How Long is a Fluke a Fluke?

fluke (flook)
n.

1) A stroke of good luck.
2) A chance occurrence; an accident.

When Bret Boone hit .331/.372/.578 with 37 homers, 37 doubles and 141 RBIs for the 2001 Mariners, everyone assumed it was one of the biggest fluke seasons in baseball history. After all, before that amazing year, Boone had never even hit 25 homers or knocked in 100 runs, and he came into the season a career .255/.312/.413 hitter in over 1,000 games.

Then Boone hit 24 homers and drove in 107 runs in 2002 (though his .278/.339/.462 line was significantly down from 2001) and his 2001 season appeared to be slightly less flukish. Last season, Boone had the second-best year of his career, hitting .294/.366/.535 with 35 homers, 35 doubles and 117 RBIs.

If someone hits .331/.372/.578 and then hits .294/.366/.535 just two years later, can the first of those two seasons really still be considered a fluke? In other words, what if Brady Anderson had followed up his 50-homer 1996 season with 42 homers in 1998? At what point is a fluke season no longer a fluke season?

Perhaps the biggest fluke season of 2003 came from Esteban Loaiza. Before last season, Loaiza had never had an ERA below 4.00, he had never pitched 200 innings in a year, and he had never won more than 11 games in a season.

Loaiza signed with the White Sox for $500,000 as a free agent and, completely out of nowhere, went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA in 226.1 innings, finishing second to Roy Halladay for the American League Cy Young award.

Was Loaiza’s 2003 season a fluke? Obviously when compared to the previous years of his career it was, but I actually thought he had changed as a pitcher. He was throwing harder, he was throwing a new pitch, and he was just generally pitching differently. In other words, I didn’t think it could be chalked up to simply luck. That said, I think that the early indications this year are that I was wrong.

Loaiza has a 4.16 ERA in nine starts this year and, while he is on pace to pitch well over 200 innings for just the second time, all of his other numbers look much more like the pre-2003 version than last year’s ace.

YEAR(S)        ERA     SO/9     BB/9     SO/BB      H/9     HR/9
1995-2002     4.88     5.44     2.56      2.12    10.56     1.16
2003          2.90     8.23     2.23      3.70     7.79     0.68
2004          4.17     4.45     2.87      1.55     9.04     1.44

The things that made Loaiza so good last season were that he was able to increase his strikeout rate dramatically while cutting his home runs nearly in half. He always had pretty good control, so improving those other two areas in such drastic ways made a huge difference.

So far this year though, he’s back to his old tricks. He’s not striking anyone out and, while his control is still decent, he is serving up homers like crazy (he gave up 17 all of last year and has allowed 10 already this season).

Compare what Loaiza has done through his first nine starts this season to where he was at after nine starts last year:

YEAR       IP      ERA     SO     BB      H     HR
2003     58.2     1.99     48     16     45      3
2004     62.2     4.17     31     20     63     10

What a difference a year makes, huh? His ERA has more than doubled, his strikeout rate has fallen by 40% and he has given up over three times as many homers. The only thing he is doing better than last year is throwing more innings, which is probably just due to the fact that the White Sox think of him as a better, more reliable pitcher now than they did through the first six weeks last year.

I think there’s a good chance that Esteban Loaiza’s 2003 season will go down as one of the strangest, completely-out-of-nowhere seasons in baseball history. The guy was the epitome of “bleh” for the first 30 years of his life, finishes second in the AL Cy Young balloting as a 31-year-old, and then goes back to blehness for the rest of his career, however long that might be. There’s still plenty of time for him to prove me wrong, of course, but it’s not looking good for this season.

Meanwhile, while Loaiza was having the biggest fluke season for a pitcher in 2003, Melvin Mora was having one hell of a fluke season of his own at the plate.

Mora came into last season at 31 years old, with a career hitting line of .249/.334/.388 in 475 games. In 2002, he batted .233/.338/.404 in 149 games with the Orioles. He was back with the Orioles in 2003, but something was immediately different. He hit .294/.438/.627 in April and then …

           AVG      OBP      SLG       OPS
April     .294     .438     .627     1.065
May       .379     .458     .563     1.021
June      .355     .463     .553     1.016

Suddenly it was July and Melvin Mora was Manny Ramirez. After three months of the 2003 season, Mora was hitting .352/.455/.574 with 11 homers, 16 doubles, 39 walks, 48 runs scored and 38 RBIs in 64 games.

Finally, in July, Mora started to come back down to earth. He hit just .244/.306/.372 in the month (remarkably similar to his 2003 numbers) to drop his season totals down to .325/.420/.523.

Then, in the beginning of August, Mora was placed on the disabled list with a hand injury. Mora injured the hand way back on June 20, when he was hit on the hand by a Greg Maddux pitch. He missed the next four games after being hit, but then returned to the lineup and played despite experiencing pain for the entire month of July.

Mora missed all of August and returned to the Orioles on September 2. He played for two weeks, hitting just .250/.400/.333, and then called it quits, sitting out the final 16 games of the season.

I expected Mora to come back down to earth like he did, but the fact that a serious injury coincided with his dropoff in performance cast a little doubt on whether or not it was a total fluke.

Before being hit on the hand, he was batting .361/.464/.582 for a 1.046 OPS. After being hit, he batted .250/.342/.382 for a .724 OPS. Basically, what that injury did was cost us a chance to see if Mora could complete what was looking like one of the great fluke seasons in baseball history.

Well, maybe not. Mora started this season healthy and he has picked up right where he left off before the injury. He is batting .389/.476/.631 on the year, including .361/.449/.506 in April and .419/.506/.784 in May. That means his last five healthy months look like this:

MONTH          AVG      OBP      SLG       OPS
April '03     .294     .438     .627     1.065
May '03       .379     .458     .563     1.021
June '03      .355     .463     .553     1.016
April '04     .361     .449     .506      .955
May '04       .419     .506     .784     1.290

Pretty amazing, huh?

Those five months combine to form nearly one full-season’s worth of baseball (April to September is six months). And if you do that — combine the five months — here’s what you get:

 AB      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG       OPS     2B     HR     BB     RUN     RBI     SB
387     460     .367     .466     .597     1.063     30     19     63      87      68     10

Not a bad five months. To put that into some context, Todd Helton, Coors Field and all, hit .358/.458/.630 last season, Albert Pujols hit .359/.439/.667, and Manny Ramirez hit .325/.427/.587.

So there you have it. Esteban Loaiza? Looks like a fluke. Melvin Mora? Not a fluke, at least as long as he can keep his hands away from Greg Maddux.

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