Throughout baseball history, when a player has a great season, we generally see it coming. And if we don’t see it coming and they surprise us, they usually keep up the performance for a few years. A good example is Max Muncy, who surprised the baseball world with a 162 wRC+ and 5.2 fWAR last year. He did not repeat that season this year, but he’s currently set to come close to 5 fWAR in more plate appearances, so we know that his 2018 was mostly real. If you are talented enough to be great for one year, you’re usually talented enough to be great for multiple years.
But sometimes, sometimes a player comes out of nowhere, has one great season, and then disappears back into their old self. It doesn’t happen often. Like I said, if you’re able to post All-Star type numbers once over a full season, it’s highly unusual for you not do it at some other point in your career, or at least post slightly worse numbers than your best season. So here is an unofficial top ten of Cardinals who put it all together for exactly one year and no more. First the honorable mentions:
Pepper Martin, 1933
He doesn’t qualify because it is unlikely nobody in 1933 saw this season from Pepper Martin coming. Statistically, his 5.7 fWAR season jumps out and to be sure, he has a weird career, but he batted .500 in the 1931 World Series with four doubles and a homer and batted .300 in 1931. He also has a level of consistency around his 1934 season that is a little too good for this list, with four 2+ fWAR seasons following it and one before it.
Ed Karger, 1907
Karger isn’t on this list, because I’m pretty sure arm issues were his problem. His 1906 rookie season, which wasn’t a full season, was nearly as great as this year, but he threw 100 less innings. In 1907, he threw 314 innings. He lasted only four more seasons, averaging 140 innings a year (which doesn’t sound as bad today) and played his last MLB game at 28.
Al Jackson, 1966
This was a tricky one, because by fWAR, this wasn’t even his best season. In 1962, he had a 4 fWAR season, but his ERA was 4.40, so his RA9 was only 1.7. And that was much the story for his career up until 1966, with three of his four years prior to 1966 with an ERA between 4.26 and 4.40, with a high of 3.96. In 1966, he had a 2.51 ERA. His FIP was less impressive and more in line with his career, so he’s not on the list.
Woody Williams, 2003
Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, his other Cardinals years were pretty good. The rest of his career was not. If you want evidence of Dave Duncan’s magic, he’s a good place to start. Acquired midseason in 2001, Williams may have well been a completely different pitcher on the Cards than the rest of his career.
#10 John Tudor, 1985
He’s this low, because he doesn’t really fit the spirit of this list, with 34 career bWAR. Basically he’s a little too good. But he had a 12 year career and had nearly a quarter of that WAR in just one season. He had a 1.93 ERA over 275 innings, was second in Cy Young votes, and eighth in MVP. He received no votes in any other season.
#9 Bob Tewksbury, 1992
Same reason Tudor is this low is the same reason Tewk is. Outside of this season, he had a career high bWAR of 3.3, which came several years after this year, and a career high of just 2.3 before 1992, Tewksbury put together a 6.4 bWAR season out of nowhere. Seriously, he was a 31-year-old with a career bWAR of 4.3 and then had a good enough season for third place in Cy Young votes with a 2.16 ERA in 233 IP.
#8 Ryan Ludwick, 2008
Ludwick was in the MLB for parts of 12 years, had a career 13.7 fWAR, and 5.3 of it was in this season. It’s pretty easy to figure out why he’s on this list. He was injury-prone and a late bloomer and by the time he had his breakout season, he was already 30. His .342 BABIP and .292 ISO over 617 PAs weren’t even remotely close to being matched at any other point in his career.
#7 Red Barrett, 1945
I have to share this quote I found from him in 1938 (I recommend the whole profile); “I’m no strike-outer. These strikeout pitchers are chumps in my book. Me, I try to make them hit that first ball. After all, those other guys out there are supposed to work too.” He was traded midseason to the Cardinals for ace Mort Cooper, because Cooper had the audacity to think he should be paid more. In a twist of fate, the journeyman had a better 1945 than Cooper.
#6 Red Munger, 1947
Munger was a solid, unspectacular pitcher for most of his career and in fact quite bad at the end. Normal baseball career. Except in 1947, when he pitched his career high in IP for a 5 fWAR season. In fact, prior to 1947, he was arguably underused, and I’m not sure if it’s due to injuries, but he was pretty great splitting time between the bullpen and rotation. Afterwards, he wasn’t as great, but solid.
#5 Gregg Jefferies, 1993
Now, we’re getting to the good stuff. Without the benefit of hindsight and with advanced stats in hand, the Cardinals traded for Jefferies in what is clearly a bad trade. They traded Felix Jose, a RF averaging 2.4 fWAR the past three seasons with three years of team control left, for Jefferies, a 3B averaging 1.9 fWAR the past 4, who only had 2 years of team control. And the reasoning was, uh, because Jose stranded runners too much. In the Cardinals defense, Jefferies was error prone at 3B, so they made the trade knowing he would move to 1B. But his defense isn’t why they won the trade. Jefferies, in 142 games, put together a 143 wRC+. He hit to the tune of a 128 wRC+ in the strike-shortened 1994, and never at any point came close to those numbers in any of his other seasons.
#4 Les Bell, 1926
I’m not saying Bell is solely responsible for the Cardinals first championship, but him having an out of nowhere great season is more than the difference between the Cardinals and second place. Bell put together a 4.8 fWAR season, and the Cardinals only won the league by two games. He had a 138 wRC+. His next highest (in more than 100 PAs)? 97. His next highest WAR was 1.7. He was tied for sixth in baseball this year with 17 homers, four behind second place, and a whole lot more behind Babe Ruth’s 47.
#3 Austin McHenry, 1921
This has been a mostly fun article, but I got to tell you. The next three entries are just straight up sad. McHenry had a couple solid years to start his career, but in 1921, at age 25, he put it all together. He batted .350 with 17 homers, for a 145 wRC+. The next season, he struggled mightily, having vision problems, to the point where he thought he was going blind. He still had a 107 wRC+ despite this, but Branch Rickey sent him home to focus on his health. He got checked out by the doctor and he had a brain tumor that ended his life in November of 1922. Okay so this is the saddest one, but the next two aren’t happy endings.
#2 Johnny Beazley, 1942
There was no Rookie of the Year award until 1947, but if it existed in 1942, Beazley would have won it. He was 24, and in his first full season, he pitched 215 innings of 2.13 ERA ball. He started two games in the World Series, winning them both, to help lead the Cards to fourth championship. By the time the World Series was played, Beazley already committed to going to war. He was assigned to a morale boosting unit and spent most of his time playing baseball for the troops. Beazley hurt his arm doing this, because he would throw 2-3 innings, travel 40 miles to the next base, and throw 2-3 more innings. By the time he returned home, it was 1946 and his arm was effectively toast. He pitched 103 innings with 55 walks and 36 strikeouts and never threw more than 28.2 IP the rest of his career after that.
#1 Lou Klein, 1943
It should probably not come as a shock that three of these seasons fell between 1942 and 1945, the peak of World War II. Klein was second in WAR on the team to only Stan Musial (who had a 9.9 WAR season so, you know, nothing to be ashamed of there Lou). In 154 games played, he had a 114 wRC+, but his defense was elite, leading him to a 6.1 fWAR (and 5.8 bWAR) season. He joined the Coast Guard, missed all of 1944 and most of 1945. At this time, the Mexican League was run by Jorge Pasquel, who wanted to poach MLB talent. He brought over Negro League players starting in 1943, and was interested in enticing star players away for high salaries. Klein believed his future with the Cardinals would be limited to a utility player, as Red Schoendienst played the position he played most in 1943. So he bolted in the middle of 1946. Commissioner Happy Chandler imposed a lifetime ban on anyone who left for the Mexican League, which was lifted after just five years. But he had missed his chance and only played in 109 more games afrer that.
I would be surprised if I didn’t miss anyone obvious, so feel free to share in the comments. My criteria was not scientific, I simply looked at single season Cardinals WAR leaders and went from there. I stopped looking for players with below 5 WAR, so there are likely good candidates for this list who maybe just missed 5 WAR. For pitchers, I looked at RA9 and I stopped once I reached 5 WAR as well.
I’ll end this article would a few questions. Would we think of Austin McHenry as an all-time great Cardinal if he didn’t have a brain tumor? Would Johnny Beazley have had a Hall of Fame career if he never went to war or would he develop the arm troubles eventually? What would Lou Klein’s career look like if the reserve clause didn’t exist and he wasn’t staring at a future with a team that had no future for him? And what the hell happened to Felix Jose in Kansas City? No this one I want answered because that dude fell off a cliff.