Forgotten Seasons Episode 1: Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee

As we come to the close of 2016, examining the end of season statistics sheds light on what players stood out over the course of the year. Unfortunately, many of these players may fade into obscurity over the years–like Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee.

One example from this season could be Brian Dozier’s massive performance in the second half for a bad Minnesota team. Here, I would like to shed light on a few forgotten seasons where players put up statistically significant performances weekly as we head into the offseason.

My fellow contributor Zach Bernard already touched on a lost season, and for the first week of my own analysis, I would like to shed light on Derrek Lee’s 2005 season and why it is forgotten.

Derrek Lee, Chicago Cubs first baseman, hit for a line of .335/.418/.662, with a 170 wRC+, 46 HR, and 7.0 WAR in 2005. For comparison, St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols hit for a line of .330/.430/.609 with a 167 wRC+, 41 HR, and 7.7 WAR.

One of these players won the 2005 National League MVP and the other won the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards for first basemen in the National League. If you think you remember Pujols as the MVP that year, you would be correct, and that is in part why I would like to shed some light on Lee’s 2005 campaign once again.

Lee is not forgotten by Cubs fans. Many remember Lee as the slugging number three hitter of the Cubs, from 2004-2010, who came over after he played for the Florida Marlins–and beat the Cubs in the infamous 2003 NLCS. Even after being dealt for the popular Hee-Seop Choi, with his open stance and smooth swing Lee quickly became a fan favorite for most every Cub fan in the mid-2000s.

However, his results were never so gaudy. Pre-2005, Lee’s slash numbers were nothing like his career-best season and he didn’t accumulate 4+ WAR in any year–and he wouldn’t again for several years in part due to a wrist injury suffered in April of 2006. Lee’s best season prior to his breakout year was 2003 with the Marlins, in which he hit .271/.379/.508 with 31 homers and a 3.8 WAR.

On a bad Cubs team that failed to meet expectations, Lee was the exception to the rule. He lead all of Major League Baseball in slugging percentage at an astounding .662, besting Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. to name a few. He also lead the entire league in wOBA (.444), isolated power (.327!), hits (199), doubles (50), and batting average (.335).

He finished second in wRC+, fourth in home runs, and sixth in OBP. Lee also scored 120 runs, stole 15 bases, and accumulated five Defensive Runs Saved at his position.

Lee won the Silver Slugger, as well as the Gold Glove award, yet somehow did not collect a league MVP. That likely had much to do with the 2005 Cubs team that went 79-83, finishing fourth in the NL Central. He actually dropped to third in the MVP race behind Pujols and Braves outfielder Andruw Jones, who slugged 51 homers in ’05. Lee’s offensive numbers were better than both Pujols and Jones, but her was passed over simply because he was on a worse team.

Lee did earn his first All-Star appearance that year, but it was not enough to cement his legacy as a superstar player. After his injury in ’06, he returned to his prior good-not-great status, never again reaching the 40 home run or 7+ WAR threshold. Lee showed a flash of brilliance again in 2009, reaching 35 home runs and 5.3 WAR. But his 2005 season remains one of the greatest seasons that few really remember.