First: Nothing that follows is serious. None of it. You know how David Letterman, before Stupid Pet Tricks, would always say: “Please, no wagering.” I want to say “Please, no conclusions.” Because what follows is just a list of 14 baseball facts that shocked the heck out of me … nothing more. I am not saying, suggesting or even hinting that Luis Gonzalez should be compared to Al Kaline or that Dan Quisenberry was better than Mariano Rivera. That’s not the point at all. This is supposed to be pure fun. I hope, at least one, you might read it and think: “Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed that.”
The idea for this list sparked this week when Johnny Damon got the 2,654th hit of his career. This tied him with Ted Williams. And it AMAZES me. It doesn’t amaze me in the larger context. Damon has 1,500 more at-bats than Williams. When I tweeted about, people immediately sniped with the point that Ted Williams went to war twice — a fact that, it is at least possible, I already knew. But that’s what I mean about taking stuff seriously. I’m not suggesting that Johnny Damon is as good a hitter as Ted Williams or half as good or a quarter as good. Johnny Damon’s BEST full offensive season (2000 was no slouch of a year — for Kansas City, he hit .327, scored 136 runs, led the league with 46 stolen bases) was probably not as good as Ted Williams WORST full offensive season (1956, when he hit .345/.479/.605 in 503 plate appearances).
And yes, Ted Williams went to war. Twice.
But that does not change this: Johnny Damon has as many hits as Ted Williams. If you phrase the question right, you could probably win a free beer with the next time you’re at a bar with that one. It’s something fun to talk about.
So, I spent a day just looking around and came up with 14 little baseball facts — maybe they are conversations starters, maybe they will win you a bar bet, maybe they will just give you a fun little buzz. And maybe they will inspire you to write in the comments: “So, wait, are you crazy? Are you really saying that Ron Kittle was better than Lou Gehrig?”
Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
14. Johnny Damon has as many hits as Ted Williams (2,654 hits).
— I am working on a Derek Jeter piece for his 3,000th hit, and it has pushed me to think about what 3,000 hits means. Of course, every player who has ever gotten 3,000 hits was a terrific player. But Babe Ruth didn’t get 3,000 hits. Ted Williams didn’t. Rogers Hornsby, Joe DiMaggio, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig … I’d say if you put together the best team you could find of hitters who DID NOT get 3,000 hits would beat the team of players who DID get 3,000 hits.
Team with 3,000 hits:
1B: Stan Musial
2B: Eddie Collins
SS: Cal Ripken (or Jeter soon)
3B: George Brett
LF: Ty Cobb (or Rickey or Yaz)
CF: Willie Mays
RF: Hank Aaron (or Clemente or Kaline)
C: None (Ivan Rodriguez only one with 2,500 hits)
That team is amazing. But look at the non-3,0000hit team.
Team without 3,000 hits
1B: Lou Gehrig
2B: Joe Morgan (or Hornsby)
SS: Honus Wagner
3B: Mike Schmidt (or A-Rod)
LF: Ted Williams (or Barry Bonds)
CF: Mickey Mantle (or DiMaggio)
RF: Babe Ruth
C: Johnny Bench (or Yogi)
As good as that first team is, I’d have to take the second. Not that this is surprising — you have a much larger group to choose from with non-3,000 hits. But that’s the point here: Three thousand hits isn’t exactly about excellence. It is about something a little bit more subtle and, in its own way, wonderful. As mentioned: I write a lot about this in the Jeter piece.
Has Johnny Damon been a great hitter? No. He has occasionally been great, often been good, sometimes been average or below. But he has always been available. While the Damon-has-as-many-hits-as-Williams stat might mean nothing, here’s s stat that could carry some weight: Damon has played more than 140 games every single year since 1996. And he probably will do it again this year. That will make SIXTEEN STRAIGHT SEASONS that Johnny Damon has played more than 140 games.
How rare is that? Well … Hank Aaron did it. Brooks Robinson did it. Pete Rose did it. And, yep, that’s it. Those are the only three players in baseball history who have played 140-plus for 16 straight years. And nobody has ever done it 17 straight.
13. Tim Raines (3977) reached base more times than Tony Gwynn (3955).
If you read this blog occasionally — or like to surf the baseball corner of the Internet — you have probably seen this stat. Tim Raines and Tony Gwynn had almost identical length careers. Raines had his first full season in 1982, which was Gwynn’s first partial season. Gwynn retired in 2001; Raines in 2002.
Raines came to the plate 10,359 times. Gwynn came to the plate 10,232 times.
Raines reached base 22 more times than Gwynn. Now, I will admit that I sometimes use this statistic for more than quirky fun … I try to use it to show just how great a player Tim Raines really was. Gwynn’s greatness was more obvious because of the high batting averages, the eight batting titles, the hit totals and so on. Raines greatness was less obvious because so much of his value was tied up in walks and stolen bases and because after he turned 35 he became more or a role player.
But this doesn’t detract from the statistic: The idea offensively for pretty much anyone — but especially for players like Raines and Gwynn who didn’t hit for great power — is to reach base. Not make outs. Raines was just about as good at it as Gwynn. And in part because he was perhaps the greatest percentage base runner in baseball history, he also scored 180 more runs than Gwynn over his career.
I hope the bulk of the 97.6% of Hall of Famer voters who voted Gwynn on first ballot will come to realize that Tim Raines was about as good a baseball player as Tony Gwynn … he just did it a bit differently.
But more, if you have a friend who is just a casual baseball fan, you can DEFINITELY win a bar bet on this one.
12. Luis Gonzalez has more extra-base hits than Al Kaline (1,018 to 972).
The Selig Era of offense created all sorts of quirky careers. At age 29 — this would have been after the 1997 season — his list of most comparable players included: Mel Hall, Von Hayes, Dan Ford, Ben Grieve and Willie Crawford.
At age 39, his comps included: Dave Winfield, Andre Dawson, Tony Perez, Dave Parker and, yes Al Kaline.
Luis Gonzalez his 596 doubles in his career, which is 15th on the all-time list. He hit 52 doubles at the grand old age of 38 — only Tris Speaker managed that little feat. While Kaline spent much of his time struggling with injuries and a decidedly pitcher-dominated game (and he did not really have a great season after age 32), Gonzalez had a marvelous stretch of health in his 30s and played in a time when — for all the reasons you have considered — baseballs soared.
And, it’s a good reminder that baseball is really about context. Al Kaline was a MUCH better player than Luis Gonzalez. His 2-1 Wins Above Replacement advantage (91.0 to 46.3) tells that story. But the simple fact that Gonzalez does have more extra-base hits tells a story of its own.
11. Phil Niekro (3,342) has more strikeouts than Bob Gibson (3,117).
I don’t know — I just find that interesting. Niekro pitched 1,500 more innings than Gibson, which explains the stat well enough. But still, it’s a fascinating image to think that Phil Niekro, with that crazy knuckleball that fluttered and dived and even seemed to rise when it caught the wind right, struck out more batters than Bob Gibson in all of his awesomeness and fury.
Here’s a great little Niekro statistic for you: He is one of only two pitchers in baseball history to lead the league in losses four years in a row. He did it from 1977 to 1980 (though in 1979, he also led the league in wins). The other pitcher to do it? The legendary Pedro Ramos, who lost 18, 19, 18 and 20 from 1958 to 1961. Ramos’ lifetime .422 winning percentage is the lowest for any pitcher with 275 decisions or more. Phil Niekro, meanwhile, won 300 games. The power of the knuckler.
10. Cole Hamels (8.554) averages more strikeouts per nine innings than Roger Clemens (8.552).
In a list of meaningless little stats, this one might be the most meaningless … how about having to go to the third number behind the decimal point to find this one? But I kind of like it because it is a reminder than Cole Hamels is not just a terrific pitcher, he’s a dominating one. I can remember on at least three occasions this year hearing Hamels referred to as a “crafty” pitcher. There is absolutely nothing wrong with lefty pitchers being called crafty — I actually think it’s one of the great compliments in sports — but it doesn’t fit Hamels. He pumps his fastball into the mid-90s and destroys hitters with that devastating change-up. He may have a little craftiness in him, but that doesn’t describe him. He’s overpowering.
9. Amos Otis (341) has more stolen bases than Willie Mays (338).
Frank White always says that Amos Otis was the best base stealer he ever saw. This wasn’t based on pure numbers — White played with and against plenty of others who stole more bases. Heck, Willie Wilson stole as many as 83 bases in a season (Frank says that Wilson was the FASTEST player he ever saw, him and Bo Jackson, but that’s a different thing).
No, his feelings about Otis are based on the science of the steal. Otis read pitchers like few ever have. This wasn’t as apparent (or perhaps even true) in his younger days, when Otis could still run well. It was REALLY apparent after age 29, when Otis’ speed had diminished. He still was successful on about 80% of his steals after that, even when he really couldn’t run all that fast. Frank says that Otis used to say between innings that he would steal a base standing up, and then go out there and do it.
I’d argue that stolen base numbers, perhaps more than any other, are a product of the era. Jackie Robinson was a great base stealer — one of the best of all time — and yet he never stole more than 37 in a season. Another Dodgers second baseman, Steve Sax, was a DREADFUL base stealer, especially in his younger days, but he stole as many as 56 in a season (getting caught an almost impossible to believe 30 times that year). That’s a difference in the times. Jackie Robinson on the right team in the 1970s might have stolen 100 bases in a year.
Willie Mays led the league in stolen bases four years in a row — from 1956-59. But in those days 27 steals could lead the league (and did in 1959). Had Mays played in another era, he might have stolen 60 in a year. He might have been the first and only 50-50 player of all time. But he played in the era when he played, and was plenty good anyway.
8. Sammy Sosa hit 60-plus homers THREE TIMES.
I know: You already knew this one. But no matter how many times I see it — sort of like no matter how many times I look at Ted Williams on-base percentage numbers — I’m blown away by the fact.
Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs in that famous and infamous 1998 season. The next year, he hit 63. Two years later he hit 64. I mean, that’s just plain ridiculous. Three times, Sammy Sosa hit more home runs in a season than Babe Ruth or Roger Maris ever did.
And that leads to perhaps the greatest baseball trivia question of all-time* — one that will only get more and more amazing with time.
*I’ve long believed the greatest baseball trivia question of all time was simply: “How many times was Roger Maris intentionally walked the year he hit 61 homers?” Answer: Zero. He had Mantle hitting behind him.
Here’s the question: Three times Sammy Sosa broke Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs. How many of those years did he lead the league in home runs?
Answer: Zero. McGwire hit more than him in 1998 and 1999 and Barry Bonds hit more than him in 2001. And those are the only three seasons in baseball history that even COULD have beaten him. It’s a statistical wonder (or, if you prefer, a travesty that still makes people doubt great offensive baseball performances).
Sosa did lead the league in homers twice, in 2000 and 2002. He led the league with 50 and 49 respectively.
7. Curtis Granderson hit 23 triples in 2007, the most for any player in the last 60 years.
You might have noticed that Jose Reyes is on pace to hit 30 triples this year. Only one player in baseball history — the famed Chief Wilson in 1912 — has hit 30 triples in a year. But more to the point, no player has even hit 25 triples in a year since Kiki Cuyler did it in 1925. There has already been discussion at the magazine of me following around Jose Reyes as he tries to break the record. I mean, the triple is the most exciting play in baseball right? That means Reyes is trying to become the most exciting baseball player EVER, right?*
*My 14 most exciting players in sports list is still coming. Reyes figures to be prominent.
In any case, only three players since 1950 have hit more than 20 triples in a year — the aforementioned Willie Wilson in 1985 and Lance Johnson in 1996 hit 21 and Curtis Granderson hit 23 in his excellent 2007 season. Triples are driven by the dimensions and shape of the player’s home ballpark — Detroit has been in the Top 4 in the league in triples every year since Comerica Park opened. Boston, for obvious Green Monster reasons, is always at or near the top in doubles.
Still, Grandy’s 23-triple year is historic … even if I had never thought of it that way before.
6. Aubrey Huff’s next double (344) will move him ahead of Mickey Mantle on the all-time doubles list.
Here is a statistical quirk: Mickey Mantle did not hit doubles. In 1954, when he led the league in runs scored, he hit only 17. In 1961 — his 54 homer year — he hit only 16. This is really odd, I think. Mantle hit 37 doubles in 1952 — second in the league behind Ferris Fain — but never again hit even 30 in a season.
Now, Mantle’s disciples will point out that it’s not odd at all — Mantle’s knees were shot. When you can’t run, you can’t stretch singles into doubles. And that may be so. But, Mantle was hardly an invalid. He led the league in triples once, and was among the leaders four times. He stole 150 bases in his career. He played center field pretty much his entire career. There’s more to it than just the knees. Of the 76 players in baseball history who had at least as many plate appearances as Mantle, only two — Graig Nettles and Darrell Evans — had fewer doubles.
Aubrey Huff should still ask for the ball when he hits the double that passes Mantle.
5. Dan Quisenberry led the league in saves more times than Mariano Rivera did (5-3).
The save might be the single most influential statistic in sports history. By “influential” I mean the effect it has had on the game. I’d say counting sacks has had a big influence on football; counting blocked shots has had a big impact on hoops.
Still: The save feels different. The save has changed the way managers use pitchers. The save has inspired absurdly expensive contracts for pitchers who, for whatever reason, do not actually start baseball games. The save has given us the oddity of one-inning closers. The save has turned pitchers without a third pitch, without great stamina, without staying power into mega-stars.
Who knows why some statistics have staying power while others don’t? Maybe Malcolm Gladwell does. But for whatever reason, Jerome Holtzman’s invention of the save has had a mighty impact on baseball.
One of the biggest impacts is that the save gave us the joy of Mariano Rivera. There is absolutely no way to know what kind of pitcher Mariano Rivera would have been had he come up in 1953. Could he have made it as a starter? Would managers have picked up on his almost mystical ability to throw scoreless innings with the games at their hottest? Would he have been a better version of Ron Perranoski or Hoyt Wilhelm?
Then again, how good would he have been in the Goose Gossage role of the 1970s? Gossage asked that exact question recently. They were very different kinds of closers, especially when Goose was young. Rivera has only thrown 80-plus innings in the regular season as a closer once (though it’s many times if you consider the playoffs). Gossage threw 80-plus innings as a closer nine times. Rivera threw three innings only once as a closer, in 2006 against Detroit. In 1975 alone, Gossage threw three-plus innings 22 times.
How good would Mariano have been in another time? I’d say he would have been great in any of those settings. I’d say that because Rivera has greatness in him. This is the world he inherited, the world of the one-inning closer. He has done it in New York, with a team that is always in contention, in a city that freaks out like few others after blow games. He’s the best who ever lived.
It’s still pretty interesting that Quiz led the league in saves more times.
4. Bernie Williams (.477) has a higher slugging percentage than Roberto Clemente (.475)*
*Though: So does Matt Stair, Ray Lankford and Rusty Greer.
Clemente did not really develop his power until he was in his 30s. Through age 30 he had a career .446 slugging percentage. This had to do with several things, no doubt. Then: he hit a career high 29 homers at age 31 and slugged .524 for the rest of his career.
Even with that, Clemente was not a great power hitter. I don’t think that’s how you would describe him. He never hit 30 home runs. He only once hit 40 doubles. His was not a power-hitters era, of course, but even in his era his .475 slugging percentage was not especially striking. His brilliance was in his relentlessness. He had double digit triples every year from ages 30 to 35. He connected with everything — any list of great bad ball hitters would begin with Clemente*. He played with violence and intensity, and this made him impossible to ignore or overlook. To watch him play was to appreciate him.
*And another guy, Yogi Berra, who I happened to write about this week. And if you are an SI subscriber who has not yet gotten your FREE iPad app, well, this week’s incredible cover should get you motivated.
Bernie Williams, meanwhile, was a terrific player from 1995 to 2002. His defense has been a point of contention — he won four Gold Gloves though by his last he was almost certainly a defensive liability in center field — but he hit .321/.406/.531 over those eight years. There will be those who will argue Bernie for the Hall of Fame, and there’s a case to be made. But the value of his career is really almost entirely locked up in those eight seasons, and that just probably isn’t long enough.
3. Greg Maddux led pitchers in assists 12 times and in putouts eight — both records.
We all know that defensive statistics are tricky. They are often unrevealing, and perhaps as often they are plain deceiving. They are subject to interpretation and faith and all sort of other things. This is perhaps even more true when it comes to pitcher’s defense since pitchers are not even allowed to catch pop-ups most of the time.
Still, there are certain things in defense that we count. We count assists. We count putouts. And Greg Maddux led the league in both pretty much every season. This matched the eye — he’s the best I ever saw at fielding his position. You couldn’t really bunt on him. Nobody got off the mount to cover first base any better. They talk about good-fielding pitchers being the fifth infielder, well, Maddux really was like that — his quick reactions meant he got to more bouncers and ground balls and even line drives up the middle than just about anybody else. In many ways, he took away that alley, which is a pretty important alley for hitters.
He’s the best fielding pitcher I ever saw. Then again, as regular readers of this blog know, he’s also my favorite pitcher ever.
2. Harold Baines had almost 100 more RBIs more than Joe DiMaggio (1628-1537)
This is where you say: “Hey, wait, Joe DiMaggio went to war …”
He did, of course. The only real point here is that Harold baines had 1,628 RBIs. And that’s amazing.
1. Ron Kittle hit more home runs per at-bat than Lou Gehrig (1 every 15.39 at-bats vs. 1 every 16.23).3
It was a strange career. Ron Kittle went to a Dodgers tryout camp in 1976 after high school. He has said — and he’s a Facebook friend so I know — that people told him he couldn’t play baseball at the big league level with glasses. It was like that in the 1970s. The Dodgers signed him, glasses and all, and he remembers breaking his neck (literally breaking his neck) in his first professional game. He got released 13 games into the next season.
He then signed with the White Sox and worked his way up to Class AA, where he hit decently. He made it back up to Class AA the year after that, when he was 22 and hit a little better than decently.
The next year he was 23, and he hit 40 home runs in Class AA.
The year after that, he was 24, and he hit 50 home runs in Class AAA.
At that point, the White Sox decided, hey, why not, call the kid up? And on July 4 of his rookie season, he was second in the league in home runs. He would end up hitting 35 of them, playing in the All-Star Game, winning Rookie of the Year. The image of Kittle, with those big glasses, hitting long home runs was an inspiration to me and my own coke bottle glasses. He crushed 32 home runs his next year. In all he hit seven rooftop homers at Comiskey, mashed a homer off Dave Rozema on the Game of the Week that a few of us still talk about and, well, here are plenty of Kittle fun facts.
After the 32-homer year, he never again got 500 plate appearances in a season — because of injury and, I suspect, strikeouts. But the texture of the game does not only come from its greatest players. It also comes from players who were great in limited spaces. Ron Kittle, for too short a time, had massive power. And that made him another kind of luckiest man.