Out come the freaks

Brad Wilkerson

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:

  H R Team R BA
Suzuki 262 101 698 .372
Wilkerson 146 112 635 .255

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:

  PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ RC/G R RBI
Suzuki 762 .372 .414 .455 130 7.9 101 60
Wilkerson 688 .255 .374 .498 119 6.9 112 67

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:

  R+RBI Team R Pct
Suzuki 161 698 .231
Wilkerson 179 635 .282

 

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.

Suzuki almost always (150 games) batted leadoff. Typically he was followed by Randy Winn and then either Bret Boone or Edgar Martinez. Let’s see how these guys fared in ’04:

  BA OBP SLG
Winn .286 .346 .427
Boone .251 .317 .423
Martinez .263 .342 .385

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.

How about Wilkerson? Well, he led off a lot (107 games), although not as often as Suzuki. The batters behind Wilkerson typically were Endy Chavez, Jose Vidro, and Tony Batista:

  BA OBP SLG
Chavez .277 .318 .371
Vidro .294 .367 .454
Batista .241 .272 .455

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):

Player Year PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ R H
Bonds 2002 612 .370 .582 .799 268 117 149
Crosetti 1937 721 .234 .340 .354 74 127 143

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.

Some other fun names adorn this list—from the expected (Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan), to the neglected (Jimmy Wynn, Tony Phillips), to our man Wilkerson.

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:

Player Year PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ HR RBI
Hanley Ramirez 2008 693 .301 .400 .540 146 33 67
Rob Deer 1992 448 .247 .337 .547 144 32 64
Felix Mantilla 1964 470 .289 .357 .553 144 30 64
Brook Jacoby 1987 620 .300 .387 .541 143 32 69
Alfonso Soriano 2007 617 .299 .337 .560 123 33 70
Brad Wilkerson 2004 688 .255 .374 .498 119 32 67
Jose Valentin 2004 504 .216 .287 .473 92 30 70
Chris Young 2007 624 .237 .295 .467 89 32 68

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.

Wrapping up

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 & Resources
Baseball Reference, my own warped sensibilities… the usual.

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Comments

  1. Russ said...

    If you are using R+RBI in the Ichiro/Wilkerson example, Wilkerson’s HR are getting double counted. If you subtract 32 from the total, then they (remarkably) have the almost same fraction of their teams runs that they contributed to (23.15% for Wilkerson to 23.06% for Ichiro).

  2. Russ said...

    Whoops… forgot to subtract out Ichiro’s 8 HR as well, so it’s 23.1% to 21.9%… still much closer than the article implies with that quick calculation.

    BTW, I really liked the article… one of the cool things about baseball is the largeness of the sample size (which gives us the ability to observe “extreme” events) but the randomness of the sport relative to the spread in talent (which makes even those large sample sizes seem small).

  3. Rib said...

    Wow – Bonds’s batting average was significantly higher than both Crosetti’s slugging percentage and his on-base percentage, meaning that he could have had Shawon Dunston’s patience and Duane Kuiper’s power and still been vastly superior.

  4. Gilbert said...

    Mantilla! Not being a Red Sox historian I had only associated that name with Milwaukee (scored the lone run in the Harvey Haddix game and with the Original Mets.
    Sure would like to see the Hit Tracker info on that year, but he did hit 11 of the 30 on the road so it was not just a Fenway thing.  Too bad he got sent to the Astrodome a couple of years later (what did Houston want him for since they already had Joe Morgan?) where the Fenway magic deserted him; if he had lasted until 67 with Boston I might have remembered him there.
    That 64 Mantilla season has to be up there with the 73 Davey Johnson in terms of surprise, it looks like a pre-Pedroia.

  5. Drew said...

    Ryan Howard’s head just exploded. 

    “You mean sometimes you come to the plate without runners on base?  I don’t get it.”

  6. Schmenkman said...

    Going off on this tangent, sure Howard has baserunners, but does he drive them in?  In 2009 there were 204 players with 400+ PAs.  Howard was 8th out of 204 in the % of base runners driven in.  In 2006-2009, he was 3rd out of 212 (1000+ PAs).  Not bad.

  7. Geoff Young said...

    @Russ: I thought about subtracting homers, but decided against it because that would penalize Wilkerson for not having to rely on someone else to drive him in. If we subtracted homers, we would need to give only half credit for the other runs and RBI.

    @Rib: “Shawon Dunston’s patience and Duane Kuiper’s power.” Ouch.

  8. Paul Dennis said...

    1) subtracting HRs is bogus. If you conceptualize scoring as consisting of two elements (a) getting on base and (b) knocking in the run, then what we tally as a run is really a half run, as is what we label as an RBI. A batter with 100 runs and 100 RBI has, in effect, 100 whole runs

    2) Ichiro’s run scoring totals have always been very low relative to his PA and times on base. I’m not sure what the story is but he’s never scored much over 100 runs in a season

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