How do you define a one-hit wonder?
To keep things simple, there are just two rules: 1. have one amazing year, finishing as a top 20 athlete and 2. never come close to duplicating that success (no top 50 finishes outside of their peak season).
Highest rank: 8th
He was voted the league’s Most Improved Player
After a season out of the league, Barros joined the Celtics, first as an assistant coach, then as a player
Compare to a star See Reggie Miller’s career
Dana Barros is the epitome of a one-hit wonder. His breakout 1994-95 season on the Sixers sent him to the All-Star game and earned him the Most Improved Player award. He put up 20 ppg, seven points higher than his next best season. He signed with the Celtics the following year, but his minutes (and numbers) dropped for good. In the last 30 years, the NBA produced just a few one-hit wonders that fit our criteria. The results include surprises such as Jerry Stackhouse, who was once billed as the “next Jordan”, and Ryan Anderson, who like Barros, was named the league’s Most Improved Player in his breakout 2011–12 season.
Highest rank: 15th
Had her best season as a rookie, averaging 13.8 ppg
Started in her first season with the Phoenix Mercury with WNBA great Cynthia Cooper as coach
Compare to a star See Simone Augustus’ career
Tracy Reid was drafted 7th overall in the 1998 by the now defunct Charlotte Sting, and was named Rookie of the Year in her first season—the lowest pick ever to earn that honor. Injuries limited her playing time the following season, and she was traded twice during the remaining four years of her career. During her last season in 2002, she appeared in Juwanna Mann. Since the WNBA began in 1997, with an average player career of three seasons, Reid was the only one-hit wonder to make our list.
Highest rank: 7th
Scored his first major victory as a rookie at the Kemper Open
Shot a 67 to Tiger Woods’ 68 to claim the PGA Championship
He underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disk
Compare to a star See Tiger Woods’ career
Not many players have gone toe-to-toe with (pre-incident) Tiger Woods and come out on top. Rich Beem finished one stroke ahead of Woods at the 2002 PGA Championship to record his first and only major title. Until this win, Beem was best known for his rowdy tour lifestyle, chronicled in the book Bud, Sweat, And Tees. Beem dropped out of the top 100 in 2004 and never returned. But in 2007, Beem’s flashy antics threw him back in the spotlight. He sunk a hole-in-one at the Nissan Open to win a new Altima, climbed on top of the car in celebration, and became part of a Nissan commercial.
Highest rank: 16th
Won the U.S. Women’s Open with her husband as her caddie
Joined the LPGA Player Executive Committee and elected president two years later
Compare to a star See Annika Sorenstam’s career
Hilary Lunke had never won an LPGA event before winning the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open in an 18-hole playoff. And she never won again. Lunke’s Cinderella story began by advancing through local and sectional qualifying. She was the first woman to win a championship from the qualifying rounds. Lunke gave birth to her first of three daughters in November 2007 and retired at the end of the 2008 season.
Highest rank: 8th
Debuted his signature leg kick delivery for the Florida Marlins
In addition to his runner-up Cy Young finish, Willis was named the National League’s best lefty pitcher
Traded to the Detroit Tigers, where he would play just 24 games over three seasons
Compare to a star See Roy Halladay’s career
Dontrelle Willis, the “D-Train,” earned National League Rookie of the Year honors in his first season with the Florida Marlins. He continued his climb, and in 2005 finished second in the National League Cy Young Award voting behind Chris Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals. But by 2007, Willis’ consistency dropped and he bounced around the league. His last season in the majors was 2011, but the “D-Train” continued chugging in the minors until his retirement in 2015. Willis is joined by 31 other MLBers who made our one-hit wonder list including: pitcher Mark Prior, shortstop Edgar Renteria, and outfielders Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes.
Highest rank: 19th
Finally broke into the Top 100 in his seventh year
Lost in the French Open finals — his best career finish
Qualified for his last Grand Slam and four other ATP tournaments, but fell in the first round of each
Compare to a star See Juan Carlos Ferrero’s career
Martin Verkerk was relatively unknown before he made it to the French Open finals in 2003. The unseeded Dutchman, playing in only his third Grand Slam and first time at Roland Garros, fell to Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets. Five months later, he had another impressive performance at the Paris Masters, losing to Roger Federer in three tiebreak sets. Ankle injuries and mononucleosis kept him off the court for two seasons. When he returned, he qualified for the 2007 French Open, but wasn’t able to duplicate his magical run. Like Verkerk, the other two ATP one-hit wonders, Joachim Johansson and Franco Squillari, each had a single run deep into a major tournament that elevated their ranking.
Highest rank: 18th
Made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon and was eliminated in the second round
In her best season, she also represented Croatia at the 2004 Olympics
Returned to her original coach, Ricardo Sanchez, after a few years with Borna Bikić
Compare to a star See Venus Williams’ career
At 19 years old, Croatian Karolina Sprem broke into the top 20 after defeating then-two-time champion Venus Williams in route to the 2004 Wimbledon quarterfinals—a match that might be more remembered by an error that awarded Sprem an extra point during the second-set tie-break. She was never able to duplicate that success and failed to win a WTA tournament during her career—earning only three runner-up finishes. Sprem hasn’t played since suffering a wrist injury in 2011. She married fellow tennis player Marcos Baghdatis in 2012.
Highest rank: 13th
Scored the game-winning goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals
In his best season, he scored a career high in points, with 76 points in 78 games
Compare to a star See Jarome Iginla’s career
Despite winning the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008, Jiri Hudler didn’t break into the top 20 until 2015 with the Calgary Flames. The Czech forward was also awarded the Lady Byng Trophy for the NHL's most sportsmanlike player that same year. After not securing a contract for the 2017-18 season, Hudler’s reputation and playing career took a dive when a Czech newspaper reported that Hudler was accused of having a belligerent outburst on a Delta Airlines flight. He allegedly threatened a flight attendant, demanded cocaine, and tried to pee in a food cart.
Data and Methods
Data was collected from the following sources; NBA and WNBA: basketball-reference.com, MLB: FanGraphs, PGA: pgatour.com, LPGA: lpga.com, NHL: hockey-reference.com, ATP: github.com/serve-and-volley, WTA: github.com/JeffSackmann.
Data was restricted to a career starting in the past 30 years (after 1987). In some cases, data didn’t exist until more recently (e.g., WNBA). Competition ranking (e.g., 1, 2, 2, 4) was used to order athletes. Seasons where athletes did not play were excluded from calculations. Sports (e.g., NFL) were excluded if they 1. didn’t have a good all-in-one stat or 2. didn’t have comprehensive data. We filtered out athletes who played less than five seasons to remove those still at the start of their career or with careers that ended prematurely due to injury.
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