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.