Friday, December 19, 2008

Whiffing at Second

Baseball has stereotypes about the offense provided by players at each defensive position. First basemen and designated hitters are expected to be sluggers. Third basemen and corner outfielders are expected to fill in the heart of the order around those sluggers. A center fielder with power is nice, but as long as he's fast and has a good glove, it's okay if he can't drive the ball. Any offense a catcher provides is a bonus. Shortstops are also poor hitters who make up for it with defense. That changed in the last decade when a number of good-hitting shortstops reached the majors, but you can still find some offensive black holes at shortstop around the league.

Second base is another position that has had its share of good hitters debut in recent years. Since 1956, second basemen have combined to put up an OPS+ of between 90 and 95. In three of the last four seasons, however, second basemen have been league average, putting up a collective OPS+ of 100. Since 1993, the 2B OPS+ has dipped below 95 only five times.

Second basemen have also hit for more power in recent years. Of course, any fan can tell you the same thing has happened throughout the major leagues. From the end of the deadball era in 1920 through 1992, the major league slugging percentage topped .400 only ten times. Since 1993, the MLB slugging percentage hasn't fallen below .403 (the next lowest was .416 last year). From 1956 through 1992, second basemen usually slugged around .030 under the league rate. Since 1993, that number has fallen closer to .020 and three of the last four years have seen a difference of .007 or less. Using raw numbers, after never once topping even .380 between 1956 and 1992, second basemen haven't slugged under .380 since 1993 (.378). A second baseman topped 20 home runs 46 times from 1876 through 1992. Since 1993, second basemen have reached 20 home runs 61 times.

The theme of this post is second basemen striking out. It's become less notable as strikeouts have gone up, but 100 always used to be a milestone for single-season strikeouts. Hitters who managed to whiff into triple digits were considered hackers. Consider that from 1901 to 1920, only three players reached 100 strikeouts in a season, all in 1913 or 1914. After 1920, no one struck out 100 times in a year until Bruce Campbell in 1932. Only fifty-seven batters reached the century mark between 1920 and 1960. Then, in 1961, the numbers started jumping up. In 1961 alone, ten players topped 100, the same number of players who did so in the 1930's. Twelve batters hit triple digits in 1962, and twenty-two did so in 1963. In four years from 1961 to 1964, more batters struck out 100 times in a season than in the previous forty years.

There's a simple fact that skews these numbers. In 1961, the American League played a 162-game schedule for the first time. In 1962, the National League did the same thing. Eight extra games over the old standard 154-game schedule may not sound like a lot, but when coupled with the already noted rising strikeout rates, it obviously pushed a lot of players over 100 strikeouts. The number of players topping 100 each year has gone up and down with the strikeout rate (surprise!), right on through to today. In fact, 2007 set and 2008 tied a record for the most batters with 100+ strikeouts: 86. That's almost three players for every team!

This post was originally going to look at second baseman who've struck out more than 100 times in a season. I figured that a position not normally known for producing power hitters wouldn't have very many high strikeout totals, at least until recent years. Instead, my post wound up looking at second basemen hitting compared to league hitting and then rambled into a discussion of strikeouts and strikeout rates over time. Finally, however, I'm ready to do what I wanted when I started writing this: look at whiffing second basemen!

When do you think the first second baseman (meaning a player who spent at least half his games at second) topped 100 K's in a year? The 1930's? World War II? The 1950's? If you said any of those, you'd be wrong. Nope, it took until the introduction of the 162-game schedule for the first second baseman to reach the century mark. Ironically, it wouldn't have mattered if his team only played 154 games. In 1961, Tigers rookie Jake Wood played in all 162 games and struck out a then-record 141 times. After running into a rough sophomore slump, he lost his starting job and never really recovered it.

He wasn't the only notable whiffer at second base during the 1960's. Jerry Kindall, Ken Hubbs, Dick McAuliffe, and Jerry Buchek all went over 100 once. Dick Green did it twice. But Bobby Knoop was the first second baseman to strike out 100+ times regularly. He did so five straight years from 1964 to 1968 before losing his hitting stroke at the age of 30. Knoop had above-average pop for a second baseman, but his real calling card was defense: he won three straight Gold Gloves starting in 1966.

Strikeouts dipped leaguewide during the 1970's, and the number of second basemen reaching triple digits in a year saw a steep drop. Only three players topped 100 in the 1970's: Dave Campbell, Pedro Garcia, and Bobby Grich. Campbell and Garcia saw their playing time slashed in the years following their hacktastic seasons. Grich, however, was just at the beginning of an excellent career. From 1974 to 1982, Grich was the only second baseman to go over 100 K's, doing so three times.

From 1983 to 1992, Ron Oester, Ryne Sandberg, Lou Whitaker, and Ron Gant all surged past the century mark once. Delino DeShields did so twice and Robby Thompson got there three times. The most prodigious whiffer of the 1980's, however, was the Phillies' Juan Samuel. During his rookie season Samual established a second baseman record with 168 strikeouts. He struck out over 120 times in each of his first seven seasons at second base, but he made up for it with good power for his position.

It wasn't until 1996 that 100+ strikeouts really became commonplace for second sackers. Since that year, at least two and usually more than five second basemen have topped 100 K's every season. In 2008 alone, seven second baseman passsed the century mark (can you name them?) There have been plenty of multiple offenders, too. Bret Boone holds the record with eight such seasons, one more than Samuel. Craig Biggio did it six times in his career. He's in the outfield now, but Alfonso Soriano reached 100 five times at second, the same number of times as Jeff Kent. Ray Durham is the only other second baseman to ever reach 100 four times. Dan Uggla and Chase Utley have a chance at joining Durham at four next year.

Give up identifying the seven 100-K second basemen in 2008? They were Uggla (171), Akinori Iwamura (131), Rickie Weeks (115), Kelly Johnson (113), Mark DeRosa (106), Brian Roberts (104), and Utley (104).

As the major league strikeout rate has gone up, so has the strikeout rate for second baseman. The same effect can be seen in hitting for power. Looking at the list of multiple 100-K second basemen, they all have or had decent power. It's safe to say that as long as major league hitters strikeout at record paces (almost 20% of all at bats last year!) and have higher slugging percentages than any other era in baseball history, multiple second basemen will top 100 K's every year.


Roger said...

Speaking of Dick Green ... how in the world did he manage to win the Babe Ruth Award in the 1974 World Series (given to the "Major League Baseball player with the best performance in the World Series" by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America) while going 0 for 13 with 4 strikeouts?

Theron Schultz said...

I guess he was a really good defender. That might have been enough since no one was great on offense. You could make a case for Reggie Jackson or Bert Campaneris but four of the five games ended 3-2 so there wasn't a ton of offense.