The one-year wonder is not a rarity. He’s not unique or unusual and, in fact, some of the most recognizable names in baseball’s history had just one great year.
Joe Charboneau. Kevin Maas. Dontrelle Willis.
Sometimes players who struggled their whole careers suddenly figured it out, putting it all together, for a season at least, until the magic was lost. It took Darin Erstad until his fifth season, 2000, to have his career year, when he hit .355 with 240 hits, 25 home runs and 100 RBI. Then he disappeared.
But what happens when a man’s best year is his first, or at least his first with any substantial playing time? Expectations are set … and dashed. It happened to Charboneau and Maas. Phil Plantier batted .331 in 148 at-bats in 1991, just to hit .243 for his career.
Let’s take a look at a handful of modern guys who came up and impressed the world, just to let us down in succeeding seasons.
This post was inspired by Brett Oberholtzer, who debuted with the Houston Astros in 2013. He was one of the few bright spots on that 111-loss team, going 4-5 with a 2.76 ERA in 13 games (10 starts), completing 2 games and allowing just 13 walks in 71 2/3 innings. His 147 ERA+ was among the best on the team, surpassed by two other pitchers who never lived up to their first year billings, Jarred Cosart and Kevin Chapman.
Though players like J.B. Shuck and David Lough did, Oberholtzer received no votes for the American League Rookie of the Year. But it was a season that should have precluded some fine years ahead.
Should have. It didn’t.
Though he was a mainstay in the Astros rotation in 2014, Oberholtzer went just 5-13 with a 4.39 ERA in 24 appearances. After starting just 8 games the next campaign, he was sent to the Phillies in a substantial offseason trade that returned star closer Ken Giles and young infielder Jonathan Arauz.
By mid-August 2016, the Phillies had shooed him away to the Angels, with whom he finished his career … to the tune of an 8.55 ERA in 11 relief appearances.
Cosart loosely fits the parameters of this piece. He was a 38th round pick who worked his way into multiple top prospect lists, so success was expected of him. And he delivered, briefly.
In 10 starts for Houston in 2013, he went 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA, posting a 208 ERA+ in 60 innings. Though he didn’t live up to his first season’s output, he performed pretty well in 2014, going 13-11 with a 3.69 ERA in 30 starts. It was all downhill after that, however, as he spent just two more seasons in the majors, going 2-9 with a 5.19 ERA and 72 walks in 126 2/3 innings between them. Control issues hampered him throughout his career, as even in his initial campaign, he walked 35 batters to just 33 strikeouts.
And let’s give some press to Chapman, as well. Flash in the pan relievers are pretty common, and quite a few of them have their run of success early in their careers. Chapman was no different.
He made 25 appearances for the ‘stros in 2013, posting a 1.77 ERA and 232 ERA+ in 20 1/3 innings. But like Cosart, if you looked closely enough, the writing was on the wall. Chapman allowed 13 walks, or 5.8 per nine innings, and such wildness does not a successful career make.
The following season, he had a 4.64 mark in 21 games; he made just 3 appearances in 2015, and in 2016, his ERA was 9.00 in 9 games (he allowed 15 hits in 8 innings). And that’s all she wrote for Chapman.
Despite forging a relatively long big league career, pitcher Jerome Williams disappointed after his rookie season. With the Giants in 2003, Williams was 7-5 with a 3.30 ERA in 21 starts. In 131 innings, he allowed just 116 hits and 10 home runs, while completing 2 games and shutting out 1.
Over the next 10 seasons, he won 10 games only once; his ERA dropped below 4.20 just once, as well. If you eliminate his first campaign, Williams was just 45-61 with a 4.78 ERA for his career; remove his first two seasons, and he was a meager 35-54, 4.87.
After collapsing early in his career, Williams disappeared from the majors from 2008 to 2010. Returning with the Nationals in 2011, he played seven more seasons, never regaining his footing. He retired after the 2016 campaign.
As an aside, it’s not a rare name by any means, but there have only been two Jeromes in major league history. The other was Jerome Walton, himself a Rookie of the Year with the Cubs in 1989. Within a few years, Walton was a bench player, hitting just .127 with 55 at-bats in 1992. He eventually rebounded to a degree, batting .303 over the final five seasons of his career, but he averaged just 45 games and 76 at-bats per year during that run.
Lew Ford is one guy who never managed to rebound. He was a 12th round pick by the Twins in 1999 and by 2002, he was hitting .318 with 20 home runs and 28 stolen bases in the minor leagues. That prompted Minnesota to give him a look in 2003, and he did not disappoint. In 73 at-bats, he slashed .329/.402/.575, knocking three home runs – including one off future Hall of Famer C. C. Sabathia.
By 2004, he was a regular in the Twins’ outfield. And with his hot hitting – he batted .299 with, 15 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a .381 on-base percentage – boosting the club, Minnesota finished first in the American League Central, losing to the Yankees in the Division Series.
He returned as a starter in 2005, but his OPS+ fell from 114 to 89; his OPS from .827 to .716. From 2006 on, he batted just .221 in 184 games over three seasons.
Unwilling to let his career go out with a whimper after 2007, he bounced around between Japan, Venezuela, Mexico, the independent leagues and Triple A from 2008 to 2011. He delayed that whimper to 2012, when he reappeared in the majors with the Orioles, hitting .183 in 25 games.
But there’s more to this story! Ford, at 44 years old, is still playing professionally. Since 2013, he has been a member of the independent Long Island Ducks, missing only 2020. At 41 in 2018, he hit .293 in 468 at-bats and in 2019, his mark was .303 in 77 games. As of this writing, his 2021 batting average is .278.
Heck, there might be time for Ford to redeem himself, yet.
…but that doesn’t seem likely. Too often “future stars” become “past disappointments” and Ford, Oberholtzer and the rest rank among them. But perhaps it’s for the best – maybe it is better to rip that bandage off early, rather than forcing fans to wait … and wait … and wait … for a phenom to produce, though he never does.
Something is better than nothing, even if that something is brief – and it never happens again.