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Many players have appeared in only one MLB season, but most of those received only cups of coffee. This post deals with players who played just 1 season but received significant playing time in that year.

Overall, I found 22 players (7 pitchers and 15 hitters) who had a large amount of playing time in their only seasons. All of them qualified for either the ERA title or the batting title. As you might expect from the fact that none of them ever played in MLB again, most of them were quite bad; only 7 of the 22 posted a WAR above 0, and only one had a WAR above 2.

Note: these lists only include players since 1901 in the American or National Leagues (i.e., no Federal Leaguers).

First up, the pitchers:

Rk Player IP WAR Year Age Tm G GS H BB SO ERA ERA+
1 Henry Schmidt
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301.0 1.5 1903 30 BRO
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40 36 321 120 96 3.83 84
2 Ham Iburg
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236.0 -1.6 1902 28 PHI
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30 29 286 62 106 3.89 75
3 Tom Fisher
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214.0 -5.4 1904 23 BSN
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31 21 257 82 84 4.25 65
4 Tommy de la Cruz
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191.1 1.8 1944 32 CIN
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34 20 170 45 65 3.25 108
5 Orie Arntzen
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164.1 -0.2 1943 33 PHA
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32 20 172 69 66 4.22 81
6 Jim Bivin
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161.2 -1.1 1935 25 PHI
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47 14 220 65 54 5.79 79
7 Ed Smith
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154.2 -2.7 1906 27 SLB
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19 18 153 53 45 3.72 70
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
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: View Play Index Tool Used
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Generated 3/15/2012.

Most of the players on this list got just one season mainly because of poor performance, but for Henry Schmidt

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, personal preference played a role as well. Before 1903, he had pitched in the Pacific Coast League, which was then an independent semi-major league. He was decent enough for the Brooklyn Superbas (later the Dodgers) in 1903, even leading the team in wins, but decided he didn’t like playing on the east coast and returned to the PCL the next year.

Tom Fisher

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‘s 1904 season ranks as the second-worst in modern MLB history (since 1901), by WAR anyway. Only Steve Blass
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‘ 1973 (-5.8 WAR) was worse, and Blass was in the midst of his eponymous “disease” at the time. Fisher’s 4.25 ERA may not seem bad, but this was the height of the Dead Ball Era, and his 65 ERA+ indicates that he was 35% below average. He also allowed 64 unearned runs, making his overall Run Average a whopping 6.94.

Easily the best season on the list by ERA+ is Tommy de la Cruz

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‘s 1944. He also threw a 1-hitter that year. De la Cruz was 32 in 1944, which makes for a late debut, but there was a shortage of players due to World War II, so it’s not surprising that a minor-league journeyman like him would get significant playing time. The lack of players due to the war also helps explain de la Cruz’s relatively stellar performance. After that season, he was called up to the U.S. Army, but instead enlisted in the armed forces of his native Cuba. His refusal to enlist in America prevented him from ever returning to MLB.

Now let’s look at the hitters. These are all the players who qualified for a batting title in their only season, minus those who got fewer than 400 PAs (thanks to weird qualification rules).

Rk Player PA WAR/pos Year Age Tm G BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
1 Irv Waldron
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651 1.6 1901 29 TOT 141 .311 .356 .378 .734 *98
2 Art Mahan
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591 -1.0 1940 27 PHI
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146 .244 .297 .318 .615 *3/1
3 Dutch Schliebner
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587 -0.7 1923 32 TOT 146 .271 .333 .362 .694 *3
4 Scotty Ingerton
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575 -1.1 1911 25 BSN
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136 .250 .304 .340 .644 5734/69
5 Johnny Sturm
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568 -2.4 1941 25 NYY
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124 .239 .293 .300 .592 *3
6 Bob Maier
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529 -0.4 1945 29 DET
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132 .263 .317 .350 .667 *5/7
7 Sparky Anderson
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527 -1.4 1959 25 PHI
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152 .218 .282 .249 .531 *4
8 Buddy Blair
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523 0.4 1942 31 PHA
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137 .279 .325 .397 .722 *5
9 Goat Anderson
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510 1.1 1907 27 PIT
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127 .206 .343 .225 .568 *98/47
10 Moon Mullen
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502 0.0 1944 27 PHI
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118 .267 .315 .304 .618 *4/5
11 Ham Schulte
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488 -0.7 1940 27 PHI
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120 .236 .288 .294 .582 *4/6
12 Gair Allie
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482 -1.3 1954 22 PIT
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121 .199 .294 .268 .562 *65
13 Buzz Arlett
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469 2.4 1931 32 PHI
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121 .313 .387 .538 .925 *93
14 Ernie Sulik
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453 -0.1 1936 25 PHI
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122 .287 .353 .386 .739 *87/9
15 Johnny Johnston
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445 0.2 1913 23 SLB
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111 .224 .308 .297 .605 *7
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
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: View Play Index Tool Used
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Generated 3/15/2012.

By far the most notable name on either list is Sparky Anderson

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, the beloved Hall of Fame manager of the Reds and Tigers. Anderson was a notably bad hitter, as his .249 career slugging percentage can attest, but he certainly made the most of his post-playing career. He has the 6th-most managerial wins in MLB history.

Amazingly, Irv Waldron

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only played 1 season in MLB, but in that season, he led the AL in games played and plate appearances. He wasn’t bad, either, posting a 107 OPS+ and a total of 1.6 WAR. He played for two teams in 1901, the Milwaukee Brewers (who’d move to St. Louis and become the Browns the next season) and the Washington Senators. This was the AL’s first season, and no team played more than 137 games, which makes Waldron’s 141 games played rather remarkable. There’s no word on why he didn’t return to MLB in 1902.

The best season on the list belongs to Buzz Arlett

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, a legendary slugger known as the “Babe Ruth
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of the Minor Leagues.” Arlett, like Ruth, began his career as a pitcher before becoming the top home run hitter of the Pacific Coast League. He finished his career with 432 minor-league homers (most in history at the time). He did quite well in his only year in the majors, slugging .538, but his reputation as a poor defensive outfielder perhaps doomed his MLB career.

Amazingly, 6 of the 15 position players on the list above played for the Phillies. One other played for the Philadelphia A’s, while 2 more played for the Pirates, which means that Pennsylvania players make up 60% of the list. Add that to the 2 Phillies and 1 Philadelphia Athletic on the pitchers’ list, and we’ve got 8 Phillies and 12 Pennsylvanians out of 22 total one-year wonders. I have no explanation for this.

There are some fantastic nicknames on the list: Dutch, Sparky, Buddy, Goat, Moon, Ham, and Buzz. By the way, what is it about guys named Ham? There’s one on each list. And that’s out of just 6 major leaguers with Ham for a first name.

One reason for the preponderance of nicknames is that there are no Expansion Era players on either list. Only 2 of the 22 players (Anderson and Gair Allie

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) appeared in MLB after World War II. Generally, players from the pre-Expansion eras were much more likely to have quirky nicknames become their officially listed names.

I’d guess that there hasn’t been a player to qualify for the list in the past 50+ years because MLB has become more uniform and stable. With standardized, affiliated minor leagues and a general consistency of approach in major-league team offices, it’s just not very likely that one team will find a player worthy of regular playing time and that no other team will even give that player a shot. If a player today is promising enough to qualify for a batting or ERA title, they’ll get another MLB chance even if that qualifying season is a disaster. And if they’re not good enough to get a second chance, their first chance is unlikely to be all that substantial.

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