There are two absolutely remarkable things happening in baseball this year … or anyway, I think they are remarkable.
1. The Seattle Mariners might be having the worst offensive season in baseball history … certainly in recent baseball history.
2. The Arizona Diamondbacks are definitely having the most fan-tastic season in baseball history.
Both of these things are so awesome, that I really don’t know where to begin. I’ll start with Seattle because, well, I have to start somewhere. It’s pretty hard not to notice that the Mariners are having just a wee problem this year scoring runs. I mean, they are last in baseball in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs (naturally). They don’t just have the fewest runs in baseball, they have the title by a Tony Esposito (35). Their batting splits are a smorgasbord of goodies (or baddies) such as these treats:
— Mariners’ No. 3 hitters are hitting .227 … which is actually BETTER than their No. 5 hitters (.209).
— Mariners second basemen, shortstops and catchers combined are slugging .301.
— The Mariners as a team are hitting .234. The Mariners as a team minus Ichiro are 10 points worse.
And so on. It has been a preposterously awful offensive season for Seattle, I think everybody understands that. And yet … I didn’t realize just how awful. I had this idea to go back and see when was the last time a team scored this little over a full season. The Mariners are on pace to score 518 runs this year, so I went to trusty Baseball Reference and started to go back year by year to see what was the last team to score fewer than 518 runs. I figured it would take three minutes or so, I figured I’d have to go back as far as 2003 and those awful Detroit Tigers (who, I did not realize, actually did not score the fewest runs in baseball; the Los Angeles Dodgers did). If it wasn’t the Tigers, I figured one of those National League teams in pitchers parks without the DH (like the Dodgers) would emerge in the early part of the decade. Maybe, I thought, I even would have to go back to the 1990s.
Well, it’s a bit more involved than that. No team in the 2000s was within 50 runs of the Mariners projection. OK. Of course, that might not mean a whole lot. The 2000s have been high scoring as we all know. So I went through the mid-to-late 1990s, when, yes, a lot of runs were being scored, and found that there wasn’t a team from 1996-2000 that was within 100 runs of the Mariners projection. Then there were the strike shortened years (even in 1995, that shortened season, no team scored anywhere near 518 runs) and finally I got to the pre-strike years before the offensive explosion and I figured I’d find a team there pretty quickly.
Only … no. The worst offense of the early 1990s was the 1992 Dodgers, but they scored 548 runs, still not especially close.
OK … to the 1980s. A low-scoring decade (except 1987). All those terrible low-scoring Seattle teams and Cleveland teams and Giants teams … there was no way I was going to get through the 1980s. Well …
The 1988 Orioles were ludicrously bad (lost their first 21 games) but they scored 550 runs.
The 1985 Giants, who lost 100 and were led in home runs by Bob Brenly and had a team on-base percentage of .299? They scored 556 runs.
The 1982 Reds, who had two players hit more than 10 home runs (Dan Driessen led with 17)? They scored 545 runs.
And still, I could not find a team, either league, that scored as few runs as the Mariners figure to score in 2010.
OK, fine, so we have to go into the 1970s, a decade so offensively lame that they finally just added a designated hitter in the American League to wake up some fans. Finally, this project that was supposed to take three minutes would end. And I thought I had it in 1978 — ah, those 1978 Oakland Athletics. What a team. Not a single player on the team drove in more than 70 RBIs, and not a single player scored more than 62 runs. Mitchell Page … Dave Revering … that’s it, I just named the only two even remotely decent offensive players on the 1978 Oakland A’s. They would finish dead last in runs scored in 1979 too.
But even that 1978 Oakland Athletics scored 532 runs … more than the Mariners projection (though with a hot finish, the Mariners could catch the A’s).
Back another couple of years — the 1976 Montreal Expos were a special offensive team. Larry Parrish led the team with 11 home runs. I’ll repeat that — LARRY PARRISH LED THE TEAM WITH 11 HOME RUNS. And that home run race wasn’t close, nobody had 10. Forty-six different players got at-bats for that Expos team, a list that includes Hall of Famers (Gary Carter, Andre Dawson), good players in the future (Andre Thornton, Ellis Valentine, Parrish), and a bunch of kids. A BUNCH of kids. Eleven different players on the team that year were 22 or younger. And you know what? That 1976 Expos team, with all those kids, with no power or ability to get on base (.291 OBP for the team), with no designated hitter, in a very low-scoring era, they scored 531 runs.
That’s STILL more than the Mariners are on pace to score.
And if I didn’t realize it before, this is when I fully appreciated just how remarkable this Mariners team really is. In today’s era, with today’s technologies, with the home run ball still flying (though not as much as the last decade or so), the Seattle Mariners will probably score fewer runs than any time in almost 40 years. I think, depending on how far back your memory goes, this Mariners offense is the worst you have ever seen.
The last team to score fewer than them? WELL, As it turns out, it was several teams from 1972*. In 1972, California, Texas, Cleveland and Milwaukee from the AL and San Diego from the NL all scored fewer than 500 runs.
*Great point by Brilliant Reader Paco — 1972 was strike shortened so the teams played seven or eight fewer games that year. The last team to score fewer than the Mariners projection in a FULL season was the 1971 San Diego Padres who only scored 486 runs.
What makes 1972 so special? Well, you already know: It was the absurd lack of scoring in 1972 that finally propelled the American League to add the designated hitter.
Which leads to the question: Will the American League take away the DH from every team except Seattle? And will that even help considering Seattle DHs are hitting .190/.267/.348?
* * *
Maybe you know off the top of your head what team has the record for most strikeouts in a season. I did not know … it was the 2001 Milwaukee Brewers with 1,399. That team was something else. Their strikeouts mostly came from five men:
1. Jose Hernandez, 185
2. Richie Sexson, 178
3. Jeromy Burnitz, 150
4. Geoff Jenkins, 120
5. Devon White, 95
That makes up slightly more than half the team’s strikeouts and inspires the eternal question: What, Devon White was playing in 2001? I don’t remember that at all.
Jose Hernandez was a strikeout genius — everyone felt sure that he would be the one to break Bobby Bonds unbreakable record of 189 strikeouts in a season. Let’s take a moment to talk about that because the Bonds record was something to behold. Before 1960, no player in baseball history had struck out even 140 times in a season. The record of 138 belonged to Jim Lemon, and THAT was more or less unthinkable. He had broken Vince DiMaggio’s record of 134, and yes many, many, many people have wondered how Joe DiMaggio could have been so hard to strike out while his brother Vince was a swing-and-miss machine.
Anyway in 1961, Jake Wood struck out 141 times to set the record, and in 1962 Harmon Killebrew struck out 142 to set it again. The record was creeping up one by one. Then 23-year-old Dave Nicholson in the only year he would get more than 300 at-bats, managed to strike out 175 times. You could argue that Nicholson was the Jim Ryun of strikeouts — the one who showed everyone what was possible. As you know, nobody had struck out 150 times in a year before Nicholson. Over the next 10 years though, 11 other players would do it.
Nicholson’s 175 Ks in a season looked like it would be the standard for quite a while, that is until Bobby Bonds exploded on the scene. There had never been anything quite like Bobby Bonds. He was fast. He was strong. He was electric. And he struck out like he was going for a Christmas bonus. In his first full year, 1969. He hit 32 homers, stole 45 bases, led the league in runs scored … and struck out 187 times. This didn’t only set the record, it set a precedent — you could strike out that much and STILL be a great player.
The next year, Bonds’s overall numbers were even better, he hit .302, with 10 triples, 26 homers, 48 stolen bases, 134 runs scored. And that year he struck out 189 times, which would be the record for the next 30-plus years.
Oh, some strikeout heroes came along and tried to break the record. Rob Deer struck out 187 times. Pete Incaviglia struck out 185. The young Mike Schmidt struck out 180 in 1975. Jose Canseco showed a lot of promise, striking out 175 times when he was only 21. And there was Bo, larger than life Bo, swing for the county line Bo, there never seemed a doubt that if Bo Jackson could get enough plate appearances, he had the stuff to break the record. But he never got more than 561 PAs in a season (Bonds had 745 PAs the year he set the record). Bo did strike out 172 times that year, but it wasn’t enough.
Jose Hernandez seemed like our best shot to break the record. He hit with some power, he could play several positions, and he was really good at striking out. But in that magical Milwaukee year of 2001, despite a big finish when he struck out 28 times in his last 78 at-bats, he could not quite get there. And then in 2002, he seemed to have the record all but clinched, but his manager Jerry Royster kept him out of the lineup at the end, and he finished with 188 Ks, which, like the word havoc, is one K short.
Richie Sexson and Jeromy Burnitz just missed being teammates in Cleveland in 1996 (Sexson did not play for Cleveland until 1997), which is a shame because THAT would have been an epick kollection of Ks — with Jim Thome (2nd all-time in strikeouts), Manny Ramirez (100-plus strikeouts 11 times, only 11 players have done it more) and Jeff Kent (1,522 Ks is second most among second basemen).
Anyway, that Brewers team was the first team to strike out 1,300 times and almost the first team to strike out 1,400 times. A list of firsts by 100:
First team to 800 Ks: 1914 St. Louis Browns (863).
First team to 900 Ks: 1957 Chicago Cubs (989)
First team to 1000 Ks: 1960 Philadelphia Phillies (1054 — Pancho Herrera key with 136 Ks)
First team to 1,100 Ks: 1963 Cleveland Indians (1,102)
First team to 1,200 Ks: 1968 Mets (1203)
Team strikeouts, interestingly enough, dropped off in the 1970s, which is interesting because we tend to think that as a great strikeout era with Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and the other big strikeout pitchers. Still: Only one team, the 1978 Padres, struck out even 1,000 times times between 1972 and 1982. And no team would strike out 1,200 times again until after the strike — that would be the 1996 Tigers.
First to 1,300 Ks: 2001 Brewers (1399)
And our first team to 1,400 Ks? No doubt it will be this year’s Arizona Diamondbacks. They are only 27 short now. In fact, assuming they keep going like they do, they will set the record on Sunday in Pittsburgh (boy will THAT be thrilling). If they shorten up, they could save it and set the record at home on Tuesday against Colorado. If they can just keep up this pace, they will also become the first team to get to 1,500 strikeouts. Parade plans have not been made public yet.
We all know that strikeouts are great for pitchers, but how bad are they for hitters? People have different views about that. Nobody LIKES strikeouts, obviously, because they are unproductive outs. But many people around the game are not that bothered by them, they believe that, more often than not, strikeouts are no less valuable other kinds of outs (and, of course, they are better than double play grounders), and, look the Diamondbacks have struck out 300 or so more times than Seattle, but they have also scored 200 more runs. I had an extended conversation about this with Jim Thome*, and he was saying that while he doesn’t like striking out, while it really bothers him, he knows that this is simply the kind of player he is. If a pitcher throws to one of the blind spots in his swing, the pitcher will get the K. If the pitchers misses the spot by just a little, there’s a chance that Thome will hit the ball 900 feet. And the spot will move slightly too. That is classic baseball in the 21st century. The 1999 Cleveland Indians (with Thome featured prominently) struck out 1,099 times, second most in baseball and way more than those teams in the low scoring 1970s. But they also scored 1,009 runs, because they walked a bunch and hit with power and stole bases at a high percentage and so on.
*Look for my big piece on Thome very soon.
This year’s Diamondbacks are not a good offensive team. But they’re also not a bad one. They’re actually above league average in scoring runs. They are third in the league in homers, fourth in slugging. Their batting average is low — a direct consequence of those strikeouts, I would assume — but their on-base percentage is actually middle of the pack because they walk a lot.
The Diamondbacks have a pretty good chance — depending on how Stephen Drew finishes out the season — to have six different players with 100-plus strikeouts. But that’s actually not especially unusual in today’s baseball. That WAS unusual before 2006, in fact it had never happened before then. But since then, the 2006 Marlins, the 2007 Rays and Marlins and the 2008 Brewers and Marlins all had six 100K players.
What separates this Diamondbacks team is the high end strikeout guys. No team before this one has had five 125 strikeout guys. The five in the club?
1. Mark Reynolds (197). The Gretzky of Strikeouts, he already has the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the season strikeout list, and he will pick up the No. 3 spot in the next day or two. No other player has struck out 200 times in a season, Reynolds will do it for the third straight year. Reynolds misses 38 percent of the pitches he swings at, which is otherworldly. Strikeout machines Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard swing and miss 32% of the time. Joe Mauer swings and misses 10% of the time.
2. Justin Upton (152). Expect more than 300 strikeouts this year for the Upton Brothers.
3. Adam LaRoche (148). Expect only about 200 strikeouts this year for the LaRoche Brother. Adam will whiff, of course, but Andy never has been a big strikeout guy.
4. Kelly Johnson (130). No second baseman before 1960 ever struck out 100 times in a season. Since then? Forty seven second baseman have done it — led by Bret Boone who did it eight times. Juan Samuel did it seven. Kelly Johnson has done it three.
5. Chis Young (120). Young is eighth in strikeouts since 2007 — and he is the only player in the Top 10 with an OPS+ of less than 100. In fact, he’s one of only two players in the Top 24 with an OPS+ of less than 100.*
*The other? I was shocked: Brandon Inge. He’s 12th on the list. I never fully appreciated just how much Inge strikes out.
Strikeouts around the league are up, pretty much like always. In fact, this really has been the Season of K — it is the first year in baseball history that teams average more than 7 strikeouts per game. The average was about six strikeouts per game in 1994, about five strikeouts per game in 1982, about four strikeouts per game in 1953, about three strikeouts per game in 1933, and about two strikeouts per game in 1912. We have a trend.
There are a million reasons for it; I think the game just keeps shifting, more and more and more, to a battle between pitcher and hitter. I find it absolutely fascinating that batting averages have remained fairly constant over the last 60 or 70 years when you consider how much the game has changed. In 2010, hitters are hitting .258 — pretty much what they hit in 1990, 1986, 1978, 1975, 1962, 1961, 1958, 1957, 1956 and 1913. How is that possible when you consider the increase of strikeouts?
Well, let’s take a look, let’s pick 1978. This year, teams are striking out 7.03 times per game, in 1978 they struck out 4.77 times. So that’s a little bit more than two extra outs per game as strikeouts.
In 2010, the batting average on balls hit in play is .298.
In 1978, the batting average on balls hit in play was .280.
This is big. And you see that pretty much in those other years as well.
Batting average on balls hit in play:
So, that’s a big difference — yes guys are putting the ball in play less often, but when they do put it in play they’re hitting the ball harder in 2010 than they did in 1978 or 1962 or whatever (either that or, if you were prefer, they’re not playing defense as well in 2010 as they did then). The game has shifted much more, I think, into a battle of wills between pitcher and hitter, neither side giving in, pitchers less willing to induce contact, hitters less willing to choke up and put the ball in play. Anyway, that’s one difference.
The second difference, of course, is home runs. BABIP does not include home runs. If it did, you would see an even more dramatic difference
Batting average on balls hit (homers included):
So that’s how that works. It’s just remarkable to me that as the game changes pretty wildly, a big number like batting average can stay reasonably constant.* Batters hit the ball harder, but strikeouts go up to even it out. That’s how I view the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks, not as a team about to set a great record but as a counterbalance in this great game.
*Batting average does fluctuate, of course. Since 1950, players have hit as high as .271 (in 1999) and as low as .237 (in the real year of the pitcher, 1968). But mostly since the DH is has stayed somewhere reasonably close to .260.