Making contact in the early Live Ball Era (1920-1955)by Craig Brown
May 16, 2008
If you recall from my article last week, Matty Alou posted the lowest rate of Three True Outcomes of the Retrosheet era with 6.8 percent in 1970, meaning he tested the defense more than anyone else of his time. But the guys who played in the early Live Ball Era have Alou beat—39 players posted a lower percentage than Alou from 1919 to 1955. Thirty nine!
Looking at the Three True Outcomes by decade you can see how the game has evolved.
Beginning in 1920, here's how many players finished a season with a less than 10 percent rate in Three True Outcomes:
1920s - 120
1930s - 55
1940s - 40
1950s - 17
1960s - 19
1970s - 31
1980s - 6
1990s - 5
2000s - 3
Initially, I was surprised to see the abrupt dip from the '40s to the '50s when I ran these numbers; I thought for sure we would see a steady decline across the board. Then I realized that the monumental shift that came in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier probably plays a part in this. Combine a larger pool from which to draw talent with improvements in equipment and it’s easy to understand why home runs would increase, which lends itself to a similar increase in True Outcomes.
And it was similarly interesting to see that by the '70s, the pendulum had swung back as teams began to emphasize speed to go along with Astroturf and polyester uniforms.
But this week’s entry is going to focus on the players of the early Live Ball Era who consistently posted low Three True Outcome percentages. Instead of focusing on the lowest overall seasons, I thought it would be interesting to expand the selection process a bit. Besides, as you’ll see in a moment, the same players are represented over and over, so it kind of makes sense to make groups by decades.
Before we get to that, it should be noted that between 1920 and 1955, Babe Ruth owns eight of the top nine seasons of True Outcomes percent. His 46.2 percent in 1920 was the high water mark of the era. Jack Cust laughs at that.
Here are the players prior to the Retrosheet Era who, by decade, regularly put the ball in play.
Don Mueller: The Cold War contact hitter
1954: 4 HR, 22 BB, 17 K in 658 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 6.6.
1955: 8 HR, 19 BB, 12 K in 639 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 6.2.
With 65 home runs in his 12-year career, Mandrake The Magician actually had a little bit of power, which makes him an unlikely member of this group.
In fact, over a four-year stretch beginning in 1951, Mueller posted a slugging percentage of better than .400. His career-high slugging percentage of .444 actually came in the 1954 season, giving him the rare distinction of making this list while hitting with (modest) power. That year, he collected 212 hits, which included 35 doubles, eight triples and four home runs. Overall, he hit .342/.363/.444, finished 12th in the NL MVP vote and hit .389 in the Giants' four-game sweep of the Indians in the World Series. It was the finest year of his career
Mueller was an extremely difficult batter to retire on strikes. For the ’54 season, he whiffed just once every 36 at-bats and in ’55 it was even lower. at one strikeout every 50 at-bats. In his career, he struck out in 3.3 percent of his at bats while walking 3.7 percent of the time. He was released by the White Sox in May of 1959 and finished his career with a .296/.322/.390 line.
Emil Verban: Contact in wartime
1945: 0 HR, 19 BB, 15 K in 635 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 5.4.
1947: 0 HR, 23 BB, 8 K in 573 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 5.4.
With the talent pool depleted by World War II, a number of players made their major league debuts in the mid-1940s as very old rookies. Verban was one of those; he received his first taste of life in the big leagues as a 28-year-old rookie in 1944 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
In his second season in the majors, Verban hit .278/.304/.342 while setting career highs with 22 doubles and eight triples. With a walk rate of 3.1 percent and a strikeout rate of 2.5 percent, he was right in line with his career averages. He made the first of three consecutive All-Star teams that year as a second baseman.
His walk rate actually increased to 4.1 percent in 1947 while playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, but Verban countered that by becoming extremely difficult to retire on strikes. His 1.5 percent strikeout rate that year was the best of his career for a full season and represented just one whiff for every 67.5 at bats, the 56th best strikeout rate in the history of the game. It was the best year of his career; he posted career highs across the board at .285/.316/.341.
Verban, who hit one home run in 2,911 career at-bats, was out of baseball following the 1950 season. Only Duane Kuiper has more at bats (3,379) with a single home run.
Lloyd Waner: Brother, can you spare a walk?
1935: 0 HR, 22 BB, 10 K in 562 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 5.7.
1933: 0 HR, 22 BB, 8 K in 526 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 5.7.
Finally, we’ve uncovered a Hall of Famer who made a living at the low end of the Three True Outcome spectrum.
With a walk rate of 5.1 percent and a strikeout rate of 2.2 percent, Little Poison regularly tested the defense and put the ball in play. But while his brother Paul had the power stroke in the family, Lloyd hit just three home runs in the five years spanning 1933 to 1937 and just 27 in his career.
And unlike several of the players we’ve looked at over the last couple of weeks who posted career years with a low True Outcome percentage, the inverse was true with Waner. The 1933 season was one of the worst of his 18-year career—he hit .276/.307/.324. At the time, those numbers were all career lows and followed a season that was arguably the best of his career, in which he had hit .333/.367/.430.
His numbers improved in 1934 (with a True Outcomes percentage of 7.9) to .283/.326/.352 and continued their upward trend in ’35. That season, Waner hit .309/.336/.352 with 22 doubles and 14 triples. He continued to rebound and posted solid performances well into his 30s, but he was never able to match the numbers he posted before the 1933 season.
For his career, Waner struck out once every 44.9 at bats, which is the second best rate of all time. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.
Stuffy McInnis: Making contact in the Roaring Twenties
1924: 1 HR, 15 BB, 6 K in 611 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 3.6.
1922: 1 HR, 15 BB, 5 K in 580 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 3.6.
1921: 0 HR, 21 BB, 9 K in 644 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 4.7.
The all-time ball-in-play king. McInnis not only owns the lowest percentage of Three True Outcomes of a player since 1920, he owns the three lowest percentages.
McInnis was well positioned for this distinction; he saw both his walk and strikeout rate decline throughout his career. In the 1913 season, his third year as a regular, he walked 7.7 percent of the time while striking out in 5.7 percent of his at-bats. Those rates are almost double his career averages.
By 1921, McInnis was about to embark on the journeyman phase of his career: He would appear in games for five different teams over his final seven seasons in baseball. Playing for the Red Sox that year, he hit .307/.335/.394. McInnis hit a career-high 31 doubles that season to go along with 10 triples. His walk rate was 3.5 percent and his strikeout rate was an amazing 1.5 percent.
The next season, McInnis had moved on to Cleveland, where he hit .305/.325/.389 for the Indians and his walk and strikeout rates continued to decline: 2.7 percent for walks and a miniscule 0.9 percent for strikeouts. He almost duplicated his walk and strikeout rates while playing for the Braves in the 1924 season, hitting .291/.311/.360. By then, however, his extra-base production had fallen by about a quarter and he had lost about 15 points off his BABIP.
Not only was McInnis skilled at putting the bat on the ball, he was also renowned for his defense. As a first baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics, he was part of Connie Mack’s famed “$100,000 Infield” and at one point from 1921 to 1922, he went 163 consecutive games without committing an error.
McInnis finished his career in 1926 (he appeared in one game in ’27 for the Phillies and didn’t have an at-bat) with 2,405 hits.
References and Resources
As usual, a friendly tip of the cap to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. Also, Baseball Library was valuable in providing some background on the players featured.
Craig writes about the Royals at Royals Authority. The Royals Authority 2009 Annual, featuring detailed player profiles and a complete look at the minor leagues is now on sale. He welcomes all questions and comments via e-mail. Or just follow him on Twitter.
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