After a hiatus, the One Year Wonder series is back! Please, hold your applause. After taking a look at the very short-lived Red Sox careers of Don Aase, Bob Watson and some joker named Tom Seaver, it’s time for our next installment, which features Nick Esasky, who had the best season of his career with the Sox. Remember, these are players who shone bright but only played one or part of one season with Boston.
How He Came to Boston
A talented high school player, Esasky would have been one of those top 100 prospect types after he was taken No. 17 overall in the 1978 amateur draft out of Carol City High School by the Cincinnati Reds.
His first-round pedigree didn’t necessarily feed into booming minor league success, as Esasky was a solid, if not spectacular hitter during his five-year run-up to his MLB debut. He showed definite pop, smashing 30 home runs in 1980 and 27 in 1982, the year before he was called up.
Esasky started the 1983 season in the minors but he was called up and made his debut on June 19 of that year. His work with the lumber was enough to keep him at the MLB level. Playing primarily as a third baseman, Esasky slashed .265/.328/.450 in 335 plate appearances, roping 12 home runs and recording and OPS+ of 112. That season led to a consistent gig as a bat in the Reds’ lineup through most of the 80s. Although he began at the hot corner, he would go on to play outfield and first base as well, playing primarily at the latter post during his last few years for the Reds.
From 1983 to 1988 he would amass 2,392 plate appearances and put together 92 home runs, 319 RBI and a slash line of .245/.324/.436 for the Reds, but before the 1989 season he was traded for a pair of youngsters from Boston (Todd Benzinger and Jeff Sellers), altering the course of his career.
What He Did in Boston
Esasky joined a team that had just been swept in the ALCS. Benzinger, a 25-year-old, had been the primary first baseman for the 1988 Sox and Esasky was easily an upgrade, as Benzinger only batted .254/.293/.425 the year before he was traded. However, there were few who would have guessed just how big an upgrade Esasky would be.
He was humming along at his usual pace through the first few months of the season. He was solid in April, cooled a bit in May and then consistently hit across June and July. However, it was in August when he erupted and turned a solid season into a legendary one. During the eighth month of the year, Esasky slashed .304/.347/.587 as he blasted nine home runs and drove in 35. His big August must have struck some fear into opposing pitchers because in September, Esasky actually produced a higher OPS (.958 vs. .934) despite hitting five fewer home runs, thanks in part to the 20 walks he took. Those free passes lifted his on-base percentage to .446 for the month, far outstripping his pace the rest of the season.
As most people know, Fenway Park is a hitters haven and it certainly was for Esasky, who hit 15 of his 30 home runs for the season at home. Along with those career-high 30 bombs, he also finished with personal bests in hits (156), doubles (26), RBI (108), OPS+ (133) and bWAR (3.9). He managed to rank as the third most valuable player on the Sox roster, beating out mainstays like Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks and Dwight Evans. The only players to be worth more wins for the Red Sox were Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens.
Why He Left Boston
Unfortunately, the Sox did not make the postseason in 1989, finishing 83-79 and third in the AL East. That winter, Esasky was granted free agency for the first time in his career and he capitalized on what appeared to be his breakout season by signing a three-year deal with the Atlanta Braves worth $5.6 million. At age 30 all signs pointed to a few more peak years for Esasky with Atlanta, even if the Braves had just finished in sixth place in the NL West (yes, the NL West) for the third season in a row.
What He Did After Boston
Unfortunately, that’s not how things turned out. Esasky only played in nine games for the Braves, as his career was cut short by an ear infection which caused vertigo. Esasky remained on Atlanta’s books through his contract until he was released on July 17, 1992.
Don’t feel too bad for the Braves. They won the NL West in three-straight seasons from 1991 to 1993 and then went on to win the NL East in 11-straight when the leagues were split into three divisions. Instead, feel bad for Esasky who went from 30-home run star to out of baseball with the snap of a finger. Baseball is a cruel game at times, and this is one of the crueler plot twists in the game’s history.