You have to admit, it sounded liked a joke when you first heard the news.
On July 16, 2010, a new baseball hitter rapped out his first career cycle. This feat, approximately as rare for hitters as a no-hitter is for pitchers, requires a batter to single, double, triple and homer in one game.
So it was with great surprise that the sporting world learned that the newest member of this exclusive club was Giants catcher Bengie Molina.
Molina, in action.
See? Told you it sounded like a joke. When you think cycle hitters, you don’t think Bengie Molina. A cycle requires some speed and Molina is a catcher, the slowest of all positions. Even worse, he’s an aging past-his-prime one. And he, well, let’s just say he’s not the most athletic looking player out there, either. Yet sure enough he hit the cycle with what is his sixth triple enabled him to join the cycle club.
That brings up some questions: Was this the most unlikely cycle ever, and most importantly what are the most unlikely cycles ever?
Plan of action
I have a simple system to figure this out. First, take a player’s singles, doubles, triples and homers hit, and divide all by plate appearances. Using PA works better than AB. Ultimately, a player who draws a ton of walks should have a harder time hitting for the cycle because more walks make four hits in a game less likely.
At any rate, once you’ve divided 1B, 2B, 3B and HR by PA, multiply the four results together for the final score. Wait – multiply? Why not add? Basic algebra: 1B/PA plus 2B/PA plus 3B/PA plus HR/PA is the same thing as H/PA, and I’m not looking for the best hitters. A player who hits .350 with no power would score great by that method because he has a nice H/PA. Multiplying rewards those who best balanced and punishes those badly imbalanced, and I’m looking for least-balanced guys to make my bottom 10.
Finally, I want to look at the stats in the cycle season, not career stats, because skills can change over time, most obviously in terms of speed, but power and ability to get hits also go down as well. This isn’t perfect. For example, when you use only single-season scores, the most likely cycle hitter ever was Gary Ward with the 1980 Twins.
Huh? He only had 46 PA that year – but he hit 10 singles, six doubles, two triples and a dinger in that span. It’s a sample size quirk, but this problem is less problematic than the one caused by using career stats.
Without further delay, here are the 10 least likely cycles
10. Chris Speier, 1978 Expos, 570 PA, 100 singles, 18 doubles, three triples, five homers.
A lot of guys have hit for the cycle with a worse batting average than the .251 mark Speier posted in 1978, but they aren’t so heavily dependent on singles. Speier’s Isolated Power of .078 is the sixth-worst by any cycle hitter. His slugging average (.329) is “only” eighth worst.
Speier has got to be the least likely man to ever hit for two cycles. His other one came in 1988, despite a season batting average of .216, which is tied fourth worst among the nearly 300 cycle hitters.
Chris Speier: two-timer cycler turned bench coach
This is a bit of a tangent, by Speier’s main competition for least likely to hit multiple cycles is John Olerud. Though Olerud was a fine hitter, he had one memorable feature in his pair of cycles. Each time it was his only triple of the year. There are only 16 cycles by batters who hit no other triple all season long, but Olerud has two of them. Bizarre.
9. Charlie Moore, 1980 Brewers: 356 PA, 76 singles, 13 doubles, two triples, two homers
I’m a little surprised to see Moore on this list. The longtime Milwaukee backstop was actually having a good year hitting the ball, as his .291 batting average attests. Plus he hardly drew any walks (24 in 111 games).
Like Speier, his problem was power. He actually had less power than Speier, as his woeful .072 ISO attests. Somehow, a man who averaged an extra base hit once every 21 PA on the year belted out three in one game, though.
8. John Mayberry, 1977 Royals: 641 PA, 79 singles, 22 doubles, one triple, 23 homers.
Mayberry is a different creature from Speier and Moore. Power was never his problem. He just couldn’t make contact. He only hit .230 on the year. Between his bad batting average and his ability to draw walks (83), he couldn’t quite manage to average a single every other game.
The complete lack of speed also hurt him. His career high was three triples in a season, and that was five years before he hit for the cycle.
Of the 21 times a person hit for the cycle with only one triple, Mayberry had the second most plate appearances on the year. Just above Mayberry in first place is Olerud, who had 679 PA in his 2001 cycle season. Just below Mayberry in third place is Olerud, with 630 PA in his other cycle season, 1997. Weird hitter, that Olerud.
John Olerud: king of the well-timed triple.
7. Bengie Molina, 2010 Giants/Rangers: 333 PA, 59 singles, nine doubles, one triple, five homers. (All numbers prior to Friday).
Here’s the man who inspired the list. Even if you ignore the sole triple, his numbers are pretty bad across the line.
His numbers should change as the year goes on, further worsening his score. I can’t imagine he’ll hit another triple this year, but he’ll never end up on “top” of this list. Then again, comparing his scores to Charlie Moore, I don’t see anyway out of the bottom 10 for Molina.
Here’s a random fact: though he’s only hit six triples in his 13-year career, four have come in the last five seasons. He went five years without a triple in the middle of his career but has since averaged almost one per year. Who knew he had it in him?
The look of a triples hitter.
6. Cesar Tovar, 1972 Twins: 548 PA, 117 singles, 20 doubles, six triples, two homers.
I’m surprised he scores worse than Molina. Going component by component, he seems to do better than the current catcher. He scores better in singles, doubles and triples, but Molina’s advantage comes from homers, especially when adjusted for playing time. It’s pretty close, but these guys are all packed in tightly. The real separation begins as we move along into the top three.
Tovar was a good player for a while, but his batting average dropped 50 points in 1972, and he never had that much power. It would’ve made a lot more sense for him to hit the cycle in 1970, when he led the league in doubles and triples while hitting .300 with 10 homers. That’s not how it worked out, though.
5. Chad Moeller, 2004 Brewers: 349 PA, 47 singles, 13 doubles, one triple, five homers.
Moeller is a pretty good comp for Molina. Both are contemporary catchers. In fact, they were only born seven month apart. Both have almost the exact number of plate appearances in their cycle seasons (for now, Molina should move up obviously). Each had one triple and five homers.
Moeller’s advantage comes in doubles, but it’s not enough to offset his big disadvantage: an overall complete inability to frickin’ hit! Molina hit .208 that year, which is not only over 30 points below Molina’s current mark, but is the third worst batting average in the history of baseball’s cycle club.
Moeller, last year, not hitting a triple.
Rather interestingly, Moeller’s .208 average isn’t the worst by a Milwaukee Brewers batter. The second worst batting average by a cycle hitter is Jody Gerut, who hit .197 this year – but still managed to hit a cycle for the Brewers. Normally I’d say Gerut’s average could go up as the season goes along, but Milwaukee cut him. Given how bad he was this year (and prior to 2010), Moeller should end the year with his .197 average.
The worst batting average by any cycle hitter is .173, by Andjuar Cedeno in 1992. He also had the worst slugging average in the entire club (.277), and the worst 1B/PA ratio. Despite that, Cedeno doesn’t make this overall bottom 10. It’s a tough crowd to beat out when you get this low. He hit “only” the 14th least-likely cycle of all-time by my system. Thank God for that 35th-worst isolated power!
4. Tim Foli, 1976 Expos: 546 PA, 101 singles, 36 doubles, one triple, six homers.
What was it with 1970s Expos shortstops? First Speier, who manned the position for the club in the latter half of the 1970s, comes in tenth place on this list, and now Foli, who played short in Quebec prior to Speier, appears on this list.
Fun fact: the Expos traded Chris Speier straight up to San Francisco for Tim Foli in April 1977. Based on this list, it was a fairly even trade.
I’m surprised to see Foli score so poorly. He easily has the best doubles-power on the list, and among this bottom ten only Charlie Moore can top Foli’s .264 batting average. Also, his one triple and six homers aren’t good, but look typical for this crowd.
One triple and six homers are typical, but most of those guys are doing it in 300-some PA, not Foli’s 546. In fact, if you ignore singles and doubles for a second and just multiply the 3B/PA and HR/PA score for all cycle hitters, Tim Foli comes in last out of the 294 contenders.
Decades later, Foli still doesn’t look like he knows how he hit for the cycle.
3. Otis Clymer, 1908 Senators: 397 PA, 77 singles, 11 doubles, four triples, one homer.
Yeah, I never heard of him either. Incredibly, he had an OPS+ of 103 that year, which just goes to show just how putrid offense was in 1908, the low point of the Deadball Era. Should I make an era adjustment? No way – batters in low-scoring eras are less likely to hit for the cycle.
Clymer is Tim Foli without the doubles. Sure, his combined 3B/HR score is better, but the most notable difference was Clymer hitting one-third as many doubles (albeit in only two-thirds the PA) as Foli.
Clymer is one of only four men with only one homer in their cycle season. Only one had more PA than Clymer, Lon Knight (whoever he was), in 1883. Aside from Clymer, there’s only one time since 1900 a batter’s only HR of the year came in his cycle game: Gary Ward in his 46 PA “season” in 1980. (The fourth was was Abner Dalrymple in 1891.)
Clymer actually played right field. While shortstops and catchers dominate this list, there are some rightfielders (Clymer and Tovar), and one first baseman (Mayberry).
2. Ivan DeJesus, 1980 Cubs: 692 PA, 128 singles, 26 doubles, three triples, three homers.
This is the second one to make it from 1980, making that the only year with multiple representatives. Another four came in the 1970s, so 1972-80 was the golden era for unlikely cycles.
Remember how I noted if you looked only at triples and homers Tim Foli scores the worst overall? DeJesus is runner up. It makes sense looking at the numbers – he averaged a triple or homer once every month. Yet he got one of each in one game.
DeJesus didn’t have Foli’s double power. As a result, DeJesus has the third-worst ISO in the history of cycle hitters: .066. Second worst is Clymer. The worst ISO is also the least likely cycle hitter of all.
DeJesus: the least likely cycler in memory
1. Bill Collins, 1910 Braves: 656 PA, 125 singles, six doubles, seven triples, three homers.
Those are some pretty dang impressive power numbers Collins has there. Not many guys average less than one double per 100 trips to the plate. Even back in 1900 that was true. And he was only slightly better with triples not nearly as effective with homers.
Added bonus: He did it while playing left field. That’s normally where you put a guy who can’t do much but hit. No wonder his team, the Braves, lost 100 games that year.
What’s interesting is that there is a big gap here. You have Clymer and Collins in the early days, and then no one under Cesar Tovar in 1972. To fill in the gaps, here are the least likely cyclers for all decades between Collins and Tovar (and I’ll toss in one to represent the 19th century as well). Here they are, their stats, and their overall rank out of the 294 cycles:
Name Year PA 1B 2B 3B HR RNK Lon Knight 1883 450 75 23 9 1 17 Ray Schalk 1922 534 95 22 3 4 12 Odell Hale 1938 559 96 32 2 8 27 Harry Craft 1940 452 74 18 5 6 68 Lee Walls 1957 402 67 10 5 6 47 Jim King 1964 478 66 15 1 18 13
There were only 23 cycles hit in the 1940s. That’s one advantage modern times has: expansion means more games.
Of course, all this talk of the least likely cycles brings up an obvious question: what are the most likely cycles ever? I’ll look at that one another time.
References & Resources
For better or for worse, I got my list of cycles from wikipedia.