By Ryan Butler
An interesting phenomenon unique to fantasy baseball is that of a sudden and rabid man-crush on a player that you had previously been indifferent or even disdainful toward. And all because he did right by you, balling out of his mind and helping to lead your team to the championship. When an otherwise pedestrian player that you plucked off the waiver wire in mid-May goes on to have the season of his life, the sense of pride and adoration you feel for him can border on the uber-bromantic. It’s OK; we’ve all been there. One player that will always have a place in my heart is Morgan Ensberg.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t be pissed if I caught him with my girlfriend, but if he knocked her up and then split, I would happily raise his lovechild as my own. In 2005, Morgan had by far the best numbers of his career, going 86/36/101/.283. Certainly a fine season for any third-sacker. It’s even more remarkable when you take into account the fact that he had never approached such numbers before, and never would again. In 2003, the second-best season of his not-so-illustrious career, he went 69/25/60/.291.
He’s not alone. Every season there are players who manage to play above their capabilities for the entire six months. Steroids? The good grace of the baseball Gods? Whatever the reason, average players become good, good players become great, and fantasy leagues are won because of it. Here are a few of my favorites. Some of them may pre-date online fantasy play, but that’s not the point here.
1. Brady Anderson, 1996: OK, we’re all thinking it, so let’s just get him out of the way first. In the ultimate fantasy bait-and-switch, and the greatest unforseen power surge from a leadoff hitter not named Barry Bonds, Anderson made the quantum leap from a career high of 21 HR in ’92 to a whopping 50(!!). Perhaps not so coincidentally, this was also the last year the Orioles were any good. Brady’s stat line of 117/50/110/.297, along with 21 steals and a .396 OBP ranks as perhaps the finest season for a leadoff man ever. His next best season? 1999, when he went 109/24/81/.282. A fine season, but a far cry from his anomalous dream season of 1996.
2. Eric Gagne, 2002-04: Let me begin by saying I hated this guy. I hated him because he was a Dodger. I hated those stupid freaking glasses that he wore, and I’m glad I don’t have to look at his ugly mug ever again. That said, during the above-mentioned years, he had perhaps greatest run of any reliever, ever. He was like Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith rolled into one. A failed starter, Gagne was converted to closer before the 2002 season. It’s safe to say at that point he found his niche. Over the next 3 seasons, he would record 152 saves, a 1.79 ERA, 13.33 K/9, and did not post a WHIP over 0.911. Interestingly, he pitched exactly 82.1 innings each year. 2003 was his best year. He had 55 saves, a 1.20 ERA, a mind-blowing 15 K/9 IP, and handily won the Cy Young. And then the canuck went totally bonzo. To quote Primus, “the flame that burns twice as bright burns only half as long,” and Gagne’s self-immolation would make even a Vietnamese monk say “wow!” Beset by arm troubles, he missed nearly all of the ’05-’06 seasons. He would manage only 35 saves over the remainder of his career, which ended in 2008 after recording a 5.44 ERA with 10 saves in 50 games with Milwaukee. If nothing else, Gagne’s career is a testament to the amazing durability and consistency of relievers like Rivera, Billy Wagner, and Trevor Hoffman.
3. Mike Blowers, 1995: I know, I know, MIKE BLOWERS?! Yes, lowly, below-average Mike Blowers actually had himself one fantasy-worthy season in his nondescript career. If you recall, the 1995 Mariners were a pretty remarkable and exciting team, and Blowers was an important cog in their offensive machine. He went 59/23/96/.257 for the year. Not exactly eye-popping, but quite good when you consider several factors: first, he did this in only 498 at-bats, which is actually the highest number of ABs he ever had in a season. Second, in his next-best season, 1993, his line was a modest 55/15/57/.280. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the bulk of his production came at the end of the season, when the Mariners, and your fantasy team were making their playoff push. In the month of August, he hit .283 with a Mariner team-record 33 RBI and 9 HRs, 3 of which were grand slams, which tied the major-league record for salamis in a month. During his last four seasons in the majors, Mikey B managed to hit a total of 24 HRs, making his ’95 season seem more impressive than it would standing on its own.
4. Jose Lima, 1999: Believe it! 1999 truly was Lima Time. Jose went 21-10 with a 3.58 ERA in a career-high 246.1 IP. Quite a season. It’s even more amazing when you take into account the fact that he compiled a 68-92 career record when you remove this season from his stat line. A changeup artist who averaged only 5.6 K/9 IP for his career, Lima’s 187 punchies were by far his best single-season total. Control was his bread and butter, and he issued a stingy 1.6 BB/9 IP in ’99, helping him to a respectable 1.22 WHIP, the second best of his career. Everything went Jose’s way in this, his lone All-Star, season. And then the proverbial ka-ka hit the very real fan. The new millenium was beddy, beddy bad to Jose, as he went 7-16 to go with a 6.65 ERA in 2000. Always known better for being a colorful character rather than a good pitcher, Lima would not again post a sub-4.oo ERA in any season before his career ended after the 2006 season, a disastrous four-start stint with the Mets that saw him go 0-4 with a dreadful 9.87 ERA.
5. David Ross, 2006: It’s no small wonder that David Ross makes this list at all, seeing as he’s never had more than 348 plate appearances in a season. A career backup, he has shown decent power when given a reasonable amount of playing time. Granted, his two best years occurred while playing for the Reds, who make their home in the joke of a ballpark known as The Great American. In 2006, Ross went 37/21/52/.255 in only 247 at-bats. He had 63 base hits on the season, meaning a full one-third of them were dongs.That’s an incredible number, I don’t care what ballpark you call home. He had a (nearly) Pujols-like .932 OPS. For a player who has averaged one HR every 19.9 ABs in his career, ’06 was really something else. Given the lack of power numbers we’ve seen from the catching position over the years, I would take the 2006 version of David Ross on my fantasy team in a heartbeat.
6. Mark Loretta, 2004: Mark Loretta was a good player, no question about that. He managed to hit a rock-solid .295 over 15 big league seasons. Whereas most players see a drop-off in hitting stats playing in Petco Park (see Ludwick, Ryan-2010), Loretta flourished. In 2004, his first year of play at Petco, Loretta went 108/16/76/.335 with 208 hits and 47 doubles, good for a career-best .886 OPS. That’s a monster season for any 2B not named Utley, Cano, or Uggla. Loretta hit double-digit HRs in only one other season (13 in 2003), and averaged a mere five per season for his career. His career averages read like this: 51/5/42/.295, making his ’04 outburst one of the most pleasant surprises on anyone’s fantasy roster.
7. Mark Davis, 1989: Yes, he by far pre-dates online fantasy baseball, but Mark Davis was the ultimate one-hit wonder; the Devo of Major League Baseball. In ’89 he went 4-3 to go with 44 saves and a 1.85 ERA. He had 92 Ks in 92.2 IP and a career-best WHIP of 1.o5, and won the Cy Young a landslide, receiving 89% of the first-place votes. In the offseason he jumped ship to the Royals for 3 years/9.4 $mil, which was a grip of dough back in the those days. Thus began his descent into fringe major-league pitcher status for the remainder of his career. He was an utter disaster in KC. In 1990 he went 2-7 with a 5.11 and only six saves. Not exactly what the Royals were expecting. Probably not what old-school Roitsserie leaguers, keeping track of player perfomance on notepads, had in mind when they spent a high draft pick on him, either. In the six seasons after is incredible ’89 campaign, Davis posted a total of 11 saves.
8. Aaron Hill, 2009: In ’09 Hill was one of the breakout players in baseball, going 103/36/108/.286. He more than doubled his previous career-high HR total (17 in 2007) and increased season-best RBI total by 30 (up from 78, also in ’07). With raised expectations and fantasy draft rankings, Hill did a major weenie-dismount in 2010. His line of 70/26/68/.205 was perhaps the most disappointing and unforseen performance of any player in the game. Basically, he turned into Mark Reynolds, minus the gaudy RBI and strikeout numbers. So what the hell happened? Simply put, Hill fell victim to his own prior success; he changed his approach at the plate and started trying to elevate every pitch he swung at. Line drives fall in for base-hits more than 70% of the time. Fly balls drop in (or go over the fence) only 14% of the time. His LD% dropped from 19.6% in ’09 to 10.6% in 2010. This led to a drastic drop in his BABIP from .270 way down to .196. He never got off the ground in 2010. But I still have a lot of hope for Aaron. He’s only 28 years old, and if he can go back to the formula that made him a high-average hitter with good power and a low K-ratio, he should rebound nicely. His stock is low, and given the fact that there is a dearth of quality fantasy second basemen, he might not be a bad mid-round draft option.
9. Khalil Greene, 2007: THIS guy! Easily one of the most talented, yet maddeningly inconsistent and frustrating players to ever come down down the pike. Greene’s career was as much of an enigma as he was. The fact that I am talking about his career in the past-tense is a downright shame. In his rookie year of 2004, he posted career-highs in BA (.273), OBP (.349), and K/BB (1.77/1). His offensive upside, coupled with the ease with which he patrolled the shortstop position, indicated a very bright future. In 2007, (almost) everything finally came together. He posted an impressive 89/27/97/.254 to go with 44 doubles. Although his OBP of .291 was alarmingly low, and he struck out exactly four times as much as he walked (128/32), that is outstanding production from a SS. In 2008, however, things started to go all bad for the Flyin’ B’hai’n. On July 30, 2008, mired in a miserable 30/10/35/.213 season, the normally placid and stoic Greene lost his temper and punched a locker after his 100th strikeout, breaking his left hand and ending his season. He was traded to St. Louis in the offseason and in 170 ABs with the Cardinals went 21/6/24/.200 before being placed on the DL with social anxiety disorder. Odds are he’ll never play ball again.
2010 saw breakout seasons from players like Trevor Cahill, Jose Bautista, Carlos Gonzalez, Delmon Young, and rookie reliever Neftali Feliz. Whether or not one of these young stars will one day find themselves on a dubious list such as this one remains to be seen. But it begs the question, would it really be all that bad to named here? Is it better to be awesome and then suck than to have never been awesome at all?