Beyond Charboneau: The Curious Cases of Baseball Burnouts

Rick Ankiel is one of the more famous burnout cases in recent years. (via Barbara Moore)

Rick Ankiel is one of the more famous burnout cases in recent years. (via Barbara Moore)

In 1980, rookie Cleveland Indians left fielder Joe Charboneau took the Mistake on the Lake by storm, opening beer bottles with his eye sockets or his forearm, hitting 23 homers, inspiring a hit song, and winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award with 73 percent of the vote. By 1983, the player they called “Super Joe” was out of the league, undone by injuries, better known as a cautionary tale than as a ballplayer. Injuries did him in: after multiple back surgeries, he just couldn’t hit any more.

Joe Charboneau, 1980-1982
Year G PA HR RBI AVG OBP SLG WAR
1980 131 512 23 87 .289 .358 .488 2.4
1981 48 147 4 18 .210 .247 .362 -0.3
1982 22 63 2 9 .214 .286 .393 -0.3

He may be the most famous flameout in baseball history — he played a total of 70 games after winning his award — but he is far from the only player to suffer the same star-struck fate.

For the purposes of this article, I’m looking at players who had a terrific rookie year and then really never did much of anything else. A decade ago, Steve Treder took a much broader look at players who “flopped,” who played at a very high value and then saw their production fall off all at once. In particular, I looked at players who enjoyed notable rookie seasons: Either they hit at least 25 home runs, or they collected at least 2.5 rWAR. (I used rWAR as a criterion because I was searching the baseball-reference Play Index. The WAR totals reported in the tables below are Fangraphs WAR.) Then I looked at all players who finished with career rWAR between 2 and 8, and I basically did a VLOOKUP on the two groups. This yielded a set of players who started strong but didn’t do much for the rest of their careers.

Some of these players had two good seasons before their production tumbled. This was the case for two Chicago hurlers, Randy Wells and Jason Bere; it was also true for All-Star Yankese second baseman Jerry Coleman, who later made the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. Other players had even harder-to-describe career paths, like Ron Kittle and Eric Hinske, both of whom won the Rookie of the Year award, experienced major sophomore slumps and eventually lost their starting jobs, but hung around long enough to become effective part-time players.

Unfortunately, this rather muddy methodology makes it hard to come up with an exact number of Joe Charboneaus in baseball history. Instead, I took a Potter Stewart approach to the data set, clicking to look at one career after another to see whether it really qualified. I found many players who fit the mold:

  • Harry Byrd, right-handed pitcher: He was Rookie of the Year in 1952 and led the league in losses in 1953. Those were his only 200-inning seasons.
  • F.P. Santangelo and Chris Singleton, outfielders: These two contemporaries finished fourth and sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting in the late 1990s, collecting more than 2,000 plate appearances as glove-first outfielders.
  • Gene Bearden, left-handed pitcher: Another Cleveland Indian, he led his league in ERA, finished eighth in the rookie vote in 1948, and famously started and won that season’s one-game playoff against the Red Sox on one day’s rest. For the rest of his career, he totaled 558.1 innings with a 4.55 ERA.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll profile just three more players: Billy Grabarkewitz, Mitchell Page and Rick Ankiel, whose stories are particularly worth telling.

Perhaps the best exemplar of this one-and-done career path, even more than Super Joe himself, is Billy Grabarkewitz. After a cup of coffee in 1969, Grabarkewitz proved himself an invaluable Dodgers supersub in 1970, playing 156 games at second, third and shortstop, displaying solid defense and a terrific stick, especially considering that he played his home games in Chavez Ravine: 17 home runs, 84 RBI, and a .289/.399/.454 triple slash in 640 plate appearances. He was an All-Star that year.

For the rest of his seven-year career, he logged 680 plate appearances and 11 homers. He was out of the major leagues before he turned 30.

Billy Grabarkewitz, 1969-1975
Year G PA HR RBI AVG OBP SLG WAR
1969 34 70 0 5 .092 .145 .138 -0.8
1970 156 640 17 84 .289 .399 .454 6.1
1971 44 90 0 6 .225 .389 .296 0.8
1972 53 166 4 16 .167 .265 .278 -0.7
1973 86 238 5 16 .205 .343 .333 0.3
1974 87 184 2 14 .226 .339 .310 0.2
1975 6 2 0 0 .000 .000 .000 -0.2

Just as it had been with Super Joe, injuries completely sapped his ability. “Baseball was easy for me when I was healthy,” he told Fred Claire, the former general manager of the Dodgers. “But when I broke my ankle in the minor leagues and then tore up my shoulder in spring training, I was never the same player.”

Mitchell Page’s problems were more personal. He was sensational as a rookie left fielder in 1977, and though he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to 21-year-old DH Eddie Murray, Page had the far better year at the plate and in the field. He hit .307/.405/.521 in the spacious Oakland Coliseum, with 21 homers and 42 stolen bases.

That season yielded a 28.0 power-speed number. Created by Bill James, PSN is a good way of measuring players who are both fast and powerful: it’s the harmonic mean of home runs and stolen bases, or 2 x (HR x SB)/(HR + SB). That year, Page had the second-highest power-speed number in all of baseball, behind only Bobby Bonds. (Page’s 1977 season is tied for 152nd place on the all-time power-speed list. Of the 151 seasons above him, 19 were posted by a Bonds.)

Though future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Eddie Murray won the Rookie of the Year awards in 1977, Page was almost certainly the best rookie in baseball that year — his 6.2 WAR nearly lapped the field. The next season, he was a shadow of his former self. His defense was markedly worse, and while his bat was still effective it was not nearly as explosive as it had been. In all, he only produced 1.9 WAR that year. And that was the last year he would be even adequate. In the final six seasons of his career, he played 381 games, collected 1,227 plate appearances, and was worth -0.9 WAR.

Mitchell Page, 1977-1984
Year G PA HR RBI AVG OBP SLG WAR
1977 145 592 21 75 .307 .405 .521 6.2
1978 147 579 17 70 .285 .355 .459 1.9
1979 133 539 9 42 .247 .323 .335 -1.1
1980 110 393 17 51 .244 .311 .443 0.6
1981 34 101 4 13 .141 .200 .283 -0.7
1982 31 87 4 7 .256 .333 .474 0.2
1983 57 92 0 1 .241 .341 .278 -0.1
1984 16 15 0 0 .333 .467 .417 0.2

It is not entirely clear exactly what caused his precipitous fall, but there may have been a number of contributing factors. He did have injuries, and he was one of many, many players who had run-ins with notoriously tight-fisted A’s owner Charlie Finley, getting suspended during spring training in 1979 after asking for a raise. Some of his success in 1977 may have been naturally unsustainable: that can often be the case when a 25-year old posts a career-high .343 BABIP during his rookie year. And his fielding wasn’t great to begin with. His teammates nicknamed him “Radar,” former Athletics equipment manager Steve Vucinich told the Oakland Tribune, because “he needed radar to catch a fly ball.” That may have been due to his eyes. “His eyesight would trouble him for the rest of his career,” Steven Goldman writes at Baseball Prospectus, “causing him difficulty in picking up the ball in the outfield, and perhaps at the plate as well.”

After his playing career was over, he spent a number of years in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, and later served as a hitting coach with the Washington Nationals. As Bruce Markusen wrote at Hardball Times, he lost his job with the Cardinals due to drinking problems. Commenters on the piece noted that he had entered Alcoholics Anonymous and was a faithful attendee. He died four years ago at the age of 59.

Rick Ankiel’s story is more recent and probably better known than the others in this artilce. But it’s worth repeating. USA Today named him the High School Player of the Year in 1997. That year, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him and gave him the highest bonus any high school pitcher had ever received. He blew through the minor leagues, receiving his first cup of coffee in 1999 — when he was still just 19 years old — and was a big leaguer for good in 2000. He pitched brilliantly in the regular season, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting, leading his team in ERA as the 95-win Cardinals cruised to take the Central Division pennant by 10 games. Then, in October, things got weird.

Pat Jordan described what happened next in The New York Times Magazine:

In two starts and one relief appearance, first against the Braves and then against the Mets, he walked 11 batters in four innings and threw nine wild pitches, most of which sailed 10 feet over the batters’ heads. He broke a record for wild pitches in an inning that had stood since 1890. His once-classic delivery was riddled with the flaws of a Little Leaguer. He looked like a pitcher who, in a single moment, forgot how to pitch.

Of course, Ankiel’s story didn’t end there. A fine hitter as a rookie — he hit .250/.292/.382 with two homers, much better than most 20-year old position players — he struggled through two more unsuccessful years as a pitcher and then remade himself as a full-time outfielder, ultimately starting 345 games in center field, one of the most athletically demanding positions on the diamond. He had only a four-year career as a pitcher, but he had an 11-year career as a major league player, in one of the most incredible career reinventions since that of Babe Ruth.

Rick Ankiel as a Pitcher, 1999-2001, 2004
Year G IP W-L ERA FIP K/9 K/BB WAR
1999 9 33 0-1 3.27 2.92 10.6 2.8 1.1
2000 31 175 11-7 3.50 4.12 10.0 2.2 3.4
2001 6 24 1-2 7.13 8.09 10.1 1.1 -0.6
2004 5 10 1-0 5.40 4.75 8.1 9.0 0
Rick Ankiel as an Outfielder, 2007-2013
Year G PA HR RBI AVG OBP SLG WAR
2007 47 190 11 39 .285 .328 .535 1.5
2008 120 463 25 71 .264 .337 .506 1.7
2009 122 404 11 38 .231 .285 .387 0.2
2010 74 240 6 24 .232 .321 .389 0.6
2011 122 415 9 37 .239 .296 .363 1.2
2012 68 171 5 15 .228 .282 .411 -0.1
2013 45 136 7 18 .188 .235 .422 -0.4

But what had happened? In the Times piece, Jordan sheds light on Ankiel’s home life. His father, Rick Ankiel Sr., was a Florida drug smuggler who was given a six-year sentence in March 2000, when his son was in spring training before his rookie year. Before that, he was controlling to the point of emotional abusiveness, punishing Ankiel for the slightest mental lapses in games and forcing him to stick with the sport. And Ankiel’s Cardinals coaches were under strict orders not to do anything that could interfere with his natural talent. “When I asked my pitching coaches what I was doing wrong, they wouldn’t say a word to me,” Ankiel told Jordan. “They’d just say, ‘I’m not allowed to mess with you.'”

He pitched fewer than 300 innings in the minors before his rookie season, only 137.2 above A-ball. The 2000 playoffs marked the first time that he had ever failed to succeed. Jordan argues that Ankiel’s psychological struggles were rooted in the fact that neither the overprotective Cardinals nor his overcritical father had done anything to prepare him. His ultimate success as an outfielder came on his terms. As Michael Baumann writes at Grantland, “The sine wave of Ankiel’s career (because “arc” really isn’t the right word in his case) strains the bounds of one’s imagination.”

Though they are not often described this way, I believe these stories are more triumph than tragedy. For at least a year, these players were at the pinnacle of their profession, living a literal dream: they were major league baseball stars. Their luck broke both ways, but they will always be immortals. As SABR’s Jack Kavanagh writes, Joe Charboneau saw it that way, too. “It took a good break to get there,” he told Kavanagh. “And a bad break to keep me from getting back.”


Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.
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Dave
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Dave

Mark Fidrych?

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

What about Dontrelle Willis? A couple of good seasons with the Marlins and then did a crash and burn. After winning 22 games in 2005, he was heralded as a black Sandy Koufax. And speaking of Koufax, you could reverse this storyline and come up with a good number of players who started out playing on the edge of extinction only to serve up HOF numbers later on in their careers.

buvdaddy
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buvdaddy

Willis was part of a Marlins experiment called “Let’s see how many innings we can load on a really good 23- 24- 25-year-old pitcher’s arm and still find a sucker to take him in trade when he crashes.”

Submitted for your approval:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/tunnele01.shtml

His WAR for his good year (2.0) exceeds his career WAR (1.3) by 50+ percent.

pounder
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pounder

Jerry Colemans career was interupted by his service as a Marine corp. pilot during the Korean War. He was the only MLB player to have faced combat in both WW2(although he was not in the big leagues during that period) and Korea.Ted Williams did not fly combat missions in WW2,if I am not mistaken.So, I guess he gets a pass on the rest of his playing career.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

After a few more glasses of wine and taking a stroll down memory lane, I remember Coco Laboy, one of the greatest names in MLB history. He was a Rookie of The Year with the fresh out of the box Expos in 1969. He put up some decent numbers for a rookie playing on an expansion team but it was all downhill from there. I believe he lasted 5 more years and was never more than a blip on anyone’s radar screen after his first season.

Mac
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Mac

Technically it took two years, but Bobby Crosby absolutely deserves to be on here. Bursting onto the scene in 2004, at age 24 he won the RoY ,backed by 22 dingers. In 2005 the power lessened but the BA increased and he finished with an .802 OPS. At this point Peter Gammons famously predicted Crosby would win the AL MVP in 2006. 2005 slash: .276 / .346 / .456 2006 slash: .229 / .298 / .338 / .636 Ooph. Crosbino had some holes in his swing and absolutely could not lay off the low and away slider and never again… Read more »

John C
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John C

I’d completely forgotten about him.

The one that always perplexed me was Mike Caruso, the shortstop the White Sox got in the “white flag” trade in ’97. He made the team out of A-ball the next year at age 21, played great all year and hit .306. He never played well anywhere after that, even in indie ball in what should have been his prime years.

gc
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gc

Seeing Crosby’s name reminded me of Ben Grieve, who started great after being watched on the way up (I remember being at his first game and he got three doubles, one to left, one to center and one to right).

tramps like us
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tramps like us

what about Jake Wood? Perhaps not as dramatic a dropoff, but he came in 6th in ROY voting in 1961, 96 runs scored, 30 stolen bases….led the league with 14 triples……was never the same after that and was out of major league baseball after 1967 at 30. Don’t know if he had injury problems, or what the cause might have been?

grun67
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grun67

This is not all that uncommon. Jerome Walton…ROY in 1989. Hit .293 with 24 SB on the Cubs division winner at age 23. Walton never again amassed enough at bats in a single season to qualify for the batting title and only had more than 100 at bats in 3 seasons after his Rookie of the Year campaign. Mike Dunne was 13-6 with a 3.03 ERA in 1987 and finished 2nd in ROY voting. He only won 12 more games in his career and had an ERA around 5.00 in the years after his rookie season. He was out of… Read more »

buvdaddy
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buvdaddy

(Slaps forehead)

Ah, crap, Mike Dunne.

I was in a Roto League the year the Mets came up with three hotshot young pitchers, and I had them all the next (1996) season and I had them cheap and I had them long-term, and I was going to be unbeatable.

Bill Pulsipher (second season)
Jason Isringhausen (second season)
Paul Wilson (rookie season)

I’ll let you look up their stats so you can have a good laugh.

I quit Roto after that season because I didn’t know anything.

Tom
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Tom

Pat Listach, ROY for Milwaukee in 1992, 4.6 WAR. Out of baseball after 1997, career WAR 4.3.

Rob K.
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Rob K.

Craig McMurtry. 1983 NL ROY runner-up. Went 15-9 with an ERA+ 126 and a WAR of 5.2. Was back in the minors by the end of 1984 and bounced around between the majors and AAA until 1990, mostly in the minors with the occasional callup. Had one final (awful) stint in Houston in 1995. Best known as the answer to the trivia question. “What pitcher gave up Barry Bonds first homer ?”

tramps like us
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tramps like us

Don Schwall….won 15 for the 1961 Red Sox, then sucked the rest of his career.

George
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George

Does Kevin Maas count?

Cliff Blau
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Cliff Blau

When the author refers to Jerry Coleman as making the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, he is apparently referring to the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame and the National Radio Hall of Fame. Coleman is in several other Halls of Fame (none of them located in Cooperstown, NY), but not as a broadcaster.

Cooldrive
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Cooldrive

Jim Finigan, Philadelphia Athletics, 1954
His OPS+ was 119 and he should have beaten Bob Grim for ROY. His OPS+ for the rest of his career was 80.

DanC
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DanC

Daniel Bard. 1.93 ERA in 73 games in 2010. Flamed out since 2012. 9.00 ERA in minors since 2012.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Interesting article, Alex. I will never forget Ankiel hitting a home run to win a playoff game for the Braves in 2010. I remember thinking this was about the most unlikely thing you could imagine. Ankiel deserves some props for overcoming a lot in his life.

buvdaddy
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buvdaddy

They don’t exactly fit the category, but for Pirates fun:

Zach Duke
8-2 his 2005 (rookie) season (age 22), 1.81 ERA, ERA+ 233
50-79 the rest of his (current) career

His rookie teammate Paul Maholm
3-1 his 2005 season (age 23), 2.18 ERA, ERA+ 194
74-99 the rest of his (apparently over) career

Their 2005 teammate Oliver Perez:
12-10 in his 2004 season (age 22), 2.98 ERA, ERA+ 143
55-70 the rest of his (current) career

Then there was Ian Snell …

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Roy Foster. 1970 ROY with the Indians. 2 very mediocre years later and he was gone and never heard from again.

mike
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mike

Re Ankiel, 11-7, 3.50 is pretty good, but a long ways from ‘brilliant.’