Ken Caminiti’s Legacy as Baseball’s Heroic Villain

In the first MLB episode of the StatMuse podcast “Stat Stories,” Chad Shanks and Justin Kubatko discuss the life and death of Ken Caminiti and how his confession of steroid use affected his legacy and forever changed baseball.

Listen to the embedded audio and browse through the StatMuse searches mentioned in the episode (data accurate as of the date of publication).

Ken Caminiti came up through the Astros system and burst onto the scene with a triple and a home run in his first major league game.

He developed a reputation as a grinder who played through injury and despite never putting up flashy power numbers, he made plays at third base that seemed impossible.

He admitting using steroids during the 1996 season to help combat a torn rotator cuff. That just happened to be the season he unanimously won NL MVP and hit 40 home runs despite never eclipsing 26 in any previous season.

ken caminiti hr by season

His RBI total also shot up to 130 that season despite previously never knocking in more than 94.

ken caminiti rbi by season

Caminiti still ranks at or near the top of the Padres’ career leaders in several power categories.

highest career ops by a padres player with at least 1500 ab
highest career slg by a padres player with at least 1500 ab

Now any time a player shows an increase in power, it’s suspicious. Even if it’s a result of hard work or maturation as a player, the steroid era has cast a dark cloud over any legitimate accomplishments.

jose altuve hr by season

Even though Rob Dibble is not choosing the best target, recent baseball history has given people the right to be suspicious. In the 20 years since George Foster hit 52 home runs in 1977 to the season before McGwire and Sosa both chased down Roger Maris, there were only a few seasons where a player eclipsed the 50 home run mark.

50+ home runs in a season by a player from 1977 to 1997

Then, in just the four following seasons, there was an explosion of 50 home run performances.

50+ home runs in a season by a player from 1998 to 2001

All these seasons (and more) are now called into question since Caminiti’s confession and we’re left to debate if his whistle-blowing was a villainous exposure that permanently damaged the MLB’s reputation or an act of altruistic heroism that ultimately saved baseball from itself.

Further reading:

Tom Verducci’s Sports Illustrated piece from 2002 where Caminiti confesses using steroids.

Totally Juiced: Confessions of a former MVP
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories to ever run…

An excellent story from Bleacher Report that focuses on Caminiti’s personal life and the toll his death has taken on those who loved him.

The Cautionary Tale of Ken Caminiti
The past springs to life on an 80-inch flat-screen in a family room in Reno, Nevada. The television is extra-large…

ESPN’s harrowing recount of the final hours of Ken Caminiti’s life.

The final hours of Ken Caminiti's life
Five days before he died on Oct. 10, 41-year-old Ken Caminiti walked out of the Harris County Jail in Houston, where he…

A good summary of Caminiti’s struggles from the perspective of former teammates and coaches.

THE LONELY LIFE OF KEN CAMINITI Former MVP's struggles catalyst for baseball drug-testing reform
By T.J. QUINN I n this neighborhood, Merceal Cepeda figured the man had to be a cop. Tall, barrel-chested, white, he…