December 20, 2005
2005 produced two fairly unique teams in postwar baseball in terms of player participation. For the first time ever in the same season, there was a team that had nine offensive players qualify for the batting title as well as a team that had but one do so. Since 1945--or, to be more accurate on the all-nine end--since 1973, the year the designated hitter came into being, four teams have each done one or the other, but never in the same year.
The two 2005 teams were the Indians with the nine and the Dodgers with the one. Both lived up to the small sample stereotype their predecessors have established. The Indians were a very good team and the Dodgers were not. This probably goes without saying because no team management in its right mind sets out to have just one of its players perform enough to be called full-time. Conversely, if a team has found nine guys it wants out there all the time and they're healthy enough to oblige, then, obviously, they're on to something.
The four main reasons teams don't get more plate time from more players are fairly obvious ones: injuries, trades, replacement-worthy playing and, to a lesser extent, platooning. The five teams listed below--in chronological order--displayed some or all of those traits. No team has ever had nobody get enough plate appearances to qualify (meaning 3.1 per team game played), but these five had just one:
The Mets came extremely close to not making this list. Agee had 483 official plate appearances in 1973 and he needed 483.6 (156 games played times 3.1 PAs per game) to qualify. Between platooning and injuries to such players as Rusty Staub and Wayne Garrett, no Met played in more than 122 games. Both catchers Duffy Dyer and Jerry Grote saw duty in the outfield when the injury load became too great. Because of this, the team also came extremely close to being the only postwar team not to have any players qualify. Harrelson cleared the strike-lowered bar by just a dozen plate appearances.
Looking at his career as a whole, Harrelson seems an unlikely candidate to have been the sole provider. He only qualified four times in his big league career. Harrelson looked more like a big league ballplayer when he was coaching and managing in the '80s and '90s than he did when he was playing in the late '60s and early '70s. As a young man he was very thin, even by the pre-balloon standards to which we have grown accustomed.
Harrelson spent much of the season batting first and then second behind Willie Mays after he came over from San Francisco. This alone carried him to the spot as the team's only qualifier. Never a high-average hitter, he walked enough to make him a top-of-the-order player provided 25% of his chips were landing on the outfield grass. In '72 it was more like 20% and he was finally dropped to the bottom of the order by the end of the season when he returned after missing most of August with a lower back strain.
So great was Sax's participation level as opposed to that of his teammates that he nearly had twice as many hits as the team's runner-up, Bill Madlock 210-106. An injury to likely qualifier Mariano Duncan didn't help the situation. Manager Tommy Lasorda was also platooning quite a bit--first baseman Greg Brock drove in one run against lefthanded pitchers in 59 at bats--further decreasing the candidacies. (Brock hit lefties much better in an expanded role for Milwaukee the next year.)
The Dodgers had 14 players with at least 200 plate appearances. They even had a pitcher--Fernando Valenzuela--who had over 100.
Looking at this team, it's hard to believe they were soon to become the wrecking crew of the age. On the whole, they hit just 79 homers with Belle accounting for 28 of them.
Based on average HR/PA per team, or PA*((HR/PA)-(LG HR/PA)), the 1991 Indians are at -57 home runs, which places them 20th worst all-time. Here are the worst of the post-1973 era:
1999 Min -78
In terms of ratio, their mark of .582 of the league average is 10th-worst since 1972.
Brook Jacoby had qualified the previous six seasons but probably wouldn't have in 1991 even if he hadn't been traded to Oakland before the trading deadline in July. On hand were several career non-qualifiers like Sandy Alomar (never in 18 seasons) and Glenallen Hill (never in 13 seasons). In all, 20 different Indians got 100 PAs including 20-year old Jim Thome.
A team that started well enough--albeit well beyond its means--but ended in total disarray, the '03 Reds made this list because of injuries and trades. Both Jose Guillen (dispatched to Oakland) and Aaron Boone (sent to the Yankees) would have qualified had they not been traded. Adam Dunn lost a chunk to injury as well, leaving him about eight starts short of qualifying.
J.D. Drew did not follow up his first qualifying season with another one and that was just the beginning of the Dodger problems in fielding a decent lineup in '05. Ditto fellow outfielder Milton Bradley. He, too, made his first qualifying run in '04 only to be felled by injury on the follow-up test. Cesar Izturis lost 250 PA from 2004. That two rookies aged 28 and 29 (Mike Edwards and Oscar Robles) were able to combine for 658 PA is further indication that the team was not using its ideal lineup every day.
These are the teams that should be known as the "All-Nines:"
There are compelling reasons for playing the same guys every day. One is if they're very good and the other is if there's nobody pushing their way into the lineup with outstanding play. The '75 A's had the second-best regular season record of their five-year dominance of the American League West and did so with a bench that combined to make this one very dubious player line:
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO B.A. OBP SLG 657 110 133 17 2 6 58 40 84 .202 .248 .262They scored so many runs because of the presence of designated runners Herb Washington and his replacement, Don Hopkins. Only Tommy Harper--who was purchased from California on August 13--put up decent numbers among the non-qualifiers. In the playoff wipeout by the Red Sox, the bench batted 10 times and got a double from Jim Holt, a single and two walks.
The Angels played a more disciplined kind of ballgame two decades ago. They finished just three games ahead of the Royals and a good part of their triumph can be attributed to the fact they out-walked Kansas City 613 to 442. In hindsight, it looks like the ultimate one-and-done team in that all nine qualifiers were at least 30 years old with the youngest--Fred Lynn--turning out to be famously frail. Sure enough, only two qualifiers managed to repeat the following year: Bob Boone and Rod Carew, and the team plummeted in the standings. In the '82 playoffs against Milwaukee, manager Gene Mauch took the All-Nine concept to an even further extreme, giving all but two at bats to his starters.
When your catcher registers 685 PA, the rest is gravy, right? Ivan Rodriguez was second on the team to center fielder Darryl Hamilton who had 696. While some of it is the stadium talking, several Rangers non-qualifiers put up decent numbers in their limited exposure in '96. Newson got on base at a good clip and slugged .451. Damon Buford had an EqA of .269, nearly matching Newson's .274. Dave Valle closed out his career with a .288 mark. Come playoff time, though, manager Johnny Oates could have left his bench on the bus. Newson was the only benchy who managed a plate appearance, walking in two trips. Only three '97 Rangers qualified.
The '03 Red Sox have little in common with their three All-Nine predecessors. For one thing, they managed to win a playoff series and for another they won more games the following year. The previous three teams got worse by at least 10 ½ games each. Five of the nine repeated the feat the next year and the Sox added a player--Mark Bellhorn--who would also qualify.
Hillenbrand was traded in May and totaled enough PA between Boston and Arizona to qualify, albeit in different leagues. This brings up a fanciful question: Would it be possible to have 10 players qualify for the batting title from one team? Definitely--but it wouldn't occur naturally. It would have to come from a predetermined attempt to get somebody like Tony Phillips or Mark McLemore a full complement of at bats by working them in and out of the lineup at a number of different positions.
The Indians were about one Ben Broussard sick day from not making this list. As they did, they are the first team to do so without also making it to the postseason. The good news is, they are also the youngest team, on average, to have done so.
This column is based on an idea by Nate Silver. Clay Davenport contributed research.