Jay Bell hit 38 home runs at the age of 33. He switched positions after becoming too big to play shortstop. We know what you’re thinking.
To be fair, Jay Bell has never been named in any official steroid report. It is entirely possible that his numbers were not aided by performance-enhancing drugs. How likely is it? We’ll present the case and let you decide.
The middle infield is where the real steroid users get separated from the half-assed posers. Sure, Jason Giambi can jack himself up with the stuff and only see his game improve—he’s a first baseman. But adding 50 to 70 pounds of bulk can seriously impact a shortstop’s range, as though he suddenly started playing while wearing a giant backpack. In a position where speed and quickness is at a premium, steroids would seem ill-suited for this breed.
Jay Bell broke into the league as a shortstop with the Indians in 1986, as the great Julio Franco’s backup. He was steady in the field, but flirted with the Mendoza line his first few years at the plate. The Indians thought little enough of him to ship him off to the Pirates as a “player to be named later” to complete their deal for Denny Gonzalez, a utility player who was out of the league by 1990 at age 25.
Bell enjoyed some decent years in Pittsburgh, earning a reputation as a heady, dependable shortstop. He hit near the bottom of the order and kept his average around .265 for his eight years with the team, eventually being unceremoniously shipped to the Royals for the last year of his contract. He was 30 years old and had only hit over 15 home runs once in his 10-year career (16 in 1991). It seemed that the book on Jay Bell’s career was nearing its close—forever to be remembered as a perennial “player to be named later.” At this point, his career slugging percentage stood at a paltry .396, his OPS barely above .700.
Suspicion crept up after his 1997 season with Kansas City. That year, he enjoyed his first 20-homer season, ending with a robust .291/21/92 line—all career highs at age 30. His .461 slugging percentage at shortstop may have raised some eyebrows in 2008, but in 1997 power numbers had mysteriously started to rise all around the league (Mark McGwire had just completed his second straight 50-home-run season), so no one batted an eye. It was a good year, no doubt, but Bell would dwarf it in the next couple of years.
Bell signed a $34 million-dollar contract with the Diamondbacks after the ’97 season and rewarded them with another 20-home-run year. If you’re keeping track, that’s back-to-back 20-home-run seasons at ages 30–31 for a guy who had only hit 10 home runs three times in his 20s.
The tipping point for Bell’s inclusion on this list was his 1999 season. Arizona added light-hitting (up to this point, at least) outfielder Luis Gonzalez, who was also coming off his first-ever 20-home-run season at age 31. Bell and Gonzalez in the same clubhouse turned out to be a match made in theoretical steroid heaven, as balls started flying out of Bank One Ballpark at an unprecedented rate. Unable to maintain his range at shortstop after adding so much bulk, Bell shifted over to second base.
He put up an absurd .289/38/112 line, slugging .557 at age 33, after never topping .440 for the first 13 years of his career. Gonzalez, too, would put together a ridiculous stretch of power seasons in his late career, topping out at 57 home runs in 2001.
Bell’s Icarian fall began the next year. In the first year of the new century, he “only” managed 18 home runs (still the fourth most of his career), despite playing a full season. Whether he was too old for steroids, had begun to wean himself off out of fear of long-term health effects, or just remembered that he was Jay Bell is anybody’s guess, but it’s this precipitous dropoff at the end of his career that made him a mainstay on lists like this one.
In just four short years he managed to hit more home runs than he had in the first 10 years of his career (you know, when he was supposed to be in his prime), and then all that power vanished for no reason at all (well, other than the obvious one). Like all steroid users, his body began to deteriorate at an alarming rate, and he never played a full season again. Three years later, he was out of the league after hitting .176 in two years of part-time duty with the D-Backs and Mets. He was 37, just three years older than he was when he hit 38 home runs in the golden year of steroids. His career was overshadowed by the behemoth sluggers of his time, but if you needed a second baseman with little to no range to magically hit 40 home runs for you, Jay Bell was your guy—if only for a year or two.
1986–1996 (11 seasons, age 20–30): 83 HR, .265 BA, .396 SLG
1997–2001 (5 seasons, age 31–35): 110 HR, .271 BA, .461 SLG
2002–2003 (2 seasons, age 36–37): 2 HR, .176 BA, .224 SLG
More From the All-Steroids Team:
- C: Todd Hundley
- 1B: Phil Nevin
- 2B: Bret Boone
- SS: Rich Aurilia
- 3B: Ken Caminiti
- OF: Gary Matthews Jr.
- OF: Brady Anderson
- OF: Jay Gibbons
- DH: David Ortiz
- SP: Edinson Volquez
- MRP: Brendan Donnelly
- SU: John Rocker
- CL: Eric Gagne