Originally written on Baseball Prospectus  |  Last updated 11/14/14


1. Brady Anderson: 1996
In 1996, Brady Anderson, the left fielder for the Baltimore Orioles during their most recent stretch of relevance, had one of the most bizarrely ephemeral power surges in baseball history, transforming from the mild-mannered .260/.360/.430-ish hitter he'd been the previous three years into a .297/.397/.637 monster. In 1997, he took off the cape, put the glasses back on, and hit an entirely respectable .288/.393/.469.

His 50 home runs in that 1996 campaign were good for ninth in MVP voting (if you'll remember, 1996 was the year Juan Gone robbed A-Rod and Ken Griffey, Jr. of equally deserved honors), and were the only real outlier in his stats that year, leading lazy writers to often point to Anderson as a steroids user. Thankfully, it seems Anderson had the good sense to only juice for one season over the course of his 15-year major-league career, rejecting an awesome and mighty power that might have consumed him whole; he hit 18 home runs in 1997 and never broke 25 any season before or after the '96 campaign. Thus spurned, the excesses of steroids would lurk dormant in the cold earth until 2004, when Barry Bonds hit a baseball so hard it destroyed the world.—Jonathan Bernhardt

2. Wilcy Moore: 1927
His name doesn't show up in professional baseball until his age-25 season, and he made his big-league debut about a month before his 30th birthday... and all Wilcy Moore did after that was immediately become arguably the most important part of the pitching staff of the team that many still consider the greatest ever assembled. Moore appeared in 50 games for the 1927 Yankees, all but 12 of them in relief, yet his 213 innings were second on the team (to Waite Hoyt's 256 1/3), as were his 19 wins (to Hoyt's 22, and tied with Herb Pennock). Had the stat existed, his 13 saves would have led the American League, and his 2.28 ERA is now recognized as having led the league (under the rules at the time, which required a minimum of 10 complete games, Hoyt's 2.63 claimed that title, too). It has to be considered one of the greatest mostly-relief seasons of all time. 

And it was an exaggerated version of the type of iron-man season a lot of us wish modern relief aces could have. But Moore (according to several internet sources) blamed his being overworked in that season for his subsequent arm troubles. Injuries and a tired arm kept Moore to 60 or so ineffective innings in both 1928 and '29, and he was back in the minors for all of 1930, before resurfacing in 1931 with the Red Sox and putting up one more pretty good year in a swing role very similar to the one he filled in 1927. He was 34 by then, though, and lasted just two more poor years (with the Red Sox and then back with the Yankees), then hung around in the minors until age 43. But it's his status as one of baseball's first relief aces, and the fact that it happened for the 1927 Yankees, that makes Moore's rookie year my favorite great season by an otherwise mediocre player in baseball history. —Bill Parker

3. Darin Erstad: 2000
During his first few seasons in Anaheim, Darin Erstad looked like a decent chip on a middling Angels ballclub. Coming off a down year in 1999, Erstad teamed up with the Y2K bug to become a pest at the plate and make the turn of the century the season of his life. In 2000, the former first overall pick established career highs in all three slash categories (.355/.409/.541), homers (25), triples (6), and even stolen bases (28). With the aid of a .375 BABIP, Erstad crossed the 200-hit mark for the first and only time in his career, collecting 240 hits in 747 plate appearances. Awards season was kind to the lefty, who picked up a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger to go with his All-Star appearance, but despite his 8.3 WARP effort, Erstad finished eighth in MVP voting. 

Erstad was never able to replicate his magical season. During the last nine years of his career, he averaged a .267/.319/.367 line and finished off his playing days where careers go to die: Houston. —Stephani Bee

4. Corey Patterson: 2006
Once one of the brightest prospects in the game, Corey Patterson has been teasing clubs with his raw tools for more than a decade. He's never developed a reasonable approach at the plate, so Patterson has largely disappointed in nearly 4,500 major-league plate appearances, over which he's been worth exactly one win above replacement. The Orioles acquired Patterson from the Cubs prior to the 2006 season, and he rewarded them with his finest big-league season, a 2.4 WARP campaign that brought his career value back into the black for the first time in three years.

Unfortunately, the next three years were all below replacement level. Patterson currently qualifies as one of only three players since 1950 (minimum 4000 PA) to have a single season worth more than 200 percent of his career WARP, joining Gary DiSarcina (2.4 WARP in 1995, 0.5 for his career) and Bob Aspromonte, who did it twice (1.9 WARP in 1967, 2.4 WARP in 1962, 0.8 career WARP). —Bradley Ankrom

5. Rick Wilkins: 1993
Nothing about Wilkins’ career made sense, least of all his career year in 1993. It isn’t often you see a player hit 14 home runs over his first 509 major-league plate appearances, then 30 over his next 500, and then 37 over his next 1,426, but again: nothing about Wilkins’ career made sense. Wilkins hit his first home run during that 1993 season on April 29. He hit his 10th on June 9. His 20th came on July 26. His 30th on September 28. The lessons learned: 1) Hit about five home runs a month and you, too, can have a 30-homer season and 2) You may never do it again. —R.J. Anderson

Who says you can know a man by the company he keeps?

Player

Top 30 Cubs Seasons By WARP (1950 – present)

Ernie Banks

6

Ron Santo

5

Billy Williams

5

Sammy Sosa

5

Ryne Sandberg

4

Ferguson Jenkins

2

Derrek Lee

1

Mark Prior

1

Rick Wilkins

1

Five Hall of Famers, a player with Hall of Fame numbers that are filled with cork, a long-time star, the best college pitcher of his generation, and… Rick Wilkins, whose improbably incandescent 1993 ranks among the 30 best Cubs season since the dawn of the nuclear age. On the strength of his .303/.376/.561 line, Wilkins earned 6.2 WARP that year—the same as Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar—while joining Gabby Hartnett as the only Cubs catchers to launch 30 home runs in a season. How’s that for name-dropping?

Wilkins had never shown much power but had been moderately productive the previous season in a job-share with Joe Girardi, and when the Rockies stole Peoria Joe in the expansion draft, the 25-year-old Wilkins was handed the job and ran with it as few have ever done. Typically for the Cubs, their cornerstone catcher slumped badly the next year and face-planted in 1995, posting a career .220/.319/.364 after his breakout season and haunting seven more organizations before hanging ‘em up in 2002. He was an unlikely hero, but for one magical summer when he never missed his pitch, Rick Wilkins was the best catcher Chicago had seen in a generation. —Ken Funck

6. Jeff Ballard: 1989
Once upon a time, the Baltimore Orioles were not synonymous with "flaming train wreck." In 1989, they were less than a decade removed from their last World Series championship, and despite coming off an awful 54-win season, there was cause for optimism. Cal Ripken was 28, Camden Yards was on the drawing board, and young talent had percolated to the major-league team. There was Steve Finley, Craig Worthington, Brady Anderson, and, if you'll come all the way back with me to the summer of '89, Jeff Ballard.

For one sunny season, Ballard was a major-league ace. In 215 1/3 innings, Ballard went 18-8 with a 3.43 ERA, a full 10 percent above league average, and helped the Orioles win 87 games. He finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting behind Nolan Ryan and in front of Dennis Eckersley. But here’s the thing: Ballard did all that with a strikeout rate of—and I hope you're sitting down for this—2.6 K/9. The average K rate that year was just under 6. In 1990, Ballard was essentially the same pitcher, and his strikeout rate rose a bit, but his Oriole Magic was gone. His ERA spiked to 4.93, 22 percent below league average, and his record fell to 2-11. Undeterred, the O's trotted him out again in 1991 with predictably awful results. That was enough, and Baltimore cut bait. Ballard bounced through St. Louis, Oakland, and Pittsburgh, where he pitched in relief for the Pirates, but for all intents and purposes, at the age of 27, Jeff Ballard was finished as a major-league starting pitcher. —Matthew Kory

7. Davey Johnson: 1973
From 1969 to 1972, Davey Johnson hit 40 homers in 2,190 plate appearances for the Baltimore Orioles. After being traded to Atlanta in 1973, he went deep 43 times for the Braves. Although Johnson had strong enough secondary skills to make him a valuable second baseman throughout his career, he never came close to matching that performance before or after. His OPS jumped by more than 250 points from the previous season and would plummet by more than 150 the next. Had Johnson played 30 years later, chemicals would have been blamed for this anomaly. Instead, his 1973 is remembered for what it was: one of the great fluke seasons in baseball history. —Geoff Young

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