Great Months in Terrible Seasons

Earlier this week I looked at some notably terrible months by hitters in seasons that otherwise turned out to be very good. As I said there, while we might know that it is too early in the season to be worried about individual hitters who are slumping, it is difficult not to let extreme early season lines get to us. Some players are smoking the ball unexpectedly at this point as well, and although the point can be made either way, looking at some individual cases in which hitters had great single months during otherwise horrible seasons might also be interesting.

(For this query, I searched for the best months with at least 80 plate appearances in player-seasons with at least 500 plaet appearances since 2002 and a seasonal wRC+ of 80 or worse.)

J. J. Hardy has been a good defensive shortstop for a long time. His bat has been enigmatic. Generally speaking, his fly ball tendency that leads to low batting averages (and thus on-base percentages) also allows him to hit enough home runs to be roughly average hitter… on average. His his ups and downs (along with some injury concerns) in both Milwaukee and Minnesota were among the factors leading to him winding up in Baltimore prior to the 2011 season. Hardy made his former employers look bad during his first season with the Orioles (although the Brewers are probably okay with how things eventually turned out). He only managed to play in 129 games during 2011, but in those games he hit for a 113 wRC+ (.269/.310/.491) with 30 home runs while playing his usual excellent defense. It was enough to get him a three-year extension from the Orioles.

Hardy’s health returned in 2012. He played in 158 games (a career high to that point, he would go on to play 159 in 2013) and won his first Gold Glove. The season was a success for him overall, but his bat did not do much to help. Over 713 plate appearances (another career high), Hardy hit for just a 78 wRC+ (.238/.282/.389), hailing back to his worst years in Milwaukee. It would have been much worse if he had not had one big month in May, when he had a 148 wRC+ (.314/.352/.570) over 128 plate appearances. May was simply a perfect storm of power (.256 ISO, no other month was high than .183) and BABIP (.326, no other month was over .296). This is not to say his Hardy’s May performance should have been ignored as an “outlier” as opposed to the other months of his season. It was simply one month that was part of the performance, but despite the monster month, his overall offensive performance was, well, offensive.

No matter how much one tries to stop writing about certain players, queries keep bringing them back. After being one of the worst players in baseball for three seasons, Francoeur fulfilled The Prophecy during the 2010-2011 off-season when he signed with the Royals. He defied the snark in 2011 and had his best season since his half-season rookie debut. Francoeur had a 115 wRC+ for Kansas City in 2011 (.285/.329/.476). He hit 20 home runs, stole 22 bases (though he also got thrown out 10 times), threw out a bunch of base runners. The Royals re-signed him for two years.

Regression was to be expected, but even the most cynical of informed observers were probably shocked by how little a full year of good hitting by Francoeur seemed to fall by the wayside in 2012. No number of pizzas could mask Francoeur’s on-field performance. Even if his range had returned (or someone had unhooked the invisible wagon full of rocks he seemed to be dragging all season), his 76 wRC+ (.235/.287/.378) at the plate spoke so loud even the deaf could hear the death knell of Jeff Francoeur’s time as a full-time major league player. (It took the Royals a bit longer, as they traded outfield prospect Wil Myers after this performance from Francoeur and stuck with Francoeur through the first part of 2013.)

It did not always seem that 2012 would end that way. After a disastrous 51 wRC+, he seemed be defying the odds again in May. Over 114 plate appearances in that month, Francoeur had a 152 wRC+ (.321/.368/.566). Everything seemed to be clicking again. Francoeur spent May crushing the ball, then spent the rest of the season crushing any remaining hope. He did not have without even an average wRC+ in a single other month in 2012. In June and July he had wRC+s of 35 and 31, respectively.

Brandon Inge was an important (if underrated) factor in the Tigers’ return to relevance in the mid-2000s. He turned out to be a plus defender at third base after being moved there from catcher. Somewhat like Hardy, he was not a great hitter, but hit for enough power to make up for his other deficiencies at the plate. Things went off the rails for Inge in 2007, though. His 79 wRC+ (.236/.312/.376) over 577 plate appearances was not as poor as his pre-2004 performances, but it was still very bad. The problem could not be laid at the feet of the BABIP bugbear, either. The main problem was that Inge’s power dropped a bit while his strikeout rate spiked.

In keeping with the theme of this post, though, if Inge had had his June in April, some might have convinced themselves that he had reached a new level. During June, Inge looked like a monster, with a 158 wRC+ (.343/.440/.557) over 85 glorious plate appearances. He had also been pretty good during May (128 wRC+). But even those two months were not enough to save Inge’s season, as he followed up with awful wRC+s in July (46), August (43), and September (66).

Not long ago, it was difficult to discuss the Pirates without chuckling or shaking one’s head. Those days seem to be over for now. Neil Walker is a nice player, but hardly a superstar second baseman. But that situation itself speaks to how different things are for the Pirates as opposed to, say, 2006, when Jose Castillo manned the keystone. Unlike the other players on this list, Jose Castillo was never good (or even close to average) in the majors. The one-time top 100 prospect last saw the majors in 2008, and (presumably) finished his MLB career with a .254/.296/.379 (72 wRC+) line in 2059 plate appearances.

The reader undoubtedly is wondering whether Castillo ever had a “typical Jose Castillo.” Indeed he did. During 2006, Castillo received 562 plate appearances. It was classic Castillo: .253/.299/382, 72 wRC+, including 14 glorious home runs. Castillo rarely walked, had below average contact skills, and was not a burner on the bases. But every once in a while, he really got hold of one, I guess. It really all came together in 109 May plate appearances. Castillo went .366/.413/.634 for a 162 wRC+.

Alas, some stars shine too brightly. Castillo’s monthly wRC+s for the rest of the season: 71, 70, 74, and, to close the season, a marvelous -34. Yes, that is a minus.

The best month (yes, I checked the decimals) by a player in a season with a wRC+ of 80 or below was had by a player on his way out of one organization and on his way to another with which he would have his best seasons. The young Juan Pierre had his talents, but though he had his moments with the Rockies, his skills on offense were never a great fit for a the team’s park, especially in the pre-humidor days. Stealing bases and bunting for hits were (and are) valuable skills to have, and Pierre was good at both. They simply did not have as much impact in an inflated run environment.

The park factors tell part of the story: Pierre’s .287/.332/.343 (640 plate appearances) in 2002 line is not great even now, but back in the 2002 Coors Field run environment, it ended up being a 64 wRC+. Pierre would end up being traded (along with Mike Hampton, who was then traded to Atlanta) to the Marlins and was a big part of their 2003 championship team. It is hard to blame the Rockies for thinking it was time for Pierre to move on, but if one wanted to unfairly cherry-pick in order to criticize Colorado, one could look at Pierre’s September performance: 152 wRC+ (.422/.464/.578) 98 plate appearances.

It might be tempting to say this was Pierre’s breakout, a harbinger of what was to come in Florida. As the examples above demonstrate, it was much more likely a random fluctuation. Yes, Pierre went on to have success in Florida. Whatever might have indicated more potential, just looking at September 2002 numbers with the Rockies as evidence in itself is a bad idea. Keep these examples in mind when following early-season statistical extremes.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Zach H
Zach H

Josh Donaldon’s 2012 wasn’t a terrible offensive season, and he was only in the big leagues for half the season. That said, it was a truly exceptional instance of hot and cold. Take a look at those monthly splits.