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September 30, 2010

Changing Speeds

Closing Time

by Ken Funck

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With four days left in baseball’s marathon season, most eyes will be focused on the two matchups which have a direct bearing on the playoffs: the Padres/Giants pitching festival in San Francisco, and the Phillies/Braves set in Atlanta. Nonetheless, there are 13 other series to be played before we can close the books on the 2010 regular season. Often these late-season contests spark little interest outside of those with game tickets, family members on the team, or the need for a few more Joakim Soria saves to clinch their fantasy baseball championship. To add a little spice to these contests while our early-season heroes play out the string or prep for the postseason, I’ve decided to share with you a few slightly off-beat statistical milestones that could be met in the next few days. None of these numbers are as sexy as .400 or 61*, but they may help you appreciate a few of the more unexpected or unreported achievements of the 2010 season.

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Candidate(s): Mark Reynolds and Carlos Pena, a.k.a., Los Dos Mendozas
Potential Achievement: Posting a batting average below .200.
Historical Relevance: Despite the fact that the term “Mendoza Line” has recently become somewhat of a cultural touchstone, by sitting at .199 going into Wednesday’s games Reynolds and Pena are flirting with a rare occurrence. The last player to receive enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title while proving himself quite so fully unqualified for a batting title was Rob Deer in 1991—the Three True Outcomes hero hit .179 that year, lowest of the modern era. In fact, after rounding to the standard three digits, there have only been three qualifying sub-Mendoza seasons since Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact:

Sub-Mendoza Batting Averages For Qualifying Batters – 1941-present

Player

Team

Year

BA

"Official" BA

OBP

SLG

HR

TAv

VORP

Mark Reynolds

Diamondbacks

2010

.1992

.199

0.320

0.437

32

0.269

9.6

Carlos Pena

Rays

2010

.1991

.199

0.330

0.413

28

0.273

4.8

Rob Deer

Tigers

1991

.1786

.179

0.314

0.386

25

0.255

-4.7

Jim Sundberg

Rangers

1975

.1992

.199

0.283

0.256

6

0.204

-18.2

Tom Tresh

Yankees

1968

.1953

.195

0.304

0.308

11

0.253

12.9

Don Wert

Tigers

1968

.1996

.200

0.258

0.299

12

0.216

-8.7

Curt Blefary

Orioles

1968

.1996

.200

0.301

0.322

15

0.254

-1.9

Zoilo Versalles

Twins

1967

.1997

.200

0.249

0.282

6

0.202

-6.5

Whether you choose to count or dismiss Wert, Blefary, and Versalles due to their rounded batting averages clocking in at .200, this is still a short list. The most amazing number to me here is that Tom Tresh managed to score a 12.9 VORP while posting a downright Kendallian .195/.304/.308 line. No, that’s not a misprint. Tresh, who had earned the 1962 AL Rookie of the Year Award at shortstop for the Yankees filling in for an absent Tony Kubek (whose Wisconsin National Guard unit had been activated—picture something like that happening again), had received MVP votes as an outfielder as recently as 1966, and had moved back to shortstop for the 1968 season. That was the actual “Year of the Pitcher,” though, when hitters posted a combined .237/.299/.340 and shortstops in the junior circuit hit .221/.284/.305—in that light, Tresh’s contributions look downright useful.

If they both keep their batting average below .200, Reynolds and Pena would thus triple the number of sub-Mendozans to actually perform above replacement level, and would become the first duo to be “officially” below .200 in the same season since Teddy Roosevelt was vying for the votes of Monte Cross and Charles Moran in 1904.

Odds of Occurrence: Reynolds is currently nursing a sore thumb, though it sounds like he’s not done for the year—and he’s slated to face lefties Madison Bumgarner tonight and Ted Lilly on Sunday. Reynolds hits for a higher average against portsiders; on the other hand, both Bumgarner and Lilly are quality pitchers. Meanwhile, Pena can order off a menu stocked with Royals pitchers all weekend. It says here Pena gets his head above water, while Reynolds not only stays below .200, he becomes the only hitter in history to have a seasonal strikeout total higher than his batting average.

---

Candidate:Felix Hernandez
Potential Achievement: 31 Quality Starts
Historical Relevance:Admittedly, a starter giving up three or fewer earned runs over six or more innings isn’t a transcendental feat. However, when a starter does this virtually every time he takes the mound, it’s a sign of greatness. After Tuesday’s typical befuddlement of the Rangers, King Felix has posted 30 quality starts in his 34 trips to the bump. Below you’ll see the only pitchers to reach that milestone since Disco Demolition Night:

Starters with 30+ Quality Starts, 1979-2010

Player

Team

Year

QS

GS

QS%

W

L

ERA

Felix Hernandez

Mariners

2010

30

34

88.2%

13

12

2.27

Randy Johnson

Diamondbacks

2002

30

35

85.7%

24

5

2.32

Greg Maddux

Cubs

1992

30

35

85.7%

20

11

2.18

Bret Saberhagen

Royals

1989

30

35

85.7%

23

6

2.16

Mike Scott

Astros

1986

32

37

86.5%

18

10

2.22

Dwight Gooden

Mets

1985

33

35

94.3%

24

4

1.53

Steve Carlton

Phillies

1980

32

38

84.2%

24

9

2.34

That list’s more difficult to make than J.D. Salinger’s holiday card list. If Hernandez takes to the mound against Oakland on Sunday, he’ll have a chance to post more quality starts than any starter in almost a quarter-century—and he could raise his quality start percentage to even more stratospheric heights:

Highest QS%, 1950-2010 (min. 30 starts)

Player

Tm

Year

QS

GS

QS%

W

L

ERA

Dwight Gooden

NYM

1985

33

35

94.3%

24

4

1.53

Bob Gibson

STL

1968

32

34

94.1%

22

9

1.12

Tom Seaver

NYM

1971

31

35

88.6%

20

10

1.76

Dave McNally

BAL

1968

31

35

88.6%

22

10

1.95

Tom Seaver

NYM

1968

31

35

88.6%

16

12

2.20

Felix Hernandez

SEA

2010

30

34

88.2%

13

12

2.27

Wilbur Wood

CHW

1971

37

42

88.1%

22

13

1.91

Sandy Koufax

LAD

1966

36

41

87.8%

27

9

1.73

Roger Clemens

BOS

1990

27

31

87.1%

21

6

1.93

Don Sutton

LAD

1980

27

31

87.1%

13

5

2.20

One more quality start will raise the pitching czar’s quality start percentage to 88.6 percent, tied for third-best on the list and trailing only magical seasons by Dwight Gooden and Bob Gibson. In a word, that’s impressive.

When looking at seasons with 30+ quality starts, Hernandez is a lock to set the record for fewest wins, a mark previously held by Claude Osteen, who was 15-15 in 1965. No one has ever tallied that many quality starts and posted a losing record, though if Hernandez loses his final start his .500 record will match not only Osteen but Bert Blyleven’s 17-17 mark in 1972 for lowest winning percentage. There are some voices that have argued this might actually help him in the Cy Young Award voting, as more savvy voters will use this as an opportunity to throw the final shovel of dirt on the notion that the win and loss statistics are the best way to measure pitchers. I’m not so sure—to me, it seems that those who equate pitching wins with value still own more shovels, and will use this as an opportunity to reassert their current (if hopefully fleeting) dominance. After all, Jack Morris would certainly never have given up that first-inning home run to Jose Bautista last week, since his team wasn’t ahead, and Morris would have shamed his teammates into plating a run en route to a 1-0 victory, not a 1-0 loss. Just sayin’.

Odds of Occurrence: The Mariners are considering shelving Hernandez before he can make his final start. I suspect, though, that they’ll let him try to earn his 14th win. He’d be facing Oakland, and you have to like his chances to post a quality start. My Magic 8 Ball say he gets to pitch, gets a no-decision, and still doesn’t win the Cy Young Award.

---

Candidate: Brett Gardner
Potential Achievement: Posting the highest rate of pitches per plate appearance (data since 1988)
Historical Relevance: So far, Gardner has seen 4.62 pitches per plate appearance—not only the highest in baseball this year, but he’s lapping the field in the data sample I have, which goes back to 1988. The current record holder is (unsurprisingly) Rickey Henderson, who posted a 4.54 P/PA mark back in 1994.

Gardner has also displayed a near-historic talent for keeping his bat on his shoulder. By offering at a mere 31 percent of pitches he’s seen, Gardner is displaying a studied indifference to the pitches he’s thrown last surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2004. The only other player since 1988 to match or surpass Gardner’s pace is (again) Henderson, who dominates this category with four seasons under 31 percent. Yankees fans can only hope the surprising Gardner, whose 4.1 WARP is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, can continue to emulate Henderson’s basepath-burning, pitcher-fatiguing, table-setting ways—without choosing to refer to himself in the third person.
Odds of Occurrence: To fall behind Rickey’s mark, Gardner would have to put the first pitch he sees in play 37 straight times. With only four games left, this is pretty much a mortal lock.

---

Candidate(s): Your 2010 Toronto Blue Jays
Potential Achievement: The highest team isolated power score in history
Historical Relevance: It’s nice to think that the fourth-best team in a division containing arguably the three best franchises in baseball might get to win something, even if it’s just an appearance in a Dos Equis ad: “They don’t always get hits, but when they do, they prefer extra bases.”

Who would have thought that a franchise employing Lyle Overbay at first base could set a record for team isolated power (i.e., slugging percentage minus batting average)? Toronto currently sports a .205 ISO, just a shade ahead of the 1997 Mariners (2004), while only two other teams have posted scores over .200: the 2003 Red Sox and the 2005 Rangers. The big story, of course, is the unexpected power shown by the re-conditioned Jose-Bot 2010 this year, but he’s not the only one: Alex Gonzalez (in half a season), Vernon Wells, John Buck, Edwin Encarnacion, Travis Snider, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, and even Overbay are among the league’s top 100 in isolated power. To maintain such a lofty rate means lots of extra base hits and not so many singles—and with a league-lowest 39.6 percent ground-ball rate each of the last two years, the Blue Jays have shown a knack for doing just that.
Odds of Occurrence: It’s a slim lead, but I imagine Toronto will be swinging for the fences this weekend in Minneapolis. I’m betting on the Blue Jays—or at least I would, if I could find someone willing to bet on what would probably be one of the most ridiculous proposition bets in history.  

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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