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2017 Cubs Spring Training Countdown: Day 2

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In tribute to one of the biggest outlier seasons in Cubs history.

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Rick Wilkins posted a season in 1993 that most players, never mind catchers, would be proud of: .303/.376/.561 with 30 home runs.

There was nothing in Wilkins’ past that would have suggested he could do that. He’d never hit better than .249 in any minor-league season prior to being called up, and his minor-league homer total was 17, in Double-A in 1990. That got him rated Baseball America’s No. 70 prospect.

He spent two years, 1991 and 1992, split between Iowa and Chicago, and his major-league totals for those two years were nothing special: .248/.327/.387 with 14 home runs in 447 at-bats.

Then came 1993. He didn’t play much against lefties (.224 in 67 at-bats) but crushed right-handed pitching: .317/.385/.588 with 27 home runs in 379 at-bats. The homer barrage wasn’t an effect of Wrigley, either; he hit 10 home runs there in 238 at-bats, 20 on the road in 208 at-bats. He didn’t get weaker as the season went on; he hit .352/.439/.606 with five homers in 71 at-bats after September 1. And for good measure, he went 4-for-9 as a pinch-hitter with two pinch homers.

There were, at the time, those who were saying he was nearly as good as Mike Piazza, who was N.L. Rookie of the Year (Wilkins wasn’t eligible). Piazza finished ninth in MVP voting. Perhaps tellingly, Wilkins didn’t get a single MVP vote.

Wins Above Replacement hadn’t been invented in 1993, but in retrospect that comparison wasn’t totally invalid. Piazza posted 7.0 bWAR in 1993 and Wilkins had 6.6 — those two ranked second and third among N.L. position players that year, behind league MVP Barry Bonds.

The 6.6 bWAR is the best bWAR season by a catcher in Cubs history. Gabby Hartnett’s 1930 season ranks second, at 5.4, and Wilkins’ 1993 season ranks tied for 31st in bWAR among all Cubs position players. Since 1993 (23 seasons), there have been just three Cubs position players with a single-season bWAR higher than 6.6: Sammy Sosa (10.3 in 2001), Kris Bryant (7.7 in 2016) and Derrek Lee (7.7 in 2005).

It was a fantastic season, but Wilkins quickly reverted to his previous level of performance, hitting .227/.317/.387 with seven home runs in 100 games in strike-shortened 1994. He was traded to the Astros in June 1995 for Luis Gonzalez and Scott Servais, so the Cubs did at least get some value out of Wilkins.

He never again had a season anywhere close to his 1993. He hung around until 2001, when he played briefly for the Padres. Injuries appear to be part of the reason he never hit that well again. That link notes his acquisition by the Mets in May 1998, but he played only five games for them and didn’t play that year at all after May 20, presumably again due to injury. Two days later the Mets traded for Piazza, who the Cubs had also been trying to acquire that spring.

Rick Wilkins’ 1993 season is inexplicable. It’s probably the biggest fluke single season in Cubs history, and one of the biggest in all of big-league history.