10 of the most surprising seasons in MLB history

June 27th, 2018

Today is Richard Hidalgo's 43rd birthday -- do you remember how he seemingly came out of nowhere in 2000? It wasn't really out of nowhere; Hidalgo had been a pretty big prospect for the Astros throughout the late 1990s. But he did not seem to be panning out.

Hidalgo had some injury problems -- he crashed into a wall in 1998, for example -- but he flashed enough talent to get a job with the Astros in 1999. That's when he looked overmatched. Hidalgo hit just .174 after July 4 before having to shut things down to have knee surgery.

Then, a few months later, Hidalgo was plain incredible.

Hidalgo hit .314/.391/.636 in 2000. He smashed 42 doubles and 44 home runs, scored 118 runs, drove in 122. Hidalgo also played a superb center field. He received National League MVP Award votes. It looked like the beginning of a sensational career.

And … Hidalgo was never quite as good again (though he did have one more very good season in 2003).

What happened to Hidalgo in 2000? A few things played out well for him. That happened to be the year that the Astros moved from the pitcher-friendly Astrodome to the hitter-friendly Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park, and now a definite pitcher's park). Hidalgo was healthy for the first time in years. The pitchers really didn't know how to pitch him. That was the height of the offensive era in baseball. And Hidalgo was hitting in a great hitters' lineup, with Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, along with Moises Alou, who hit .355 that season. It was just one of those seasons where everything fell into place.

Those are the coolest kinds of seasons. Here comes a list of the 10 most surprising seasons of the Expansion Era (since 1969), though keep one thing in mind: The idea is to find seasons that were surprising at the time. Now, we look back at 's breakthrough season and see that he was actually a fantastic hitter who blossomed after making a couple of key adjustments and finally getting a chance to play every day.

But that doesn't change how shocking it was when Bautista hit the scene.

No. 1: Jose Bautista, 2010

Stats: .260/.378/.617, 54 homers, 124 RBIs, 109 runs, fourth in AL MVP Award voting

Remember when (fill in your team) had Bautista? Almost all of your teams had him at some point. The Pirates drafted Bautista, the Orioles took him in the Rule 5 Draft, the then-Devil Rays picked him up off waivers, the Royals bought him, the Mets traded for him and then, bizarrely, the Bucs traded to get him back. It was quite a mess. But there were always scouts, like former Kansas City Royals general manager Allard Baird, who were convinced that Bautista would hit in a big way someday.

The Blue Jays dealt the ubiquitous player to be named later to get Bautista and undoubtedly had low expectations. He lived up to those, hitting .235 with 13 home runs in his first full year with the team. The career seemed just about over. Bautista was closing in on 30. His career was a scattershot of injuries and benchings and unfulfilled promise.

Then came 2010, and blammo. Fifty-four homers! One hundred walks! All-Star Game! MVP votes! Then Bautista was off and running. In 2011, he hit 11 fewer homers but overall was even better. Bautista became a Blue Jays icon, one of the greatest players in the team's history.

No. 2: Brady Anderson, 1996

Stats: .297/.396/.637, 50 homers, 21 stolen bases, 110 RBIs, 117 runs

Anderson had never hit better than .271. He had never slugged .450. His career high in home runs was 21. The only reason that this season doesn't rank No. 1 on our list is because, unlike Bautista before his breakthrough season, Anderson was a good player. He had played in the All-Star Game. Anderson had displayed doubles and triples power.

But this crazy season? No, there was no way to see it coming. It was unfortunate that this was the time of PED suspicions, because some of those accusations were cast upon Anderson simply because his numbers shot up. He has always maintained that he didn't use, and the rest of his career suggests he did not. Sometimes fluke seasons just happen.

One thing we do know is this: There are two players in baseball history who have had a 50-homer season and a 50-stolen base season. One is Barry Bonds.

The other is Anderson.

No. 3: Davey Johnson, 1973

Stats: .270/.370/.546, 43 home runs, 99 RBIs

How crazy is it that Johnson still holds the record for most home runs by a second baseman in a season? I must admit that this is part of the reason why Jeff Kent's career home run record for second basemen doesn't move me as much as it seems to move many other Hall of Fame voters. Second basemen, basically, have not hit many home runs.

Johnson was a good hitter before 1973, but he never had given any indication whatsoever that he was capable of hitting 40 homers. Then again, he had spent his entire career in Baltimore, which was a neutral park, perhaps learning toward pitchers. And Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was a three-ring circus, so much so they called it the Launching Pad. That year, Johnson was one of three Braves, along with Henry Aaron and Darrell Evans, to mash 40 home runs.

But it wasn't just the park. Johnson hit 17 home runs on the road that year; his career for an entire season before that year was 18. It was really weird.

And it ended as quickly as it began. In 1974, Johnson's power returned to normal, and he hit 15 home runs and slugged .390.

No. 4: Kevin Mitchell, 1989

Stats: .291/.388/.635, 47 homers, 125 RBIs, 100 runs, NL MVP Award winnere

Mitchell was the first person I ever heard described as a "have bat, will travel" player. He had proved in three sporadic seasons to be a good hitter with moderate power and the acumen to hold his own at basically every position on the field other than catcher.

But something crazy happened in 1989, and it began right away: Mitchell homered in his first at-bat of the season. The Giants won the game. The homers and wins kept on coming. In a 32-game stretch from May 2 to June 6, Mitchell hit .339, slugged a ridiculous .822 and smashed 16 home runs. San Francisco won 21 of those 32 games and moved into first place in the NL West. The Giants would stay there the rest of the season.

Mitchell was never as good again as he was in 1989, but that's mostly because he just couldn't stay in the lineup. He remained a hitting machine. I had the good fortune to cover Mitchell in Cincinnati in 1994, when he was 32 years old and -- saying this as a man on a perpetually failing diet -- not in the best shape of his career. It didn't matter. The guy flat hit, batting .326 and crushing 30 home runs in just 95 games.

No. 5: Tommy Pham, 2017

Stats: .306/.411/.520, 23 homers, 25 stolen bases, 95 runs

The story of 29-year-old players who are selected in the 16th round, kick around in the Minors for a decade, and then have their magical season after starting the year in Triple-A -- that's a pretty rare one. In fact, it has only happened one time.

Pham was a notoriously poor hitter when he began in pro ball. He hit just .212 his first four Minor League seasons. Players who hit like that tend to find themselves in coaching pretty quickly, but Pham was determined and he showed flashes of power and speed, and the Cardinals stuck with him, undoubtedly with the hope that he might develop into a utility outfielder-type of player.

Instead, last year, Pham emerged suddenly and completely as a star, mixing power, speed, patience at the plate and terrific defense.

This year has been more of a struggle, at least in the first half.

No. 6: Derrek Lee, 2005

Stats: .335/.418/.662, 50 doubles, 46 homers, 107 RBIs, 120 runs, third in NL MVP Award voting

We need a category for very good hitters who were rather suddenly and for a short period of time legendary. For the five years leading up to 2005, Lee was that kind of good hitter -- he averaged 28 homers per year, slugged about .500, won a Gold Glove Award at first base. You want that player on your team.

In 2005, though, Lee was all-time good. He led the league in hits, doubles, batting average, slugging, OPS and total bases. You couldn't throw a fastball by Lee, though fastballs were always his specialty. In 2005, he stopped chasing sliders. Lee crushed offspeed stuff. He was the perfect hitter.

Lee was hurt the next year and so was not quite so good for the Cubs, though he did have three or four very good seasons after 2005.

No. 7: , 2016

Stats: .347/.390/.595 with 47 doubles, 25 homers, 104 RBIs, second in NL MVP Award voting

The Daniel Murphy experience began during the 2015 poseason, when suddenly and somewhat bizarrely, nobody could get him out. He mashed three homers in five games against the Dodgers. Murphy hit .529 with four homers in four games against the Cubs. He cooled off considerably in the World Series, but still, it was a crazy show.

Who thought that would carry over into the regular season? Everybody knew Murphy was a good hitter -- nobody, and I mean nobody, spends more time and energy studying the art form of hitting -- but it was established exactly what that meant: He would hit .290 or so, rarely strike out or walk much, and knock a few doubles. That was Murphy's fate. The Mets let him go in free agency.

Then in 2016, Murphy went bonkers, leading the league in doubles, slugging and OPS, setting career highs in basically everything, hitting the ball in the air with such regularity that he only hit into four double plays all season. He more or less repeated the season in 2017. Murphy had turned himself into one of the game's great hitters long after anyone thought he had any new tricks in him. The Mets still ache (as they do for , who just missed this list).

No. 8: Ryan Ludwick, 2008

Stats: .299/.375/.591, 40 doubles, 37 homers, 113 RBIs, 104 runs

Inexplicable. Ludwick had been a second-round Draft pick almost a decade earlier, and it was a decade of agony. There were injuries. There were prolonged slumps. There were bad breaks. In 2006, he had a pretty good year for Detroit's Triple-A team in Toledo, hitting 28 home runs. The Tigers let Ludwick go anyway. He was 28 and seemingly out of choices.

Then the Cardinals picked Ludwick up, and he played quite a bit in 2007 with predictably unexceptional results. In '08, he got the starting job and he wasn't going to miss his chance. In Ludwick's first game of the year, he hit a single, double and a triple. He hit homers in three straight games in mid-April and was hitting .400 two weeks into the year. The Cards kept playing Ludwick, and he kept on hitting.

And the arrangement lasted the whole season. Ludwick finished one hit shy of .300, but other than that it was more or less the perfect season.

No. 9: Richard Hidalgo, 2000

Stats: .314/.391/.636, 42 doubles, 44 homers, 122 RBIs, 118 runs

See above.

No. 10: Carlos Pena, 2007

Stats: .282/.411/.627, 46 homers, 121 RBIs, 99 runs

Pena was another good hitter who simply could not quite put it together. His problem was mainly the strikeout, and several teams -- Texas, Oakland, Detroit, Boston -- guessed that he would not overcome it.

Then in 2007, at age 29, Pena unexpectedly had his year for the ages. He still struck out a lot, but he also walked 103 times -- he made pitchers pitch to him. And when pitchers threw it into Pena's wheelhouse, he had as much power as anybody. He led the league in home runs two years later.

Honorable mentions

Darin Erstad, 2000: Erstad was a good hitter, but out of nowhere, he turned into Pete Rose, hitting .355 with a league-leading .240 hits. He never hit .300 again.

Rick Wilkins, 1993: Wilkins hit .303 with 30 home runs that year, which was quite unexpected. He hit .220 with 37 home runs for the rest of his career.

Bill Mueller, 2003: After a few years of pretty good hitting with the Giants and Cubs, Mueller entered Fenway Park and found it perfect for him. He won the batting title with a .326 average and hit 45 doubles.