Luis Gonzalez is a former Astro, Cub, and Tiger who made a name for himself as an Arizona Diamondback. Because of a break-out season he had in 2001, there has been much speculation about him being one of the many major leaguers who used steriods and HGH (human growth hormone). Yesterday, after rumors of his steroid use were alluded to by his own team's owner, he called a press conference to deny the rumors of his use of performance-enhancing drugs. In light of that, I decided to actually delve into his career stats and see what the numbers say.
His first full season in the big leagues was 1991 at age 24. For the eight seasons between 1991 to 1998 he switched teams 5 different times, playing for a total of 3 different teams. He batted exactly .300 one season, but never came close to .300 in any other season during those years. His career batting average through 1998 was .268. He was somewhat of a base-stealing threat, stealing 20 in 1993 and 15 in 1994, and stealing 10 or more four different times. Through 1997, the most home runs he ever hit in a season was 15, which he had done twice, and in 1998 with the Tigers he hit his then career high 23. Between 1991 and 1998, his HR per at-bat ratio was about 1 in every 36 at-bats. He never had more than 79 RBI in any one season, and averaged 68 RBI per season during those years.
So by age 31, you have an 8-year veteran journeyman with consistent but highly unremarkable numbers, and his biggest statistical achievment was batting .300 in 1993. Typically a 6 or 7 batter in the line-up, he didn't even become an every day player until his 3rd full season in the majors.
Then, in 1999, he makes his 6th team change, moving to the 4th team of his career, signing with the Diamondbacks. That year, at age 32, he hits a career high 26 home runs, knocks in a career high 111 RBI (31 more than he'd ever knocked in before, and nearly double his career RBI average), and bats a career high .336 (36 points higher than his previous career high and nearly 70 points higher than his career average). His HR per at-bat ratio moves up a staggering 13 points to 1 in every 23 at-bats.
In 2000, he bats .311, and hits 31 home runs and 114 RBI, again setting new career highs in those two categories. He only steals 2 bases, by far a career low. His HR/At-bat ratio moves up to 1 in 19.
In 2001, he bats .325, hits 57 home runs, and knocks in 142 RBI. He only steals 1 base. His HR/At-bat ratio jets up to a McGwire-esque 1 in every 10 at-bats.
By 2005, he hits only 24 HR, the fewest he'd hit in any one season since joining the Diamondbacks (with the exception of his injury-plagued year in 2004, where he missed 50 games). He knocks in 79 RBI, and bats .271. Like his home run total, both are career lows with the Diamondbacks. His numbers suddenly look remarkably similar to his pre-Diamondbacks numbers.
This season, 2006, he is on pace to hit 13 HR and knock in 70 RBI. He is batting .265.
Since joining the Diamondbacks, he has never stolen 10 or more bases in a season, despite doing it 4 different times in his pre-Diamondbacks years.*
So what you have is an average, unremarkable journeyman player with average, unremarkable stats, a consistent player to fill a line-up spot, but destined to fade into oblivion by his mid-30's. Then, at age 32, when most players have passed their prime and are moving into the last seasons of their career, Gonzalez suddenly becomes a superstar. At age 34 he has his best season ever, and his mid-30's prove to be his most productive period, despite the fact that this is the period that most players see their careers winding down.
The numbers don't lie. This sort of career progression doesn't happen in nature. A player doesn't suddenly become an all-star, a franchise player, and a major league stand-out in his mid-30's, after a 10-year career as a journeyman with average, unremarkable stats. It just doesn't happen without something unnatural involved.
The numbers tell an obvious story. In 1998, McGwire and Sosa had put home run hitting at the top of everyone's radar, and steroids and HGH were all the rage. Upon arriving at the Diamondbacks for the 1999 season, Gonzalez, who was facing the certain prospect of his unremarkable career winding down within the next couple of seasons, got introduced to performance-enhancing drugs, and began using them. His stats immediately improved. By 2001, he hit his peak. By 2004, the word was out on steroids, mandatory testing started, and Gonzales had to stop. Maybe he'd already stopped by then. Either way, his body broke down once he was off the juice, and he ended up missing a third of the 2004 season with injury.
Since then, he has been the same old unremarkable player he was from 1991 to 1998.
I always liked Luis Gonzalez. As a Cubs and Astros fan in the 1990's, I was very familiar with him as a player. Despite being the 6 or 7 hitter and standing well in the shadow of his more talented teammates, he was always a fan favorite because he was a nice guy and very friendly, always smiling. He brought a lot to the team and certainly filled an important role. I remember being sad to see him leave the Astros for the last time in 1998 and join the Tigers. But I think his career is marred now. I would much rather have seen him retire in his mid-30's, and remember him as a local fan favorite who was an integral part of a lot of good Astros teams in the 1990's. Instead, now he's just another statistic in the very long Book of Baseball Cheaters.
*P.S....the stolen base stats are important because as Gonzalez began taking steroids and bulking up, he subsequently lost speed, which is evidenced by his decreasing ability to steal bases after he joined the Diamondbacks. Barry Bonds experienced a similar loss of speed on the base paths after he began bulking up in the late 1990's. People who take steroids inevitibly get stronger, but slower.