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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)

Babe Ruth 1923 522 205 93 .393 .478 Babe Ruth 1920 458 172 80 .376 .455 Hugh Duffy 1894 539 237 15 .440 .452 Rogers Hornsby 1924 536 227 32 .424 .450 Babe Ruth 1924 529 200 81 .378 .446 Mo Vaughn 1997 527 166 154 .315 .445 Manny Ramirez 1999 522 174 131 .333 .445

AVG(xK): average when not striking out

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.

Five sixty-nine.

Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.