The Best Seasons to (Sort Of) Come Out of (Almost) Nowhere in Jays’ History: Part I

I was doing a little reading over at mlbtraderumors.com when I came across a note that Reed Johnson’s 2014 option is likely to be picked up by Atlanta. I was pleased; I like Reed Johnson. The reasons that I like Reed Johnson are numerous; one of the reasons is that he had such a great season in 2006.

I find myself to be kind of intrigued by outliers, aka career years. Where’d they come from? Why couldn’t they be repeated? Jays’ fans might be surprised to know that erstwhile Jays’ manager Cito Gaston had a career season as an outfielder for the San Diego Padres in 1970. He was 26 years old and had a grand total of 446 MLB plate appearances under his belt. In 1970, he posted 92 R, 64 xbh, a 146 OPS+, and slashed .318/.364/.543. Cito played for another 9 seasons, but he never really approached those numbers again.

A little more than 2 years later, shortstop Davey Johnson (the recently-retired manager of the Nationals) was traded by Baltimore to Atlanta. He terrorized National League pitching for the entire 1973 season, hitting 43 home runs. His previous career high was 18, and he never hit more than 15 after 1973. He was pretty tough on Cito’s Padres, slashing .339/.458/.627 with 7 xbh in 18 G.

Well, enough of that. The Jays have enjoyed their fair share of career years, too, and Reed Johnson made me think of some of them. This isn’t intended to be exhaustive. As a matter of fact, it’s selective: when multiple players at one position enjoyed a career year, I’ve made a choice.

There were a number of factors behind the choices that I made. Sometimes it was team performance, sometimes it was personal performance, sometimes career spectrum factored into the process. Perhaps you remember someone whom I’ve either forgotten or de-selected. Feel free to let me know. At any rate, it’s supposed to be fun. I hope you enjoy it.

The Starters

Year

Player

Position

bWAR

Age

1997

Roger Clemens

SP

12.1

34

1984

Doyle Alexander

SP

6.1

33

1995

Al Leiter

SP

5.7

29

1993

Pat Hentgen

SP

3.4

24

2005

Gustavo Chacin

SP

3.2

24

Roger Clemens

I wrestled with his inclusion but I got over my hesitation: 1997 was both a career year and unexpected for “The Rocket”. He’d been declining for several years but a slight resurgence in effectiveness, if not results, in 1996 didn’t stop Boston from letting him walk after 13 terrific seasons.

His signing as a free agent rejuvenated the hope of a franchise not-far-removed from league dominance. He was all-world for Toronto, winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown. In 264 IP he gave up 9 home runs and his ERA+ was 222. It’s shame that they didn’t have enough talent around him to challenge the Yankees.

Doyle Alexander

The Jays broke the .500 barrier for the first time in 1983 and were expected to improve on their 4th place finish and compete for the AL East in ’84. The Detroit Tigers, led by Sparky Anderson, were a juggernaut in ’84. Their 35-5 start to the season put to rest any serious threats to their dominance. Still, Sports Illustrated called the Jays as the best little 2nd place team in baseball.

Doyle Alexander was somewhat of a journeyman, even for the early days of free agency. He’d only been good once, in 1977 with the Texas Rangers, and Toronto was his 4th team since then, so not much was expected. Coming to the Jays breathed new life into his waning career as the Jays cleared the .500 mark again but no one expected a 6+ WAR season in 1984. Seriously, who expects 260+ IP from a 33-year-old, has-been junk-baller? But that’s exactly what he gave them—and much more—as he and the Jays tried to keep the Tigers in the crosshairs.

Al Leiter

Acquired in a trade with the Yankees for fan favourite Jesse Barfield, Leiter had big shoes to fill. Expectations were tempered, though: Barfield was obviously in decline, and Leiter’s injury issues and failure to live up to the hype in New York suggested this trade may not work out for either team. His World Series heroics did little to deflect criticism for regular season mediocrity, until 1995.

In 1995 Al Leiter was healthy and started to pitch the way everyone thought he could. Career highs in innings pitched and starts led to a 5.7 bWAR, suggesting that Leiter finally cleared some major obstacles. It made his departure (defection?) to Florida via free agency that much more irritating, especially when he became one of the best lefties in MLB. Just ask Gord Ash.

Pat Hentgen

Hentgen was another pitcher who was expected to develop into a good pitcher. How good was anyone’s guess, but the signs were there. Unlike Leiter, Hentgen’s issues were simply issues of time, training, and development.

He got his chance to strut his stuff with the reigning World Series champions on a staff loaded with big names. Dave Stewart, Jack Morris, and Danny Cox all had World Series experience, and fellow youngsters Todd Stottlemyre and Juan Guzman were already more established. An ERA+ of 112 and 216.1 IP from the 24-year old helped propel the Jays into the playoffs once again where they defended their title successfully.

Gustavo Chacin

Gustavo Chacin’s an almost comical selection for this team, given the other 4 starters’ pedigree, but Chacin was unexpectedly good in 2005. Toronto won 5 of his first 6 starts on the way to a 19-15 mark when Chacin took the mound. His wildness (1.394 WHIP) was overlooked as the Jays and their fans looked to rebound from a terrible ’04. His 3.2 bWAR demonstrated that his effectiveness was no illusion.

It went south for Chacin from there as whispers of wildness in ’05 (213 H, 70 BB in 203 IP) turned into clear messages that he wouldn’t be able to outpitch his peripherals for much longer. Twenty home runs and 70 walks are pretty good numbers for a hitter, but they don’t make for effective pitching. Ineffectiveness (19 HR in 87.1 IP in ’06) and injuries pretty much derailed Chacin’s career.

The Rotation

Originally I thought that these outliers weren’t achieved by players around whom you’d try to build a franchise. The more I dug, the more I discovered that I was wrong. Among the franchise-type players was Roger Clemens. The Jays apparently hitched their wagon to a falling star, only to watch him become a supernova in a Jays uniform.

The other 4 starters—Alexander, Hengen, Leiter, and Chacin—weren’t superstars by any stretch but they would round out one heckuva rotation. It would be entertaining if, indeed, we could see them pitch on the same team at the same time.

Wes Kepstro

Next up: Part II, The Bullpen

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