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September 20, 2000

Doctoring The Numbers

A Fun Freak Stat

by Rany Jazayerli

First off, a nod to readers Paul Drye and Stephen Roney, who both took me up on my triple-dog-dare from last week. Referencing Dazzy Vance's strikeouts and Babe Ruth's homers, I challenged readers to find another instance in which one player so thoroughly dominated his league in any significant category.

Both Drye and Roney rose to the challenge, pointing out the following leaderboard in stolen bases for the NL in 1962, the year Maury Wills broke Ty Cobb's single-season stolen base record:

Name             Team   SB

Maury Wills LA 104 Willie Davis LA 32 Vada Pinson CIN 26 Julian Javier STL 26 Tony Taylor PHI 20

Wills more than tripled the stolen-base total of the runner-up, and quadrupled the total of the third-place finisher. Now that's dominance.

Statistical Oddities: The Wes Covington Club

Ever consider the relationship among the three components of a player's extra-base hit line: his doubles, triples, and home runs? (I'm going somewhere with this. Trust me.) As a statistic, the home run tells a story of raw power, while the triple sends a message of blazing speed, at least since the end of the dead-ball era. The double is a neutral party, essentially a standard for the other two statistics.

The vast majority of hitters--7,906 of them with 400 or more at-bats since the clean-ball era began in 1920--hit more doubles than either triples or home runs. Of the 7,906, 5,198 hit more homers than triples, 2,285 hit more triples than homers and 423 three-bagged and four-bagged equally well.

Only 1,302 hitters in the same set did not finish with more doubles than either homers or triples. Of this group, 1,289 of them finished with more homers than doubles. Call them the Mark McGwire behemoths; McGwire came into 2000 with more than twice as many career homers (522) as doubles (240), the highest ratio ever (minimum: 1000 AB).

Only 13 hitters have ever finished with more triples than doubles. Call them the Lance Johnson whippets; Johnson was the last player to turn the feat in 1994. (David Hulse and Luis Polonia are the only other players to turn the trick since 1975.)

It stands to reason that the twain shall never meet. It takes power at the expense of speed to rack up more homers than doubles, and that it takes speed at the expense of power to rack up more triples than doubles. To combine the two--to hit more triples and more homers than doubles--would require a skill set that doesn't exist, right?

Right. Sort of. One player in major league history has done so in a full season, but it was a 19th-century player. What a season it was, though. In 1899, Buck Freeman, a 27-year-old rookie outfielder for the Washington Nationals (in their final season as a National League franchise), almost lit the home-run spark around baseball 20 years before Babe Ruth. Freeman hit just 19 doubles, but roped 25 triples and 25 home runs, an absolutely phenomenal feat.

Not only was Freeman's homer total the second-highest in history to that point (the record holder, Ned Williamson, set his mark in a park with a right-field fence only 240 feet from home plate), but his triple total also ranked tenth in the record books! Freeman combined for 50 hits of three bases or more, which smashed the old mark by a margin of 10 and would remain the record until 1920, when Ruth would break the record with his homers alone.

Unfortunately for Freeman, no one knew any of this at the time, because no one kept any record books; no one even knew who held the single-season homer record until the Babe's assault in 1919 made the question a national story.

In the live-ball era, no player has accomplished the feat in a season of more than 328 at-bats. Which brings us to Wes Covington:

Name             Year  Team              AB   D   T   HR

Wes Covington 1957 Milwaukee (NL) 328 4 8 21 Deion Sanders 1992 Atlanta 303 6 14 8 Jerry Lynch 1954 Pittsburgh 284 4 5 8 Fred Kendall 1972 San Diego 273 3 4 6 Andy Pafko 1955 Milwaukee (NL) 252 3 5 5

Covington's season stands out even among the freaks. Covington and Freeman are the only players in history to hit at least three fewer doubles than either triples or homers. His power surge, freakish as it was, helped the Milwaukee Braves win the World Series. Well, that and Hank Aaron. And Eddie Mathews. And Warren Spahn.

While it's tempting to forge a link between the presence of two Braves on this list with a two-year span (a strange ballpark effect?), I suspect the prime culprit is blind luck. Neon Deion did not consult the Wes Covington manual when he made this list; Sanders, who had six triples by April 18, had the highest ratio of triples to at-bats (minimum: 200 AB) since 1915.

Why bring all this up now? Step right up and see Roger Cedeno and his freakish stat line:

Name Year Team AB D T HR

Roger Cedeno 2000 Houston 249 2 4 6

Cedeno has hit a career-high six home runs in just 249 at-bats, which could be blamed on Enron Field, except that he has as many homers on the road (3) as at home. What's truly freakish about Cedeno's line is the absence of doubles. Only nine times since 1900 has a player hit fewer than two doubles in a season of at least 230 at-bats, the last being Rafael Belliard in 1988, the year he had four triples and no other extra-base hits.

Does all of this really mean anything? Not really. Is it fun to play around with? Sure. And there are dozens of freak stats like this one just waiting to be discovered, which is just another reason why no sport gives the ardent fan more to do during the off-season than baseball.

Rany Jazayerli can be reached at ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Transaction Analysis: September 17-18, 2000

2001-02-15 - Top 40 Prospects In Review: Part One
2001-01-09 - An Early End to Spring
2000-10-02 - Playoff Prospectus
2000-09-20 - Doctoring The Numbers
2000-09-13 - Doctoring The Numbers
2000-08-15 - Doctoring the Numbers
2000-08-10 - Doctoring the Numbers