Ranking the five best and worst walk-year performances since 2000
There is a small improvement by players in last year of a contract
Aubrey Huff's 2010 season ranks as the biggest jump by WARP since '00
Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez both had significant drops in walk-years
When it comes to walk-year performances, for every Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes who put up monster seasons just before hitting the open market, there is an Albert Pujols whose performance declines due to injuries, inconsistency or both. Though studies have shown that, in aggregate, players do perform better in their walk years, the difference is not overwhelming, averaging out to roughly an additional half-win above replacement according to Dayn Perry's figures in the 2006 book Baseball Between the Numbers. Anecdotally, walk-year spikes, such as Greg Maddux's Cy Young-winning 1992, tend to be more memorable than walk-year dips, such as Dave Winfield's underwhelming (for him) 1980 season, particularly when the latter are followed by record-setting contracts, but the history of major league free agency is littered with both. Here, then, is a look at the 10 most extreme walk-year performances of the past decade.
The following lists were produced using the same statistic Perry used in his 2006 study, Baseball Prospectus's Wins Against Replacement Player (WARP), which combines offensive and defensive contributions. The rankings were determined by the difference in WARP between the player's walk-year performance and his performance in the season prior to his walk year.
Aubrey Huff, 1B, Giants, 2010
.290/.385/.506, 26 HRs, 86 RBIs
Spike: 7.9 WARP above previous season
The erratic Huff's 2010 spike had a lot to do with just how awful his 2009 season, also a walk-year, was. Huff hit just .241/.310/.384 for the Orioles and Tigers in '09, torpedoing his market value by hitting .189/.265/.302 for Detroit after being acquired in a mid-August waiver trade. As a first-baseman and designated hitter, that put him 1.2 wins below replacement on the season. He then signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Giants and had the best season of his career, playing strong defense at first as well in both outfield corners, and helping to lead San Francisco to its first World Series title. The Giants rewarded Huff, who turned 34 in December, with the richest contract of his career: $22 million over two years. So far, his 2011 has thus far looked a lot more like 2009 than 2010; he's batting .246/.299/.396 with eight home runs.
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dodgers, 2004
.334/.388/.629, 48 HRs, 121 RBIs
Spike: 7.1 WARP
When most baseball fans think of walk-year spikes, they think of Adrian Beltre's 2004 season. That year, the 25-year-old Beltre led the majors in home runs, more than doubling his previous best, while also setting career highs in runs (104), hits (200), doubles (32), RBIs, total bases (126 more than his previous career best), and all three slash stats. Beltre's season wasn't just big in comparison to his weak 2003, it was 5.2 WARP above his previous best season (2000), and it earned him a five-year, $64 million contract from the Marines. However, Beltre didn't come anywhere near approaching his '04 level of production until six years later, after he had finally escaped Safeco Park for Fenway Park and posted another 5.2 WARP spike in his 2010 walk year, large enough to rank sixth on this list (in part because his 2009 walk year with the Mariners was plagued by injury and poor performance).
Javy Lopez, C, Braves, 2003
.328/.378/.687, 43 HRs, 109 RBIs
Spike: 6.7 WARP
The slugging catcher of the late-'90s Braves failed to impress in his first walk year in 2001 and settled for a one-year deal with an option for 2003. The Braves picked up that option, and Lopez, given a second chance, had the best season of his career at age 32, setting career highs in the same categories Beltre would a year later: runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs, total bases, and all three slash stats. The result remains the fifth-best season by a catcher in the 21st century (third best in the non-Joe Mauer category) according to WARP. Unfortunately for Lopez, being a 33-year-old catcher limited his ability to cash in on that season on the open market, though he did land a three-year, $22.5 million deal from the Orioles and rewarded them with a very strong 2004 season before showing his age thereafter.
Bret Boone, 2B, Mariners, 2001
.331/.372/.578, 37 HRs, 141 RBIs
Spike: 6.6 WARP
Boone arrived in Seattle in 2001 on a one-year deal as a 32-year-old journeyman, a slick-fielding second baseman with a bit of pop, but a poor plate approach, a career .255/.312/.413 hitter joining his fourth team in as many years. He then led the league in RBIs, won the Silver Slugger, and finished third in the MVP voting for Mariners team that, despite having just lost Alex Rodriguez to the biggest contract in baseball history, won a record-tying 116 games. Boone set career highs in games, plate appearances, at-bats, runs (118), hits (206), doubles (37), home runs, RBIs, total bases, and all three slash stats and was rewarded with a four-year, $33 million deal, during which he had one more outstanding season, and after which he promptly fell below replacement level and vanished from the league.
Chone Figgins, 3B, Angels, 2009
.298/.395/.394, 114 R, 42 SBs
Spike: 5.3 WARP
Figgins' 2009 season may not have seemed so out of line with his previous performances because he hit .330/.393/.432 just two years prior and was a career .290/.356/.387 hitter coming into the 2009 season, but he had never before combined such production with health and Gold Glove quality play in the field. Figgins appeared in just 114 games in 2007, but played 158 games in 2009 while setting career highs in plate appearances, runs scored, doubles, walks (a league-leading 101, none of them intentional), and on-base percentage. Those last two, which were a large part of his value in 2009, were the result of a steady increase in his walk rate over the course of his career, which promptly began to regress after he signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the Mariners.
Honorable Mention: Alex Rodriguez, 2007
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