Guest Post: The All-Time Greatest Non-All-Star Seasons

Today’s guest post comes from Bill over at The Daily Something, another great blog that gives you something interesting and well-written on a daily basis. There just aren’t that many blogs that give you such excellent writing on such a regular basis. Seriously, you all should be reading The Daily Something. You can also follow Bill on Twitter at @Bill_TDS. Thanks for the post, Bill!

NOTE: Please see the note Bill left in the comments below. These are actually the best seasons by players who never made the All-Star team, not the best non-All-Star seasons.

Well, last week was a week, so of course Baseball-Reference.com came up with yet another amazing feature to add to their fantastic Play Index. This one’s timely: you can now filter searches according to whether or not the player was an All-Star in that season (or ever, if you like). Aaron Gleeman has already used this to determine the best players never to make an All-Star team, and today I thought I’d look at the best single seasons that weren’t good enough to get the player selected for that season’s All-Star team.

I’ll use the same stat Gleeman did — the version of WAR available on the BBREF website — because it’s really easy to search for and does a pretty good job of capturing the total value of that player’s season. And of course the search starts in 1933, the game’s inaugural year. It’s a bit strange looking at the full-season stats when talking about an honor that covered half the season, but that’s what we’ve got, and that’s part of the point — to look at why that guy didn’t make the team.

All that said, counting down, here are the top ten single-seasons by non-All-Stars of all time:

10. John Denny, Phillies SP, 1983 (243IP, 19-6, 2.37 ERA, 152 ERA+, 7.1 WAR)
The 1983 Phillies were a very, very interesting team. If you just look at the names, they look like one of the best teams ever assembled — a combination of the very best of the 1980 champion Phillies and the Big Red Machine. Schmidt, Rose, Morgan, Perez, Carlton. But of course, all but Schmidt were in (or past) their late thirties at that point. It was a solid team, winning 90 games and the Eastern Division pennant, but not nearly the force it seems like it ought to have been on paper. And Denny was their best pitcher, winning the Cy Young Award with 20 of the 24 first-place votes. He was never that good in any other year — and at age 30, he had just three years left in the bigs — but it was his third arguably All-Star-quality season, and he was never once selected. For his career, he comes in 7th among pitchers on Gleeman’s list.

Denny was just 6-4 at the break that year, but with a 2.13 ERA. The main culprit seems to be just 106 innings (not bad for 2010, but not many for half a season in 1983). The NL’s starter, Mario Soto, was 9-6 with a 2.25 ERA, but in 136 innings. In the second half, Denny’s ERA actually jumped a bit, but he was 13-2 and bumped his workload up to 133 innings.

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9. Sixto Lezcano, Padres OF, 1982 (.289/.388/.472, 16 HR, 145 OPS+, 7.2 WAR)
Lezcano was a good player throughout most of his twelve-year career, but 1982 was his best by quite a bit. But it’s easy to see why he didn’t get recognized for it–he didn’t hit .300 or even 20 home runs, and didn’t win a Gold Glove (oddly, in his best offensive season of 1979–164 OPS+–he did win a GG, though Total Zone puts him at -6 runs that year and +10 in 1982, making up almost the entire 2-win difference in his total performance). He also had a much stronger, though injury-shortened, second half — he was hitting just .272 with 7 homers at the break, and would’ve been a very strange selection.

8. Chris Hoiles, Orioles C, 1993 (.310/.416/.585, 29 HR, 162 OPS+, 7.2 WAR)
Hoiles was one of those peak-only players — great at 27 and 28, nothing before and not a whole lot after. But he was  unstoppable that year, and from beginning to end: he was hitting .300/.403/.581 with 18 homers at the break. And it’s not like he came out of nowhere — he’d hit 20 homers and put up a 146 OPS+ in 94 games the year before that.

Even worse? The All-Star Game that year was at Camden Yards, Hoiles’ home grounds. You might think the fans didn’t care as long as they had Cal, and for the most part you’d probably be right, but it had to be disappointing to quite a few people. That was also the year that the Orioles’ Mike Mussina was selected, and warmed up, but ultimately not used by Jays manager Cito Gaston; O’s fans must have felt like he was giving them the finger (and they hadn’t become nearly so accustomed to baseball doing that to them by that point).

The AL All-Star catchers were Ivan Rodriguez, for the second of ten consecutive times, and Terry Steinbach, who was hitting .301 in the first half but was way, way behind Hoiles in every other category. I think Gaston probably would’ve told you that Steinbach called a better game than Hoiles. I’ll tell you that Gaston just didn’t know what he was doing, any more than Charlie Manuel does.

7. Kirk Gibson, Dodgers OF, 1988 (.290/.377/.483, 25 HR, 31/4 SB/CS, 148 OPS+, 7.3 WAR)
Gibson got plenty of accolades that year, of course — MVP, Silver Slugger, and endless replays of one of the most memorable home runs in World Series history — but the All-Star team eluded him, as it did every year of his career (he’s third among hitters on Gleeman’s list). And Gibson actually had a better first half than second: .299/.384/.517, 15 HR, 15 steals, 46 RBI. It’s hard to fathom why he wasn’t picked by NL manager Whitey Herzog, other than the Manuel “he’s not my guy” explanation.

Herzog did name Cardinal Willie McGee (.312 BA and 24 steals in the first half, but nowhere near the overall quality of Gibson’s season) and former Cardinal Andy Van Slyke (whose offensive numbers were similar but inferior to Gibson’s in every way), along with Cubs then-outfielder Rafael Palmeiro (.311 BA and nothing else). Herzog apparently made his selections based entirely on batting average. Gibson should’ve been on that team, period.

Another interesting point: Gibson’s MVP in that year has always been controversial, as there was nothing overwhelming about his stats. Even his Wikipedia article says that he won the award “more for his intensity and leadership than his stats.” So I was surprised to learn that, by WAR, Gibson’s stats were good enough: he tied teammate Orel Hershiser for the league lead.

6. Mike Caldwell, Brewers SP, 1978 (22-9, 293 IP, 2.36 ERA, 160 ERA+, 7.5 WAR)
One might forgive AL manager Billy Martin for not really trusting in Caldwell’s 9-5, 2.61 start to 1978. After all, for seven of his first eight years in the league, Caldwell had been about a replacement-level pitcher, with one good (but not All-Star-quality) season thrown in as a Padre in ‘74. But he was actually even better after the break: 13-4, 2.10, finishing second in the Cy Young balloting. And he was good again in ‘79, too, before fading back into mediocrity. Caldwell put up 17.5 WAR in his 14-year career: He got 43% of that in ‘78, and 70% of it in ‘78 and ‘79 combined..

5. John Tudor, Cardinals SP, 1985 (21-8, 275 IP, 1.93 ERA, 185 ERA+, 7.5 WAR)
Tudor was the #3 pitcher on Gleeman’s list, and the hardest to understand. He was out of this world in ‘85, hurling 10 shutouts and finishing second to the incomparable Dwight Gooden in the Cy Young race. He was solidly All-Star quality in the first half (10-7, 2.27 ERA), but it was in the second half in which he really went out of his mind and led his team to the World Series (11-1, 1.59). Lamarr Hoyt got the start in the All-Star Game, despite an ERA 66 points higher than Tudor’s in one fewer inning. He did have 12 wins to Tudor’s 10, but I would guess that the team being managed by Padres manager Dick Williams probably had more to do with it. Fellow Cardinal Joaquin Andujar was named to the team with a slightly higher ERA than Tudor’s, but with 15 wins. I’ve no guesses as to what Ron Darling (9-2, 2.52) or Nolan Ryan (8-6, 3.55) were doing in Tudor’s place.

4. Bernard Gilkey, Mets OF, 1996 (.317/.393/.562, 30 HR, 44 2B, 117 RBI, 8.1 WAR)
The only New York player on this list wasn’t as great in the first half — .302/.363/.519, 16 HR — and a lot of his WAR comes from his eye-popping 23 Total Zone fielding runs, not normally what a manager looks at in picking a left fielder. Still, he was clearly a better pick than Henry Rodriguez (who had what I believe was a league-leading 25 homers, but just a .279 AV and .322 OBP). I can actually understand this one, though. A lot of outfielders were having huge years in 1996.

3. Dave Roberts, Padres SP, 1971 (14-17, 270 IP, 2.10 ERA, 157 ERA+, 8.5 WAR)
The 2.26 ERA in 139 first-half innings were pretty great, but managers don’t like their All-Stars to have “lost” more games than they “won” (he was 7-9). Roberts was close to the only bright spot in the Padres’ third season as a franchise, in which they lost 100 games (their lone All-Star was 25 year old Nate Colbert, who had hit 19 homers in his first 90 games but hit just 8 the rest of the way). He did make sixth in the Cy Young balloting despite that “losing record” — he might’ve deserved the award in most years, but he had the misfortune of having his best year not only for a terrible team, but in one of the best years for two Hall of Famers, Tom Seaver and Fergie Jenkins (Jenkins won it).

2. John Valentin, Red Sox SS, 1995 (.298/.399/.533, 27 HR, 20/25 SB/CS, 102 RBI, 138 OPS+, 8.5 WAR)
I bet that a lot of people remember Valentin, but that almost nobody remembers (or maybe even ever knew) that he was ever this good. This was his second of four straight years with a batting average over .290, and his second with an OBP near .400 and a SLG over .500. And he was also a much better defensive shortstop than he got credit for. He never had another WAR over 5, but he did have three more over 4. He falls just shy of Gleeman’s list, because his career was essentially ruined by injury at age 32.

Valentin did get recognized with some mentions on MVP ballots in ‘95, finishing ninth…but then his teammate Mo Vaughn won the award, with 39 HR but a WAR that was a touch less than half of Valentin’s.

Valentin had hit .284/.384/.529 in the first half, so not nearly as good as his second, but still pretty All-Starish. The AL’s improbable lone backup shortstop (Ripken started, of course) was Gary DiSarcina, who had had a fine first half in his own right (.324/.367/.488), but Valentin was better.

1. Bill Hands, Cubs SP, 1969 (20-14, 300 IP, 2.49 ERA, 162 ERA+, 8.8 WAR)
There’s a pretty decent chance you’ve never heard of Bill Hands (I don’t know that I have), but he was a damn good pitcher for six years from 1967-1972 — he ended up fourth among pitchers on Gleeman’s list — and few have ever been better than he was in ‘69. That 8.8 WAR is tied for 65th all time since 1901. Hands was 11-8, 2.68 at the break, which sure sound like All-Star numbers, but it’s actually hard to find a place for him: your All-Stars were Steve Carlton (12-5, 1.65), Larry Dierker (12-7, 2.54), Bob Gibson (11-8, 2.46 and coming off of that 1.12-ERA year), Jerry Koosman (8-5, 1.88), Juan Marichal (13-4, 2.12), Phil Niekro (15-7, 2.12), Tom Seaver (14-5, 2.59), Bill Singer (13-7, 1.98), and Grant Jackson (9-10, 3.52 but the lone representative for the lowly Phillies). It was tough being a good-but-not-great pitcher in the late sixties. Considering the good-but-not-great Cubs already had five reps (Banks, Santo, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley and Don Kessinger), so you can see why Hands, as great a year as he was having, didn’t seem like a priority.

I would have expected that most of the biggest snubs would’ve come a long time ago. The size of the roster seems to constantly be expanding, and access to and knowledge of statistics has been improving at least a little bit…but then, of course, the size of the league has been expanding, too. You have to go to #25 on the hitters’ list to get to a player from the 1930s (Billy Werber, 6.1, 1934), and about half of the guys in front of Werber are from 1990 onward. It’s been getting harder and harder for a guy having a great year to make the All-Star Team.

So who’s the biggest snub here? I’d say either Kirk Gibson (ignored by the voters and Whitey Herzog) or John Tudor (by the voters and Dick Williams). It’s hard to believe Valentin didn’t make it in ‘95, but at least DiSarcina was having a similarly strong first half. There’s just no excuse for Gibby or Tudor.

The most surprising thing to me? None of these guys ever made the team. You’d think that after those great seasons, if they were following it up with another good half-season (as most of them did), a few of those guys would get recognized. But nope, not a one..

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.

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