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
1996 Rudy Pemberton 41 21 .512 1947 Gil Coan 42 21 .500 1919 Eddie Murphy 35 17 .486 1980 Gary Ward 41 19 .463 1991 Scott Cooper 35 16 .457
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
1998 Craig Wilson 47 22 .468 1894 Hugh Duffy 539 237 .440 1927 Babe Ganzel 48 21 .438 1887 Tip O'Neill 517 225 .435 1925 Walter Johnson 97 42 .433
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
1998 Shane Spencer 27 67 .403 1943 Joe Cronin 29 77 .377 1953 Ted Williams 34 91 .374 1952 Jim Greengrass 24 68 .353 1922 Reb Russell 75 220 .341
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
1998 Shane Spencer 61 67 .910 1953 Ted Williams 82 91 .901 1920 Babe Ruth 388 458 .847 1921 Babe Ruth 457 540 .846 1927 Babe Ruth 417 540 .772
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
1998 J.D. Drew 35 36 .972 1998 Shane Spencer 61 67 .910 1953 Ted Williams 82 91 .901 1993 Sam Horn 28 33 .848 1920 Babe Ruth 388 458 .847
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
2000 Chris Stynes 125 59 .472 1894 Hugh Duffy 539 237 .440 1887 Tip O'Neill 517 225 .435 1876 Ross Barnes 322 138 .429 1901 Nap Lajoie 544 232 .426
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.
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