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July 20, 2000
Doctoring the Numbers
The Era of Offense has not barred scrubs from the party. The last eight years are not only remarkable for 70 homers and 400 total bases and league ERAs approaching 5.00. The little guys have gotten in the act as well, putting together some of the greatest September callups and fluke seasons of all time.
It all started in 1996, when Rudy Pemberton came up in September and went 21-for-41. Pemberton, a 27-year-old ex-Tiger farmhand who had been rescued by the Red Sox and sent to Pawtucket early in the season, became the first player to hit above .500 in a season of at least 30 at-bats. The top five performances at that time:
Year Name AB H AVG
Pemberton also hit eight doubles in those 41 at-bats, the highest ratio of any player in history with more than 20 at-bats.
Two years later, Craig Wilson, also 27 years old, made his major-league debut for the White Sox and went 22-for-47. His .468 average, which would rank fourth on the list above, is the highest in history for any player with 45 at-bats:
Year Name AB H AVG
That's not bad for a 37-year-old pitcher, huh?
Wilson's performance in 1998 went largely unnoticed, however, because of the theatrics displayed by one Shane Spencer, a 26-year-old in his ninth season in the Yankees' system. Spencer got his first taste of the major leagues that September and ate pitchers whole, hitting .373 in 67 at-bats with six doubles, 10 home runs (including three grand slams) and 27 RBI. Spencer had the highest ratio of RBIs to at-bats in history (min: 60 AB)
Year Name RBI AB RBI/AB
Never heard of Reb Russell? The only player to bat at least 100 times and post a higher RBI/AB ratio than Hack Wilson did when Wilson drove in 191 runs, was basically a poor man's Babe Ruth. Russell was a left-handed pitcher for the White Sox from 1913 to 1919, pitching very well (81-59 career, 2.33 ERA) before hurting his arm. He disappeared into the vastness of the minor leagues, then resurfaced as an outfielder for the Pirates in 1922, hitting .368/.423/.668 and, as you can see, driving in every baserunner in sight. But after one more season, in which he hit .289/.341/.491, Russell disappeared for good at age 34.
Spencer also set the major-league record for slugging average; no player had ever slugged higher than Spencer's .910 in a season of even 25 at-bats. If we set the standard at a modest 60 at-bats, the previous record holder was Ted Williams, the year he came back from Korea in August and set the world on fire for a month. Incredibly, Williams's 1953 had been the only season of more than 50 at-bats in which a player had exceeded Ruth's amazing slugging averages in 1920 and 1921:
Year Name TB AB SLG
In the same month that Spencer was becoming a latter-day Kevin Maas, J.D. Drew was putting on a show in the Heartland. Despite not making his major-league debut until September 8--in the same game that Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run--Drew hit five homers, a triple and three doubles in 36 at-bats.
Unlike the other men on this list, Drew was a top prospect when he reached the major leagues, and backed up his reputation with a .972 slugging average. The list of the top slugging averages in a minimum of 25 at-bats is not much different from the previous list:
Year Name TB AB SLG
The two highest slugging averages of all time, both taking place the same season by players making their major-league debuts.
1999 was a fairly quiet year; Mark Quinn hit six home runs and slugged .733 in 17 games, but that's nothing extraordinary. This year, however, is teasing us with some fascinating possibilities. In Texas, Frank Catalanotto, who serves on BP's Board of Directors, hit .500 in April and .692 in May, and if his season had ended right there he would have broken all sorts of short-season records. But his average has since dropped to a still-impressive .378.
And if you can't understand why Catalanotto is still on the Rangers bench, well, neither can we. But if you think that's bad, consider that in 1894, Phillies' outfielder Tuck Tucker hit .416 in 339 at-bats and couldn't break the starting lineup. And he didn't deserve to: the starters were Billy Hamilton (.404, 126 walks, 98 steals, major-league record 192 runs), Sam Thompson (.407, 141 RBI in 99 games) and Ed Delahanty (.407, 147 runs, 131 RBI in 114 games). All three are in the Hall of Fame.
But while Catalanotto has cooled off, another reserve infielder is heating up. Chris Stynes played sparingly to start the season, hitting .471 (8-for-17) in April and .313 (5-for-16) in May. But he went 14-for-31 (.452) in June, raising his season average to .422...and then he got hot. Since July 1, Stynes is 32-for-61 (.525), and is now hitting .472 on the season. In 125 at-bats, more than twice the playing time that most of these freak-season players had.
The highest batting averages in history with a minimum of 100 AB:
Year Name AB H AVG
What this list shows is that while anyone can hit at a dizzying pace for 20 or 50 or 80 at-bats, it is almost impossible to maintain a fluke season for much more than 100 at-bats. The players with the highest averages of all time were able to maintain them for a full season thanks to ability and circumstance: the NL's 70-game season in 1876, the great hitters' year in 1894 or the American League's first season as a major league in 1901.
But Chris Stynes was a career .276 hitter entering this season, and he's reaching heights never before attained by any hitter for such a prolonged period of time. Is this the mother of all flukes? Or is Chris Stynes really a .400 hitter?
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.