Skip to main content

The Greatest Single-Season

in the Last 30 Years of Sports

Everyone knows the one-hit wonders in music: classic jams such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by Baha Men, a group that charted once in their career. But what do we get when we apply this concept to the world of sports?

Answers often include heroic performances, such as Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, or brief runs (e.g., Linsanity). Yet capturing lightning in a bottle is much easier to do in a single game compared to an entire season. Let’s look at which athletes made it to the top of their sport just once— unable to reproduce their success.

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).

nba

Dana Barros

1990-2004

Highest rank: 8th

Dana Barros

1995

He was voted the league’s Most Improved Player

2004

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.

wnba

Tracy Reid

1998-2003

Highest rank: 15th

Tracy Reid

1998

Had her best season as a rookie, averaging 13.8 ppg

true

2002

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.

pga

Rich Beem

1988-2017

Highest rank: 7th

Rich Beem

1999

Scored his first major victory as a rookie at the Kemper Open

true

2002

Shot a 67 to Tiger Woods’ 68 to claim the PGA Championship

2010

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.

lpga

Hilary Lunke

2003-2007

Highest rank: 16th

Hilary Lunke

2003

Won the U.S. Women’s Open with her husband as her caddie

2006

Joined the LPGA Player Executive Committee and elected president two years later

true

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.

mlb

Dontrelle Willis

2003-2011

Highest rank: 8th

Dontrelle Willis

2003

Debuted his signature leg kick delivery for the Florida Marlins

true

2005

In addition to his runner-up Cy Young finish, Willis was named the National League’s best lefty pitcher

2008

Traded to the Detroit Tigers, where he would play just 24 games over three seasons

true

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.

atp

Martin Verkerk

1996-2008

Highest rank: 19th

Martin Verkerk

2002

Finally broke into the Top 100 in his seventh year

2003

Lost in the French Open finals — his best career finish

true

2007

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.

wta

Karolina Sprem

2002-2011

Highest rank: 18th

Karolina Sprem

2003

Made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon and was eliminated in the second round

true

2004

In her best season, she also represented Croatia at the 2004 Olympics

2007

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.

nhl

Jiri Hudler

2004-2017

Highest rank: 13th

Jiri Hudler

2008

Scored the game-winning goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals

true

2015

In his best season, he scored a career high in points, with 76 points in 78 games

true

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.

Get in touch at russell@pudding.cool or on Twitter at codenberg.