I was watching the A's the other night, and Jack Cust came to the plate. I love Jack Cust. Who doesn't? So, like anyone would, I spent a bit of time contemplating Jack Cust. I looked up his statistics, and here's what struck me:
Last year, Jack Cust came up 598 times.
He struck out 197 times: That's about 1/3 of the time. He walked 111 times. That's about one out of every five times. Total: Jack Cust walked or struck out more than 50 percent of the time he came to the plate last year.
Best I can tell, only two players in baseball history who have qualified for the batting title have done the Jack Cust dance -- that is, walk 100 times, strike out 100 times and not make contact half of the time they came to the plate. The first, of course, Jack Cust in 2008.
The second? Yeah, Jack Cust in 2007.*
*Does this make Jack Cust the most boring player in baseball history? You would think so: The guy doesn't even HIT THE BALL more than half the time. And yet, no, I think Cust is actually a lot of fun to watch. Maybe it's the name. Maybe it's the Matt Stairs persona. I don't know.
Highest percentage of walks + strikeouts in baseball history (min. 100 walks, 100 K's):
1. Jack Cust, 2007: 53%2. Jack Cust, 2008: 51%3. Jack Clark, 1987: 49%4. Mickey Tettleton, 1990: 48%5. Jim Thome, 1999: 47%6. Ryan Howard, 2007: 47%7. Jack Clark, 1989: 47%8. Mark McGwire, 1998: 47%9. Jim Thome, 2001: 46%10. Adam Dunn, 2006: 45%
Now, you will note the caveat: I did not include players who walked fewer than 100 times or struck out fewer than 100 times. Barry Bonds in 2004, for instance, walked 232 times and struck out 41, so he did not make contact in more than 44 percent of his at-bats. Mark Reynolds struck out 204 times last year, walked 64, so he didn't touch the ball in about 44 percent of his at-bats, too. But I really wanted the well-rounded batter, the one who walks AND strikes out at an extremely high rate.
And as you can see, the high walk-strikeout guys are, mostly, a recent phenomenon. Jimmy Wynn in 1969 is 12th on the list; he walked or struck out 44 percent of the time. Before Wynn, you have to go down to 44th place -- Mickey Mantle in 1967, at 40 percent.
You can see the leaders by decade:
2000s: Jack Cust, 53%1990s: Jim Thome, 1999: 47%1980s: Jack Clark, 1987: 49%1970s: Willie Mays, 1971: 44%1960s: Jimmy Wynn, 1969: 44%1950s: Mickey Mantle, 1958: 38%1940s: Eddie Joost, 1947: 33%1930s: Dolph Camilli, 1938: 35%
The ball just got put in play a lot more in the olden days. This may be one quick reason to explain why batters hit for so much higher average in years past. Take the National League in 1930 -- you know, the whole league hit .303 that season. That was the year Bill Terry hit .401, the year Hack Wilson drove in 191 runs, the year 23 out of the 44 batters who qualified for the batting title hit .320 or better.
Well, that year the whole league only struck out about 8 percent of the time.
To give you an idea, last year in the National League batters hit .260 and struck out 18 percent of the time.
How much of a difference is that? Well, if batters had struck out at the 1930 strikeout rate, there would have been 10,000 more balls hit in play. Yikes. TEN THOUSAND more balls in play. We know that, generally speaking, about 30 percent of balls in play turn into hits but to prove the point, let's take it down a notch and say that only 25 percent of those balls hit in play would have been hits.
If you make that adjustment, the league would have hit .288 last year instead of .260. Chipper Jones only struck out 11 percent of the time last year ... but if you drop that down to 8 percent and make the adjustments, he would have hit .376. Matt Holliday would have put 50 more balls in play and might have hit closer to .350. And so on.*
*Interestingly enough, Albert Pujols struck out 54 times in 641 plate appearances. That, friends, is 8 percent. Pujols is like a guy right out of the 1930s.
And thinking about that led me to wonder ... everyone talks about why no one will ever hit .400 again. And I've heard many, many reasons: Night games, travel, the slider, the split-fingered fastball, improved fielding, the intense media pressure, on and on and on and on.
BUT ... could it just come down to the fact that batters strike out a whole lot more than they did in the .400-hitting days? I do realize that all of the above reasons would contribute to more strikeouts, but I am still wondering here: Is that what it comes down to?
There have been nine .400 seasons since 1920 (when strikeouts are counted on Baseball-Reference). As you might imagine, none of the batters struck out even 8 percent of the time the year they hit .400. Rogers Hornsby hit .401 in 1922 and struck out 7 percent of the time. That was the most. George Sisler hit .407 and .420 in 1920 and '22, respectively ... and he struck out 19 times the first year, 14 times the second. Basically, the guy struck out 3 percent of the time.
Now, we look at the players who have challenged .400 since Ted Williams last did it in 1941 -- all of them have that one thing in common. They all put the ball in play a lot*. George Brett only struck out 4 percent of the time in 1980, when he made his great run.
*Excepting Andres Galarraga ... more on him in a minute.
Or take Rod Carew in 1977 when he hit .388. We'll play a little math game. Carew only struck out 8 percent of the time ... that's outstanding, but it is too high, I think, if you want to hit .400. Basically, if he had eight more hits instead of outs, he would have hit .400.
Well, to get eight more hits, I'd say he had to put the ball in play 26 more times.
Carew struck out 55 times. So if he had cut his strikeout rate in half -- to 4 percent -- then I think he would have put those 26 balls in play and hit .400.
Same is true for Ted Williams in 1957. He hit .388 that year, and much was made of the fact that if he had only legged out five more infield hits over the season, he would have hit .400 again. True, but more to the point: Williams struck out 8 percent of the time in 1957. Again, that's really good, but it's not superhuman. To hit .400, you have to be superhuman. The year the Kid hit .400, he struck out much less ... 4.5 percent of the time.
Williams struck out 43 times in 1957. If he had cut down his strikeouts, put 15 or 16 more balls in play, he probably would have gotten those five hits and hit .400 again.
And so on. Andres Galarraga in 1993 hit .370 despite striking out 73 times. That was in crazy Mile High Stadium, when the Rockies hit .306 at home as a team (with a preposterous .333 batting average on balls in play) while visitors hit .308. Anyway, Galarraga was 18 hits shy of .400 that year. If he had cut his strikeouts down to 4 percent -- that would have meant putting 53 more balls in play. And that might have gotten him his .400 batting average.
So, that got me thinking: A great hitter who could strike out 4 or 5 percent of the time in one year, in a favorable park, might actually hit .400.*
*This seems like a good way to pick who has a shot at .400 -- or at least someone capable of making a run. Pick someone who doesn't strike out much. Pujols is a guy who, perhaps, could do it. He rarely strikes out ... he might be able to pull off a 4 percent strikeout year. His trouble is that he's right-handed, which hurts him. Since World War II, the only righty to hit better than .370 in a season was Nomah in 2000, and he didn't hit A LOT better (.372).
Ichiro very rarely strikes out, but you have to think his best days are in the past. Jose Reyes is one of the younger guys out there who shows the potential for not striking out a lot, and he has the speed to beat out some infield hits. But his plate discipline is shaky and he just gets too many at-bats, I think, to maintain a high average (and he has only hit .300 once, anyway).
I would probably nominate Joe Mauer as the best hope for .400. He doesn't strike out much. Because he's a catcher, he will have the reduced number of at-bats. I don't think he could keep up his energy enough to hit .400 over a full season as a catcher ... but I do think he will win more batting titles.
And that led me to do one last nutty math thing: I looked at the 200 best batting averages since Ted Williams hit .400 in 1941 -- made the strikeout adjustment (reduced their strikeouts to 4 percent), added the likely number of hits to the equation (considering that hitters usually get hits on 30 percent of the balls they put in play) and looked to see who (if any) would have hit .400.
As it turns out, there have been six seasons since 1942 where, if a hitter had managed to only strike out 4 percent of the time, he likely would have hit .400.
1. Manny Ramirez, 2000: .416Comment: How about that one? Manny hit .356 that year but struck out 117 times. In baseball history only four guys have hit .350 or batter while striking out 100 times in a season.2. Andres Galarraga, 1993: .4043. Ted Williams, 1957: .4034. Rod Carew, 1977: .4015. Larry Walker, 1999: .4016. Larry Walker, 1997: .400
And believe it or not, the next guy on the list is ... Larry Walker. According to this rough little formula, Walker would have hit .398 in 2001.
Other interesting years: Roberto Clemente in 1967, formula adjusted, hits .397, and so does Mickey Mantle in 1957. Mantle is not realistic -- he could not have cut his swing down to strike out only 4 percent of the time -- but Clemente in his younger days struck out much less than he did later. Clemente struck out 103 times in 1967.
The biggest jump on the list is Mo Vaughn, who hit .334 in 1998 despite striking out 144 times. I know you were wondering ... there have been 26 different seasons in which a batter struck out 140 or more times and hit .300. Vaughn's is the best batting average season. After him is Sammy Sosa (.328 in 2001), Vaughn again (.326 in '96), Sosa again (.320 in 2000) and Galarraga (.318 in 1997).
One more worth mentioning: Cito Gaston hit .318 despite striking out 142 times in 1970. And, yeah, then I started to wonder how that would affect Gaston's managing. Would he be more tolerant of strikeouts, being a big strikeout guy? Less tolerant? Are managers generally more or less tolerant of their own weaknesses? I found when writing The Machine that Sparky Anderson, who could not hit a lick, was LESS tolerant of players who could not hit. But he was also less tolerant of pitchers who struggled to get hitters out.
Sparky's an interesting guy. Anyway, I think so.
And then I look back at the mental wreckage I have left behind ... all because I stopped to consider Jack Cust. It's exhausting watching a baseball game.