February 9, 2007
The Column Reversers
A confession: for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom, I have long been fascinated by one of baseball's lesser-known minorities. I am speaking of those few players who go against the grain of modern times and post an On-Base Percentage higher than their Slugging Average. Perhaps it is because only about five percent of regular players manage to do this that it seems somehow exotic and worthy of attention.
For instance, last year just three of the 147 players with 502 or more plate appearances were column reversers. Leading the way was Jason Kendall at .367/.342, followed by David Eckstein at .350/.344 and Brad Ausmus at .308/.285. For Kendall, it marked the third consecutive season he's made the list after never having done it in the first eight years of his career. In 2005, he was joined by just one other player out of a possible 144, that being then-Marlin second sacker Luis Castillo; 2006 is only the second time in Castillo's 11-year career he has not reversed columns. His current career totals stand at .369 OBP and .358 SLG.
The five percent figure represents all the years going back to 1959. Since 1996, the figure is more in the area of two percent. For instance, in 1997 (Quilvio Veras), 2001 (Ausmus), and 2003 (Castillo), there was but one player who managed the trick. Happily, no season has seen a complete lack of column reversers. The high-water mark in the modern era came in 1976, when 17 different players reversed columns; that figure fell to just two the next year in spite of the addition of two more teams. Just before the strike, 1993 was the last gasp of the pre-offensive explosion, and that's reflected in the count of 11 column reversers from that year. Since then, the high season was 1996 with six. (Note: two other players in 1998 had matching rounded OBP/SLG figures: Marvin Benard and Wade Boggs. For our purposes, these and other such rounded matching figures are not counted.)
One of the interesting things about this particular freak show stat is that it is not necessarily a negative thing, although there have been limits as to the productivity of the players involved. The men on this list represent some of the better seasons by column reversers:
.410: Gene Tenace, 1977 Padres (.413 OBP)
Tenace owes his presence on this list to his free agent signing by the Padres. Always an on-base machine, he could also pop enough to keep his columns unreversed. Hitting at Jack Murphy Stadium was a stone hassle in 1977, though. His home/road split that year was .417/.511 everywhere else in the NL, and .412/.300 in San Diego. Many younger people's first exposure to the Albie Pearson comes courtesy of the Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris. As I recall, they extol the virtues of his diminutiveness.
Seeing a first base/outfield type like Mike Hargrove on this list reminds us that column reversers are usually middle infielders. Of the 270 men who have done it since 1959, 91 have been second basemen, and 75 have been shortstops. While there have been no full-time designated hitters, Hargrove is not alone on his end of the defensive spectrum. The Human Rain Delay (four times) and Pete Rose (two: 1982 and 1983) are the only first baseman who did it multiple times (four). The others are Randy Milligan (1992: .383/.361), Dave Magadan (1991: .378/.342), Rod Carew (1985: .371/.345), Wes Parker (1972: .367/.354), Dennis Menke (1971: .328/.320) and Rusty Staub (1963: .309/.308, in his age-19 season).
The following list is comprised of those players who put the most distance between their OBPs and slugging averages:
Greatest reversed dichotomies
.082: Walt Weiss, 1995 Rockies (.403/.321)
All the players on this list save for Henderson deserve a column reverser lifetime achievement award, as their career OBPs are higher than their career slugging averages. Among them, Jeltz has the biggest gap at 40 points. In his case, though, lifetime achievement is relative, as he went .308/.268. In terms of individual seasons, the following players can be considered "aces," having had at least five years with at least 502 PAs in which they reversed columns:
Weiss would definitely be an ace if he could have stayed healthy. There are quite a few Hall of Famers among the column reversers: Carew, Ashburn, Joe Morgan, Luis Aparacio, Smith and, in due time, Henderson, Craig Biggio, and--let's hope--Tim Raines. Butler and Randolph aren't HOFers, but they'd be in the hall of the very, very good, as well as fellow column reversers Chuck Knoblauch, Dave Concepcion, and Bobby Grich. Then there's this next group, men who help give the column reversers a bad name:
Barely Topping Unmentionable Slugging Averages
.259/.243: Tim Johnson, 1973 Brewers
Three of the four worst OPS figures since 1959 belong to one man and one man alone: Hal Lanier. The season shown here is by no means the worst, but it's the one that fits the reverse OBP/SLG criteria. As good a fielder as Lanier was--and he was pretty damn good, especially from 1967-69--it's fairly debatable whether the end justified the means, given his paltry hitting. The one player keeping Lanier from having the entire bottom to himself is Tim Johnson's 1973 season seen here. Johnson managed a .189 EqA that year, his first in the bigs. He got better, but never enough to hold down a full-time job again. For Yankee fans of a certain vintage, Horace Clarke will always be their go-to guy when they want to brag about how much they suffered. "Hey pal, I was rooting for them in the Horace Clarke years." Somehow, Alfredo Griffin matched Clarke's numbers in a far more run-rich environment.
Barring a drastic change in the way baseball is presented offensively, the trend of fewer rather than more column reversers will continue. Looking at PECOTAs for 2007, the list of players who project to reverse columns is very small, and includes a high percentage of men who probably won't see much time in the big leagues this year:
Kennard Jones, Padres (OF): .308/.301 in 423 PA