May 31, 2000
Doctoring The Numbers
Of Hits and Misses
Of Hits and Misses
Bobby Bonds set the all-time single-season record for strikeouts with 189 in 1970, and his mark has weathered repeated challenges since. Mike Schmidt, Pete Incaviglia, Rob Deer and Cecil Fielder all struck out at least 180 times in a season. Bonds's record has survived despite rampant whiff inflation throughout baseball in the 1990s. Strikeout rates in 1989 were actually 2% lower than they were in 1970, but from 1989 to 1999, strikeouts rose 13.6% in the AL and 13.4% in the NL. Eight teams struck out at least 1,000 times in the 1970s; 12 teams reached that mark last season alone. In the NL.
But the extra strikeouts have been meted out in democratic fashion, as no one has struck out more than 175 times since Fielder racked up 182 whiffs in 1990. And it's certainly not for lack of trying; Sammy Sosa, who has led the NL in strikeouts in each of the last three years, has become the first player in history to strike out 170 or more times back-to-back-to-back. But still, the magical mark of 189 appears as elusive as the 20-loss season.
But like a certain, and slightly more famous, record broken two years ago, it appears this mark has met a worthy challenger. With 73 strikeouts in the Marlins' first 52 games, Preston Wilson is on pace to breeze past Bonds's record by Labor Day and finish with--gulp--227 strikeouts.
What makes Wilson's challenge so serious is that he's hitting too well for the Marlins to pull him from the lineup in an effort to save him the embarrassment. He leads the team with a .500 slugging average, and his 851 OPS ranks behind only Luis Castillo and Cliff Floyd.
Wilson is hitting only .260, but his average when he doesn't strike out is .415. Impressive? Not really. (Especially when Todd Helton is hitting .417 overall.) The major-league average when hitters put the ball in play last season was .334 in the AL and .332 in the NL. In 1989, those figures were .310 and .298. In 1997, Mo Vaughn hit .445 when he didn't strike out, good for sixth all-time:
Name Year AB H K AVG AVG(xK)
Of the top 17 averages all time, 12 occurred between 1920 and 1932, and the other five have all happened since 1994. Obviously, the methods have changed a little. For the first time in history, hitters are routinely batting .320 or higher despite reaching triple digits in strikeouts.
But no one has combined hits and strikeouts together like Jim Edmonds has done this season. Only Wilson has struck out more times than Edmonds (58) in all of baseball, but Edmonds is somehow hitting .371 despite being on pace for 188 strikeouts. Only two players in history (Alex Rodriguez in 1996 and Roberto Clemente in 1967) have even hit .350 in the same year that they struck out 100 times or more.
In the first 124 years of major-league history, not one player has come close to hitting .500 when they put the ball in play. Fifty games into our National Pastime's 125th season, in an era of night games, closers, true hops and gloves the size of serving trays, Jim Edmonds isn't just hitting .500 when he puts wood on the ball.
He's hitting .569.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.