Looking back at the 1990s knowing what we know now is often difficult for baseball fans. At the time, we had no idea that steroids and performance-enhancing substances ran rampant throughout the game – and Padres superstar Ken Caminiti was no exception, having admitted to using PEDs during his 1996 MVP campaign.
Still, what Caminiti did during his time in San Diego – and, in particular, that ’96 season – is still impressive and ranks as one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen someone in a Padres uniform turn in. That being said, he had no business taking home the Senior Circuit’s top honors that season.
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After making a strong first impression the year prior after coming over in a massive trade with Houston, Caminiti put it all together in 1996 – earning a unanimous selection as the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
The 33-year-old batted .326/.408/.621 with 40 home runs, 37 doubles and 130 RBI to lead the Padres’ offense. At that time, sabermetrics weren’t really a thing – but it’s worth nothing that Caminiti was far from the league’s most valuable player in 1996. In fact, using Baseball Reference WAR, he ranked sixth – trailing the likes of Barry Bonds, Bernard Gilkey, Ellis Burks, Kevin Brown and John Smoltz.
Caminiti didn’t lead the league in any one offensive statistic – with the exception of his 10 sacrifice flies, hardly a category that’s indicative of being an MVP-caliber player. His 1.028 OPS ranked fourth in the NL, trailing the likes of Gary Sheffield, Bonds and Burks and, even though he was a strong defender, he wasn’t even in the top 10 in MLB in terms of dWAR.
So how did the Padres slugger wind up taking home the hardware?
Caminiti benefited from two key factors: his leadership for San Diego that year (remember, back then, those intangibles seemed to carry a lot more weight without all the data and metrics voters tend to rely on today) and he had a monster second half.
After the All-Star Break, the former third-round pick put up some absolutely ridiculous numbers. In 73 second-half games, Caminiti batted .360/.443/.760 – hitting 28 home runs and driving in 81. Over the season’s final month, he hit .375 and from July on, never hit below .344. His 14-homer month of August and 38 RBI were still very fresh in the minds of voters come the fall.
San Diego wound up capturing the division crown on the final day of the regular season. Paired with Caminiti’s monster showing down the stretch and, well, everyone loves a hero story. But at the end of the day, he really had no business winning the MVP. There wasn’t just one – but several – players who had better seasons.