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Steinbach in '96. How Do You Explain It?


Teflon

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I was watching the excellent ESPN 30-for-30 feature on the Earthquake Series of 1989 and in recalling various players on that Oakland A’s team, was again struck by how far off the charts Terry Steinbach’s 1996 was from any other season in his career at the advanced-for-baseball age of 34. Steinbach slugged 35 homeruns that season after never hitting more than 16 before or after. His 34 homeruns as a catcher (the other was as a pinch hitter) was the highest total for a catcher at that time in the American League. It was surpassed by Ivan Rodriguez (35) in 1999 which is the current record.

 

In all of baseball history, only two other players over age 30 put up career high homeruns exceeding 30 in a season which more than doubled any other season homerun total in their careers.

 

Brady Anderson – hit 50 homeruns in 1996 at age 32. The next highest HR total for Brady in a season was 24.

 

George Crowe – hit 31 homeruns in 1957 at age 36. The next highest HR total for George in a season was 15.

 

Crowe hit his 31 homeruns in the only season he ever topped 400 at-bats so is easily explainable. Brady Anderson and Steinbach, not so. While steroid rumors have always surrounded Anderson’s aberrant 1996, Steinbach’s similarly aberrant 1996 has remained unquestioned as far as I can tell from Google searches despite the Oakland clubhouse of 1996 also being the home to McGwire, Canseco and Giambi.

 

So how exactly does a 34 year-old catcher who never hit more than 16 homeruns before or since become the all-time single season league leader in homeruns at his position? In looking for explanations, I thought of the following:

 

Renovation to the Oakland Coliseum

 

In 1995-1996 the Oakland Coliseum was renovated to enclose the previously open outfield with a massive steep double-decked grandstand for Raiders football. (”Mt. Davis”) Prior to that, the stadium had a symmetrical curved outfield fence with dimension of 330 down the lines, 375 to the alleys, and 400 to center field. With the construction, the configuration of the outfield changed to a peaked diamond shape that kept the same foul line and center field dimensions but was constrained to shorter dimensions in the alleys.

 

A’s fans have also written that there was previously a breeze that cooled the ballpark on hot day games that disappeared once Mount Davis was erected. This suggests that batters no longer had to deal with wind blowing in. Shorter power alleys and more favorable wind conditions could have helped Steinbach’s power numbers, right?

 

Steinbach hit a home run every 38 at-bats at home in 1994, every 21 at-bats in 1995, and every 16 at-bats in 1996, while the rest of the A’s hit homers every 36 at-bats in 1994, every 30 at-bats in 1995, and every 24 at-bats in 1996 – so the park (or the team) was trending upward. Unfortunately for the ballpark theory Steinbach’s rates on the road were a homer every 36 at-bats in 1994, every 36 in 1995, and every 13 at-bats in 1996, meaning his homerun rate increased 32% at home in '96 but increased 164% on the road! Not the ballpark.

 

The Strike of 1994-1995

 

Steinbach lost at-bats that would have affected his overall homerun totals in 1994 and 1995. The 1994 season was wiped out after 117 games and the 1995 season started late and was limited to 145 games. Perhaps his aberrant 1996 power wouldn’t be as glaring in comparison if his two previous seasons had been completed. Projecting his production in those seasons to 1996 at-bat levels produces only 14 homeruns in 1994 (compared to 11 actual) and 19 instead of 15 in 1995. (For some reason the jump from 19 to 35 seems less staggering even though it’s still semi-staggering – especially given Steinbach’s age. Joe Mauer had his aberrant HR season at age 26, by the way.)

Sold his Soul?

 

With the lack of a better explanation, it’s possible Steinbach negotiated some kind of deal with Lucifer in exchange for his 1996 season. How else could you explain how following the greatest season of his career and one of the top seasons ever for an American League catcher, he inexplicably took two-thirds of his previous salary to join a moribund team Twins team that lost 90 games every season for the rest of his career.

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He was one of several players throughout the league who had career high numbers that year. At the time, he commented on the high number of young or rookie pitchers he had the good fortune to face that season, that he hit well off those young, mistake-making, pitchers, and that the new ball parks being built in the early and mid 90s were more hitter friendly than the old parks.

He left Oakland after that season to go home to Minnesota. At the time, his reasoning, at least to the public in the Bay Area, was that his kids were getting to an age where he didn't want them to be shuffling around from Minnesota to Arizona, to Oakland during the school year. He turned down several offers more lucrative than the offer he took with the Twins, including a huge ( I can't remember the exact number, something like $18 million/4 years) offer from Toronto to be able to keep his family in one place year round.

 

I realize that in your blog you do not come out and make an accusation of steroid use. It is likely that being an A's fan makes me a bit more sensitive to hints of shenanigans than I would be if my team didn't spawn Jose Canseco, but
it seems irresponsible to me to call someone's reputation into question based on nothing more than something you can't explain.  His explanation seems perfectly reasonable to me. It makes less sense that he would take PEDs after years of not taking PEDs so that he'd have a big season in order to take an enormous pay-cut and go to a team not likely to  make the playoffs for the remainder of his career. That's ridiculous.

 

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While I understand where your sentiments and bold-font indignation come from, OaklandFan, but both the ballpark assertion and rookie pitcher assertion are false

 

The new ballparks of the 90s would have needed to appear as a group in 1996 and then disappear again in 1997 to have contributed to a one season phenomenon. The affect of more homer-conducive ballparks would be to cause an upward trend in Steinbach's homerun totals from their opening onward and not an isolated one year spike. There is no evidence, however, of even an upward trend from the new ballparks in Steinbach's stats after looking at his road homeruns by ballpark before 1996, in 1996, and then after. 

 

Steinbach's 1996 homeruns on the road in ballparks opened in 1989 or later were Texas-3, Chicago-3, Cleveland-2, Baltimore-1,and Toronto-1. (10 total) His road homeruns in stadiums open prior to 1989 were California-3, Detroit-3, Seattle-2, Boston-1. (9 total.)

 

The Toronto Skydome - now Rogers Centre - opened in 1989. Steinbach hit 2 homeruns there in the 7 seasons prior to 1996, 1 there in 1996, and then none the final three years of his career. He hit 1 at the previous Toronto ballpark in three seasons.

 

New Comiskey Park - now US Cellular Field - opened in 1991.Steinbach hit 2 homeruns there in the 5 seasons prior to 1996, 3 there in 1996, and then none the final three years of his career. He hit none in the previous White Sox ballpark in three seasons.

 

Camden Yards opened in 1992.  Steinbach hit 2 homeruns there in the four seasons prior to 1996, 1 there in 1996, and then none for the final three years of his career.

 

The Ballpark in Arlington - now Globe Life Ballpark in Arlington, opened in 1994. Steinbach hit one homerun there in the two years prior to 1996, three there in 1996, and then none for the final three years of his career. He hit 7 at the previous ballpark in Texas over 7 seasons. 

 

Jacobs Field - now Progressive Field, also opened in 1994. Steinbach hit 1 homerun there in the the two years prior to 1996, 2 there in 1996, and then two over the final three years of his career. He had hit 5 at the previous ballpark in Cleveland in 7 seasons.

 

I thought there might be something to your rookie pitcher assertion but that turns out a false assertion, as well.

 

The pitcher Steinbach particularly feasted on in 1996 was Kevin Tapani, 32, who was pitching for the White Sox that year. Steinbach hit three homeruns off him in 10 plate appearances after only hitting 1 off him in 24 total plate appearances prior. He also hit 2 in 7 at bats off Darren Oliver in 1996, who was in his third year with the Rangers, (No other homeruns against Oliver in other seasons.) 2 off Mike Christopher who was 32 in his fifth MLB season, 2 off Rocky Coppinger, who was a rookie that year, 2 off 29 year-old vet Juan Guzman in 10 at-bats in 1996 although none in the other 30 at-bats versus Guzman in his career.  

 

The other pitchers who each surrendered a single home run to Steinbach in 1996 were Wilson Alvarez 7th season, Mark Brandenburg rookie, Norm Charlton 10th , Cal Eldred 6th, Alex Fernandez 7th,Jason Grimsley 7th, Erik Hanson 9th,Sterling Hitchcock 5th, Greg Keagle rookie, Mark Langston 15th, Dennis Martinez 21st, Jack McDowell 9th, Jaimie Moyer 11th, Charles Nagy 7th, Gregg Olson 9th, Paul Quantrill 5th, Brad Radke 2nd, Paul Shuey 3rd, Dennis Springer rookie, Mike Stanton 8th season, Matt Wagner rookie, Bob Wells 3rd, David Wells 10th, and Shad Williams rookie.

 

The final tally for 1996 for Steinbach is 28 home runs off veterans (80%) and 7 off rookies.

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Just throwing something out there to see if there is anything to it - is it possible the disruption of the previous two years had more of an impact on pitchers?  Nobody pitched 200 innings in 1994, and in 1995 there was the shortened spring training.  Then in 1996 everyone was back to the full schedule.  I'm not sure how we would test that - DL rates, maybe?  Attrition rates?  Were there a large number of pitchers who continued to pitch for a while but were never the same after the strike? 

 

I think we're really fighting Occam's razor on this one, though, because 1996 is right in the middle of the steroid era, and the whole generation is suspect. (Even Andy Pettitte used them?)  My understanding of the way steroids work is they allow shorter recovery times between workouts, so they allow more workouts. Maybe someone can follow that type of routine for a limited time without steroids.  Maybe Steinbach was working out with one of the users - there was no shortage of them.  But that's one maybe too many.  The simple answer is maybe he was juicing. 

 

Even if he wasn't, it was so prevalent that there's no way he knew nothing. If he knew something and did nothing, he's an accomplice. 

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If it walks like a duck....

 

 

Couldn't the high increase in home runs one season and decline the next be a sign the season was on the up and up? Kind of like Wade Boggs in 1987 or Joe Mauer in 2009. 

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