in 2020, there’s one thing we know for certain: this is going to be a weird year.

With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to take a walk through Toronto Blue Jays history to look at some of the most anomalous seasons the franchise has ever seen, on an individual level.

Although that’s an inherently subjective pursuit, I’ve included a few parameters to prevent it from simply being things I thought were weird at the time – such as Chris Woodward never becoming a stud starting shortstop despite putting together 90 stellar games in 2002. Instead, I’ve created five categories, each with specific criteria: most surprising breakout, most surprising decline, biggest renaissance, biggest one-hit wonder, and strangest rookie year.

Here’s a look at some of the strangest seasons in Blue Jays history:

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Most Surprising Breakout

Definition: For a breakout to be truly surprising it needs to come from a player who isn’t particularly young (26 or over) and represent a huge boost from an established performance level over the previous three seasons – at least one of which has to have come on the Blue Jays.

The Winner: Jose Bautista (2010)

Previous three seasons: .244/.334/.410 line with 43 HR in 1,442 plate appearances, worth a total of 2.6 WAR

2010: .260/.378/.617 line with 54 HR in 683 PA, worth a total of 6.5 WAR

What happened: Bautista’s 2010 is perhaps the most surprising breakout in baseball history, so it’s hard to imagine putting anything else here. After plying his trade as a utility man with an average-ish bat for six years, the Dominican slugger exploded in his age-29 season.

By getting his swing off earlier, Bautista turned himself into a dead-pull hitter (51.2 per cent of his balls in play were pulled compared to 35.9 the previous year). He also got the ball in the air significantly more, posting a career-high 54.5 per cent flyball rate – a number he’d never come close to touching again. It’s a shame we don’t have Statcast to tell us just how much harder he was hitting the ball, but it’s safe to assume that exit velocity went up a few ticks.

This breakout was an unprecedented gift from the baseball gods that – along with Edwin Encarnacion’s emergence in 2012 – compelled Alex Anthopoulos to make aggressive win-now moves in both 2013 and 2015, with varying results.

Honourable mention: Josh Towers (2005)

You could make a case for Encarnacion’s 2012 here, but he’d already topped 20 home runs twice by that point and posted five above-average offensive seasons. A more fun option is Towers, who went from utterly forgettable to a 200-inning stud in 2005.

From 2002-2004 he threw a combined 208 innings of 5.28 ERA ball, with a HR/9 of 1.82 – the second highest of the 230 pitchers who logged 200 or more innings during those years. That performance was good for 0.8 WAR. In 2005 however, he managed a 3.6-WAR season by throwing 208.2 frames of 3.71 ERA ball.

He was never particularly effective again.

Most Surprising Decline

Definition: For a decline to be truly surprising it needs to come from a player who isn’t aging out of his prime (29 or under) and represent a huge downgrade from an established performance level over the previous three seasons – at least one of which has to have come on the Blue Jays.

The Winner: Alex Rios (2009)

Previous three seasons: .297/.347/.489 line with 56 HR in 1,896 plate appearances, worth a total of 14.1 WAR

2009: .247/.296/.395 line with 17 HR in 633 PA, worth a total of 0.0 WAR

What happened: It’s not a stretch to say Rios was one of the best all-around players in the game from 2006 to 2008. His WAR ranked 20th among position players between Brian McCann and Miguel Cabrera, he went to the all-star game twice and he was a Home Run Derby finalist. In April 2008 the Blue Jays rewarded him with a well-deserved contract extension worth just shy of $70 million.

Just over a year later, they let the then-28-year-old go to the Chicago White Sox for nothing.

That’s because he was dreadful in 2009. It’s hard to point to one factor that torpedoed his offensive production; instead it was a number of factors. His BABIP plummeted, thanks in large part to a climbing pop-up rate and sinking hard-hit percentage. His walk rate fell a touch, as did his power output. He made an uncharacteristic number of outs on the bases, and his defensive metrics also fell off.

The lowlight of the year was Rios earning the rarely-seen platinum sombrero (five strikeouts in a game) on June 4. It all culminated in the Blue Jays seeing more value in payroll relief than waiting for Rios to rebound.

Ultimately he did, giving the White Sox excellent production in 2010, 2012, and the first half of 2013. However, in 2011 he produced a disastrous -1.4 WAR campaign, showing his flair for baffling underperformance wasn’t exclusive to his Blue Jays tenure.

Honourable mention: Chris Carpenter (2000)

Coming into the 2000 season, Carpenter had established himself as a mid-rotation starter with serious upside. After a respectable debut in 1997, he put together 325 innings of 4.38 ball, a performance worth 5.7 WAR – the 40th best total among qualified starters during that time.

At the age of 25, Carpenter’s trajectory looked extremely promising and he seemed like he could be counted on to provide quality innings behind David Wells. Instead, the right-hander produced career-worst marks in ERA (6.26), FIP (5.56), K/BB ratio (1.36), and home runs against (30) on the way to leading the American League in earned runs allowed (122).

The disastrous campaign proved to be a blip, as the next year he was productive once again and even threw 200 innings for the first time. After signing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004, he never had a full season with an ERA above 3.46.

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Biggest One-Hit Wonder

Definition: To achieve one-hit wonder status, a player must have a truly excellent season (4+ WAR) and accrue less than that amount of value in all their other seasons with the Blue Jays combined, never coming close to replicating the magic of their one singular year.

The Winner: Eric Hinske (2002)

Hit Season Value: 4.8 WAR in 650 plate appearances

Other Blue Jays Seasons: 3.8 WAR in 1,909 PA (2003-2006)

What happened: This is one that might have quickly jumped to mind when you saw the words “one-hit wonder” in a Blue Jays context. Hinske actually wasn’t quite as bad in his post-rookie, pre-professional-lucky-charm years as many fans remember, but there’s no doubt he never came close to replicating his Rookie of the Year campaign.

Hinske had it all in 2002. He displayed above-average power and patience to go along with positive defensive metrics, plus a surprising ability to create value on the bases (13 stolen bases with only one caught stealing). With a strikeout rate above 20 per cent, a walk rate of 11.8 per cent, and 24 home runs, he was a bit of a “three true outcomes” guy before his time – and it worked for him.

In the years that followed, his athleticism began to desert him, which led to less baserunning value and defence that quickly declined. He was pushed to first base, where the offensive standard was higher and although his bat hovered around league-average, that simply wasn’t good enough. The expectations created by his debut season probably didn’t help either. By the time he was done in Toronto he was widely disliked by the fanbase and considered to be a bust – a label that was probably unfair for a former 17th-round pick that was half of the package the Blue Jays extracted for Billy Koch coming off a rough 2001 season.

Honourable mention: Mark Eichhorn (1986)

This is a little bit different as one-hit wonders go because Eichhorn was a strong contributor to the Blue Jays’ success in multiple seasons. However, he bears mentioning here because his 1986 was such a singular triumph (4.9 WAR from 157 IP of 1.72 ERA ball) it far overshadowed his other work as a Blue Jay (2.2 WAR in 305 IP). In fact, among 7,801 qualified reliever seasons since 1900, his WAR of 4.9 ranks second only to Bruce Sutter’s 1977 campaign. That’s a historic level of greatness.

Ultimately Hinske has to get the nod because he was never even an average regular again with the Blue Jays. Meanwhile, Eichhorn gave the team some great relief innings in 1987 and 1993.

In a way, Eichhorn is more like Carly Rae Jepsen. The 1986 season is his “Call Me Maybe,” but technically there were a few other hits after that. They aren’t widely remembered, but if you put one on you’ll get some nods of recognition.

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Biggest Renaissance

Definition: To achieve renaissance status, a player over the age of 30 must have a decidedly above-average season (3+ WAR) after putting up two or more below-average seasons (<2 WAR) worth cumulatively less than his bounce-back season. Yeah, that’s convoluted. You have my apologies. The winner: Vernon Wells

Renaissance season: 31 home runs and a .273/.331/.515 line, worth 3.7 WAR at age 31

Previous two seasons combined: 35 home runs and a .276/.324/.439 line, worth 0.9 WAR

What happened: Wells was in the midst of his infamous $126-million extension and hadn’t been an impact player since 2006. After two seasons heavily disrupted by injuries, which he largely played through, Wells looked like an albatross for a franchise that could ill afford one.

Then in 2010 he found his all-star form again, posting the highest Isolated Slugging of his career and managing his third 30-homer campaign. The centre-fielder’s renewed form also came with an all-star game selection and a milestone 1,500th hit.

Far more important than what he produced for a fourth-place Blue Jays team that year was that season’s production granted Anthopoulos the ability to slither out from the ugly back end of his contract with an off-season trade with the Angels – who ended up paying Wells more for his two years with the club than the Blue Jays paid for his 12 years in Toronto.

The money saved went to good use, as less than a month after the Blue Jays moved Wells they extended Bautista on an extremely team-friendly five-year extension.

Honourable mention: Joe Carter (1991)

Carter’s tenure in Toronto was such an unmitigated success that it’s easy to remember that there was no guarantee he’d flourish as a Blue Jay. The slugger joined the team as a guy about to turn 31 coming off a dismal -2.0 WAR season with the San Diego Padres (that still garnered some down ballot MVP votes somehow) and an unimpressive 1989 campaign where he managed a sub-300 OBP and mediocre 1.8 WAR.

Because players were valued so differently at that time, the risk didn’t seem as substantial as it was. In the early 90s Carter was considered a consistent, durable run producer and he had 220 RBIs in the previous two campaigns to prove it.

Although the quality of Carter’s Blue Jays tenure is sometimes overstated due to his participation in some of the franchise’s most legendary moments, he was truly exceptional in 1991. The first baseman slugged over .500, posted by far his best OBP as a Blue Jay (.330), and racked up 4.6 WAR when his previous two seasons were worth -0.2 combined. That’s a renaissance, even if it wasn’t seen that way at the time, and if the best was yet to come.

Strangest Rookie Year

Definition: This category is a little less definitively quantified, but it’s for rookies whose first impression is the least predictive of the rest of their careers. Because playing MLB baseball is hard, this category leans towards guys who were outstanding and faded; countless players have had rough starts and turned it around.

The Winner: Randy Ruiz (2009)

Rookie season: .313/.385/.635 line in 130 plate appearances with 10 HR

Career from that point on: .150/.150/.275 line in 40 PA with 1 HR

What happened: While Ruiz appeared in the majors in 2008, he retained rookie eligibility in 2009 and turned in one of the most literally unbelievable stretches in Blue Jays history. At the age of 31, the minor-league slugger came up and laid waste to MLB pitching, making the Blue Jays – and the eight other organizations he’d spent time with – look silly for letting him rot in the minors for a decade.

Ruiz was built in the “Big Sexy” style, and played almost exclusively DH, but it didn’t matter because for about seven weeks he was a destroyer of worlds at the dish. Below is a table showing the best single-season OPS marks in Blue Jays history (minimum 100 PA):

It was small sample size nonsense – of course it was – but it was magical nonetheless. The Blue Jays gave Ruiz a chance to recreate it in 2010, but he looked as overmatched as he had been dominant the previous season and was never seen in the majors again.

Honourable mention: Gustavo Chacin (2005)

Chacin was a sensation as a rookie, topping 200 innings with a sub-four ERA. He looked every bit the rotation stabilizer the team needed behind Roy Halladay. He was also marketable and fun in a moment when those weren’t adjectives that applied to the team. This Chacin cologne promotion is the stuff of legend.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, Chacin was gone as soon as he’d arrived. Over the next two seasons he managed just over 100 innings pitched, suffered injuries, and spent time in the minors due to his ineffectiveness.

Years later, in 2010, he resurfaced with the Houston Astros, but he was unable to stick in the big leagues.

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