Baseball is a sport where going from great to bad is something all too common. Football is once a week, the NBA maybe two or three. Baseball players spend nearly every day for six months playing, sometimes twice in a day. That takes a toll and thus, careers can be shorter than in other sports. That particularly goes for pitchers as many a rocket arm has been ruined by too much use in too short a time. Injuries are common and nothing can ruin a great push like a bad fall or a torn cuff of some sort. Also, like in any sport, many a rookie just can’t handle the pressure of the big leagues and burn themselves out fast (not helped by off-field issues).
So many in MLB can just drift along, burst out for one great year, then fall back to Earth. It’s odd and in some cases, it’s downright baffling. Sure, injuries are a reason but some guys just fall apart for seemingly no reason at all. Some start out great and decline, others come out of nowhere before failing but for every long-lasting mega-star is a dozen guys who can’t keep that success going. Here are 20 MLB players who had just one great season to their name and showing how odd the game can truly be.
20 Clint Hurdle
Whenever the “SI Cover Jinx” is mentioned, Clint Hurdle comes to mind. He was the ninth selection in the 1975 draft by the Royals and in 1978, Sports Illustrated put him on their cover with “This Year’s Phenom.” It actually took until 1980 for that to happen with a .294 average, 10 home runs and 60 RBIs. In the postseason, he hit .417 in the World Series, but the Royals couldn’t win against Philadelphia. But like many players, the 1981 strike hit Hurdle badly. He ended up with three different teams playing as many positions, none close to the level he had in 1980. He’s doing well today as a coach but Hurdle still is one guy who suffered by being given the SI Cover treatment.
19 Bob Ojeda
The 1986 New York Mets were one of the wildest teams in baseball. But they also won 108 games en route to one of the most dramatic World Series of all time. While Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling got the press, Ojeda was right behind them in a great pitching staff.
He went 18-5 with a 2.57 ERA and 148 strikeouts. In the postseason, he won two games and celebrated the victory with his team.
However, shoulder surgery kept him on the shelf for most of 1987 and he failed to achieve the same greatness afterward. It wasn’t helped by off-field issues. Like those Mets themselves, Ojeda basically had one great season before it came apart.
18 Warren Morris
In 1996, Warren Morris made himself an instant must-grab for MLB teams with his two-out walk-off homer to win the College World Series for Louisiana State. It took three years for him to join the main roster of the Pirates and he quickly impressed. He had 15 home runs and 73 RBIs, an incredible showing for a rookie.
While there were concerns over his behavior, most felt Morris had the stuff to be the much-needed replacement for Barry Bonds. It was downhill from there as Morris couldn’t handle the pressures of the majors. He was cut in 2002 and bounced around the league before retiring in 2006.
17 Mark Prior
A former 1st overall pick, Prior had a great 2003 season, going 18-6 and earning a spot on the All-Star roster. He was a key reason the Cubs won the division and looked set for a World Series trip. And then came the infamous Game 6 of the NLCS. Going into the 8th inning, Prior had a 3-0 lead and the Cubs fans were ready to celebrate.
Then came the pop fly that Steve Bartman caught, robbing Moises Alou of what could have been an out.
Suddenly, the Marlins came to life with Prior giving up a walk, a wild pitch and two hits to tie up the score. He was pulled but the damage was done as the Marlins scored five more runs to win the game and eventually the series. While injuries hampered him afterward, many speculate the whole thing shook Prior up, and he never really recovered.
16 Aaron Boone
Ironically now the manager of the New York Yankees, Aaron Boone is best known for his extra innings home run against the Boston Red Sox to win the 2003 ALCS, delivering one last blow to Boston during the Curse of the Bambino. However, many forget that Boone's 2002 season was a really good one overall and in fact, he earned an All-Star nod. In 2002, Boone belted 26 home runs and drove in 86 RBIs while playing all 162 games.
However, Boone's career fell apart after that heroic Game 7 homer, as he sustained an injury in the offseason and missed the entire 2004 season. Boone would then bounce around the league before retiring in 2010.
15 Rick Ankiel
This may be one of the overall strangest careers in all of baseball. Rick Ankiel went from pitcher to outfielder while playing for six teams in five seasons. Ankiel started with St. Louis, winning 11 games in 2000 but injuries took their toll on his arm. He switched to fielding, returning to the Cardinals in 2007. To the shock of everyone, Ankiel hit 11 home runs and 39 RBIs in just 47 games. He became an instant hero, as the Cardinals fought for the division.
A bad collision with the wall in 2009 took its toll on Ankiel, lowering his output.
He bounced around to the Royals, Braves, Nationals, Mets and Astros before finally hanging it up for one of the odder two-time flashes in the pan baseball has known.
14 Phil Plantier
It took Phil Plantier a few tries to make it to the majors. When he finally joined the Red Sox full time in 1991, he was soon on an impressive tear. He hit 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in just 53 games. He couldn’t quite replicate that the next year and so was traded to the Padres. In 1993, he had another surprisingly strong season of 34 home runs and 100 RBIs.
Sadly, the next year was cut short by injury and the player’s strike and the long delay took its toll on Plantier. He couldn’t just couldn’t come close to that breakout half-season.
13 Jerome Walton
Among the countless bad seasons for the Cubs in the 20th century, 1989 was an anomaly. The Cubs actually were terrific that year, one of their strongest chances yet to break the infamous Curse as they won the NL East. Among the great sparks was Jerome Walton, a rookie who batted .293, stealing 24 bases and had a 30 game hitting streak. He was named Rookie of the Year and looked to be the star of the future for the Cubs. But over the next few years, Walton couldn’t come close to those numbers, got slower and was hampered by his fame. He eventually went to the Reds, Braves and finished his career in Tampa Bay, yet another Rookie of the Year who couldn’t live up to his promise.
12 Dave Fleming
Not to be confused with the San Francisco play-by-play man, Dave Fleming led Georgia to a College World Series title in 1990. He was drafted by the Mariners and started playing in 1992.
He impressed immediately, winning 17 games, including nine in a row, with a 3.39 ERA.
He dropped to 12-5 the next year, still some promise but it seemed the tension on the arm was taking its toll. By 1995, suffering from injuries, Fleming was traded to Kansas City where he only had one game, which was a loss. It shows how a pitcher can ruin his arm with one early year.
11 Jacoby Ellsbury
Today, Jacoby Ellsbury is just another overpaid player on the Yankees. However, there was once a time when Ellsbury was one of the most promising prospects in baseball. He seemed to be Boson's leadoff hitter of the future, as he was a part of the Red Sox 2007 World Series win and he continued to improve in subsequent seasons. His breakout year came in 2011 when he batted .321 with 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, 119 runs scored and 39 stolen bases. He won a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove award, and finished second in AL MVP voting.
While Ellsbury had another couple of solid years in Boston, his numbers didn't come close to 2011, and since defecting to the Yankees, his career has completely gone downhill.
10 Rich Aurulia
Many batters benefitted from being in the same lineup as Barry Bonds, who would draw all the attention and caution from pitchers, which meant other batters got to see more hittable pitches. Aurilia had some productive years, but none were close to his 2001 season in San Francisco. That year, Aurilia clobbered 37 home runs, along with 97 RBIs and he batted .324 for the season. And of course, he was along for the ride in 2002 when the Giants reached the World Series.
Aurilia wouldn't come close to replicating those numbers, although he did finish his career with a 162-game average of 18 HRs, 74 RBIs and a respectable .274 average.
9 Shane Spencer
It may seem unfair to say a guy with three World Series rings was a flash in the pan. He actually had a shot at the majors in 1995, crossing the line in spring training when the player’s strike was still going on. That got him bad beef which contributed to him waiting until 1998 to get called up by the Yankees.
At 26, he was an old rookie but won over fans majorly in September when he hit 10 home runs.
That included three Grand Slams, an unheard of feat for a rookie. But Spencer was more a supporting player amid this Yankees dynasty, not near the same hitting numbers in the next few seasons. Spencer may be a three-time champion but hardly was integral aside from that one September.
8 Marcus Giles
Maybe with a few less injuries, Marcus Giles wouldn’t be on this list. Despite injuries and some personal tragedies, Giles was ready to work with the Braves as the 2003 season began. He suffered an injury but bounced back better than expected, a .316 average with 21 homers and 69 RBIs. It earned him an All-Star slot and the promise of more success. But in May of 2004, Giles was involved in a horrible on-field collision that left him with a broken collarbone, a concussion, and a bruised right wrist.
He wasn’t the same afterward, suffering more fluke injuries that curtailed his output for the team. He was eventually let go and sad to consider how his career might be different without those nasty injuries.
7 Brady Anderson
By 1996, Brady Anderson was in his ninth season with the Orioles and thus most thought he was on the downside of his career.
He’d been a good player but not too sensational and just your typical supporting guy. That's why it was so shocking when he suddenly exploded that year with 50 home runs and 100 RBIs.
No one could explain how a veteran could put up numbers better than anyone in the league although more than a few suspected foul play was involved. That may have been proven as the next year, with a rib injury, Anderson’s contributions faded although he still led the team in most offensive work. He had that one bright year of huge success to an otherwise okay career.
6 Chase Headley
While Chase Headley has managed to have a respectable career, many wouldn't confuse him with a superstar. However, back in the 2012 season with the San Diego Padres, Headley sure played like one. He belted 31 home runs and 115 RBIs. That's a pretty big anomaly considering he hasn't hit 15 homers in any other season in his career. He won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award in that 2012 season and finished fifth in NL voting. Headley recently had a stint with the Yankees and returned to the Padres for the 2018 season. Headley's chugging along, but it's unlikely he'll ever return to his 2012 form.
5 Kevin Maas
The early 1990s were not a good time for the New York Yankees. The mess of bad management and poor choices in players resulted in the Yankees actually at the bottom of the league in some seasons. That’s why Kevin Maas was such a bright fresh of air when he joined in 1990. It took just 72 at-bats to hit 10 home runs and speeding his way to some great work. He had great stuff like homering in every game of a series against Texas and fans hoping he was the star of the future.
He did well in 1991, 23 homers and 63 RBIs. But the next year saw a drop-off due to injury, his output almost literally cut in half. He was worse the next year and by 1993, was out of baseball totally. Yet another reason Yankees fans don’t remember this period fondly.
4 Bob Hamelin
Yet another case of a great Rookie of the Year who couldn’t match up to it with the rest of his career. While he’d joined Kansas City in 1993, Hamelin didn’t really play much until the following year. He hit 24 home runs and 65 RBIs, earning the nickname of “The Hammer.”
He was just hitting his stride when the player’s strike cut the season short yet still earned Rookie of the Year honors.
The long delay seemed to hurt him as well as leg and eye problems as he only got 7 homers in 1995. He was sent to the minors with brief stops in Detroit and Toronto before quitting after just five seasons. Maybe had 1994 been a full year, the rest of Hamelin’s career would have been different.
3 Mark Fidrych
In 1976, “The Bird” was the talk of baseball. Mark Fidrych joked that when he heard he’d been drafted, he assumed it was by the military. The Tigers picked him up and his very first game had him leaving the Indians hitless for six innings en route to a win. He also got attention for his wild behavior of circling the mound. Before long, Fidrych was a Detroit favorite, fans loving watching him act up but backing it up with some terrific pitching. He finished with a 19-9 record, winning the Rookie of the Year Award and named to the All-Star team.
But in 1977, he tore his knee out in spring training, the first of several injuries that hurt his game. After just five seasons, he retired, meaning the Bird took off well but fell to Earth fast.
2 Tom Cheney
It’s remarkable how many great records in baseball are held by guys who had overall so-so careers. Tom Cheney is a fine example. He was part of the Pirates World Champions in 1960, but wasn't a major contributor. That’s what makes it all the more incredible that Cheney achieved a feat no other pitcher has matched.
On September 12th, 1962, as a member of the Washington Senators, Cheney struck out 21 Orioles in 16 innings en route to a 2-1 victory.
It was a stunning achievement that had people going wild. However, Cheney would later claim that game ruined his arm, as he could never come close to that and his career would be summed up by just one glorious afternoon.
1 Denny McLain
You would think a pitcher with two Cy Young Awards, an MVP and the record for the most wins in a single season would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. Sadly, Denny McLain’s life and career afterward forever disqualified him. After five years in the majors, McLain exploded in 1968, winning 31 games, a record that still stands. Thanks to his amazing work, the Detroit Tigers went on to win the World Series with McLain hailed as a star of “The Year of the Pitcher.” However, the fame went to his head, creating a very sizeable ego. Before long, he went from most wins to most losses in a year and by 1974, he was out of baseball.