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Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Johnny Mize

Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox is doing his best impersonation this season of “Casey at the Bat.”  Like Mighty Casey, Dunn either hits a heroic home run, or he flails at strike three, sending thousands of fans home disappointed.  Dunn is currently third in the A.L. in home runs with 25, and first in strikeouts with an incredible 131.  He is on pace to shatter the Major League single-season strikeout record of 223 set by 3rd baseman Mark Reynolds in 2009.

In fairness to Dunn, he does lead the league in walks (67), contributing to his acceptable .359 on-base percentage.

Thirteen of the top 15 strikeout seasons by a hitter in baseball history have occurred over the past dozen seasons.  To illustrate how much things have changed around the Majors as far as strikeouts are concerned, consider that Dave Kingman, who back in the 1970’s and early ’80’s, was known as the ultimate practitioner of the home run / strikeout approach to hitting, never struck out more than 156 times in a season.

Although he led the league in strikeouts as a hitter three times, his worst season (156 in 1982) now ranks as just the 128th highest total of strikeouts in a single season.

Indeed, current New York Mets third baseman David Wright actually surpassed Kingman’s career high when Wright struck out 161 times in 2010.

It wasn’t always this way.  There was a time when even power hitters considered the strikeout to be the ultimate embarrassment for a hitter, a reproach to the batter’s very manhood.  Some power hitters actually used to choke up on the bat when down two-strikes to minimize their chances of getting struck out.

When Mark Reynolds was asked if he’d like to be a player who struck out a lot less often, he replied, “I’d like to be, but I’m not going to make drastic changes, like choke up and hit grounders.”  Yes, because, obviously, hitting a ground-ball that might sneak through the infield for a hit is far worse than, say, striking out 200 time per year.  And real men don’t choke up.

English: An image of Major League Baseball Hal...

English: An image of Major League Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman Johnny Mize. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is no surprise, then, that when we look at the list of home run hitters who maintained relatively low strikeout rates, the vast majority of them played many, many decades ago, long before most of us were born.

One player who has always intrigued me as an overlooked power hitter — a player who I don’t think most baseball fans fully appreciate — was former Cardinal / Giant / Yankee first baseman, Johnny (Big Cat) Mize.

Johnny Mize played in the Majors from 1936-53, missing three of his prime years to WWII.  He led his league in home runs and slugging percentage four times each, and RBI, OPS and total bases three times each.  He even won a batting title, hitting .349 in 1939 for the Cardinals.

Johnny Mize was, along with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams, one of the most difficult power hitters to strike out.  Mize hit 359 home runs in his career, while striking out only 524 times in his entire career.  By contrast, Ichiro Suzuki, perhaps the ultimate contact hitter of our generation, has already struck out 786 times in his career, while hitting 99 home runs.

So Mize could hit lots of home runs without striking out very much.  This raises a question:

English: New York Yankees first baseman .

English: New York Yankees first baseman . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did Johnny Mize ever have more home runs than strikeouts in a season? 

Before answering that question, keep in mind that since 1920, a player has accumulated more home runs than strikeouts (minimum of 30 homers) twenty-five times over the past 90 years.  Joe DiMaggio accomplished this feat an amazing six times.

Barry Bonds is the only player to have more homers than strikeouts in a season (45 homers / 41 strikeouts in 2004) in the past half-century.

The answer to my question regarding more home runs than strikeouts as far as Johnny Mize is concerned is, yes, Mize twice managed to accumulate more home runs than strikeouts in a season.  In 1948, he slugged 40 home runs while striking out only 37 times in 560 at bats.

But here’s the most amazing statistic I’ve seen in a long time.

In 1947, in 586 at bats, Mize slugged 51 home runs while striking out just 42 times.

Johnny Mize is the only player in baseball history to hit as many as 50 home runs in a season while striking out fewer than 50 times.  

Despite his amazing accomplishments, the BBWAA never voted Mize into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In fact, the writers never gave Mize more than 43% of the vote.  It wasn’t until the Veteran’s Committee finally elected him in 1981 that Mize was finally honored among baseball’s greatest players with induction into the Hall of Fame.

Now that we have compared the achievements of modern power hitters — especially their strikeout totals — with the impressive exploits of Johnny Mize, we can more fully appreciate what a great hitter Mize was in his day.

The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Qualitative Analysis, Part 5

Welcome back to our quixotic quest to find the Golden Age of the Hall of Fame.  Up to this point, we have found that no such animal exists.

There were fewer players elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1980’s than there had been in the 1970’s, and, in general there was some improvement in the caliber of the players inducted.  As we concluded in Part 4 of this series, fewer than half of the former MLB players inducted into The Hall in the ’70’s were excellent choices, and some of the players chosen during that decade were just plain embarrassing.

So let’s turn to the decade of spandex and leg warmers, and take a closer look at HOF voting patterns.

Once again, for those of you scoring at home (or for those of you just reading this blog), BBWAA stands for Baseball Writers Association of America.  V.C. are the initials for the Veteran’s Committee.

1980:  BBWAA – Al Kaline, Duke Snider  V.C.  Chuck Klein

English: Brooklyn Dodgers centerfielder .

Image via Wikipedia

Kaline and Snider are a fine pair of stars, much beloved in their respective baseball hometowns, Detroit and Brooklyn.    When they were on the field, and you were at the park, all was right with the world, or soon would be.

Funny thing about these two great players, neither one of them won an MVP award.  Kaline, who just missed 400 career home runs by one, never hit 30-home runs in a season.  Snider, on the other hand, reached 40 home runs in five consecutive years.

Yet Snider hit only eight more homers in his career than Kaline.  Kaline was the better defensive outfielder (16.3 WAR to -2.1 WAR.)  They each led their league in hits one time.  Kaline’s career WAR (91) was better than Snider’s (67.5) though their offensive WAR’s were much more similar.  Snider’s career OPS+ 140 was better than Kaline’s 134.

Either way, you couldn’t go wrong.

Chuck Klein was a fantastic player with the Phillies for five years from 1929-33, during which he won an MVP award and finished 2nd in the voting twice.  During each of those five seasons, he amassed at least 200 hits and scored over 100 runs.  He also led the N.L. in home runs and total bases four times each.

His career started to go downhill fast after age 32, and his career WAR (39.2) is on the low side, but his career OPS+ of 137 is highly respectable and, it’s worth noting, is the same as three players who came later:  Jack Clark, Will Clark and Reggie Smith.

Overall, despite a mediocre career WAR, Chuck Klein belongs in The Hall.

1981:  BBWAA – Bob Gibson  V.C.  Johnny Mize

I am proud to say that in the year of my high school graduation, the HOF added two worthy inductees.  Bob Gibson is a no-brainer.  What surprises me is that somehow it fell to the Veteran’s Committee to induct Johnny Mize.  How did the BBWAA miss this one?

How does a ten-time All-Star (who also missed three of his prime years to WWII), who led his league in home runs four times not crack 45% of the vote?  Mize accumulated a WAR of 70.2, and his OPS+ was an outstanding 158, the same as Hank Greenberg.

To my knowledge, Mize is the only player in history who hit 50 home runs in a season (51, actually) who struck out fewer than 50 times (42) in that same year.  Mize was a great player.  Kudos to the V.C. for inducting him into the HOF.

1982:  BBWAA – Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson  V.C.  Travis Jackson

Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson in the same year?  Are you kidding me?  Even the BBWAA wasn’t going to screw this one up.  Aaron is a top five all-time player; Robinson arguably a top ten.

If you’ve been following along in this series, then you know that the V.C. has a fetish for Giants players from the 1920’s and ’30’s.  Enter Travis Jackson, a slick-fielding, light-hitting infielder who played his entire 15-year career with the Giants during that era.

Career WAR 43.3, OPS+ 102.  Not an automatic out, but not nearly enough of a bat to justify induction into the HOF.

Thus we have the first HOF mistake of this particular decade.  I hope you Giants fans are happy.

1983:  Juan Marichal, Brooks Robinson  V.C.  George Kell

True or False, a corner infielder with a .267 career batting average, who never led his league in hits, runs scored, home runs, batting average, total bases, on-base percentage or slugging percentage, but who did lead his league twice in double-plays grounded into, with a career OPS+ of 104, does not belong in The Hall?

If you said, “True,” normally, I’d have to agree with you.  But not with Brooks Robinson.  There are some players whose particular skills in one facet of the game are so utterly superior to anyone else who ever played the game, or who will ever play the game, that this aberration needs to be recognized for what it is.  True greatness.

Brooks Robinson’s career Defensive WAR (27.3) is the best Defensive WAR in Major League history.  The next closest infielder, the brilliant Ozzie Smith, comes in at 21.6 WAR.  The next best defensive third baseman on the WAR list, Buddy Bell, registered a 16.5 WAR.

Robinson, the 1964 A.L. MVP, was also the 1970 World Series MVP, a perennial All-Star, and he won 16 consecutive Gold Glove awards as well.  Brooks Robinson deserves to be in the HOF.

Juan Marichal pitched virtually his entire career (all but 13 games) with the San Francisco Giants during the 1960’s and ’70’s.  He topped 20 wins six times, leading the N.L. in wins twice.  His career WAR (64.0) is certainly HOF territory.  His career ERA+ (123) is one point better than Bob Feller’s.

Despite smashing Dodger’s catcher Johnny Roseboro over the head with a baseball bat in August, 1965, Marichal belongs in the HOF.

George Kell was a respectable third baseman with limited power (just 78 career home runs) who nevertheless made 10 All-Star teams in the ’40’s and ’50’s, and finished in the top five in MVP voting twice.  Only once did he reach 5.0 WAR in a season.  While comparisons to Carney Lansford and Bill Madlock are gratuitous, they are not unwarranted.

1984:  Luis Aparicio, Don Drysdale, Harmon Killebrew  V.C.  Rick Ferrell, Pee Wee Reese

I have a theory, probably wrong, that when the economy is strong, Hall voters become more generous with their votes, and when the economy is sour, they become stingier with their votes.  If you have nothing else to do tonight, there’s a topic for you to research.

And so it was with Hall of Fame voters in 1984.  They inducted five retired players, seemingly regardless of merit or talent, into The Hall because, well, let the good times roll.

Briefly, then:

1)  Killebrew – Career WAR: 61.1,  OPS+ 143, 573 home runs, 1,584 RBI.  Nice choice.

2)  Aparicio –  Career WAR: 49.9,  OPS+ 82, 9 time stolen base leader, 9 Gold Gloves. Nice defense, but checking the numbers more closely, not Ozzie Smith nice.  That OPS+ is awful.  Questionable choice.

3)  Drysdale – Career WAR: 65.7, ERA+ 121, 209 wins, two 20-win seasons, three-time K leader, one Cy Young award.  Essentially, he was Kevin Brown with a better P.R. agent.  Check the numbers.  Good choice, if you don’t mind a relatively short peak.

4)  Ferrell – Career WAR: 22.9, OPS+ 95. One of the worst players in The HOF.

5)  Reese – Would you believe that his career WAR: 66.7, is the highest of these five players?  Frankly, I didn’t expect that.  He has the same WAR as Eddie Murray.  His OPS+ of 98 isn’t great, but it’s a lot better than Aparicio’s.  Here’s another reason Reese belongs in The Hall.  Solid choice.

1985: BBWAA – Lou Brock, Hoyt Wilhelm   V.C.  Enos Slaughter, Arky Vaughan

Lou Brock:  Let’s begin with the positive.  3,023 career hits, including four 200-hit seasons.  1,610 runs scored.  938 stolen bases, including 8 times leading the league in that category.  A record (until Rickey Henderson broke it) 118 steals in one season.  Five top-ten MVP award finishes.  Six All-Star games.

Now the bad news.

Did you know that only 20 players in history struck out more times than Lou Brock?

Did you know that Brock’s career on-base percentage (.343) is the same as Otis Nixon and Randy Winn?

Did you know that in addition to leading the league in steals 8 times, he led in times caught stealing 7 times?  Did you know that he led the league in errors made by an outfielder 7 times, and that his career Defensive WAR was -4.8?

Brock’s career WAR was only 39.1, and his OPS+ was just 109.  In retrospect, Tim Raines, for example, was a much better ball player.  Still, Brock’s positive numbers are significant enough to merit enshrinement in the HOF.  A defensible, if somewhat flawed, choice.

When Hoyt Wilhelm retired after the 1972 season at age 49, he had pitched in more games (1,070) than any man in history.  This was pretty much his claim to fame, and his ticket into Cooperstown.  Since his retirement, four other pitchers have surpassed his total.

But how good a pitcher was Wilhelm during his two decades in the Majors?

He finished his career with a record of 143-122 and 227 saves.  The modern “closer” hadn’t been invented yet, so that was a lot of saves back then, though it is worth mentioning that Wilhelm never once led his league in saves.

His career ERA+ was an impressive 147, tied with the unlikely duo of Dan Quisenberry and Walter Johnson. Wilhelm’s career WAR was 41.3, but it’s certainly harder to accumulate a high WAR when used primarily as a reliever.  Although the “Most Games Pitched” stat is a bit of a yawner, his other peripheral numbers merit Hall inclusion, given the limitations of his position.

The Veteran’s Committee loves guys like Enos “Country” Slaughter, player’s whose reputations were somewhat inflated and who got along well with the guys.  Slaughter was a good player who, like several of the V.C.’s picks, had a couple of big years and lots of decent ones.  His career WAR was a respectable, but not automatic HOF triggering, 54.1, and his OPS+ was also a nice, but not awe-inspiring 124.  Reasonable choice.

Who is the most underrated player in the Hall of Fame?  If there is such a thing, it might be Arky Vaughan.  Playing mostly for the Pirates, but also for the Dodgers,  he accumulated a WAR of 75.6, scored and drove in runs, drew walks, slashed doubles and triples into the gaps, and played respectable defense.

He led the N.L. in runs, triples, walks, and on-base percentage three times each.  He led all N.L. position players in WAR three times.  He won a batting title.  He led the league in steals once.  And he was named to nine All-Star games.  Tragically, he died at age 40, just four years after retiring from baseball.  This is one the V.C. got right.

1986:  BBWAA – Willie McCovey  V.C.  Bobby Doerr, Ernie Lombardi

With Harmon Killebrew having been elected in ’84 and Willie McCovey in ’86, we may have located the genesis for the arbitrary idea that HOF caliber first basemen should have 500 home runs to their credit.  McCovey, a prodigious slugger (521 home runs) certainly belongs in The Hall.

Bobby Doerr:  See what happens when you put Travis Jackson in the HOF?  You make it that much easier to induct solid-but-not-great players like Doerr.  Doerr was a good (but not great) defensive second baseman who hit with surprising power (223 home runs) for a middle infielder.

He played in a good hitter’s era in a nice hitter’s park.  His career OPS+ 115, and WAR of 47.7, shed further light on the subject.  At this point, he has to be considered a mid-range HOF’er, a category that I’m pretty sure the original founders of The Hall never had in mind.

Ernie Lombardi caught for 17 seasons, but apparently, he didn’t catch much.  He led the league in Passed Balls nine times, and in errors four times.  His career Defensive WAR was -2.7.  But boy, could he rake, finishing with a career batting average of .306, winning a couple of batting titles along the way.  He won the N.L. MVP award in 1938, though he was only the sixth best player in the league.  A career WAR of 39.0 means, even for a catcher, there was less here than meets the eye.  A sentimental pick by the V.C.

Catfish, Billy, and Brad Gulden

Image via Wikipedia

1987:  Catfish Hunter, Billy Williams

While it is true that modern statistical analysis has not been very kind to Catfish Hunter (WAR: 35.4, ERA+ 105), I have to say that in my subjective opinion, Hunter belongs in The HOF.  He was a legend in his own time, sporting a great mustache, nickname, and an assortment of pitches that usually resulted in 20-wins per season.

The ace of two great teams in the ’70’s, Hunter pitched on five World Series Championship teams.  He won at least 21 games in five straight seasons.  He won a Cy Young award in 1974, and also finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the voting in three other seasons.

He pitched in eight All-Star games.  He threw a perfect game on May 8th, 1968, vs. the Carew-Killebrew-Oliva Twins.

I wasn’t a fan of the A’s or the Yankees back in the ’70’s, but I do get the larger than life persona.  Sure, he was not all that different from Jack Morris, whose possible election to The Hall I strongly oppose, but this is my personal bias, and I’m sticking to it.

Billy Williams was widely considered a fine, consistent player throughout the 1960’s during his 16 seasons with the Cubs (he broke in with the Cubbies at age 21 in 1959.)  He was N.L. ROY in 1961.  He led the N.L. in games played five times, and held the N.L. for most consecutive games played (1,117) until Steve Garvey broke his record in 1982.

Williams could hit for average (he won a batting title in 1972 at age 34), he could hit for power (426 home runs), he could score runs (1,410), and he could rack up total bases (4,599, good for 36th all-time.)  Williams is also in the top 50 all-time in runs created and in extra base hits.  And his career OPS+ of 133 reveals that his hitting success was not just a product of cozy Wrigley Field.

Billy Williams earned his induction to the Hall of Fame.

Willie Stargell hit the longest home run at Ve...

Image via Wikipedia

1988:  BBWAA – Willie Stargell

Pops Stargell seemed like a great guy to be around, leading the “We Are Family” Pirates of ’79 to an upset victory over the Orioles in the World Series that year. He was also co-MVP that year with Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez.

Stargell, by the way, played his entire 21-year career with the Pirates, from 1962-82.

Here are Stargell’s career numbers, and here are Fred McGriff’s.  Is it just me, or are they quite similar?  And if Stargell belongs in The Hall (and I wouldn’t argue that he doesn’t), then where’s the love for McGriff?

1989:  BBWAA – Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski V.C.  Red Schoendienst

How would you like to be in a spelling bee naming the Hall of Fame inductees of 1989?

Like Willie Stargell, Bench and Yaz each played their entire careers with one team apiece.  Bench may have been the greatest catcher of all time.  Yaz was the heart and soul of the Red Sox from 1967-78, the most heart-breaking years in BoSox history.  Obviously, they both belong in the HOF.

Schoendienst was an underrated second baseman for the Cardinals.  He was named to ten All-Star games.  His career Defensive WAR was over 7.0, which is very nice.  He garnered 2,449 hits, including a league-leading 200 in 1957, but his career OPS+ was just 94, and his overall WAR was 40.4.  A bit of Willie Randolph combined with Alvin Dark.  There are worse players in The Hall; Schoendienst is not an embarrassment.

So our score-card for this decade is as follows:

Excellent Choices – 19

Mediocre / Questionable Choices – 7

Poor Choices – 3

Not a bad haul, certainly better than what the 1970’s produced.  But it is worth noting that, as with the decades prior to the 1970’s, around one-third of Hall inductees were less than obvious, excellent choices.

Does that percentage, then, reflect what a normal HOF equilibrium, and if so, will that equilibrium persist in the succeeding decades?  We’ll take a closer look at Hall voting patterns of the 1990’s in the next installment of this series.

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