Yes, but it’s an empty .300by Geoff Young
September 23, 2009
For as long as I've been following baseball (about 30 years), a .300 batting average has been heralded by "those that know" as a worthy accomplishment. Our beloved sport is steeped in tradition and lore, so this magical number doesn't figure to become less revered any time soon.
That's fine. I appreciate a nice round number that signifies an arbitrary threshold of a metric that isn't terribly indicative of a player's overall production as much as the next guy. That said, it's worth noting that not all .300 batting averages are created the same.
Some players have managed, over the years, to do remarkably little despite hitting .300. Since 1901, there have been 40 instances in which a player qualified for the batting title, hit .300 or better, and recorded an OPS+ of 90 or lower.
Who are these people?
The feat happened a lot in the '20s and '30s. Thirty of the 40 instances occurred in those two decades. Doc Cramer, who finished with more than 2700 career hits, did it four years running from 1937 to 1940. During that stretch, Cramer hit .305/.349/.382 (83 OPS+) for the Boston Red Sox. Cramer's consistency bordered on the freakish:
Those four seasons are so similar... Honestly, if you presented those to me as lines from a hypothetical player for demonstration purposes, I'd tell you there's no way such a creature existed. But he did, which just goes to show that anything is possible, no matter how ridiculous it might seem.
Like Adam Dunn hitting exactly 40 homers for four straight years, Paul Splittorff and Frank Tanana each spinning a 4.15 ERA over 204 innings in 1980, and Tila Tequila becoming famous, some things defy all probability. That is what makes the world so fascinating—and mostly wonderful.
Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, we were talking about players that have failed to provide much offense despite collecting many hits.
I won't bore you with details of all 40 individual performances, but a few merit closer inspection. Three players in history have managed to post a sub-80 OPS+ while hitting .300 or better. It hasn't happened in nearly 80 years, but for posterity's sake, here are the members of that very exclusive club:
I'm not saying that's a long time ago, but both the Braves and Athletics have moved twice since then. Heck, the Cubs were barely a decade removed from their last World Championship.
Okay, maybe I am saying that's a long time ago. Point is, these were some epic performances.
Richbourg didn't see material playing time at the big-league level until age 29. He enjoyed a couple of nice seasons for the Braves before fading. His career line of .308/.352/.400 (96 OPS+) is respectable, but his numbers in '30 are something to behold.
What is a 77 OPS+? I'll give you some names: Rob Wilfong, Ivan DeJesus, Rafael Ramirez, Otis Nixon, Pat Borders, Royce Clayton... Those guys hit in the .250s and .260s. It's really hard to hit .304 and produce at their level. (Amusingly, Richbourg's middle name was Clayton.)
Maisel likewise saw his first real action at age 29. He also saw almost no action thereafter. Among more modern players, he was kind of like Eugene Kingsale, which... well, let's just leave it at that, shall we?
As for French, he didn't last long either. He started for the A's in 1926 and 1927, then saw limited action in each of the following two seasons before calling it quits. For his career, French hit .303/.336/.379 (81 OPS+).
Funny you should ask. Two players who meet our criteria are in the Hall of Fame. Both accomplished the feat in 1930, at opposite ends of their careers.
George Sisler was a star for the St. Louis Browns from the mid-1910s through a good part of the '20s. In 1920, he hit .407/.449/.632 (181 OPS+); two years later, he hit .420/.467/.594 (172 OPS+) and won the American League MVP.
But at age 37, with the Boston Braves, Sisler hit .309/.346/.397 (81 OPS+). Actually, his career can be divided very neatly according to age:
Hitting .320 with a sub-100 OPS+ over 4000 plate appearances is no easy feat. Nobody has ever done it over the course of an entire career.
The other guy who met our criteria was a 21-year-old Al Lopez. He hit .309/.362/.418 (89 OPS+) for Brooklyn in 1930.
Lopez never did hit much, but he enjoyed a lengthy stay in the big leagues. In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Lopez is identified as the #41 catcher in big-league history. He later achieved greatness as manager for the Indians and White Sox in the '50s and '60s (his teams won 90 games or more in 10 of his 15 full seasons).
So, no, Lopez isn't famous for his hitting prowess. But he does meet our criteria and he is in the Hall of Fame, so there you go.
This is all well and good, if a bit esoteric. Has anyone hit .300 or better with an OPS+ of 90 or lower in, oh, the last 50 years or so?
You must be new around here. "Esoteric" is my middle name... To your question, yes, but it hasn't happened often. There have been just six occurrences in the expansion era:
|Mike Caruso||1998||White Sox||555||.306||.331||.390||89|
Fermin was a defense-only shortstop who hit .259/.305/.303 (67 OPS+) over parts of 10 seasons. His chief claim to fame is that he was traded twice in his career, both times for a much better shortstop (Jay Bell and Omar Vizquel).
Glanville had one good season surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. In 1999, he hit .325/.376/.457 (106 OPS+) for the Phillies, with 34 stolen bases in 36 attempts. For his career, he hit .277/.315/.380 (78 OPS+).
Morris gets bonus points for not playing a premium defensive position. How the Royals could afford to stick him in the lineup so often... well, they lost 89 games that year, so clearly they couldn't. He was actually a decent player when used in a supporting role. Over parts of 13 seasons, Morris hit .304/.361/.433 (111 OPS+).
Caruso was part of the White Flag Trade. He had a decent rookie campaign, scuffled the next year, and then disappeared (unless you count the 12 games he played for Kansas City in 2002). Caruso was last seen playing for the Northern League's Joliet JackHammers in 2008.
Polanco has always been a good hitter, but he didn't develop secondary skills until he left St. Louis. In four-and-a-half seasons with the Cardinals, he hit .296/.331/.385 (84 OPS+). His career line is .303/.348/.415 (98 OPS+).
Pierre is another gem, for a couple of reasons, one of which we'll get to in a moment. For now, it's worth noting that nobody has collected more hits (202) in a single season while posting an OPS+ of 90 or lower than Pierre did in 2001. Three men have notched 200 hits or more (ah, those round numbers again) while meeting our criteria: Taylor Douthit (201) in 1930, Cramer (200) in 1940, and Pierre.
Lifetime achievement award
Speaking of Pierre, he is a remarkable player. In the history of baseball, he is the only man ever to log at least 3,000 plate appearances, a .300 career batting average, and an OPS+ of 90 or lower. As of this writing, Pierre has 6035 PA, a .301 BA, and an 85 OPS+.
Pierre is an easy target for ridicule because he isn't nearly as good as some people seem to think. In fact, he's a marginal big-league talent. And yet, the man has carved out a 10-year career that is still going strong.
His skill set should not survive in this environment, but there he is. I am pulling for Pierre to finish his career with a batting average of .300 or better. If he does, he will shatter the current record for lowest OPS+ among .300 hitters with 3000 plate appearances or more, held by Homer Summa (1920-1930; .302/.346/.398, 92 OPS+).
Although this will push Summa even further into obscurity, at least we'll all be able to say that we saw the man with the emptiest .300 batting average ever ply his craft during our lifetime. Not everyone can make that claim.
References and Resources
Uh, would you believe Baseball-Reference?
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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