Last week I wrote a column on the least likely cycles ever. It was a fun one and, not surprisingly, also turned out to be a popular one. It also brought up an obvious question: Who were the most likely cycle hitters of all-time?
On the face of it, this should be an easy question to answer as I already have the methodology figured out. For reasons noted last week, you take a player’s singles, doubles, triples and homers and divide each individually by plate appearances. Then you take those four results and multiply them together. The higher the score, the more likely the cycle; the lower, the less likely. The upshot shows that the 1910 cycle by Bill Collins (a man who had six doubles in over 600 PA) was the all-time least likely cycle.
Turns out, however, for reasons to be discussed in a little bit, the top of the list isn’t so easy. Also, I have some miscellaneous info I wanted to share. Thus instead of a simple Top 10 list of the best cycles ever, I’ll rip off the old format invented by Boss Studes: 10 things I didn’t know about cycles.
1. The most likely cycle hitter, by the numbers
As noted, it’s hard to say who hit the most likely cycle ever. If you do the math, the most likely cycle of all-time turns out to be Gary Ward in 1980. Huh?
Yeah, he only had 46 plate appearances that year, but by golly he made the most of them, posing a .463 batting average and .780 slugging percentage (10 singles, six doubles, two triples and a homer).
Obviously, this is a fluke of sample size. Though Ward’s is extreme, this isn’t an isolated incident. The 10th most likely cycle of all-time would be, purely by the numbers, the 2006 one by Luke Scott, who had only 249 PA. Greg Colbrunn makes the top 20 with his 2002 one, when he had fewer PA than Scott.
OK, there needs to be some sort of limit here. Let’s say you need at least 400 PA and qualify for the batting title to qualify. Then who hit the most likely cycle ever? Well … (drum roll, please):
2. Most likely cycle in a full-season: Sam Thompson in 1894: 501 PA, 114 singles, 32 doubles, 28 triples, 13 homers.
You have to admit, that’s a pretty impressive line for Hall of Famer Thompson, especially the triples bunch. He had an extra-base hit better than once every seven plate appearances that year. That said, though the numbers are great, it’s a bit disappointing, isn’t it? Aw man, a 19th Century player? Well, OK – he’s just the first guy. Who is right behind him then?
Second place is perfect – because this guy actually hit for two cycles in this season, something that rarely happens. It was Tip O’Neill in 1887. In 572 PA, he had 140 singles, 52 doubles, 19 triples and 14 homers. Again, that’s mighty impressive. But he’s even further back in the past than Thompson.
OK, so who is the most likely cycle hitter since 1900? Let us explore.
3. Most likely cycle since 1900: Nap Lajoie in 1901: 582 PA, 156 singles, 48 doubles, 14 triples, 14 homers.
Anyone notice a trend forming here? We keep staying as far back in the past as is possible to be. This is why I’m not making this column another Top 10 list like last week’s article. I look at the top of my list and I see a guy with 46 PA, then a guy from the 1890s, then a guy from the 1880s, then the same guy from the 1880s (I put him twice – once for each cycle he hit that year), then a guy from 1901. I’m a big baseball history nerd, and this is a bit much even for me. I can only assume it’s too much for most residents of reader-land.
None of the above is to take anything away from Nap Lajoie. He was a tremendous hitter and he was on fire in 1901, but I’d still like to see something from if not my lifetime, at least my father’s lifetime. So far I haven’t gotten a 50 PA-plus season in my grandfather’s lifetime.
Let’s make it most likely cycle of the lively ball era and see what happens.
4. Most likely cycle since 1920: Chick Hafey in 1930: 515 PA, 73 singles, 39 doubles, 12 triples, 26 homers.
I love this one. First, Hafey actually had more extra-base hits than singles. Among the 16,000 occasions a person qualified for the batting title, that’s only happened 108 times. This was only the second time it happened in NL history. The first was Ned Williamson in 1883. After Hafey, it didn’t happen again in the NL until Stan Lopata in 1956.
I also like giving Hafey some credit. When he’s thought of at all it’s only as a howlingly bad Veterans Committee pick during the cronyism days of Frankie Frisch. He actually was a helluva player, though. He’s a undeserving Cooperstown pick because of his career length. Otherwise he’d be a player like Hal Trosky – an obscure, forgotten player who would really impress you when you strolled across his numbers.
At any rate, just behind Chick Hafey is another Hall of Famer, one just a bit better regarded: Joe DiMaggio, who in 1937 hit 119 singles, 35 doubles, 15 triples and 46 homers in his 692 PA. You can’t really argue with DiMaggio.
After DiMaggio is another pair of Hall of Famers: George Sisler and Kiki Cuyler. When he hit the cycle in 1920, Sisler had 692 PA (just like DiMaggio) featuring 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers. Five years Later, Cuyler hit 133 singles, 43 doubles, 26 triples and 18 homers in 700 PA.
Looking at the full list of cycle hitters, the gaggle of Hall of Famers is finally broken up by Luke Scott’s previously mentioned 2006 cycle, when he only played a half-season.
Let’s stop for a second, if you include Tip O’Neill twice and ignore any playing time minimum requirements, that’s the Top 10. Aside from the partial seasons, the most recent season was DiMaggio in 1937. That tells us something right there: it was easier to hit for the cycle in the old days when stadiums were more conducive to hitting triples. That’s fine, but it does take a bit of “oomph” out of the list.
Let’s put it this way, among guys playing in a full season, who hit the most likely cycle in modern times – say since Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947?
5. The most likely modern cycle: George Brett in 1979: 701 PA, 127 singles, 42 doubles, 20 triples and 23 homers.
This makes a lot of sense. There haven’t been many times in baseball history a player hit 20 doubles, triples and homers in a season, but this is one of them. It’s a great hitter in his prime, doing everything right at the plate.
The most cycle-friendly hitter of the last 60 years.
In the 1947-onward bunch, the next best cyclers qualifying for the batting title are Stan Musial in 1949 and Hoot Evers in 1950. After them, you finally get a recent player, with Carlos Gonzalez, whose cycle came earlier this year. We’ll see how he winds up when the seasons ends.
6. Flip it around: Most likely to hit for the cycle, all hitters ever
In the comments section from last week’s article, Cyril Morong asked a pretty good question:
As usual, great job. Fun to read. Can you figure out who was the most likely to hit for the cycle but did not?
That’s a good question, but at first it sounded like it would take far too much work to answer. I’d have to do my math equation for every season ever, and that’s far too much work for this one little question, regardless of how interesting a question it is.
Well, I suppose it wouldn’t have to be every season in history. After all, as noted already those partial seasons obscure more than they illuminate when you check them for cycle-worthiness. I’d really only have to look at guys who qualified for the batting title.
Hey wait a second – once you put it that way, the entire thing becomes ever so much easier. I already have all batting average qualifiers in a database. I created it for my book – Evaluating Baseball’s Manager, 1876-2008 (read it and find out why Alex Remington at Yahoo’s Big League Stew blog said “This is one of the best baseball books I’ve read in a long time, a serious effort by a good writer with a love of history and stats and a fascinating subject that hasn’t been studied much.” – and I just have to add the equation to figure out who was the most likely cycle hitter ever – not just among guys who hit cycles, but the everyone.
Well, it turns out the winner is still Sam Thompson in 1894. That’s pretty nice. When Thompson hit his cycle on Aug. 17, 1894, it was seemingly foreordained. If ever anyone was going to hit a cycle, it was him on that day.
Still, this doesn’t answer Cyril’s question. He wanted to know who was the most likely cycle hitter who never hit for the cycle.
7. Most likely cycler who never cycled: Al Simmons in 1930: 611 PA, 118 singles, 41 doubles, 16 triples and 36 homers.
That’s a nice line Simmons had. He was a legitimately great hitter. This was one of six 200-hit seasons, and while his 307 homers may not look too impressive now, it was fifth most in baseball history when he retied, behind only Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Mel Ott.
Only Thompson’s 1894 campaign was more likely than Simmons’s 1930 season to produce a cycle. Just behind Simmons was Sam Thompson’s 1895 season: 127 hits, 45 doubles, 21 triples, 18 homers in 576 PA. Mighty consistent hitter, than Thompson. After him came Tip O’Neill’s 1887 campaign in which he hit for two cycles.
8. Most likely possible cycler by decade
Those guys are all really old. What happens when we go forward? I’ll just dump the data down in one big lump: here are the most likely to cycle guys in each decade (restricted to batting title qualifiers only):
Name Year PA 1B 2B 3B HR John O'Rourke 1879 325 74 17 11 6 Tip O'Neill 1887 572 140 52 19 14 Sam Thompson 1894 501 114 32 28 13 Nap Lajoie 1901 582 156 48 14 14 Babe Ruth 1919 542 467 34 12 29 Lou Gehrig 1927 717 101 52 18 47 Al Simmons 1930 611 118 41 16 36 Stan Musial 1948 694 127 46 18 39 Willie Mays 1954 640 108 33 13 41 George Altman 1961 573 90 28 12 27 George Brett 1979 701 127 42 20 23 George Brett 1980 515 109 33 9 24 Ellis Burks 1996 685 118 45 8 40 Curtis Granderson2007 676 101 38 23 23
The 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, and 1970s guys hit cycles, the others didn’t. There are some great names like Musial, Gehrig, Mays and Brett I’d expect to see. There’s also Ruth’s name, who I would not expect to see. While I expected Willie Mays would lead for the 1950s, I would’ve guessed his 1957 season would top the decade, since he hit 20 or more doubles, triples and homers. That was actually the runner-up season for the decade.
Actually, this brings up another question: Among players who qualified for the batting title, Who was the most unlikely to hit for the cycle? Actually, there’s an obvious answer: a tie between everyone without a triple or homer.
Granderson, with the swing that helped Detroit in 2007.
Let’s look only at people with at least one of all four types of hits. Among them, who was the person least likely to hit for the cycle?
9. Least likely to hit for the cycle: Bill Bergen in 1909: 372 PA, 45 singles, one double, one triple, one homer.
Of course it’s Bill Bergen! By law, all “least likely to hit” questions in baseball history have to have him as an answer. The incredible thing here isn’t that he hit only one double in the season (yeesh!) but that he someone managed to get a triple and homer.
There’s only one Bill Bergen, put who are the only least likelies per decade?
Name Year PA 1B 2B 3B HR Pop Snyder 1876 226 44 4 1 1 Jack Burdock 1888 341 42 1 2 1 Harry Lochhead 1899 578 120 7 1 1 Bill Bergen 1909 372 45 1 1 1 Armando Marsons 1916 614 120 12 1 1 Larry Kopf 1922 528 114 6 3 1 Sparky Adams 1933 634 122 22 1 1 Steve Mesner 1945 611 116 19 1 1 Billy Hunter 1953 604 104 18 1 1 Horace Clarke 1968 607 124 6 1 2 Julio Cruz 1978 634 113 14 1 1 Lou Whitaker 1980 568 90 19 1 1 Otis Nixon 1996 575 125 15 1 1 Chone Figgins 2008 520 109 14 1 1
Suffice it to say, none of them hit for the cycle.
Julio Cruz‘s 1978 season is the least likely potential cycler since Bergen. Harry Lochhead played for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, famous for going 20-134 on the year. Perfect: Just as every “least likely to hit” question must contain Bergen as answer, all baseball “worst” questions have to relate to the 1899 Spiders in their answer.
10. A nice story about Tim Foli‘s cycle
Speaking of unlikely cycles, there’s a story about one of last week’s least cycles I have to share. I learned about it only after publishing the article from reader Tom Nawrocki. Tim Foli hit one of the least likely cycles ever on April 21, 1976 – and some very strange circumstances aided him in it.
It came in the top of the fifth inning during a game rain threatened to cancel. Foli’s Expos were leading 7-2 when they came to the plate in the top of the frame. This set in motion one of those surreal innings that can only occur under such circumstances.
The Cubs knew they weren’t going to win. They would be better off if the game was called before it became official (in other words, in that inning). The Expos knew they had the game safely tucked away and their main goal was to make sure the game finished the fifth inning. In other words, the Expos wanted a nice, quick top of the fifth – despite the fact they were ones at bat. Conversely, the Cubs didn’t mind in the least if Expos staged a rally. Heck, they’d appreciate it.
In that environment, the following bizarreness happened. After a leadoff groundout, Tim Foli got up and smashed a line drive to left. Foli rounded second and took off for third – a mighty odd when the ball’s in left. Not only did he make it safely to third – he didn’t stop. Instead, he was thrown out at home.
The next batter also hit a triple. The next batter, Woodie Fryman (Montreal’s pitcher), singled in a run, but was thrown out when he tried to stretch his hit into a double. Well, officially he tried to stretch it into a double. In reality, it looks like both he and Foli kept running until someone tagged them out. Anyhow, it ended the half-inning.
As it happened, the rain didn’t end the game. In the eighth inning, Foli hit one out of the park to complete his cycle. He singled in his first trip up and doubled in his second before the bizarre fifth inning triple. Thus not only was it one of the least likely cycles ever, not only was it achieved thanks to a bizarre inning, but it was also a cycle that went in order: 1B, 2B, 3B, and HR.
Why shouldn’t Tim Foli look happy? He got the cycle, however bizarrely.
References & Resources
For better or for worse, I got my list of cycles from wikipedia.
I used B-ref’s Play Index to collect everyone who qualified for the batting title.
Thanks to Tom Nawrocki & Cyril Morong for their inspirations.