10 Most Ridiculous Statistical Seasons During MLB's Steroid Era

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 15, 2020

10 Most Ridiculous Statistical Seasons During MLB's Steroid Era

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    JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

    Names like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro are synonymous with the Steroid Era.

    However, it's not just those legendary sluggers who were part of the offensive explosion that began in the late 1990s and ran through the 2002 season, when Major League Baseball started testing players.

    Ahead we've highlighted 10 players who had one gaudy statistical season during that stretch that stands out as a clear outlier against the rest of their career numbers.

    We'll start by highlighting several players who were never directly linked to steroids or performance-enhancing drugs—apart from suspicion or accusation in some cases—as these statistical outbursts deserve to be recognized even if we're not suggesting any wrongdoing.

    We'll close our list with three players who fit our criteria and have indeed been connected to PEDs, whether they outright admitted it or were notably linked.

    In the end, the aim of this article was not to make any assumptions one way or the other, but simply to highlight some memorable offensive explosions from unexpected sources as we continue to look back on the Steroid Era.

Brady Anderson, 1996

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    JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

    1995: 110 OPS+, 16 HR, 64 RBI
    1996: 156 OPS+, 50 HR, 110 RBI23.8 percent of career HR total
    1997: 128 OPS+, 18 HR, 73 RBI

    Outfielder Brady Anderson had a solid 15-year MLB career, posting a 109 OPS+ and 35.0 WAR while earning three All-Star selections.

    However, he will forever be remembered for his out-of-nowhere 50-homer season in 1996.

    Jeremy Greenhouse of The Hardball Times wrote:

    "Unfortunately, we're belittling his career achievements because of that one spectacular season. We're making character judgments on him, saying that he either lost his backbone for one year by succumbing to the allure of steroids, or he wasn't smart enough to realize the impact steroids had on his batting numbers. Let's not insult the guy."

    The 32-year-old had just 72 career home runs heading into the 1996 season, homering once every 45.5 at-bats over the first eight years of his career.

    Compare that to a rate of one every 11.6 at-bats in his 50-homer season.

    He immediately regressed back to his previous level of production the following season and never again hit more than 24 home runs in a season.

Jay Bell, 1999

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    1998: 106 OPS+, 20 HR, 67 RBI
    131 OPS+, 38 HR, 112 RBI19.5 percent of career HR total
    2000: 94 OPS+, 18 HR, 68 RBI

    Jay Bell was 33 years old with 13 MLB seasons under his belt when he exploded for 38 home runs during the 1999 season.

    After hitting just 83 home runs over his first 11 years in the majors, the infielder turned in the first two 20-homer seasons of his career in 1997 (21) and 1998 (20).

    Still, few expected him to nearly double his career high in the late stages of his career.

    He hit .304/.383/.621 with 21 home runs in 333 plate appearances at Bank One Ballpark, so a friendly home-field environment clearly helped boost his final numbers.

    Regardless, his 38-homer season trails only Luis Gonzalez (57, 2001) and Mark Reynolds (44, 2009) on the franchise's single-season home run list and goes down as one of the biggest surprises of the 1990s.

Bret Boone, 2001

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    2000: 94 OPS+, 19 HR, 74 RBI
    2001: 153 OPS+, 37 HR, 141 RBI14.7 percent of career HR total
    2002: 114 OPS+, 24 HR, 107 RBI

    The Seattle Mariners signed Bret Boone to a one-year, $3.25 million contract prior to the 2001 season on the heels of a respectable three-year stretch when he posted a 92 OPS+ while averaging 21 home runs and 77 RBI.

    With just 125 career home runs entering his age-32 season, more than a few people were surprised to see him close out the first half of the 2001 season hitting .324/.363/.582 with 22 home runs and 84 RBI.

    So what was the explanation for his sudden power surge?

    At the 2001 All-Star break, Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated wrote: "An off-season conditioning program that added 20 pounds of muscle to his 5'10" frame—"He looked like a little Tarzan when he came to camp," says manager Lou Piniella—probably put pop in his bat."

    Boone wound up leading the AL with 141 RBI while launching a career-high 37 home runs for a Mariners team that won 116 games.

    That earned the second baseman a three-year, $25 million contract in the offseason, and he averaged 28 home runs and 102 RBI over the life of that deal.

Bernard Gilkey, 1996

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    1995: 124 OPS+, 17 HR, 69 RBI
    155 OPS+, 30 HR, 117 RBI25.4 percent of career HR total
    100 OPS+, 18 HR, 78 RBI

    After six seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, outfielder Bernard Gilkey was traded to the New York Mets for three players prior to the 1996 season.

    While he posted a solid .282/.354/.431 line for a 113 OPS+ during his time in St. Louis, he had never hit more than 17 home runs in a season.

    That immediately changed in New York.

    The 29-year-old slugged 30 home runs hitting in the No. 3 spot in the lineup ahead of catcher Todd Hundley during his first season in Flushing. More on Hundley in a bit.

    That performance convinced the Mets to give Gilkey a new four-year, $20.4 million contract during the offseason, but his production proved unsustainable and he quickly regressed.

    He hit just 36 more home runs while bouncing around over the final five years of his career, playing for the Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves.

Luis Gonzalez, 2001

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    2000: 130 OPS+, 31 HR, 114 RBI
    174 OPS+, 57 HR, 142 RBI16.1 percent of career HR total
    125 OPS+, 28 HR, 103 RBI

    When Luis Gonzalez joined the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the 1999 season in a deal that sent Karim Garcia to the Detroit Tigers, the outfielder was far from an established power threat.

    In nine seasons, he had a respectable 109 OPS+ with a .432 slugging percentage and a career high of 23 home runs, which marked the only time he had eclipsed 20 homers in a season.

    That all changed upon reaching the desert.

    He hit .336/.403/.549 with 45 doubles, 26 home runs and 111 RBI while leading the NL in hits (206) in his first season with the D-backs to earn the first All-Star selection of his career, and his production continued to climb from there.

    During the five-year span from 1999 through 2003, he posted a 140 OPS+ while hitting .314/.405/.564 and averaging 39 doubles, 34 home runs and 115 RBI.

    So why is he on this list of unexpected performers when he was clearly more than a one-year wonder?

    Even with his uptick in production, no one saw a 57-homer season coming in 2001. That stands as one of the 20 most prolific power-hitting seasons in MLB history, and he is by far the unlikeliest member of that prestigious list.

Richard Hidalgo, 2000

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    1999: 89 OPS+, 15 HR, 56 RBI
    2000: 147 OPS+, 44 HR, 122 RBI25.7 percent of career HR total
    2001: 103 OPS+, 19 HR, 80 RBI

    Richard Hidalgo didn't exactly come out of nowhere.

    The Venezuelan-born outfielder was widely regarded as a top prospect during his time in the Houston Astros farm system, peaking at No. 19 on the Baseball America's top 100 prospect list in 1997 and 1998.

    However, his first full season in the majors was a dud as he hit just .227 with 15 home runs in 449 plate appearances.

    With veterans Carl Everett and Derek Bell both departing after the 1999 season, he was afforded an everyday role in 2000 despite that lackluster showing and took full advantage of the opportunity.

    The 25-year-old hit .314/.391/.636 while ranking among the NL leaders in home runs (44, fourth) and RBI (122, seventh).

    It looked like Houston had a budding superstar on its hands. Instead, he never came close to matching that level of production again.

    He averaged 21 home runs and 68 RBI over the next five seasons before his MLB career came to an end after his age-30 campaign.

Fernando Tatis, 1999

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    1998: 91 OPS+, 11 HR, 58 RBI
    139 OPS+, 34 HR, 107 RBI30.1 percent of career HR total
    2000: 117 OPS+, 18 HR, 64 RBI

    The St. Louis Cardinals acquired Fernando Tatis from the Texas Rangers at the 1998 trade deadline in a five-player deal that sent veterans Royce Clayton and Todd Stottlemyre the other way.

    He hit .287/.367/.505 with eight home runs and 26 RBI in 55 games following the trade, replacing Gary Gaetti as the starting third baseman down the stretch.

    The following season, he was one of the team's most productive hitters, slotted in the No. 5 spot in the batting order behind Mark McGwire and Ray Lankford.

    The 24-year-old launched 34 home runs and drove in 107 runs, adding 21 steals in 30 attempts for good measure.

    That level of production proved unsustainable, and he hit just .252/.334/.421 (95 OPS+) with 60 home runs in 2,009 plate appearances over the final eight seasons of his career.

    In 949 MLB games, he produced 6.3 WAR. Meanwhile, his son posted 4.1 WAR in 84 games for the San Diego Padres as a rookie last season.

Players Linked to PEDs

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    Todd Hundley, 1996

    1995: 131 OPS+, 15 HR, 51 RBI
    140 OPS+, 41 HR, 112 RBI—20.3 percent of career HR total
    1997: 148 OPS+, 30 HR, 86 RBI

    Todd Hundley hinted at his forthcoming offensive explosion during an injury-shortened 1995 season, slugging 15 home runs in just 326 plate appearances while raising his OPS more than 100 points (.746 to .865).

    Still, his 41-homer outburst in 1996 to break the single-season record for home runs by a catcher came as nothing short of a shock.

    That record has since been broken by Javy Lopez (42 in 2003), but it still stands as one of the most productive seasons ever by a catcher.

    He launched 30 more home runs the following season before hitting just three in 53 games in 1998 while dealing with an elbow issue. He never again topped 25 home runs, hitting .217/.308/.437 (93 OPS+) over the final six seasons of his career.

    Hundley was later named in the Mitchell Report and linked to performance-enhancing drugs.


    Ken Caminiti, 1996

    1995:137 OPS+, 26 HR, 94 RBI
    174 OPS+, 40 HR, 130 RBI—16.7 percent of career HR total
    141 OPS+, 26 HR, 90 RBI

    Ken Caminiti had put together a largely forgettable MLB career prior to joining the San Diego Padres for the 1995 season.

    The third baseman's 98 OPS+ and career high of 18 home runs over the first eight years of his career with the Houston Astros gave no indication of the forthcoming power surge.

    His production spiked in his first season in San Diego and then peaked the following year when he hit .326/.408/.621 with 40 home runs and 130 RBI to unanimously win NL MVP honors.

    At 33 years old, the breakout performance was surprising, to say the least.

    He went on to play five more seasons, hitting .303/.419/.582 with 15 home runs and 45 RBI as a 38-year-old in 2000. He still stands as one of the most unlikely MVP winners in recent memory.

    Following his retirement, he admitted to heavy steroid use during his MVP season and in subsequent seasons during an interview with Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated. He died of a drug overdose in 2004, and many remember him for his honesty in retirement.


    Ed Sprague, 1996

    199593 OPS+, 18 HR, 74 RBI
    105 OPS+, 36 HR, 101 RBI—23.7 percent of career HR total
    80 OPS+, 14 HR, 48 RBI

    Ed Sprague is perhaps best known as the starting third baseman on the Toronto Blue Jays team that repeated as World Series champions in 1993. He was also an unlikely All-Star for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1999.

    A quick look at his career stats and the 1996 season sticks out like a sore thumb.

    After averaging 14 home runs while posting a .390 slugging percentage in his first three full seasons in the majors, he suddenly turned in a .496 OPS and launched 36 home runs.

    Just as quickly as he burst onto the power-hitting scene, he regressed back to obscurity with just 14 home runs in 562 plate appearances the following year.

    He never again hit more than 22 home runs in a season or approached that slugging percentage peak, wrapping up his career after the 2001 season.

    In 2008, Sprague admitted to using amphetamines and androstenedione during his playing career.


    Catch Up on B/R's Steroid Week:

    Monday: McGwire vs. Sosa in '98

    Tuesday: Will Bonds' Records Ever Be Broken?

    Wednesday: Most Ridiculous Seasons of Steroid Era

    Thursday: How A-Rod Survived Steroid Hell

    Friday: Which Steroid Users* Should Be in HOF?


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.


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