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.
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:
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.