The five wackiest power surges of the steroid era
My childhood, for all intents and purposes, ended on January 13, 2005. That was the day Major League Baseball's owners officially approved a new drug testing program; effectively ending an era of offensive dominance in the game that had endured, well, as long as I could remember.
Don't get me wrong. I do not wax nostalgic for the era of hulking sluggers, 5.00+ ERAs, and chicks digging the long ball. (Okay, maybe that last one just a little bit.) Rather, I'm merely framing the moment as the closing of the only era those in my generation had ever known.
Pinning down the start of the Steroid Era is no easy task.
Isolated guys were certainly juicing as far back as the 1970s. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were rookie phenoms in Oakland in 1988, the superhuman Bash Brothers, allegedly injecting each other in the clubhouse before games. Back then, of course, the Los Angeles Times declared baseball "essentially steroid-free."
The most common year cited as the "start" of the Steroid Era - a period characterized by record-shattering home runs binges and scoring by the bunches-is 1993. Major League Baseball expanded to twenty-eight teams that year, which led to approximately twenty-five AAA pitchers immediately joining the game's player pool. Of those twenty-eight teams, one build a stadium one mile above sea level and named it Coors Field.
That year, a steady trend of offensive growth kicked into overdrive. Games played in 1993 featured, on average, a half a run more in scoring than the previous year. The total of 4.6 runs per game scored in 1993 was actually the second-highest number posted since the '50s, but it would serve as the new baseline-the lowest number recorded until that 2005 season when MLB started drug testing players.
Batting average, home runs per game, slugging percentage-these numbers, too, set new heights that would become new baselines in 1993. "Turn of an era" doesn't really get much more clear-cut than that, when you get down to it.
In the summer of 1993, I was "preparing" for my first year of kindergarten. By 2005, I was in high school. In 2010 - the year scoring finally reached pre-'roid levels - I was able to drink legally. Essentially, I experienced an entire lifetime of baseball statistics in just under two decades!
During that span, it wasn't just the superstars who were putting up elite numbers, either. Several completely random dudes managed to inexplicably dig deep, and pull a monstrous power season or two out of somewhere to the south of their colon. Everyone knows about McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds, but what about those who were never headed for the Hall of Fame; those who exceeded all reasonable capacity of the human body, but managed to avoid the mouth-foaming wrath of the BBWAA?
Behold: Five of baseball's wackiest, most nonsensical power surges from height of the Steroid Era; the long ball binges that really came out of nowhere. (No one is accusing any of these players of anything untoward, mind you, we're just highlighting the outlier-i-ness of certain of their seasons. Wink, wink.)
5. Henry Rodriguez, Montreal, 1996
In 1990, Rodriguez blasted 28 home runs for AA San Antonio, earning him Top 30 prospect status the next year-one of eight Dodgers on Baseball America's second-ever Top 100. That's pretty much how the "top prospect" lists worked back in those days. Did you have a great year last year? Is your organization hyping you like there's no tomorrow? Take a seat at the front of the class!
He would follow it up with only 10 home runs the next season at AAA, and prospect lists pretty much forgot he existed. Probably in part because of the stacked Los Angeles farm system of the era, Rodriguez never managed to become a regular in L.A. By 1995, that 28-homer season was widely seen as a fluke, and Rodriguez as a bust. He was traded to Montreal that July for spare parts.
Through the '95 season, Rodriguez had posted a career isolated power mark of .136 and had been almost three wins worse than replacement level as a big-league player. He had 21 career home runs to his name, and it had taken him over 750 at-bats to get them. His career OPS of .664 suggested that the Dodgers had used some legit Jedi mind tricks in getting actual players back for him instead of a bundle of old scouting reports and two fungo bats.
A year later, however, Rodriguez broke out. In a BIG way.
Rodriguez hit 36 home runs for Montreal in 1996, and made his first All-Star Team. His isolated power doubled and then some, and his .286 metric was among the league's elite. For comparison, Ryan Braun has never posted an isolated power mark as high as .286 in a season.
While his strikeouts shot up, too, Rodriguez found himself a positive-value player for the first time in his career, and the Expos signed him to a then-lucrative $2 million a year contract extension that off-season.
This Chicago Tribune feature on Rodriguez is a precious snapshot of the Steroid Era that I pray stays online forever. Less than one year after one team traded away Rodriguez because he wasn't a par-level Major Leaguer, scout Mel Didier casually suggests that he will push Babe Ruth's numbers.
Move along, nothing suspicious to see here!
Montreal fans loved Rodriguez, of course, showering the field with "Oh, Henry!" candy bars whenever he hit a home run. This was all extremely normal, circa 1996.
And yes there has never been any hard evidence that Rodriguez took steroids. Back then, his early-career power outage was blamed on over-meddling Dodger coaches trying to micromanage his swing. That is certainly a plausible explanation. It should be noted, however, that when Rodriguez signed as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs in 1998, Sammy Sosa was a very good power hitter-a 30–40 homers per year type of guy. The next three seasons, Sosa would hit over 60 homers each year. There's plausible explanations for this, as well.
Modern day comparison: Imagine Dayan Viciedo, recently signed by Toronto after the White Sox cut him loose, posting those numbers for the Blue Jays in 2015. Similar prospect pedigree, same defensive warts, both given up on by their original organization. Both have shown glimpses of power, but it never really translated at the MLB level. Viciedo treating Canada to another respectable average and ~40 more bombs would be today's equivalent.
4. Greg Vaughn, San Diego, 1998
I was eight years old when my Brewers traded Vaughn to the Padres, and I was a precocious child when it came to baseball history. I was well aware that the last time the Brewers had traded a major-league star to San Diego for prospects, that star was Gary Sheffield ,and those prospects grew into bench parts or frustratingly bad starters.
When you're eight, your favorite team's star player gets super-kid-gloves treatment. Vaughn's status as the alpha Brewer made him, in my eyes, easily one of the five best players in all of baseball. Naturally, I expected the haul we got back for him to be special, especially since he was going to the same Padres who had pilfered Sheff from us at pennies on the dollar. Suffice to say, someone called Marc Newfield wasn't even one percent of the player Vaughn was.
Looking back, though, Vaughn was about to enter free agency at age 31, and trading him away for young pieces-even less than premium ones-was the right move. This was before draft-pick compensation. Had the Brewers held Vaughn, he probably would have gone elsewhere for nothing.
The 1997 season validated this approach. The Brewers were unsurprisingly awful, Newfield couldn't hit if he was swinging a surfboard, and the two pitchers Milwaukee netted in the deal were bullpen fodder and nothing more. But out west, Vaughn was nothing more than a replacement-level player despite being paid upwards of $5 million a year. Bullet dodged, right?
Not so fast.
Set to turn 33 during the middle of the 1998 season, something unusual happened to Vaughn. He. Broke. Out.
After Ken Griffey and the McGwire/Sosa Record Chase, Vaughn's 50 home runs that year were the fourth-most in the Majors. At an age when most power hitters begin to lose it, Vaughn produced the game's fifth-highest isolated power, staking his claim to being one of the five best players in baseball.
Vaughn, too, would retire before the curtain of drug-testing hit the stage.
Modern day comparison: Ryan Howard hitting fifty home runs next season. Sure, Howard is even older-but he's also hit 50 before, whereas Vaughn had yet to top 40. So hold tight to that glimmer of hope, Ruben Amaro Jr.! Your tenure might not be a total disaster yet!
3. Luis Gonzalez, Arizona, 2001
I very nearly left Gonzo off of this list, and what a glaring of an error such an oversight would have been. It's easy to brush Gonzalez aside as a similar player to Barry Bonds - a supreme talent who found a supercharged power stroke late in his career and held on for quite a while longer than anticipated. (Wait, did I just use Bonds as a case reference?)
I was 12 during the summer of 2001, when Luis Gonzalez came three home runs short of becoming only the sixth member of the single-season 60-home run club. Ruth, Maris, McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and ... Gonzo?!
It very nearly happened.
To illustrate just how crazy that was, consider his batting ratios entering that season. Through his first full decade in the big leagues, Gonzalez had racked up close to 6,000 plate appearances. Over that time span, his isolated power rate checked in at .178. In a court of law, that would be called "a hell of a lot of precedent." Gonzalez, it could be plainly seen, was guilty of Possession of Warning Track Power. As a 30-year-old outfielder playing during the homer-happiest time in history, he would definitely be sentenced to a premature retirement and no chicks digging him - ever.
Mind you, he was a pretty good player-consistently over a win better than replacement level, year after year - but nobody was predicting a historically good power season. Nobody.
Then, something happened. Gonzalez, it seems, realized at age 33 that his true calling was to pump iron and mash taters. His 2001 isolated power rate of .363 is, to date, the 27th-greatest single-season mark ever produced. By contrast, Roger Maris produced a .351 power rate in 1961.
Perhaps Gonzalez was under some dark wizard's spell, wreaking havoc on baseballs with the power of black magic at his side. If so, we can safely assume this wizard's motivation: he bet on the Diamondbacks to make the playoffs that year. Because as soon as the curtain closed on that regular season, the power went out on that year's second-runner-up for National League MVP.
Gonzalez went just 16-for-65 with three measly home runs during the Diamondbacks' 2001 postseason run, but he was, by all accounts, the same guy. From regular season to playoffs, Gonzalez couldn't have been more night and day, and one would have to believe that his sudden power evaporation would've been a bigger deal historically, but for a perfect storm of factors: his general likability around the league as a veteran face; the Diamondbacks' epic championship win over the Yankees; the respective 73 and 64-home run seasons of Bonds and Sosa that year; oh, and Gonzo's iconic World Series-winning bloop single off of Mo Freakin' Rivera himself.
Gonzalez would never again hit even thirty home runs in a year, nor post an isolated power rate higher than .250. From 2004 to 2005, when the league started randomly testing players for PEDs, his isolated power would drop by over 50 points in a single season - a power outage easily explained by ... the sudden, heavily debilitating effects of aging, of course.
Modern day comparison: There's Major Leaguer in the game today whose best player comparison, according to Baseball-Reference, is Gonzalez: Kansas City left fielder Alex Gordon.
Like early-career Gonzalez, Gordon brings a lot of good things to the table, and is a positive contributor to a winning team. He's good at everything; not great at anything. Scratch that, he's a great asset in fantasy baseball - his steady, jack-of-all-trades nature and lack of upside leads to him being consistently taken three to four rounds after his value indicates he should be, year after year. But if you're looking for Ruthian power numbers, you look elsewhere.
Heck, Roger Maris once hit around 20 home runs while manning a corner outfield spot in Kansas City, too, and he grew into something more - or so I've heard. But let's be realistic here, Maris set his home run record at age 26. That was 2010 for Gordon. Very good thirty-somethings don't just turn into extraterrestrial, fastball-devouring monsters - at least, not anymore, in a post-PED world, they don't.
2. Richard Hidalgo, Houston, 2000
Here's where the wheels really start coming off this crazy train.
A product of Venezuela, Hidalgo roared through the minors with much fanfare. He spent three years in AA and AAA as a top-20 prospect, and was considered a trendy Rookie of the Year pick in 1998. Though he was thin, with limited power, Hidalgo still projected for stardom.
Though he sophomore-slumped his way to a .227 average in 19999, Hidalgo endured a great deal of bad luck baked into that low mark. Between his statistical misfortune, and his top-20 pedigree, Baseball Prospectus saw Hidalgo "as good a candidate for a breakout season as anyone in baseball" coming into year 2000. Only, even they couldn't have foreseen what was to come.
Hidalgo didn't manage to pull a Henry Rodriguez and double his prior career Isolated Power in 2000, but he came damn close to it. In fact, Hidalgo's power metric ranked fourth in all the Majors. Only Barry Bonds, Carlos Delgado, and Todd Helton outpowered him. His slash line that year: .314/.391/.636 - with 44 home runs, 118 runs scored, 122 driven in, and 13 stolen bases.
And for those of you wondering if the awards voters back then were all braying morons incapable of recognizing talent if it mounted them in a room of mirrors, Hidalgo placed twentieth in the MVP balloting that year. Robb Nen, a closer, placed 12th. Hindsight tells us that the latter provided less than half the value of the former that year.
Hidalgo would garner a couple MVP votes again in 2003 for a more pedestrian, but still good, .300 and 28-homer season, but despite being only 30 years old in 2005, that season would be his last in the Bigs. In 2007, after taking a year off from baseball that surely had nothing to do with cleansing his system, he failed to make the Astros out of spring training.
Again, there has never been any hard evidence that Hidalgo used steroids. He just painted a statistical masterpiece of a season at age 25 and was out of baseball by 30, for reasons that likely had nothing to do with the league's implementation of mandatory drug testing.
That year off? Just a sabbatical. You know, normal for the era.
Modern day comparison: Put it this way: the general performance pattern of Hidalgo's first two years looks eerily similar to Wil Myers on the surface. Imagine, if you will, Myers going postal - to the tune of .300, 44 homers, and over 200 total runs scored and driven in - for exactly one season, before fading into obscurity and retiring by 2020.
1. Brady Anderson, Baltimore, 1996
I mean, was the top spot on this list ever going to go to anyone else? Brady Anderson's 1996 season was the most picturesque example of Steroid Era lunacy you could dream of.
Anderson was 32 that year, and had eight years of service time in the Majors at the time. And in those eight years, he had never hit more than 21 home runs in a season. He had made the All-Star team exactly one time. His career batting average coming into '96 was a pedestrian .250, though he posted a high OBP and averaged over 20 steals per season. His isolated power rate was an uninspiring .143. In short, pre-1996 Anderson was your prototypical leadoff hitter for a not-quite-contending team.
But in the 1995–96 off-season, something happened.
Brady decided he wanted to be a power hitter. He dedicated himself to weight training really, really hard. And, bending what human physiology tells us should be possible, Anderson hit 50 home runs in 1996. After eight solid years at that .143 power clip, Anderson raised that metric by just shy of 200 points. As if that wasn't enough, he got on base at a .396 rate, topped 100 runs and RBI, and stole his customary 20 bases.
Now, maybe you didn't quite buy "weight training" as the sole reason behind for his breakout. That's okay, a year later, neither did Anderson! Both he and his teammates said that Anderson's mental game finally caught up to his physical body:
His upper arms are immense, with veins that look like swollen rivers running across them in every direction. He doesn't have that hunched over stance, that tiny strike zone, that scrappy, sacrificial lamb, sacrifice-bunt-leadoff-guy look. He looks like a three hitter, a cleanup hitter, a five hitter.
Like Hidalgo's 2000, Brady Anderson's 1996 power surge would have exploded Twitter, if Twitter existed back then. Instead, Anderson just netted himself a ton of endorsement deals, and a guest spot on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. (See, aren't you glad you stuck around, and learned something by reading so deep into this column?)
Anderson would average 20 home runs a year for the next few seasons, and he never again placed in the top 10 for MVP balloting. His isolated power fell back into line with his final career mark of .170, and it was nearly a decade after his '96 outburst that the sport's Powers That Be mused, "hmm, maybe we should do more than take the Players' Union's word for it that nobody is taking steroids."
Modern day comparison: A fifty-homer season from Denard Span, followed by a Denard Span guest appearance on Pretty Little Liars. Start hoarding food if this happens.
Reflections upon my first home run
Rise of the robot sportswriter
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