Recently we explored the phenomenon of Spike and Fluke seasons. This time we’ll explore a related subject, but alas, a less happy one.
There are Fades, and there are Flops. Each describes the circumstance of a player who demonstrates early career success, but then fails to sustain it. The Fade is the guy who year by year just recedes a little bit from his early glory, perhaps almost imperceptibly, until finally we realize that, at too young an age, he’s just not the same player he once was, and never will be again. The Flop, on the other hand, is much more dramatic: he achieves early height and then plummets with sudden alacrity, leaving us but to wince in anticipation of the puff of dust to come, Wile E. Coyote-like, when he hits bottom.
As in the case with Spikes and Flukes, Fades and Flops can occur to pitchers and hitters alike. But with pitchers there’s always the issue of arm injury as the obvious explanatory factor, rendering pitchers less prone to be considered in this vein than hitters. Of course hitters’ careers can be (and often are) marred by chronic or sudden injuries as well, and in those cases the Fade or Flop label doesn’t entirely fit. To be a true Fade or Flop, there can be no direct and obvious injury explanation. For that reason, we’ll focus our inquiry here on batters only – and we’ll exclude catchers for the same injury-likely reason — and we’ll take pains to include in the discussion only those batters for which we don’t have reason to suspect a significant injury issue. (I acknowledge, of course, that there may well be injury issues in several of these cases, of which I’m not aware.)
To that end, let’s dispense right away with a few cases that might, at first glance, appear to be Fades or Flops, but which don’t meet our criteria. Chuck Klein, Hal Trosky, Don Mattingly, and Kal Daniels, for instance, all had tremendous early careers that petered out, but they don’t qualify, because in all of their cases there were clear injury/illness explanations at hand. Nor will we count the flash-and-poof careers of the likes of Hack Wilson, Jim Ray Hart, John Mayberry, or Dave Parker, because each of those guys displayed, um, recreational habits that take them out of them realm of ordinary Fades and Flops.
In Bill James’ original Historical Baseball Abstract, he coined “The Clint Hartung Award” in honor of the player who, as “a spring training phenom in 1947, was promoted as having superstar ability either as a pitcher or a hitter. He had a modest career, and his name has become synonymous with the over-hyped prospect who fails to live up to his clippings.” Players like Hartung, who despite great potential/hype never achieve meaningful major league success, aren’t what we’re talking about here; our guys have to have had at least one really good full major league season. The players James cites as “Flameouts” are more along the lines of what we mean, and several of the Flameouts named in James’ book are among those we’ll include in our lists.
An interesting case for us to decide upon is Joe Charboneau. You take a look at his career record, and it screams out as one of the all-time classic Flops: from media-darling Rookie of the Year, to futility and minor league obscurity, all within the space of less than two years. However, I’m almost certain that Charboneau suffered an injury in late 1980 or early 1981 – a shoulder injury, I believe – that greatly contributed to his sudden struggles. While there’s good reason to suspect that, left to his own devices, Charboneau might well have managed to Flop quite nicely anyway, the injury lets him off the hook here.
One last digression … he doesn’t count because (a) he’s a pitcher, (b) it’s documented that he hurt his arm, and (c) the sample size was awfully small anyway, but still no discussion of Flops can fail to mention George Witt. 9-2, 1.61 as a rookie, and 0-7, 6.93 the very next year? 240 ERA+ to 56? All one can say is, “Ouch.”
Okay, then. Here are the 20 most frustrating Fades of the past 90 or so years:
20: Grady Hatton. An immediate regular at age 23 without an inning in the minors, he had a terrific rookie year, with an OPS+ of 128. He never matched it; by age 29 he was hitting .212, by age 30 he was a utility man.
19: Greg Luzinski. A four-time All-Star and four-time top ten MVP candidate through age 27, and a journeyman for the rest of his career.
18: Oddibe McDowell. At age 23, he was in the league top ten in runs scored, triples, and steals, and had hit 18 homers in each of his first two seasons. By age 26 he had been traded twice, and by age 27 he was released.
17: Dick Wakefield. A big-bonus prospect, he made a splash with tremendous (though clearly wartime-quality-of-competition-aided) performances in 1943 and 1944. But after the war he could never break through as more than a platoon player, and by his age-28 season he was a benchwarmer. A holdout at age 29 provided a bitter end to his major league days.
16: Bill Virdon. Rookie of the Year at 24, and an even better season at 25, it looked as though he would be a major star. He turned out instead to be a solid regular, but nothing special. If indeed it’s the case (as sometimes inferred) that deteriorating eyesight was to blame, then he could be excused from this list.
15: Juan Samuel. Through his age-26 season, he was a two-time All-Star, had stolen as many as 72 bases, hit as many as 19 triples, and led the league with 80 extra-base hits. By age 31, he was no longer a regular.
14: Earl Williams. In his 22-year-old Rookie of the Year season, he posted an OPS+ of 123. In the seasons that followed, his OPS+ rates were: 116, 114, 110, 82, 91, and 84. He was then released and gone. (Okay, Williams played most of his games at catcher, so for that reason he shouldn’t qualify here. But he never really was a full-time catcher, and besides, he’s just too perfect a Fade to leave out.)
13: Steve Kemp. An All-Star, sixth in the league in OPS+, at age 24. A platoon player by age 28, released in mid-season at age 31.
12: Pete Incaviglia. Hit 30 homers as a 22-year-old rookie, 27 as a sophomore, and by age 27 his days as a regular were over.
11: Will Clark. Between ages 23 and 28, never earned fewer than 25 Win Shares. After that, never earned as many as 20, until his final season, when he achieved exactly 20. A certain Hall of Fame career failed to materialize.
10: Josh Devore. As a 22-year-old rookie in 1910, he was in the top ten in batting average, runs scored, and stolen bases. Two years later he was a platoon player, and two years and three trades after that, he was out of the major leagues.
9: Ben Grieve. While there’s always some danger in assessing players mid-career, this fade is already a lock, stock, historical fact. Rookie of the Year and an All-Star at age 22, and a journeyman utility player at age 28.
8: Jesse Barfield. Through age 26, he was an All-Star, a home run champ, and twice a top-ten MVP candidate. Following that he never again was in the top five in any offensive category, and was out of the majors by age 32.
7: Harlond Clift. At age 25, he was third in the league in homers and walks, and fifth in RBIs and OPS+. By the time he was 30 he was nearly washed up. Hit 160 home runs through the age of 28, 18 thereafter.
6: Johnny Callison. The runner-up MVP at age 25, and a three-time All-Star through age 26, put together the eye-popping combination of 16 triples and 32 homers in 1965. The following year he led the league in doubles, but after that he was never near the leaders in anything, and after age 28 never got 500 at-bats again. (An explanation for Callison’s deterioration may be that he developed an addiction to greenies.)
5: Whitey Lockman. Achieved his career highs in runs scored, triples, home runs, and slugging at age 21. Achieved his career highs in at-bats, hits, doubles, stolen bases, batting average, and OBP at age 22. Never earned as many as 15 Win Shares in a season after age 25.
4: Johnny Groth. In his first season as a full-time regular, at age 23, Groth was in the top ten in hits, doubles, triples, and walks. He walked 3.5 times more than he struck out. For the rest of his career, he struck out slightly more than he walked, and by age 28 he was a utility man. Teammate George Kell’s recollection: “Groth was an interesting case … he showed in those first two years that he had the talent to become a star. But he didn’t seem to want that. He underestimated himself and after hitting .290 and .300, underachieved during the rest of his time with the Tigers and for the rest of his career. I think he was afraid to be in the spotlight.”
3: Garry Templeton. A two-time All-Star with 52 major league triples under his belt before his 24th birthday, Templeton was also an immature hothead who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way (including his manager, Whitey Herzog). The good news was that he calmed down and matured into a solid citizen. The bad news is, the nicer he got, the less he hit.
2: Rich Rollins. As a rookie, he made the All-Star team and finished 8th in the league in MVP voting. Here are his Win Shares, season by season: 23, 19, 14, 10, 5, 7, 4, 3, 1.
1: Ruben Sierra. Merits the Number One Fade status for his combination of stupendous talent and long-term underachievement. Sierra has salvaged his career by adding the 2001-2004 coda, but the space from 1993 and 2000 will forever remain sadly underfilled. He is now 39; he earned more than half of his career Win Shares through age 25.
I’m not sure whether there are many more Flops than Fades, but I do know that I’ve identified more. Maybe Flops are just more devilish fun. Anyway, here are the Top Thirty All-Time Flops:
30: Merv Rettenmund. Muscled his way into the crowded Baltimore outfield with scintillating 322/394/544 and 318/422/448 performances in 1970 and 1971. He then collapsed to 233/325/339, his OPS+ tumbling from 149 to 96. Was a utility man the rest of his career.
29: Don Wert. Playing in the same league as Brooks Robinson, Wert never won a Gold Glove, but he was a terrific defensive third baseman. And in 1964 through 1967, at ages 25 through 28, he was a solid and consistent hitter as well, with OPS+ figures of 90, 100, 104, and 93, earning 15, 21, 17, and 14 Win Shares. But in 1968 he suddenly forgot how to hit, tumbling to an even .200, with an OPS+ of 67, and 7 Win Shares. He never rebounded. Traded to the Senators as part of the Denny McLain trade, in 1971 he went 2-for-40 (OPS+ of -31) before being released in June.
28: Willie Kirkland. Through age 27, Kirkland had never had an OPS+ below 106, or fewer than 13 Win Shares. In his age-27 season, he achieved career highs in runs, hits, homers, and RBIs, and earned 18 Win Shares. At age 28 his batting average plummeted to .200, his OPS+ to 75, and his Win Shares to 7. By age 30 he was no longer a regular, and he played his last major league game at age 32.
27: Beau Bell. A 1937 American League All-Star, in ’36 and ’37, at ages 28 and 29, Bell was in the top ten in hits, doubles, triples, extra-base hits, total bases, RBIs, times on base, and batting average. He posted OPS+ rates of 119 and 124, and earned 18 and 16 Win Shares. Over the next two seasons, he tumbled in batting (.340 to .262 to .235), slugging (.509 to .414 to .307), and OPS+ (124 to 91 to 65). His Win Shares went from 16 to 9 to 2.
26: George Altman. An All-Star at ages 28 and 29 in both 1961 and 1962, he put together remarkably consistent performances: OPS+ of 137 and 137, Win Shares of 20 and 20. From there he might as well have been on Alpine skis: 318/393/511 to 274/339/401 to 230/262/332; 137 OPS+ to 105 to 68, 20 Win Shares to 15 to 5 to 3 to 1 to 0.
25: Johnny Lipon. Ages 25 through 27, Lipon’s OPS+: 106, 84, 89. His Win Shares: 18, 13, 19. Ages 28 through 30, Lipon’s OPS+: 72, 54, 44. His Win Shares: 8, 6, 3. He had one unsuccessful pinch-hit at-bat in his age-31 season, and then was released.
24: Buddy Kerr. A highly regarded defensive shortstop, at ages 23 and 24, Kerr put together OPS+ performances of 87 and 89, earning 12 and 16 Win Shares. He then suddenly and irretrievably lost the ability to hit at all. Over the next four years his OPS+ figures were 64, 39, 64, and 43. His last major league appearance came at the age of 28.
23: Bob Robertson. Hit .287 and .271 with 27 and 26 homers at ages 23 and 24, then thudded to a .193 nightmare at age 25. Played until he was 32, but earned more than half of his career Win Shares in those two good early years.
22: Tuck Turner. In 1894, this 21-year-old switch-hitter burst onto the scene, finishing second in the league with a .416 average, and was in the top ten in OBP, slugging, and OPS+. Played in only 59 games in 1895 (an injury?), but his OPS+ improved slightly, to 148. But that was all she wrote; the next year he collapsed to a .243 average in a league that batted .290. He made his last major league appearance just four months after his 25th birthday.
21: Carlos Baerga. At age 26, he was a three-time All-Star, and over four straight years his batting average had been between .312 and .321, his OBP between .333 and .355, his slugging between .452 and .525, and his OPS+ between 109 and 128. Then the bottom dropped out at age 27, as he fell to 254/293/381, and an OPS+ of 71. His Win Shares plunged from 23 to 6. He never had more than 11 Win Shares again.
20: Pete Ward. Another one of the many Flops that haunted the American League in the 1960s. Ward was a top-ten MVP vote getter in his first two seasons in the majors. He never again hit as high as .250.
19: Mike Davis. Put up a solid three-year run from ages 26 through 28, with OPS+ marks of 133, 113, and 112, and Win Shares of 23, 18, and 14. The Dodgers signed him as a free agent. He proceeded to keel over to an OPS+ of 55, earned 2 Win Shares, and was gone from the majors as soon as his two-year deal expired. Heh heh heh.
18: Mike Epstein. Though he had never quite lived up to the expectations set for him after his minor league slugging exploits, Epstein did establish himself as a bona fide major league slugger. In 1972, at age 29, he was third in the league in home runs, fifth in slugging, sixth in OBP, and fourth in OPS+, with 163. He earned 27 Win Shares. That fall he proceeded to have a terrible post-season, going 3-for-32. Charlie Finley sent him away in what appeared to be a spite trade, straight up for a nondescript journeyman reliever. Epstein then had a spectacularly bad year, with an OPS+ of 81. The next April he was released, and just three weeks past his 31st birthday his career was over.
17: Jim Greengrass. A 24-year-old Yankee farmhand acquired by Cincinnati as part of the Ewell Blackwell deal in late 1952, Greengrass was installed in the Reds’ outfield and made an immediate splash, smacking 5 homers and driving in 24 runs in 18 September games. He settled in as a productive regular for the next two seasons. Traded to the Phillies, his collapse in the following two years was sudden and sure: batting average (.280 to .254 to .205), home runs (27 to 12 to 5), RBIs (95 to 38 to 25), and slugging (.494 to .425 to .335). Just four years after his sensational debut, he played his last game in the major leagues.
16: Harry Anderson. The Phillies’ revenge for Greengrass. At age 26 in 1958, he was an emerging star in Philadelphia, in the league’s top ten in doubles, extra-base hits, RBIs, total bases, OBP, slugging, and OPS+. His descent, which only accelerated after a trade to the Reds, was precipitous: batting average (.301 to .240 to .214), home runs (23 to 14 to 6), RBIs (97 to 63 to 21), and slugging (.524 to .402 to .358). He was gone from the majors at age 29.
15: Jim Finigan. An All-Star in his rookie season. How things went from there, as seen by various metrics: batting average (.302 to .255 to .216), OPS+ (120 to 93 to 55), and Win Shares (21 to 14 to 2).
14: Sam Bowens. Had a splendid rookie year at age 25, putting up an OPS+ of 114, and earning 18 Win Shares. The next season his batting average took a nice clean 100-point dive, from .263 to .163, as his OPS+ dropped to 38, and his Win Shares to 2. At the end of the 1964 season, he had a career batting average of .270 in 549 at-bats; for the rest of his career, in 738 at-bats, he hit .188.
13: Hoot Evers. In 1950, at age 29, Evers was an All-Star for the second time, and in the top ten in doubles, triples, extra-base hits, RBIs, total bases, batting, slugging, OBP, and OPS+. The following season his average plunged 99 points, and his OPS+ went from 141 to 76. It was among the tallest cliffs off which anyone has ever stepped. Evers earned 91 Win Shares in the five seasons from 1946 through 1950, and 31 in the six seasons that followed.
12: Tom Tresh. One of the all time classics. Through age 27, Tresh had under his belt a Rookie of the Year award, a Gold Glove, a top-ten MVP finish, and two All-Star teams. His OPS+ that year was 134. Following that, it was 122, then 103, then 89, then 79 and out.
11: Dave Roberts. In June of 1972, the very first pick in that year’s amateur draft, Roberts went straight from the University of Oregon to the San Diego Padres’ starting lineup. The following season he made it look like the right choice, blossoming with a .286, 21-homer, 122 OPS+ performance. The following year, in 113 games, he hit .167, producing an OPS+ of 42. He would never be more than a major league benchwarmer again.
10: Jimmie Hall. In his first three years in the majors, Hall was twice an All-Star, and had OPS+ rates of 136, 124, and 125. He earned 21, 19, and 26 Win Shares. Then at age 28 he lost his ability to hit for average, but still produced the long ball, and he had two decent years as a platoon player, with 108 and 116 OPS+, and 10 and 15 Win Shares. Then he just totally lost his ability to hit anything, putting up OPS+ marks of 69, 76, and 30, and Win Shares of 3, 5, and 1.
9: Adolfo Phillips. The other guy the Cubs got from the Phillies along with Fergie Jenkins, for a short while it appeared as though Phillips might turn out to be at least an equal prize. Phillips was a center fielder with good power and great speed. But he was also a brooding, nervous type, and he and Leo Durocher didn’t get along at all. Phillips’s OPS+ for 1967 through 1969: 136, 109, 82, with corresponding totals of 26, 16, and 4 Win Shares. His final major league base hit came at the age of 28.
8: Curt Blefary. The A.L. Rookie of the Year at age 21, Blefary was 6th in the league in OPS+ in both his first and second seasons. From ages 22 through 24, his OPS+ went from 142 to 122 to 89. By the age of 26 he was no longer a regular. He would be traded four times in a three-and-a-half-year period, and make his last major league appearance at the age of 29.
7: Carson Bigbee. At the age of 27 in 1922, Bigbee was in the top ten in runs, hits, triples, RBIs, steals, batting, OBP, and OPS+. His subsequent downward slide could scarcely have been more fluid: batting average (.350 to .299 to .262 to .238), OPS+ (124 to 88 to 65 to 42), and Win Shares (23 to 13 to 5 to 1).
6: Lee Thomas. The amazing case of the guy with two separate and distinct Flops in a single career. A 290/355/467 All-Star at 26 in 1962, he slumped horribly the next season to 220/301/316, going from 22 Win Shares to 9. But he rebounded with a solid age-28 season, and then was as good as ever again at age 29, with an OPS+ of 128. But he Flopped again, and this time there was no turning back: his OPS+ marks in his final three years were 71, 60, and 46, earning Win Shares of 4, 2, and 1.
5: Nate Colbert. At the age of 26, he was one of the most devastating power hitters in baseball. He was second in the majors in home runs, and drove in 111 runs for a Padres team that scored a total of 488. In one doubleheader that season he hit 5 homers and drove in 13 runs. Over the next three years, his OPS+ went from 144 to 127 to 95 to 50. His RBIs went from 111 to 80 to 54 to 29. His Win Shares went from 28 to 20 to 11 to 1.
4: Harry Lumley. Playing in an extremely low-scoring environment, Lumley’s raw numbers may not catch your eye, but this guy could really hit. From 1904 through 1907, at ages 23 through 26, he was consistently among the best power producers in the league, with OPS+ of 135, 130, 179, and 141, and Win Shares of 20, 17, 35, and 19. He then just suddenly and completely lost it, and was gone from the majors before his 30th birthday.
3: Don Hurst. In 1932, at the age of 26, Hurst put up a season in which he led the league in RBIs, and was in the top ten in runs, hits, doubles, homers, walks, total bases, batting, OBP, slugging, and OPS+. He was seventh in the league MVP vote. His OPS+ proceeded to go from 144 to 94 to 59, and his Win Shares from 23 to 9 to 3. He made his last major league appearance just past his 29th birthday.
2: Mitchell Page. As a 25-year-old rookie, he was in the top ten in walks, steals, OBP, slugging, and OPS+. Three years later he was no longer a regular; a year after that he was back in the minors. His Win Shares, 1977 through 1981: 30, 20, 8, 8, 0. His strikeouts per plate appearance, 1977 through 1981: .160, .164, .173, .221, .287.
And The Envelope Please …
1: Zoilo Versalles. Quite simply the greatest ever; the Sultan of Flops.
You’ll sometimes hear it said that Versalles was the least talented player to ever win an MVP award. While that’s debatably true, it remains the case that in 1965 he had a completely brilliant year: a Gold Glove shortstop who leads the league in runs, doubles, triples, extra base hits, and total bases, and is third in stolen bases, can be said to have had an MVP-caliber season. He earned 32 Win Shares, second in the league only to Tony Oliva’s 33. Versalles had been a Gold Glove winner (in a league that included Luis Aparicio, Ron Hansen, Ed Brinkman, and Jim Fregosi) and an All-Star prior to 1965, and he was just 25 years old.
It was a lofty perch, and Versalles’ fall was immediate and sickening. In 1966 he saw his batting average drop by 24 points, while producing fewer than half as many extra-base hits as in ’65: his Isolated Power went from .189 to .095. He went from a 27-for-32 base stealer to 10-for-22. He went from 32 Win Shares to 12. And he was just getting started.
In 1967 Versalles played in 160 games and had 626 plate appearances, in which he made 489 outs. His on-base percentage was .249, and his slugging percentage was .282. He had created 97 runs in 1965, and 56 in 1966; in 1967 Versalles created 39 runs. His OPS+ went from 116 to 83 to 52. He played 160 games in 1967, and earned 9 Win Shares. If Zoilo Versalles’ 1967 season wasn’t the very worst a full-time player has ever had, it was certainly one of the top contenders.
Unsurprisingly, the Twins traded Versalles that off-season, and with the Dodgers in 1968 Versalles presented a performance that was eerily, drearily, a near exact match of his ’67. His Flop had proved to be no Fluke. The next three years would see Versalles pass through four more major league organizations, with a stint in the Mexican League along the way, before receiving his final release three days after his 32nd birthday.
Perhaps someday there will be a greater Flop than that demonstrated by Zoilo Versalles. If so, it will be an amazing achievement. The bar has been set very, very high.
References & Resources
George Kell’s quote about Johnny Groth is taken from Danny Peary’s wonderful book, We Played the Game (Hyperion, 1994), p. 132.
Joe Charboneau played his high school ball in Santa Clara, California, my hometown, for the neighboring high school (our archrivals). He was a senior when I was a freshman. Make of that whatever you will. Dude!