Best and worst walk-year performances (cont.)
Note: I've weeded out walk-year dips that corresponded to expected age-related declines. For example, while Derek Jeter's 3.1 dip in WARP in his 2010 walk-year was significant, it wasn't at all unexpected for a 36-year-old shortstop, and thus his season, and others like it, were not considered for this list.
Richard Hidalgo, RF Mets, 2004
.239/.301/.444, 25 HRs, 82 RBIs
Dip: 5.4 WARP
Hidalgo was inconsistent and often injured, but as the Astros' centerfielder in 2000 he ranked 10th in the majors in WARP, prompting Baseball Prospectus to call him "dollar-for-dollar one of the 10 most valuable commodities in baseball." He earned a few down-ballot MVP votes after a strong 2003 season (.309/.396/.572), but his walk year in '04 was pure disaster. Traded to the Mets in June for a non-prospect minor league pitcher and veteran reliever David Weathers, Hidalgo hit .228/.296/.463 for the Mets while playing a sub-par right field. Still, the Rangers gave him $5 million for a one-year, make-good deal, and there remained hope that he would find himself in Arlington's hitting-friendly ballpark. Instead, he sunk below replacement level and disappeared from the game at the age of 30.
Reggie Sanders, OF, Braves, 2000
.232/.302/.403, 11 HRs, 37 RBIs, 21 SBs
Dip: 4.2 WARP
The well-traveled Sanders played for eight teams in nine years to start his thirties, regularly contributing something on the level of three wins above replacement as a complimentary outfield part, a power and speed threat who wasn't quite productive enough to be a star but nonetheless finished his career as one of just six players in baseball history with 300 career home runs and 300 career steals (since joined by a seventh man, Alex Rodriguez). Sanders changed teams as a free agent five times, the first time following his worst major league season, and only one with the Braves, in 2000. That injury-riddled campaign came on the heals of one of his best seasons, a .285/.376/.527 performance with 26 home runs and 36 steals for the Padres in 1999. Sanders wouldn't receive a multi-year contract until 2004.
Johnny Damon, OF, A's, 2001
.256/.324/.363, 9 HRs, 49 RBIs, 27 SBs
Dip: 3.4 WARP
Damon's time with the Red Sox and Yankees was so successful that it's easy to forget how miserable his preceding lone season with the A's was. Damon was one of the rising stars in the game when he was acquired from the Royals in a classic Billy Beane trade that involved three teams (also the Devil Rays), and seven players (including Mark Ellis, who is still with Oakland). He led the American League in runs and stolen bases in 2000, receiving some down-ballot MVP votes for his efforts, had improved in every season of his career, and was going to be just 28 in the first year of his free agency. Beane acquired him to get the compensation draft pick the next year (which worked and netted the A's Nick Swisher), but the Oakland Coliseum was the wrong place for Damon to spend his walk year. He hit just .247/.333/.323 at home in 2001, and only marginally better on the road. Still, the Red Sox gave him a four-year, $31 million deal, and Damon rebounded nicely in hitter-friendly Fenway Park.
Andruw Jones, CF, Braves, 2007
.222/.311/.413, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs
Dip: 2.9 WARP
Prior to his final season in Atlanta, Jones looked like he was headed to the Hall of Fame. He had hit 342 home runs prior to his 30th birthday, won nine straight Gold Gloves, and was an iconic player on one of the great dynastic teams in the game's history. In 2005 he had his best season yet, leading the majors with 51 home runs, and followed up with 41 dingers and a career-best 129 RBIs in 2006. Then came 2007. It looked like a fluke at the time; Jones had always been something of an inconsistent and undisciplined hitter. Still, it caused trepidation on the market. The Dodgers gave him dollars ($36.2 million) but not years (two), and quickly regretted even that. An out-of-shape and often-injured Jones hit just .158 for L.A. in 2008, and has since had to scratch out a career as a fourth-outfielder. By hitting just .212/.311/.411 over the last four-plus seasons, he has effectively driven his Hall of Fame campaign bus into a ditch several exits shy of Cooperstown.
Pedro Martinez, SP, Red Sox, 2004
16-9, 3.90 ERA, 227 Ks
Dip: 2.3 WARP
In retrospect, it's all the more impressive that the Red Sox won their first World Championship in 86 years in 2004 given that Martinez and Derek Lowe, two fifths of their starting rotation, shed nearly four wins of value from the year before. Martinez was coming of perhaps the greatest run of pitching dominance in the game's history. For seven years, from 1997 to 2003, most extreme run-scoring era in the game's history, he posted a 2.20 ERA, good for a 213 ERA+, struck out 11.3 men per nine innings with a 0.94 WHIP and a 5.59 K/BB, and won three Cy Young Awards. In 2003, he led the majors in ERA (2.22) and the AL in strikeout rate (9.9 K/9). In 2004, however, he looked human. He wasn't bad by any standard other than his own. Even his 4.24 ERA in the second half was better than league average, and one could argue that my edict against age-related declines should rule him out here, but he was still just 32 in 2004 and still held such sway over the game that the Mets gave him $53 million for the next four years. For their money, the Mets got one excellent season and three filled with frustration, disappointment, and injury.
Honorable mention: Pitchers who hit free agency coming off major arm injuries, such as Tom Gordon in 2000, Jon Lieber in 2002, Octavio Dotel in 2005, Freddy Garcia and Rodrigo Lopez in 2007, and Ben Sheets in 2008