The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

One-Year Wonders

How does it happen?  How does a player suddenly, unexpectedly, break out and have a huge season? And how come after having enjoyed that break-out season, they revert the following season to being the player they had been before?

Baseball history is littered with these strange, inexplicable seasons.  They appear like shooting stars streaking across a Milky Way sky, then burn up in the atmosphere, leaving little trace that they ever existed.

Fortunately, in baseball we have statistics.  For baseball fans, statistics are the life-blood of the sport.  These magic numbers unveil our heroes; they unmask the pretenders.  And the numbers themselves change and become iconic, as the simple number nine changes when we use it in the context of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The number 61 (minus the damned asterisk) still belongs to Roger Maris.  The number 73, by contrast, does not belong to Barry Bonds, a pretender to the throne.

Joe DiMaggio will forever be linked more closely to the number 56 than he will even to his famous ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe.

But some numbers carry far less gravitas, signifying nothing more than a lucky aligning of the cosmos for some fortunate player.

These players are, in effect, lucky lottery winners, finding themselves holding the correct set of random numbers, numbers that for them will always represent their crowning achievement as major league baseball players.

So here is a list of eight such one-year wonders for us to examine more closely.  These players do not fit any discernible pattern.  Some had their one big season early in their careers as young men, others, much later as veterans in their 30’s.

I decided to comprise my list from players who have been active within the past twenty years to emphasize how quickly these players can, and have, been largely forgotten.

Here, then, in no particular order, is my list.  The first set of numbers following each players name represents his greatest season.  The second number represents an average season (based on a hypothetical 162 games played.) The greater the difference between these two sets of numbers, the more atypical their one-year wonder season really was.

1)  Exhibit A (as Rod Serling of Twilight Zone used to say) in our gallery of one-year wonders is one Richard Hidalgo, an outfielder for the Astros by trade, swinging for the fences ever since his arrival in the major leagues in 1997 at the tender age of 22.  He showed promise early, hitting .306 over his first 62 at bats.

Suddenly, in the year 2000, at the age of 25, he emerged as the second coming of Jimmie Foxx.  Here’s his line for that outstanding season:

44 homers, 122 RBI’s, 118 Runs scored, .314 BA, .391 On-Base, .636 Slugging, 1.028 OPS, plus 13 stolen bases.

Here’s what an average season would have looked like for Hidalgo, based on his final career numbers:

28 homers, 92  RBI’s,  87 Runs,  .269 BA, .345 On-Base,  .490 Slugging, .835 OPS, 8 steals.

Although the power numbers don’t look that bad, you see a huge difference in each of his percentages and averages across the board.  Most stunning might be the nearly 150 point difference in slugging percentage, not to mention the overall huge difference in OPS.

By age 30 in the year 2005, Hidalgo was finished in major league baseball.

Now, without accompanying commentary, here are the rest of our One-Year Wonders:

2) Rich Aurilia – SS – Giants  Year:  2001

206 Hits, 114 Runs , 37 homers, 97 RBI’s, .324, .369, .572, .941

155 Hits, 73 Runs , 18 homers, 74 RBI’s, .275, .328, .433, .762

3) Todd Hundley – C – Mets Year:  1996

140 Hits, 85 Runs , 41 homers, 112 RBI’s, .259, .356, .550, .906

117 Hits, 65 Runs , 27 homers, 79 RBI’s, .234, .320, .443, .763

4) Brady Anderson – OF – Baltimore Year: 1996

172 Hits, 117 Runs, 50 homers, 110 RBI’s, .297, .396, .637, 1.034

147 Hits, 94 Runs , 19 homers, 67 RBI’s, .256, .362, .425. .787

5) Paul Lo Duca – C – Dodgers: 2001

25 homer, 90 RBI’s, .320 BA, .374 On Base, .543 Slugging, .917 OPS

12 homers, 72 RBI’s, .286 BA, .337 On Base, .409 Slugging, .746 OPS

6)  Omar Daal – SP – Arizona Year: 1999

Win / Loss: 16-9,  ERA: 3.65,  IP: 214,  K’s: 148,  WHIP: 1.24

Win/ Loss: 8-10,  ERA: 4.55,  IP: 147,  K’s: 99,  WHIP: 1.41

7) Jose Lima – SP – Houston Year:  1999

Win / Loss: 21-10,  ERA: 3.58,  IP: 246,  K’s: 187, WHIP: 1.218

Win / Loss: 10-12,  ERA: 5.26,  IP: 183,  K’s: 114,  WHIP: 1.388

8)  Pat Hentgen – SP – Toronto: 1996

Win / Loss: 20-10,  ERA: 3.22,  IP: 265,  K’s: 177,  WHIP: 1.250

Win / Loss: 14-12,  ERA: 4.32,  IP: 217,  K’s: 135,  WHIP: 1.391

The most common characteristic that distinguishes a career year from a typical year for several of the hitters is the noticeable difference in Slugging Percentage, and in OPS.

In general, although drops in batting average and on-base percentage were also apparent, those two stats weren’t as significantly out of line compared to what the player accomplished throughout his career.

For example, Paul Lo Duca’s on-base percentage in his career year was 37 points higher than it was in his “normal” season.  But his slugging percentage was 134 points greater than normal in ’01 compared to his average year.

For Brady Anderson, those two categories (on-base percentage vs. slugging percentage) disclose an even larger discrepancy.  His on-base differential was 34 points, while his slugging percentage differential was an astonishing 212 points.

This means that although Anderson was reaching base a similar amount of times in each season, including his career season, he slugged the ball in ’96 like he’d never done before, and never would again.

Todd Hundley (107 points) Rich Aurilia (134 points) and Richard Hidalgo (146 points) each follow the pattern of one-season, out-of-kilter slugging percentages.

So why does it happen?

Many people will immediately jump to the conclusion that these players must have used steroids during their big seasons.  But if they enjoyed so much success on steroids, then why use them for only one season?

One-time steroid use does not fit the M.O. of the typical player on steroids.  Players like McGwire, Manny Ramirez, A-Rod, and others used these performance enhancing drugs for significant periods of time, often over many seasons, even if not in every season.

But let’s take a look at the pitchers and see what kinds of trends reveal themselves between their One -Year Wonder seasons and the rest of their careers.

Two things are immediately evident:

First, the pitchers tended to have higher strikeout rates in their career years.

Second, the pitchers tended to allow fewer runners to reach base in their career years, thus a lower ERA and more victories.

Well, there is nothing terribly enlightening about those details.  The question is, why were the pitchers able to strike out more batters and allow fewer batters to reach base than they did in a “normal” season?

Again, steroids, although not beyond the realm of possibility, seem unlikely considering the pitchers’ career trajectories.

Strikeouts for pitchers, like doubles and homers for hitters, show a commanding dominance over the opposition that can be accounted for in several ways.

A)  Adjustments: Pitchers who dominate, like hitters who dominate, have made some sort of mechanical adjustment that gave them a slight, but significant edge, over their opposition, and their opposition took a year or two to catch up with this adjustment.

B)  Quality of Opposition: Every at bat, every pitch thrown, is a man-to-man battle between two athletes.  In some seasons, a baseball player comes up against relatively weaker, less talented foes, giving himself a victorious edge often enough that this edge begins to reveal itself in statistics.

C)  Health: Very few players ever play their entire careers at or near 100 percent health.  Being healthy, for an athlete, is a relative term.  Many start out strong and sound, but are quickly worn down by the long grind of a baseball season, particularly those at the up-the-middle defensive positions.  So a One- Season Wonder could mean a rare look at what that particular player, completely healthy, was capable of doing.

D)  Luck: Sometimes nearly every ground ball ends up in a fielders glove for an easy out, or even a double play.  Conversely, sometimes these same grounders find there way an inch or two beyond a diving fielder’s mitt, driving in a key run.  For hitters, sometimes the wind is blowing out and a pop-fly becomes a three-run homer.  But sometimes the jet-stream knocks a line-drive down into an outfielder’s greedy glove.

The reality is that each of these four factors probably had something to do with these eight One-Year Wonder seasons.

All of this begs one last question:  How do we know if we’ve just witnessed a fluke season by a contemporary athlete rather than a hard-working player who has turned the corner and is now on his way to long-term super-stardom?

Take a look at two things:  the players age at the time of his big season, and his career accomplishments prior to his big season.  If a player just had his bust-out season at the age of 31, it’s highly unlikely you’ll see that kind of production from him again any-time soon.

Taking a player’s age into consideration is probably the single biggest predictor of a player’s likely future level of production.  There are freaks, of course, like Randy Johnson, who hit a high note at age 31, and sustain a level of dominance for a dozen more years.

But, fortunately for scouts and seagulls, there ain’t too many Randy Johnson’s.

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8 thoughts on “One-Year Wonders

  1. Very good writing. I am glad your posting that. I hope you can accept my apology for my less good English Skills, I am from France and English is sort of new to me. I will bookmark your blog and keep reading.

  2. Ohio is Nowhere on said:

    I like this. I think everyone of those guys was on your Fantasy Baseball team when they had that one big year!

  3. Really nice post. I’d like to know how many of the players you list changed teams just prior or just after their career year. Maybe that would make a difference. Frankly I don’t recall any of them but Anderson, who I know didn’t change teams, well enough to answer that question myself (don’t have my books in front of me and don’t have the time to look it up on the net). I do seem to recall that LoDuca had a steroid problem at one point (but may be wrong on this).
    Although this “jump” in stats isn’t common, it has taken place before and among major players. Take a look at both Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski’s home run totals about 5 or so years into their careers. The difference is that both maintained the jump and had Hall of Fame careers rather than falling back to a “normal” season for each (certainly a “normal” season for these 2 was quite extraordinary). Of course the great examples of a mid-career “jump” that wasn’t a fluke were Sandy Koufax and Babe Ruth (although in fairness, Ruth’s circumstance-pitcher to outfielder-is different).
    Taking a chance on Hamilton makes at least a little sense (maybe he’s a Musial or a Yastrzemski), but, like you, I don’t trust it to last. And as for being either Stan the Man or Yaz, in his dreams.

    • Hi, I went back and did some research today and, frankly, it appears that none of the eight players I listed in my blog changed teams either the year before or the year after their Big year. Free-agency doesn’t seem to have been an issue at all. You are right that some players suddenly take off and have big careers after having already been in the league for a few years. Usually, however, these players are very young when they first come up to the Majors, and take a few years, and sometimes a new opportunity, to thrive. As far as Koufax, he came up as an extremely raw nineteen-year old in 1955, then pitched his first three years in hitter-friendly Ebbett’s Field. After about three years in the more pitcher-friendly Chavez Ravine, Koufax began to really learn his craft, and in 1961, at the age of 25, he had his first good season. But his career really took off when MLB decided to raise the pitcher’s mound five inches in 1963. Koufax won the Cy Young Award that season, as well as in ’65 and ’66. A couple of years after he retired, MLB decided to lower the mound again back to its original height. So Koufax’s normal growth as a pitcher fortuitously coincided with first, a move out of Brooklyn, then, second, the raising of the pitcher’s mound. But he was certainly talented enough to take advantage of those advantageous developments. As for Ruth, well, we don’t need to cover all that now, do we? Thanks so much for taking the time to engage me in these baseball dialogues. It’s why I do this blog stuff. Talk to you again, Bill

      • Don’t disagree with you on Koufax. But I think it’s true that most great players take advantage of the advantages they are handed.
        Gad to know you checked out the changing team idea. Frankly, I didn’t know the answer.
        One other point to look at is the change in parks (which I don’t think applies in any of the cases you mention, but won’t bet the farm on that). I recall Willie Stargell’s power numbers make a significant jump in the early 1970’s. The reason? He moved from pitcher friendly Forbes Field (God, it was a long way to the bleachers there) to more hitter friendly Three Rivers.
        Really liked your post. Keep it up.

  4. Good post! .. I still shake my head at Brady Anderson’s numbers 🙂

    I wonder if any of these were “contract years”. Was there an extra motivation to get the big score that pushed these players? It makes me cringe as a fan to think it actually happens, and I’m sure it’s harder to do in baseball than football or basketball, but it makes you wonder if there was a money factor.

    • Hi Joe, It doesn’t appear that “contract years” was an issue at all. I went back and checked it out today. But, of course, money is always a factor. Any success a player has will usually show up in future contract negotiations. As always, thanks for reading. Bill

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