Out come the freaksby Geoff Young
November 18, 2009
I am an obsessive maker of lists. Some of them are useful, others merely amusing (although there is much to be said for amusement; hence my other obsession with using obscure songs as article titles).
I often scrawl cryptic notes onto scraps of paper that then get misplaced, only to be rediscovered at some later date. Then I stare at them and wonder what the heck I was thinking when I wrote those words.
For example, here's something that recently turned up on an orange piece of paper wedged into a book I started reading some time ago and never finished:
Apparently this had been sitting around a while, because the above lines document events that occurred in 2004. Brad Wilkerson was still good and he played for the Montreal Expos. That long ago.
Seeing this particular note triggered memories. I instantly remembered what I'd wanted to study back then...and then why I didn't bother.
The question that intrigued me is this: How had Ichiro Suzuki, in the process of breaking George Sisler's record for most hits in a season, managed to score fewer runs than Wilkerson, who collected 116 fewer hits that year and whose team scored 63 fewer runs?
This still intrigues me, but more in the amusing than useful way. It strikes me as a freakish occurrence, and I'm not sure what can be learned from studying it beyond, "Wow, that sure was weird."
For your edification, here are their slash stats, along with a few other goodies:
Suzuki's numbers are superior in almost every way (except SLG; thank Wilkerson's 32 homers for that), and yet, despite a sizable advantage in plate appearances, he contributed less to his team's bottom line than did Wilkerson:
A false start
There's a lot we could do at this point. A natural question would be to ask who followed each of these players in the lineup that year.
I checked each of their numbers when hitting in the No. 2 and No. 3 slots as well, and none of the performances are divergent enough from the overall lines to merit mentioning. These aren't great hitters, but neither are they terrible.
Chavez was a different hitter (.296/.347/.400) when he batted second, which happened 68 times in 2004. Wilkerson and Chavez at the top of the order didn't make its debut until a May 28 contest against the Reds. After that, it became the staple against right-handed pitching (all but one of Chavez's appearances in the No. 2 hole came with Wilkerson batting ahead of him) and was remarkably effective.
And now for something completely different
This is where the analysis starts to bog down for me. I find myself caring less about why Wilkerson contributed more to his team than did Suzuki and more about the fact that this anomalous case exists at all. I'm not the guy putting out the fire, I'm the guy watching it burn.
Then I start thinking about Wilkerson. This is partly because I expected him to have a better career than he did and partly because, for as freakish as Suzuki and his 262 hits were in '04, Wilkerson's numbers that year are just plain goofy. He shows up on a couple of fun lists (did I mention that I love to make lists?).
The first comprises players who have scored 110 or more runs in a season while collecting 150 or fewer hits. It's happened 34 times since 1901—not unheard of, but fairly rare.
I'll spare you all the details, but the list is fascinating. In the link above, I've sorted by OPS+ so you can see the incredible range of seasons that met these criteria, from Barry Bonds 2002 all the way down to Frankie Crosetti in 1937. Yes, this is an exclusive club, but it's also a really weird one. I'm not sure there's another way we can even lump Bonds and Crosetti into the same category beyond superficial labels—carbon-based life form, California-born, professional baseball player.
For grins, and since we seem to be veering on a great many tangents today, here is a closer look at Bonds and Crosetti (come on, it's baseball; we visit strange places together):
I know this has nothing to do with anything, but I never tire of such weirdness. There is no possible way we could have guessed that Crosetti scored more runs in '37 than Bonds did in '02 despite knocking fewer hits. It just doesn't compute.
Speaking of Wilkerson (as we were somewhere back there), the second list that grabbed my attention is even more exclusive. It tracks players who have hit 30 or more homers in a season while driving in 70 or fewer runs. This has occurred eight times since 1901. It's short enough to share in its entirety, and it's a whole lot of fun:
This is a relatively recent phenomenon—nobody did it until Mantilla in '64 and then it took almost a quarter of a century for Jacoby to become the second. Deer, of course, is a folk hero among a certain subset of baseball fans. His and Mantilla's performances are especially noteworthy because they managed to meet these criteria in fewer than 500 plate appearances. (I would have loved to see Deer get a full complement of plate appearances sometime during his prime—yeah, I'm part of that subset.)
Anyway, if we slap both of these lists together (an admittedly silly thing to do), we get a party of one. Yes, Wilkerson is the only player in big-league history to collect at least 110 runs and 30 homers in a season while knocking fewer than 150 hits and driving in fewer than 70 runs.
In case it isn't clear, the reason this is silly is that we've constructed a set of parameters that ensures our target is the only member of its class. In other words, this doesn't tell us a lot that is terribly useful, but, as I said at the top, I'm a fan of amusement, and Wilkerson's freakish 2004 season amuses me.
Baseball is a strange enough game to people who don't follow or understand it. For those of us who are embedded in the game, it may be even stranger. We know what to look for and when to be genuinely surprised by events.
To an outsider, grown men running around a grass field in pajamas is crazy. To you and me, Crosetti outscoring Bonds is crazy. Wilkerson producing more (actual, not theoretical) runs for his team in 2004 than Suzuki is crazy. There may well be reasons for these occurrences, and they may be worth studying, but for now, it's enough to be surprised by them and reminded of a simple joy that baseball brings—its capacity to surprise even (especially?) those who have been watching for a long time.
Is Wilkerson's "accomplishment" more deserving of attention than Suzuki's? Well, no. I mean, seriously, Suzuki collected 262 hits that year.
But I humbly submit that Wilkerson's 2004 campaign should be remembered for what it is: a reminder that anything can happen in baseball, and that sometimes the statistically improbable becomes reality.
Useful? I like to think so. Fun? Most definitely.
References and Resources
Baseball Reference, my own warped sensibilities... the usual.
Geoff Young covers the San Diego Padres at Ducksnorts and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. Feel free to send Geoff comments via email.
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