Yes, but it’s an empty .300

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 first such occurrence came in 1921. Four players did it that year: Walter Barbare, Bob Jones, George Maisel, and the inimitably named Stuffy McInnis.

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:

A freakish consistency is the hobgoblin of Doc Cramer
Year PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
1937 616 .305 .351 .384 82
1938 717 .301 .354 .380 80
1939 642 .311 .352 .382 85
1940 712 .303 .340 .384 84

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:

The emptiest of the empty batting averages
Player Year Team PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
Lance Richbourg 1930 Braves 557 .304 .331 .395 77
George Maisel 1921 Cubs 427 .310 .334 .338 78
Walter French 1927 Athletics 356 .304 .338 .365 78

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+).

Cooperstown, anyone?

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:

Sisler gets old
Age PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
20s 4574 .361 .404 .510 154
30s 4439 .320 .354 .426 97

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.

Modern love

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:

Empty .300, next generation
Player Year Team PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
Felix Fermin 1994 Mariners 411 .317 .338 .380 84
Doug Glanville 1997 Cubs 510 .300 .333 .392 88
Hal Morris 1998 Royals 516 .309 .350 .381 90
Mike Caruso 1998 White Sox 555 .306 .331 .390 89
Placido Polanco 2001 Cardinals 610 .307 .342 .383 88
Juan Pierre 2001 Rockies 683 .327 .378 .415 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 & Resources
Uh, would you believe Baseball-Reference?

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Comments

  1. Jim Casey said...

    I know it seems strange now, but it used to be considered shameful for batters to strike out, and it was equally shameful for pitchers to issue walks. That is the main reason that so many good hitters of the dead ball era, and through the 20’s and 30’s, had relatively high batting averages, and low OPS. I know it has not been seen for many years, but most batters actually used to choke up and shorten their swings when they had two strikes. Now, even light-hitting middle infielders (the few that are left) are swinging for the fences regardless of the count or game situation. Stats, baseball stats especially, cannot just stand on their own. They have to be looked at in the context of the era, and the style of baseball being played at the time. It is no accident that the hitters and pitchers with the highest, and lowest, strikeout totals, played together in the same eras.

  2. Geoff Young said...

    @Brandon: Show-off!

    @Jim: You raise a great point. This also makes Pierre’s performance all the more impressive in my mind. Guys simply don’t do what he’s doing anymore. And although I don’t think Pierre is a terribly good player, I respect that he is able to survive in his environment despite owning a skill set that hasn’t thrived in a very long time.

  3. bucdaddy said...

    The original historical abstract points out that Sisler “Developed a sinus condition, during 1922 season, which led to infection affecting optic nerve; had double vision in 1923 and could not play.” I believe this condition affected him the rest of his career. He was one of the great hitters ever up to that point and just another good hitter after. So it’s not really an age split, it’s an injury split.

  4. Paul said...

    The 20s and 30s would be logical decades to find empty batting averages as this was a very good hitting era.  1930 was especially off the charts because the ball was temporarily juiced to attract fans.  The entire NL batted over 300 that year, including pitchers, so a 300 average was very ordinary.  It makes sense that the worst of the group would be from that year.

    Doc Cramer was a very good center fielder, which added to his value, plus he played in Fenway which was a good hitters’ park at the time and masked some of his offensive holes.

  5. Geoff Young said...

    @bucdaddy: Thanks for the additional information. It’s amazing that Sisler performed as well as he did during the latter half of his career despite this disadvantage.

    @Paul: I was astounded by the 1930 season when researching it a few weeks ago for the Mauer/Ichiro article. Nine players hit .360 or higher in the NL that year.

  6. Chris J. said...

    Fun column,

    Geoff: about Sisler’s injury, there was a presentation about it at SABR this year.

    IIRC, it was caused by a sinus infection that weakened the muscles around the eye.  His vision was fine, but would cause double vision.  Eventually, it improved but a lingering problem remained: if he focused on something for a while, he’d have to break off eye contact or the double vision would return. 

    Pitchers used this to their advantage, holding onto the ball for a bit longer, until Sisler had to look away. Then pitch to him (he’d be looking back by the time the ball came, but looking away broke concentration and made it harder to hit).

  7. Troy Patterson said...

    Ellsbury is someone to watch for this.  His strikeout rate got better this year and he could stay batting over .300 for the next few seasons, but currently holds a career OPS+ of 96.  I’ve always said he is Pierre with 8-9 more homers and that seems about right with this.

  8. Aaron Whitehead said...

    Pierre is a historically singular player.  Some of the reasons he’s underrated are the usual: empty batting average, raw speed, lots of steals.  Perhaps the biggest oversight made when people praise Pierre is that left field is a much less important defensive position than center.
    The big thing, I guess, is that we always love players who get the most out of their skill set.  We’re always going to overrate guys like Pierre compared to the likes of, say, Jack Cust (he’s the closest thing to “Bizarro Pierre” I could think of).  Not that you don’t want players devoting that extra time and energy, but teams should think twice start handing out contracts and voting for the MVP (Pierre 2003:  10th place, NL MVP voting; 94 OPS+).

  9. Dave Studeman said...

    I just want to point out that Stuffy McInnis was a first baseman, too, though he should have been a major league middle infielder. His way was blocked by Eddie Collins and Jack Barry.

    By all accounts, McInnis was a phenomenal fielding first baseman and one of the best bunters in the history of the game.  He has more sacrifice hits than any right-handed batter in history.

    I know all that cause Craig Wright just wrote an article about him.

  10. Paul said...

    Ah, so you are not fully familiar with the joys of 1930.  If you have not already, check out the Philadelphia Phillies from that year.  The TEAM batted .315 but with an OPS+ of 93, an ERA of 6.71, and a record of 52-102.  It is the perfect storm of huge hitting year with a very good hitters park.  Though the team OPS+ is a bit misleading at the league OPS+ is 94 – I think Baseball-Reference includes the pitcher hitting when computing the team OPS+.  Still an OPS+ of 93 with a .315 batting average does not compute.

    Also check out 1894.  That was the year the mound was moved back to 60’6” and while everyone was adjusting the NL batted .309.

  11. Adam W. said...

    The conventional reasoning of how overrated Juan Pierre is has actually made him one of the most underrated players in baseball. His career UZR/150 in CF is 5.5; he’s capable of a 3-win season with some BABIP luck.

    Or, put another way, Jermaine Dye’s best season was worth 3.2 wins. Pierre’s best season was worth 4.3.

  12. Ed Cawley said...

    You might be interested in knowing that Lance Richbourg’s son, also named Lance, is a very well know painter of old time baseball players and stadiums.

  13. Wayne said...

    Geoff,
    Would you like to present this as a paper at a regional SABR meeting? The Gardner-Waterman Chapter of SABR will be meeting at the studio of Lance Richbourg at St. Michael’s College in Colchester VT on October 24.

  14. Geoff Young said...

    @Troy: I hadn’t thought of that before, but good call on Ellsbury as Pierre with a few homers.

    @Jeff et al.: Thanks for the info on Lance Richbourg’s son. That is a fun fact.

    @Paul: Okay, you’ve piqued my interest. I will have to investigate the ‘30 Phillies further.

    @Wayne: Thanks much for the invite. Please shoot me an email when you have a moment.

  15. Alireza said...

    I do agree on the whole “Pierre is so overrated he is underrated” thing.  The guy have a very clear skillset: contact, speed, range and sure-handedness.  He can’t throw, isn’t usually patient and has zero power.  That season brought up above was actually perfectly acceptable worthy of a starting position in quite a few MLB outfields, simply because his OBP was strong and compliments his speed.  The problem for Pierre is when he got way too slap-happy and kept up his AVG without walking at all.  That killed his value.

  16. Aaron Whitehead said...

    Perhaps I spoke too soon with the “overrated” comment.  I was referring more to the public perception, especially on the part of announcers.  It struck me especially early in the season, when we got to hear how good Pierre was in Manny’s absence.  He did have a good run, but was still (to me) overrated, especially as a left fielder making his salary.  From a stathead point of view, I guess he is underrated (and I’m guilty there), though I still blush when looking at those MVP votes.

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