Of Spikes, and Flukes, and Grabarkewitz

All right now, it’s time for a little historical baseball stat nerd brain teaser!

Please take a look at the table below:

   '62 '63 '64 '65 '66 '67 '68 '69 '70 '71 '72 '73 '74 '75 '76 '77 '78  Total  '70%
A    7  13  10   8   4   0   5  12  24  12  13   4   1   -   -   -   -   113    21%
B    -   -   -   -   0   5  14   9  29  19   2   6   -   -   -   -   -    84    35%
C    -   -   -   -   -   0   -   4  24   9   8  10   2   4   4   1   1    67    36%
D    -   -   -   -   -   -   -   1  29   3   2   5   3   0   -   -   -    43    67%

Okay, here are your questions:

1) Who are Players A, B, C, and D?
2) What is the statistic displayed in the table?

And here are your hints:

1) All four were right-handed batters.
2) All four spent all or most of their careers in the National League, including the obviously significant season of 1970.
3) Player A was an outfielder-first baseman, Player B was a catcher, Player C was an outfielder, and Player D was an infielder.

Now, NO PEEKING down to the bottom of the article. Think about it and take your best guesses. The answers will be revealed at the end.

As may be evident, today we’re looking at spike and fluke seasons. Now, “spike” seasons is the polite term for these kinds of events. The less complimentary expression – the “glass half-empty” term, perhaps – would be “fluke” seasons.

I guess the difference would be the degree to which you think the – okay, here’s another name for it – outlier season represents the player’s true peak ability level, which for one reason or another he was only able to achieve one time; if that’s the case, he “spiked” from his previously unnaturally low level of achievement up to where he belonged all along, and then for whatever reason was unable to keep it up. If, on the other hand, you think the guy wasn’t really that good, but everything randomly broke right for him that one year, and the rest of his career is a better picture of his true level of ability, then you’ll probably be more inclined to call it a fluke.

Let’s consider a couple of examples to illustrate the difference between a spike and a fluke.

Pete Reiser, 1941. In his first full big league season, at the age of 22, Reiser dazzles the baseball world with his breadth of skill. The next year, he begins his annual ritual of getting hurt, often by colliding with concrete outfield walls. His mounting injuries, along with losing three prime seasons to WWII, mean that Reiser will never have another season approaching his 1941; in that year he reaches his career highs in nearly every category, by a wide margin.

Was Reiser’s 1941 a fluke? No, I’d call it a spike. It’s pretty evident that he really was that good, but was just never fully healthy for another full season.

So how about this one: Brady Anderson, 1996. The guy is going along, having a real nice career, good but not great, dependable leadoff man who also gives you 15-20 homers a year. Then out of the blue, in his age 32 season: 50 home runs. The very next year, it’s back to normal, as though 1996 had never happened, hitting 15-20 homers a year again.

That would be your basic fluke.

What would be another spike? Let’s look at Bob Cerv, 1958. Cerv is trapped in the overloaded Yankees’ farm system and on their bench through his age-30 season. He hits well when he gets a chance to play, but that is practically never: his career high in at-bats with the Yankees is 115. Then finally at age 31 he gets traded, to the Kansas City A’s, and he spends a season as a semi-regular utility man, hitting pretty well in 345 at-bats.

Then in 1958, at age 32, for the first time ever, he gets to play as a regular in the majors. What does he do? Oh, nothing more than bust out a .305, 38-homer monster year. He’s never again able to match that, as he’s now well into his thirties, and leg injuries begin to hound him.

Would Cerv have hit 38 homers every year if he had gotten the chance? I really doubt it. But neither do I think those 1958 stats were all that far out of line with his true talent level. I’d call Bob Cerv’s 1958 season much more of a spike than a fluke.

And how about another fluke? Oh, let’s see, there are so many … so many obvious ones that you’re probably familiar with … Norm Cash 1961? Nah, too cliché. Rick Wilkins 1993? You know all about that one, too. Dave Johnson 1973? Please. Way too cliché …

All right, here’s one who might not know about: Wally Moses, 1937. In his third season in the majors, at the age of 26, after having hit 5 and 7 home runs, Moses suddenly puts up superstar numbers: 48 doubles, 13 triples, and 25 homers, along with a .320 average. Is a Hall of Fame career in the making? Well, no: Moses plays 14 more years in the majors, and never again hits as many as 10 homers in a season, and usually hits around 2 or 3. His 1937 Slugging Percentage was .550; only once more will it ever be as high as .450.

Was Moses really as good as he looked in 1937? No, I don’t think he was. I think Wally Moses in 1937 had one of the all-time classic fluke years.

You may have noticed that all the players we’ve looked at here have been position players, and none have been pitchers. That’s not because pitchers can’t have spike or fluke years; of course they can. But pitchers are so unpredictable under any circumstances that it’s harder to clearly identify obvious spikes or peaks. Nevertheless, we can come up with a good example of each.

Spike year? Look no further than Steve Carlton, 1972. A good-but-not-great pitcher busts out in his age-27 season with one of the greatest seasons any pitcher has ever had, going 27-10 for a dreadful 59-97 last-place team. He never has as great a year again – but it isn’t a fluke year, because Carlton goes on to have four more 20-win seasons, and one of the all-time great pitching careers, winding up with 329 victories and 4,136 strikeouts. ’72 was a spike year for Carlton.

A classic pitching fluke year was Dick Ellsworth in 1963. After getting drubbed to the tune of 9-20, 5.09 in ’62, out of nowhere Ellsworth in ’63 was 22-10 with a 2.11 ERA, allowing just 223 hits in 291 innings. Following that he had only one winning season ever again, and never allowed fewer hits than innings pitched. Ellsworth was never really as good a pitcher as he appeared in 1963; it was just one of those wacky random things.

Now let’s tip our caps, as some more of the most notable outlier seasons pass before us on parade.

Spike Seasons:

Brett Boone, 2001. Whether steroid-enhanced or not, it’s clearly true that a much stronger Boone suddenly emerged in 2001, and hit a flipping ton. He wasn’t able to quite match that performance in subsequent seasons, but certainly in 2001 Boone revealed a legitimate new level of ability.

Henry Rodriguez, 1996. Performing less than well in limited opportunities in a poor hitters’ park in LA, Rodriguez tore it up when finally getting a chance to play every day.

Andres Galarraga, 1993. The joy of thin-air baseball wasn’t all that El Gato Grande found in ’93; he also used a new open stance-approach to become a genuinely terrific hitter at the age of 32. The .370 average specifically was fluky, but Galarraga’s entry into the echelon of very fine hitters was not.

Bill Robinson, 1973. That huge sigh you heard back in 1973 came from 30-year-old Bill Robinson, who finally hit the way the Yankees had thought he would when they traded Clete Boyer for him back in 1966. Robinson remained streaky and inconsistent as all get-out following ’73, but he had some more good years later, and it became clear that 1973 was the real Bill Robinson — or at least one of them.

Bob Bailey, 1970. A much-ballyhooed big-bonus kid to whom the Pirates gave a regular job at age 20 in 1963, Bailey failed to develop. Seven years and two teams later, as a utility man with little sustained success behind him, Bailey suddenly gave a great impression of Harmon Killebrew. He never hit quite like that again, but proved over the next few years to be a genuinely good hitter.

Felix Mantilla, 1964. Okay, the 30 homers were kind of fluky, but it certainly appears that Mantilla could really hit. What might have been a star career was derailed by his woeful flop when handed the Braves’ starting second base job in 1959, and his subsequent burial on their bench.

Tito Francona, 1959. No, he wasn’t really a .363 hitter, but the Francona who came out of nowhere in 1959 was a legitimately fine (though definitely slump-prone) performer with the bat.

Charlie Maxwell, 1956. He didn’t get a chance to play until he was 29, but when he got it, he took full advantage.

Walker Cooper, 1947. To a certain extent, Cooper’s sudden splurge of 35 homers at age 32 (never having hit more than 13 previously) was an illusion of the wartime Balata Ball and the Polo Grounds park effect. But it was more than that; Cooper remained a genuine home run threat following ’47, though he never had another season close to that one.

Fluke Seasons:

Rich Aurilia, 2001. Yes, he had Barry Bonds batting behind him. But he did as well in 2002 and 2003. Aurilia in 2001 was a great and wonderful (for we Giants’ fans) fluke.

Luis Gonzalez, 2001. Not quite Brady Anderson, but certainly Bradyesque.

Bernard Gilkey, 1996. When a 29-year-old, smack in the middle of a 12-year career, has career highs (most of them by far) in games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBIs, walks, BA, OBP, and SLG — well, folks, there’s just no other word for it but fluke.

Dale Sveum, 1987. Having a fluke year at age 23 can sometimes allow a player to play until he’s 35.

Miguel Dilone, 1980. I know batting average is subject to a lot of random variation, but Miguel Dilone hitting .341 was just ridiculous.

Steve Stone, 1980. No, he really wasn’t that good. And winning the Cy Young Award, too. Wow.

Al Cowens, 1977. Not quite Wally Moses 1937, but something very much up that alley.

Tommy Harper, 1970. And Harper is not one of the guys in the quiz.

Rico Petrocelli, 1969. Petrocelli was a very fine player. But if he had played consistently the way he played in 1969, he’d be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Ken Harrelson, 1968. What is it with these Chicago broadcasters?

Jim Gentile, 1961. 1961′s left-handed first-base version of 1969 Rico Petrocelli.

Walt Dropo, 1950. One of the all-time greatest flukes. Dropo never even had a year nearly that good in the minors.

Jim Konstanty, 1950. Sometimes, things happen for which there is just no rational explanation.

Gene Bearden, 1948. Furthermore, just to be a wise guy, Bearden, a .236 lifetime batter, hit .354 in 1952.

Tommy Holmes, 1945. I know it was a war year and all, but still. I’ve always wondered if maybe Stan Musial didn’t really go into the service that year, but instead just played right field for the Braves, disguised as Holmes.

Special Brady Anderson Home Runs Only Fluke Category:

These are seasons in which a hitter did everything else pretty much the way he always did, but for some strange reason hit vastly more home runs than he had any right to.

Benito Santiago, 1996
Terry Steinbach, 1996
Wade Boggs, 1987
Wally Joyner, 1987
Bert Campaneris, 1970 (Also not one of the guys in the quiz.)
Chico Fernandez, 1962
Roger Maris, 1961 (The Rico Petrocelli comment applies here big time.)
Willard Marshall, 1947
Joe Kuhel, 1940
Ival Goodman, 1938
Gabby Hartnett, 1930

Historical Baseball Stat Nerd Brain Teaser Answers

As may be obvious by now, 1970 was perhaps the greatest season ever for flukes. (1996 was a pretty good one too.) In 1970, there was Bailey, there was Harper, there was Campaneris, there was Wes Parker, and Bernie Carbo, and Dick Selma, and Mudcat Grant, and Jake Gibbs, and there were these four characters:

Player A is Jim Hickman. A knockabout utility outfielder who played regularly for the early Mets only because they were so bad, Hickman’s lone asset was pretty good power. Except in 1970, when he suddenly and mysteriously hit like Mickey Mantle all summer long. Remember the 1970 All-Star Game, when Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 10th inning? It was Hickman’s single that drove him in — Hickman’s only All-Star appearance, of course.

Player B is Dick Dietz. Okay, here’s a funky trivia stat for ya: in all of baseball history, only one catcher ever had a season in which he batted at least .300, with at least 100 RBIs, and at least 100 walks. You guessed it, it was Mr. Dietz in 1970 — and he was the on-deck batter when Hickman drove in Rose, in, yes, his lone All-Star appearance.

Player C is Clarence “Cito” Gaston. Seasons don’t get much flukier than Gaston’s 1970. He as well made the only major league All-Star team of his career that year.

Player D is none other than the immortal Billy Grabarkewitz, the obscure scrubeenie who for one year gave us a foreshadowing of Craig Biggio, only with more consonants. Grabarkewitz in 1970 had one of the all-time great fluke years, making the NL All-Star team alongside Hickman, Dietz, and Gaston, completing what was without question the greatest fluke quartet in history.

The stat in question in the table above is Win Shares. Grabarkewitz did indeed collect fully two-thirds of his career Win Shares in the single season of 1970.

What It All Means

So how did you do on the quiz? Give yourself one point for each player you got right, and two points if you figured out that the stat in question was Win Shares.

If you got zero correct answers: you have a life.

If you got one or two points: congratulations, you’re a proto-nerd.

If you got three or four points: significant geekiness is among your primary character traits.

If you got five points: you’re mentally beating yourself up for missing that one guy. Aren’t you.

If you got the maximum of six points: you’re the guy who beat me at that last SABR trivia contest. Not that I’m bitter about that, or anything.

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