The homeruncentricity trifecta:  1970-1988

Last time, we introduced a just-for-fun metric of how comprehensively home run-centric a batter’s stat line can be. To qualify for the homeruncentricity trifecta, a batter has to be extremely home run-heavy from the perspective of his batting average, his on-base percentage, and his slugging average. The criteria are as follows:

- HR/H greater than or equal to BA. This is the first element of homeruncentricity, which we call HRC A.

- HR/BB greater than or equal to OBP. This is the second element, called HRC B.

- Total bases of home runs as a proportion of total bases (that is, HR*4/TB) greater than or equal to SLG. This is HRC C.

To hit the trifecta, a batter must achieve all three; a negative result in any of these categories throws him out, no matter how high he might score in the others. The sum of these three positive elements, HRC A + HRC B + HRC C, is the total homeruncentricity trifecta score: HRC TR.

In considering all the trifecta achievers throughout history, we’re requiring a playing time minimum of 400 plate appearances in a season.

Today we’ll look at all the trifectors from 1970 through 1988.

The singles-hitting ’70s

As we saw last time, there was at least one batter achieving the homeruncentricity trifecta in every season from 1951 through 1964. But in the mid-to-late 1960s, their occurrence became less constant.

This new-found difficulty in scoring the trifecta continued into the 1970s. The ’70s were a decade in which home runs were unusually hard to come by; home run rates dropped to their lowest since the 1940s. There were several causes for this: both leagues had introduced quite a few new ballparks that tended to feature spacious outfields with high walls, and many parks deployed artificial turf playing surfaces, which put a premium on fielding range, leading teams to use fewer slow-footed sluggers in their lineups. The signature play of the ’70s became the stolen base, as the prevailing style de-emphasized the power game.

No batter was able to make the trifecta in either 1970 or 1971. There were quite a few longballers who came close—Norm Cash, Tony Conigliaro, Reggie Jackson, Lee May, Bill Melton, Don Mincher, Graig Nettles, Willie Stargell, and Earl Williams all gave it a run—but the trifecta remained an elusive challenge.

Finally in 1972 the homeruncentricity bullseye was hit again.

Year Player           Club  L B   AB  2B  3B  HR  BB   BA  OBP  SLG  HRC A  HRC B  HRC C  HRC TR
1972 Dave Kingman      SF   N R  472  17   4  29  51 .225 .303 .462   .048   .266   .069    .383
1972 Nate Colbert      SD   N R  563  27   2  38  70 .250 .333 .508   .020   .210   .024    .254
1972 Johnny Bench     CIN   N R  538  22   2  40 100 .270 .379 .541   .005   .021   .008    .034

1973 Dave Johnson     ATL   N R  559  25   0  43  81 .270 .370 .545   .015   .161   .019    .194

Nate Colbert’s peak didn’t last long, as in his late 20s back trouble would thoroughly wreck his production. But for a few years, he demonstrated awesome power, generating huge homer totals in a lousy home run park, towering above his teammates: Colbert in 1972 accounted for 37% of the Padres’ home runs, and 25% of their RBIs.

Though Johnny Bench was famed primarily, and justifiably, for his stupendous catching and throwing ability, he was a highly productive hitter as well, and an extraordinarily durable catcher to boot. As we discussed here, his batting approach was strongly oriented toward pulling the ball, though he didn’t have much of an uppercut: Bench’s blasts tended to be high line drives, more than soaring flies. He just barely squeezed into the homeruncentricity trifecta here, and became the only player other than Roger Maris in 1961 to achieve the trifecta while winning the MVP.

Dave Johnson had good power for a second baseman, and Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium was nicknamed “The Launching Pad” as the most home run-friendly ballpark of the era. Nonetheless Johnson’s 1973 performance stands as one of the all-time fluke seasons; he wasn’t normally that kind of hitter at all.

And, oh yes, that’s right, there was one other slugger in 1972 who nailed the trifecta, at the age of 23, in his first full big league season …

The kingdom of Kong

Year Player           Club  L B   AB  2B  3B  HR  BB   BA  OBP  SLG  HRC A  HRC B  HRC C  HRC TR
1975 Dave Kingman      NY   N R  502  22   1  36  34 .231 .284 .494   .079   .775   .087    .941
 
1976 Dave Kingman      NY   N R  474  14   1  37  28 .238 .286 .506   .090  1.035   .111   1.237

1977 Dave Kingman     Mult  B R  439  20   0  26  28 .221 .276 .444   .047   .653   .089    .789

The 1970s were the lowest home run decade since World War II, and the middle years (1974-75-76) were its most extreme in this regard, as the inadvertent introduction of a less-resilient ball exacerbated power-unfriendly conditions.

One man stood alone, stubbornly resistant, brazenly defying the odds. Dave Kingman, and only Dave Kingman, accomplished the homeruncentricity trifecta through these years. But it wasn’t just that: Kingman achieved trifecta status of stupendous intensity, far more extreme than anything seen before.

Nobody hit the trifecta in 1974, though Kingman’s season would have qualified if he’d met the 400-plate appearances requirement: he had 393 that year, with an HRC TR of .224. In 1973 he’d been limited to 351 plate appearances, while putting up an HRC TR of .652. But in 1975-77, Kingman truly came into his own, utterly disdaining the base on balls, caring not a whit for his batting average, focusing his entire energy—dedicating the utter core of his being—to a relentless quest for tape-measure moonshots. It was a lonely journey into unknown, uncharted wilderness.

Kingman’s homeruncentricity was of such magnitude that in 1976—the least home run-friendly season in the major leagues since 1946, a season in which home runs were hit at a rate of approximately one-half of current-day rates—he set a trifecta standard of 1.237, a figure that has never been matched. Kingman would go on to become the first batter in history to achieve the trifecta for his career. Indeed, Kong’s lifetime HRC TR of .545, were it a single-season mark, would stand among the higher individual season trifectas of all time.

There had never been another player quite like him, nor has there been to this day. But Kingman did blaze a trail, it seems, upon which a few others, while not his equal, have striven to honor his towering legacy.

Here comes Stormin’ Gorman

Year Player           Club  L B   AB  2B  3B  HR  BB   BA  OBP  SLG  HRC A  HRC B  HRC C  HRC TR
1978 Gorman Thomas    MIL   A R  452  24   1  32  73 .246 .351 .516   .042   .088   .033    .162

1979 Gorman Thomas    MIL   A R  557  29   0  45  98 .244 .356 .538   .087   .103   .062    .252

1980 Bob Horner       ATL   N R  463  14   1  35  27 .268 .307 .529   .014   .989   .042   1.045
1980 Gorman Thomas    MIL   A R  628  26   3  38  58 .239 .303 .471   .014   .352   .042    .408
1980 Johnny Bench     CIN   N R  360  12   0  24  41 .250 .327 .483   .017   .259   .068    .344

1981 Dave Kingman      NY   N R  353  11   3  22  55 .221 .326 .456   .061   .074   .090    .225

1982 Dave Kingman      NY   N R  535   9   1  37  59 .204 .285 .432   .135   .342   .208    .685
1982 Gorman Thomas    MIL   A R  567  29   1  39  84 .245 .343 .506   .036   .121   .038    .195

Kingman moved to Wrigley Field in 1978-80, and quite uncharacteristically put up some solid batting averages, thus falling short of the trifecta for a few years. But trifecta status was not to be abandoned, for 27-year-old Gorman Thomas, after several false starts, established himself as a major league regular in 1978.

Though like most trifectors the shaggy-haired, grizzle-cheeked, round-bellied Thomas was extremely strong, he nonetheless possessed the mobility to perform as a center fielder for most of his career, a highly unusual status amid this class of hitters. He exercised much better strike zone judgment than Kingman, but Thomas struck out with even more frequency: his 175 K’s in 1979 tied the American League record. Hitting for average was an ability that utterly eluded him, and Thomas would join Kingman as a homeruncentricity trifecta man for his career, though his lifetime mark of .154 paled in comparison to Kingman’s .545.

Bob Horner stepped directly onto a major league diamond from the Arizona State campus in 1978, and was an elite power hitter from the get-go. Yet Horner, with a smooth, easy, perfectly-balanced stroke, made consistent contact (he struck out just 50 times in the season we see above) and generally maintained a good batting average. He was quite a free swinger, though, and Horner’s lone trifecta season was extremely robust.

Kittle me this, Kittle me that …

Year Player           Club  L B   AB  2B  3B  HR  BB   BA  OBP  SLG  HRC A  HRC B  HRC C  HRC TR
1983 Tony Armas       BOS   A R  574  23   2  36  29 .218 .254 .453   .070   .987   .100   1.157
1983 Jesse Barfield   TOR   A R  388  13   3  27  22 .253 .296 .511   .022   .931   .034    .988
1983 Ron Kittle       CHI   A R  520  19   3  35  39 .254 .314 .504   .011   .583   .030    .625
1983 Tom Brunansky    MIN   A R  542  24   5  28  61 .227 .308 .445   .001   .151   .020    .172

1984 Ron Kittle       CHI   A R  466  15   0  32  49 .215 .295 .453   .104   .358   .153    .615
1984 Lance Parrish    DET   A R  578  16   2  33  41 .237 .287 .443   .004   .518   .073    .595
1984 Steve Balboni     KC   A R  438  23   2  28  45 .244 .320 .497   .018   .302   .017    .337

1985 Ron Kittle       CHI   A R  379  12   0  26  31 .230 .295 .467   .068   .544   .120    .732
1985 Carlton Fisk     CHI   A R  543  23   1  37  52 .238 .320 .488   .048   .392   .070    .509
1985 Steve Balboni     KC   A R  600  28   2  36  52 .243 .307 .476   .004   .385   .028    .417
1985 Gorman Thomas    SEA   A R  484  16   1  32  84 .210 .330 .446   .105   .051   .148    .304
1985 Darrell Evans    DET   A L  505  17   0  40  85 .248 .356 .519   .071   .114   .091    .276
1985 Ruppert Jones    CAL   A L  389  17   2  21  57 .231 .328 .447   .003   .040   .036    .079

1986 Dave Kingman     OAK   A R  561  19   0  35  33 .210 .255 .431   .087   .806   .148   1.041
1986 Ron Kittle       CHI   A R  376  13   0  21  35 .218 .284 .420   .038   .316   .112    .466
1986 Steve Balboni     KC   A R  512  25   1  29  43 .229 .286 .452   .018   .388   .050    .457
1986 Franklin Stubbs   LA   N L  420  11   1  23  37 .226 .291 .421   .016   .331   .099    .446
1986 Rob Deer         MIL   A R  466  17   3  33  72 .232 .336 .494   .073   .122   .080    .275

Into the vast wake plowed by the mighty Kong, Gorman Thomas had sailed. Soon behind him came another fearless explorer of the stormy homeruncentricity seas, who indeed turned out to be even more Kingman-like than Thomas. The glacially slow, massively strong Ron Kittle jumped right into the trifecta in his first full major league season, and repeated it in years two, three, and four, becoming the first in history to put together four consecutive trifectas.

Injuries then overtook Kittle, and he lost his regular status and never achieved another trifecta season. But, like Kingman and Thomas, Kittle’s career stat line hit the homeruncentricity trifecta, and remarkably, Kittle’s career HRC TR of .549 was marginally higher than Kingman’s. Of course, given that Kingman had about two-and-a-half times as many plate appearances, Kittle’s lifetime performance wasn’t as astounding as Kong’s, but it was entirely remarkable nonetheless.

In general in the 1980s, home run hitting was on the rise, and the incidence of trifecta performances increased to a level not seen since the late 1950s and early 1960s, and then surpassed it. Among the most notable:

- Tony Armas, who had just one trifecta season, but he came close several other times, and over his career hit 251 homers while taking just 260 walks.

- The extremely low walk total relative to his home runs we see above wasn’t the norm for Jesse Barfield. He was a powerful, high-strikeout hitter who often struggled with batting average, but generally Barfield drew walks at a healthy rate. Barfield’s primary claim to fame was his tremendous throwing arm.

- The popularity of weight training among baseball players began to noticeably increase in the 1980s, and one of its most prominent practictioners was Lance Parrish. He was an outstanding player, but as a hitter, Parrish was Charley Lau’s worst nightmare, as his pull-happy, overswinging approach produced just the sort of chaotic inconsistency that Lau would predict and bemoan.

- One of the all-time greatest catchers, the career of Carlton Fisk was nonetheless a study in injury interruption and crazily unpredictable fluctuation in batting results. In the season above, Fisk hit 37 homers, while otherwise he never hit more than 26; he did this while presenting a batting average 31 points below his career norm, despite striking out just 81 times; just to further confound us he also stole 17 bases in this season, all at the age of 37.

- A 25-year-old by the name of Rob Deer hit the trifecta in his first season as a big league regular. We’ll hear more from him next time.

Bye-Bye

Year Player           Club  L B   AB  2B  3B  HR  BB   BA  OBP  SLG  HRC A  HRC B  HRC C  HRC TR
1987 Cory Snyder      CLE   A R  577  24   2  33  31 .236 .273 .456   .006   .792   .045    .843
1987 Steve Balboni     KC   A R  386  11   1  24  34 .207 .273 .427   .093   .433   .155    .681
1987 Bo Jackson        KC   A R  396  17   2  22  30 .235 .296 .455   .001   .437   .034    .473
1987 Mike Pagliarulo   NY   A L  522  26   3  32  53 .234 .305 .479   .028   .299   .032    .360
1987 Ozzie Virgil     ATL   N R  429  13   1  27  47 .247 .331 .471   .008   .243   .064    .315

1988 Steve Balboni   KC-SEA A R  413  17   1  23  24 .235 .277 .448   .002   .681   .049    .732

And, of course, there was another ardent trifector making a name for himself in this period: Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni. This ox-like first baseman did Ron Kittle one better, by achieving the homeruncentricity trifecta in his first five consecutive full seasons in the majors. Indeed, those would be the only seasons in which Balboni would reach 400 plate appearances; he would join Kingman, Thomas, and Kittle as a career trifecta man, with a feisty lifetime HRC TR of .458.

Cory Snyder was a most singular talent: he was primarily a cannon-armed, limited-range right fielder, yet he also somehow found his way into 73 major league games as a shortstop. In 1987 he hit 33 home runs yet put up an OPS+ of just 88; I haven’t researched it but I suspect that may be some kind of a record.

Consider me a curmudgeon if you will, but I never found myself as knocked-out over Bo Jackson’s baseball playing as most everyone else seemed to be. His tools were awesome, no doubt about that, but he never made much headway at refining his skills, and the result was a hitter with great power, but quite poor on-base ability regarding both hits and walks. Since he rarely succeeded at putting himself in place to run the bases, his tremendous speed was a largely wasted asset. Moreover, defensively, despite his innate mobility and arm strength, Jackson never became more than a passable corner outfielder.

His career OPS+ was 112; a corner outfielder with an OPS+ of 112 is a useful player, but hardly a star. If he had been Joe Jones, and not BO JACKSON, I suspect he’d have been recognized as the interesting but largely replaceable commodity he was.

Next time

We scale a new homeruncentricity peak, and discover a modern valley.

References & Resources
A note on methodology:

The criterion for HRC B (HR/BB >= OBP) is, one might say, not as “pure” as that of the others. A version more conceptually consistent with HRC A and HRC C would be: HR/(H+BB+HBP) >= OBP. However, when I employed that formula, it was just too restrictive, subjectively; it excluded several of the seasons I feel belong in such a discussion, including all of Gorman Thomas’s.

I tinkered with a few other more complicated versions, but none delivered what I was looking for, and besides I wanted to keep it simple. So, HR/BB >= OBP it is!

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: Managing and the back of the bus
Next: Using propaganda in trading, and trading overrated players »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current ye@r *