In 2000, the Astros had four outfielders hit twenty or more home runs, and best of all for them three of them were 25 years old or younger. Daryle Ward slugged his 20 dingers in just 264 at-bats, and along with two 24-year-olds, Richard Hidalgo and Lance Berkman, looked ready to solidify the Astro outfield for years to come.
It never worked out that way though. It wasn't until Moises Alou left in 2002 that the three youngsters all became the outfield stalwarts on a full-time basis. And that year Ward and Hidalgo struggled. Neither had lived up to expectation in 2001 either. So with Jeff Kent joining the team, the Astros decided to assign erstwhile second baseman Craig Biggio to center field, which meant they had to make a decision to unload one outfielder. Ward became the odd man out and was shipped to LA for a minor-league pitcher.
As if hitting in a hitter's park (Minute Maid Park) weren't hard enough for Ward, he withered in Dodger Stadium. He played just 52 games but batted .163 with a .211 OBP, .193 slugging percentage, and a paltry .403 OPS, only 10% of the park-adjusted league average.
When the Pirates promoted him from Triple-A Nashville on May12, it was to replaced another disappointed outfielder the mercurial Raul Mondesi. The move seemed quite appropriate. However, Ward has been seen a renaissance as a Buc. In his first 57 at-bats, he is batting .368, an OBP of .390, a slugging average of .789, and an OPS of 1.179, all of which would be career highs if he could keep it up. His OPS would be the second highest in the majors if he qualified for the batting title, and would be just two points ahead of former outfield-mate Lance Berkman. He also six home runs and 17 RBI in just 14 games and the other day hit for the cycle to become part of the first father-son team to do so (with Gary Ward).
His OPS has gone up 776 points almost trebling his 2003 numbers. At 28 could Ward be coming into his own finally maturing enough to bury the demons that prevented him from fulfilling the expectations of stardom or is this just a fluke? Well, has anyone else ever had such a tremendous turnaround?
I investigated and the answer is no. The largest one-year turnaround for a batter with at least 100 plate appearances was .556 by Gates Brown in 1968 (from 0.571 to 1.127). However, Brown was just a bench player, who played a total of 118 games in those two years.
Besides, if Ward keeps it up, he'll get many more than 100 plate appearances. I readjusted the query to find the highest change with at least 100 plate appearances in the first year and 400 in the second. I found four with an OPS upswing of 400 points or more:
The only player since World War II is Dave Martinez, who went from a rookie part-timer to a starter with the Cubs in 1987, which is hardly analogous to Ward's situation. However, let's assume that Ward matches Martinez and ends up with a .806 OPS. The Pirates average park-adjusted OPS since moving into PNC Park is in the mid-.770 range. If that holds true for 2004, Ward's OPS would be just 4 percent better than the park-adjusted average. And that's just if he can keep up with an historic rate of improvement.
Anything is possible, but I would have to think that the odds are against Ward becoming even an average player for the Pirates this year. But he may be an upgrade over Mondesi. I wonder if Mario Guerrero will try to hit Ward up for some cash because of it.