Clyde, Jody and Francisco

May 27, 2021
                                     Clyde, Jody and Francisco

 

              Just a short article here.  I noticed that Francisco Lindor’s batting averages have gone down with unusual consistency.  He hit .313 as a rookie in 2015, then .301, .273, .277, .284, .258, and then this year he was somewhere in the .150s the last I noticed.  If you just reversed the 2019 and 2017 numbers you would have a perfect ski slope pattern there. 

              It’s not a perfect ski slope, but there is something there. . .what is it?  One thing it is is, his career batting average has never gone up.  His career average after each season is lower than it was after the previous season, probably will be again this year for the sixth straight year.  So then I got to wondering how unusual this is, for a player’s career batting average to go down every year.  

It’s unusual, not tremendously unusual.  By my count there are 38 players in history who, like Lindor coming into this season, had 6-year careers in which their career batting average never went up.   That’s 0-5, by the way; since your career batting average at the end of your first year in the majors is your starting point, it is not otherwise included in the count.  The numbers decrease rapidly as you add years.  Lindor after this season will almost certainly be 0 and 6.  There are 20 players in history who are 0 and 6.  That would be 58 total 0 and 5s, since those who are 0 and 6 were 0 and 5 before they were 0 and 6.  I don’t know how many guys started out 0 and 5; for all I know there was somebody who started out 0 and 5 but wound up 12 and 8 or something.  I didn’t count that. 

Anyway, there are 20 guys in history who were 0 and 6 in their careers; that is, they had a 7-year career in which their batting average never went up.  Yasiel Puig was one of those; not sure whether his career is over or not.  He hit .319 his first year, .296 his second, never brought his career average up.  There are 9 guys who either (a) finished their careers 0 and 8, or (b) are still active and were 0 and 8 coming into the season.  One of those is Khris Davis.  He hit .279 as a rookie, then settled famously into the pattern of hitting .247 every year, then has tailed off from there.  His career average coming in to this season is now .243, so if he can just get back to hitting .247, he’ll have a win, which will break the pattern. 

Five players retired with 0 and 8 logs; that is, 9-year careers in which their career batting never went up.  The most recent of those was Ben Grieve, who hit .312 in a late-season callup in 1997, then won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1998 with a .288 average.  He retired. ..well, his career ended in 2005, with a .269 career average.   He was a good player for about 3-4 years.

The only guy who was 0 and 9 was Paul Casanova.  A disproportionate share of these players are exactly what Casanova was—a good defensive catcher who hit pretty decent as a rookie, didn’t hit his second season, slid gradually into a backup role and retired without having a notable comeback season.  Ronny Paulino is on the list (0-8), Jimmie Schaffer (0-8), Dave Silvestri (0-8), Josh Thole (0-8), Buck Rodgers (0-8).   I think those guys were all catchers, didn’t check. 

Two guys were 0-10, both of whom were pretty decent players, and both second basemen.   One of them you will remember if you are 40 years old or a Red Sox fan; the other one you will know if you thumb through the Encyclopedia much or its modern electronic equivalent.  The latter is Jimmy Williams, who .354 with a league-leading 27 triples in the National League in 1899.   He dropped to .264 in 1900, but in only 106 games, which cut his career batting average to .318.  Jumping to the upstart American League in 1901, he led the American League in triples in its first two seasons, 1901 and 1902, hitting 21 triples each season but with batting averages of .317 and .313—just BARELY below the average that he had carried into the season.  The dead ball era took over baseball after 1902, I think because of the rule that a foul bunt on the third strike was an out.  Williams never hit .300 again, and wound up with a career average of .275. 

The other one is Jody Reed.  Reed hit .300 in a 9-game callup in 1987, then hit .293 as a rookie, then .288, .289, and .283.  He hit only .247 in 1992, which cut his career batting average to .280, but then he hit .276 in 1993, then .271.  Like Williams, he kept just barely missing whatever the standard he had established was.  It is possible—speculative but possible—that Grieve and Reed were driven out of the game because they didn’t start using steroids when a lot of other people did, thus were not quite able to keep up.

Reed and Williams are the record holders—0 and 10—but there is a bigger name in that era of Red Sox history.   Freddie Lynn hit .419 in a 15-game trial at the end of 1974, then hit .331 as a rookie in 1975, winning not only the Rookie of the Year Award by the MVP; you probably all remember that.  These numbers reminded me of another left-handed hitting outfielder, Stan Musial, who hit .426 in a late-season callup, then went on to a career average of .331.  That’s who Lynn was; he was Stan Musial; he just had to stay at that level.   As I am sure you will remember, he didn’t.  After he hit .314 in 1976 he hit under .300 twice in a row, dropping his career mark to .303, but then he hit .333 in 1979; it may be his best season, although he didn’t get another MVP Award.    The 1979 season was a victory for him; it drove his career average up to .309, but then he never had another one.   He wound up his career with one season in which his career batting average went up, but 15 seasons in which it went down. 

And, staying with the Red Sox theme, the only player whose career average NEVER went down, in a career of ten seasons or more, was Clyde Vollmer.  Vollmer was sort of like the poor man’s Hank Sauer. . .same time, same place, similar skills but just not as many of them.  Coming up with the Cincinnati Reds in mid-season 1942, Vollmer hit .093 in 12 games.   Then there was that war thing to deal with; Vollmer didn’t get another shot with Cincinnati until 1946, when he hit .183.  Given 78 games with Cincinnati in 1947, he hit .219, which wasn’t great, but it was better.   That lifted his career batting average to .191.  In 1948 he was released in mid-season having gone just 1-for-9 (.111), which would have ended at two his streak of years improving his career average, but he signed with the Washington Senators, got into one game for the Senators and went 2-for-5, lifting his season’s average to .214 (3 for 14).  In 1949 he was a regular or semi-regular for the Senators, hitting .254.  In 1950, traded to the Red Sox early in the season, he hit .284 as a bit player.  That lifted his career average to .243.  In 1951 he hit .251, lifting his career to .246.   He played three more years, hitting .264, .260 and .256, thus winding up with a career average of .251. 

There used to be a security guard who worked the front door of the Red Sox offices; his name was Ed something, a man both dignified and adorable.  Clyde Vollmer had been his favorite player when he was a kid, for a time.  In July, 1951, Vollmer had a fantastic hot streak, which is all that most people in that generation remembered about him.  He played 26 games in that month, hitting 13 homers and driving in 40 runs.  That’s quite a few, 40 RBI in 26 games.  He actually drove in only one run in the first six games of the month, but then drove in 39 runs in a stretch of 22 games.  Your favorite Hall of Famer never did that. 

You see the point; if you want your career average to go constantly up, you need to start out a low point and walk forward very slowly.   If you start out very high, you’re in danger of being Fred Lynn or Francisco Lindor, always backing away.   In theory, you could start out your career going 0-for-1 in your first season, then hit exactly .200 every year for the rest of your career, and you would always be going up.  Or you could start out your career 5-for-11, then hit .350 every year, and you would always be going down.  To illustrate the point, we have the Pujols brothers, Luis and Albert.  Luis started his career in 1977 hitting .067 and .131, but was able to raise his career average every year.  From 1982 to 1984 he hit .199, .195 and .200 (1-for-5), but those numbers were still enough to push him upward.  In 1985 he got one at bat, but he got a hit, which is 1.000.  So he ended his career as a 1.000 hitter, albeit with a career average of .193.  He is the only player in history who had a 9-year career in which his career average never went down; Vollmer is the only one at 9-0, and Pujols the only one at 8-0. 

Cousin Albert, on the other hand, is 2 and 17 coming into 2021.  Albert hit .329 as a rookie in 2001, and improved his career average when he hit .359 in 2003, and when he hit .357 in 2008.  At that point—8 years into his career—he had a career average of .334.  It hasn’t gone up since, but he’s still trying.  Somewhere about 2008, the St. Louis press tried to nickname him "El Hombre"—homage to Stan "The Man" Musial--but he rejected the nickname because he didn’t want to detract from Musial’s singular status.  This was terrible karma, because "El Hombre" is a great nickname and the idea that it somehow detracted from Musial’s status is stupid, so karma has been punishing him ever since by constantly driving his career batting average lower.  At least that’s my theory.

Anyway, an "up" pattern doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re a good player, and a "down" pattern doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re not a good player.  Francisco Lindor is very unlikely to be steadily downward all of his career.  His career average is now down to .281, so all he has to do is hit .285 sometime, and he’s broken the skid.  The pattern seems mostly irrelevant to greatness.  In history, players increase their career batting averages in 45% of all seasons (not counting rookie seasons), and see their career batting averages decrease 55% of the time. . . .a 9 to 11 ratio.  In 0.3% of all seasons, a player hits exactly what his previous career average was.  Presumably, most of those are seasons in which a player comes into the year with a career average of .000, and leaves with the same average. 

The only player in history to have more "decline" seasons than Albert Pujols was another Hall of Famer, Bobby Wallach (1894-1918), whose career average peaked at .298 in 1897, and who wound up at .268, but with enough defense to step in to Cooperstown.  The record for the number of "up" seasons is 17, by Deacon McGuire, who, like Wallace, strung along his career with a bunch of low-at-bat seasons in the teens.   Two recent players, Harold Baines and Barry Bonds, were both 16-5 in their careers—meaning 16 seasons in which they improved their career batting averages, with only 5 seasons in which their career average went down.  Brian Downing was 15-4, Lou Brock and Torii Hunter were 14-4.  Roberto Clemente was 14-3—started out low, wound up high.  Stan Javier—who was actually named after Stan Musial--was 13-2.  See; that’s good Karma. 

Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Perez were all 9-13.  Ken Griffey Jr., Willie McCovey and Dave Winfield were all 8-13; Hall of Famers Fred Clarke and Cal Ripken Jr. were 7-13.   Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Paul Waner were all 6-13.  Wee Willie Keeler, Frank Thomas, Dave Parker and Willie Wilson were all 5-13. 

 

 Alex Rodriguez, Stan Musial and Willie Mays were all 6-15, six seasons in which their career average went up and 15 in which it went down.  Ichiro was 3-15.  On the plus side, Reggie Jackson, Adrian Beltre and Paul Molitor were all 12-8.  Luke Appling, Max Carey, Gabby Hartnett, David Ortiz and Robin Yount were all 11-8, as was should-be Hall of Famer Dwight Evans.    Babe Ruth was 12-9. 

 

There are two reasons that there are more seasons in which a player’s average goes down than seasons in which it goes up.  One is that more than half of a long career is on the downward slope.  Let us say that a "full" career is ages 20 to 40 and that the peak in at 27; that means that a player has 7 years of improvement and 13 of decline.  This fact has many useful implications. 

The other reason is that most players retire or are released after a bad season, right?    I mean, let’s suppose a player hit .280, .270, .280, .270, .280, .270 from ages 26 to 31.  If he hits .300 at age 32, he’s not going to be released.   If hits .250, he doesn’t want to be in the free agent market that winter. These things cause "down" years to outnumber "up" years, over time, by a ratio of 11 to 9. 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bill James

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

Jack
The story of Fireball Wenz's dad being able to recognize Boo Ferriss in a crowd brings me so much joy.​
10:56 PM May 30th
 
bjames
Fireball Wenz
Bill, you may have heard the Uhhplett/Boudreau story from both. My father liked Dick Bresciani quite a bit as well. Bresh had a stack of old Red Sox photos from the 1940s to the 1980s without IDs in his office, and my Dad and I spent a fun afternoon in the Red Sox offices writing the names of the players on the back, because he would recognize Jerry Casale and Marty Keough and Leon Culberson on sight, and I would handle the Bob Burdas and Cal Koonces and LaSchelle Tarvers. One reason the Red Sox hired my dad as an ambassador was because they did the tryouts during the Ted Williams Night and someone had to go find Boo Ferriss and my father was the only guy in the room who could go into a crowd of 300 people and find Boo Ferriss on sight.


You just can't advertise to fill that position. NEEDED ASAP: person who can pick Walt Dropo out of a crowd of 80-year-olds without giving a second look. Will pay pennies an hour for the right man.
12:45 AM May 29th
 
Fireball Wenz
Bill, you may have heard the Uhhplett/Boudreau story from both. My father liked Dick Bresciani quite a bit as well. Bresh had a stack of old Red Sox photos from the 1940s to the 1980s without IDs in his office, and my Dad and I spent a fun afternoon in the Red Sox offices writing the names of the players on the back, because he would recognize Jerry Casale and Marty Keough and Leon Culberson on sight, and I would handle the Bob Burdas and Cal Koonces and LaSchelle Tarvers. One reason the Red Sox hired my dad as an ambassador was because they did the tryouts during the Ted Williams Night and someone had to go find Boo Ferriss and my father was the only guy in the room who could go into a crowd of 300 people and find Boo Ferriss on sight.
7:49 PM May 28th
 
tkoegel
Oops, apologies Mr. Gill, brain fart by me. CAREER scoring average. You are right. Even when Bellamy's pts/gm went up, it wasn't enough to bring his CAREER ppts/gm.
7:41 PM May 28th
 
tkoegel
I'm not a hoops fan so maybe I don't know what "scoring average" is. But I'm seeing that he scored 18.6 PTS/GM in 1971-1972 after scoring 14.7 in 1970-1971.
6:21 PM May 28th
 
BobGill
tkoegel, why do you say that? I checked the link, and it appears that Bellamy's career scoring average did indeed go down every year. Unless I figured it wrong, of course ...
5:05 PM May 28th
 
tkoegel
Mr. Gill, don't bet that money.

www.basketball-reference.com/players/b/bellawa01.html
4:50 PM May 28th
 
bjames
Dick Bresciani. I heard the complaint about Tommy Umphlett and Lou Boudreau from Dick Bresciani.
4:36 PM May 28th
 
bjames
And be glad for the excuse to talk about Clyde Vollmer, then Sam Mele, then Stan Spence, and complain about Lou Boudreau pushing Dom DiMaggio out for Tommy Umphlett.


I started to say Yeah, I heard that from him (about Boudreau and Tommy Umphlett), but now that I think about it that wasn't actually your Dad I heard that from; that was. . .what the heck was his name. Dick something. He had been the Red Sox PR director at one time, and become the Red Sox historian. He used to rant about Tommy Umphlett and Lou Boudreau, as well.
4:35 PM May 28th
 
BobGill
Getting back (sort of) to the subject of this article, but shifting the focus to basketball, I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that Walt Bellamy's career scoring average declined every year he was in the NBA, which is probably 12 or 13 in a row.

2:20 PM May 28th
 
DaveFleming
God, I loved Jody Reed. Just a terrific, underrated player, and a fine defensive infielder. A good Fenway hitter: he hit his share of doubles off the Monster.
2:04 PM May 28th
 
Fireball Wenz
Dave Stapleton is a member of the club (average going down every year). I was high on him and retained my fondness for him even as he slipped. He hit the hard line drive that struck a kid in the stands - you may remember the photo of Jim Rice carrying the kid off, and may have later read that Rice kept in touch with the family for many years.
11:27 AM May 28th
 
hotstatrat
I was surprised that career batting averages don't go down more often than 55% due to the reasons you mentioned, Bill, and the fact (or my misperception) the batting average is a young person's skill. It is helped by speed on infield hits and possibly reaction time on the pitch?
10:24 AM May 28th
 
wovenstrap
I'm an Indians fan who has followed the career of Lindor very closely. I have a pet theory about Lindor which runs that his decline began the day that he showed up to spring training with the blue hair. Lindor is obviously a fabulously gifted individual with a world-class attitude any team would kill to have. I miss it, as an Indians fan. He is everything you could want from a star player, sincerely.

The problem with the blue hair theory is that I think he had one really stellar year after the dye job. So even on the most basic level it doesn't track — at least I think it doesn't track. But up until then Lindor had been the budding superstar a lot of fans hardly knew about, a spectacular player in all aspects of the game who (one had the feeling) would be willing to sacrifice a year of his life if it meant the Indians might have a better shot at winning the divisional title. After the blue hair, well, even though nothing outwardly had changed, you had the feeling of a prodigiously gifted player who was also very into himself and his image and protecting his interests as a marketing brand. It felt different. I think he thought it was "cute" or "exciting" but it was definitely not cute. It really felt calculated. He was definitely aware of the hype around him, and is comments to the press generally smacked of the very careful things politicians say, which is not something unique to Lindor, for sure. To be clear, I am not judging tattoos or nose rings or hair dye, people should do what they want. But I think if you were doing a kind of psycho-sensual tally of the different elements of Lindor's personality from the perspective of Indians fans, there can be no question that the blue hair was something that, ah, did not take, you might say.
10:17 AM May 28th
 
jwilt
It was the foul strike rule in 1901 (NL), and 1903 (AL) that probably was a big contributor to the deadball era. Prior to that only foul bunts were strikes, swinging fouls were nothing. So you could foul off 23 straight pitches and the count was still 0-0. The story is that Roy Thomas would do something like that all the time, and it would stretch games out to the intolerable length of over two hours.

Foul bunts were made strikes in 1894, which seems to have had absolutely no impact on scoring, runs went up that year by a lot for no apparent reason. They'd moved the pitching distance back to 60' 6" the year prior.
7:24 AM May 28th
 
OBS2.0
Edit: I said Age 3, 4 ,5. What I meant was Age 23, 24 and 25, which also happened to be his career years 3, 4, 5.
1:37 AM May 28th
 
OBS2.0
As you might guess, as a Mets fan, I have been looking hard at our new leader for the next 10.75 years (the $341/10 contract doesn't begin until next year.)

To put it simply, Lindor sold out to the lure of the home run. After his first season batting .313 (which was actually only 99 games and he didn't qualify) he morphed into a power hitter, slugging over 30 HRs in his Age 3,4,5 with a high of 38 in his Age As a counting stat it should be noted that he led the league in plate appearances in 2 of those three years, but his slugging jumped into the .500s and those were the three highest OPS of his qualifying seasons and three highest WAR, and not in declining order.

You tell me, but I think any team would want his Age 24 season in 2018 over his Age 21 and 22 seasons.

Lindor was moved around out of the leadoff to 2nd and 3rd, and one might think that was the reason for trying for power in those roles, but the numbers seem to indicate the opposite.

Edit: okay, I said he sold out, but I suppose you could say he was maturing into his power.


1:35 AM May 28th
 
BobGill
Unrelated to the article, but following on the comments:

My dad was a bit older, did not work for the Red Sox in any capacity, and is no longer around, but oddly enough he also had a recurring gripe that involved Tom Umphlett. His complaint was that the Senators (his team since 1933) had acquired him from the Red Sox in exchange for Jackie Jensen.
1:08 AM May 28th
 
Fireball Wenz
When you burst into public prominence, he would cheerily chide me about having spent so much time as a kid with the Baseball Encyclopedia (I went to the library to read the old Macmillan it in the research room) without figuring out how to make a living with it like you did. Before you, he just asked why I couldn't get interested in the stock market instead. But on Sundays, he'd comb through the sports pages and never look at the financial pages. He was a great dad. Still is. He'll be touched that you remember him. And be glad for the excuse to talk about Clyde Vollmer, then Sam Mele, then Stan Spence, and complain about Lou Boudreau pushing Dom DiMaggio out for Tommy Umphlett.
11:48 PM May 27th
 
bjames
I remember him talking a great deal about his son. Didn't realize it was you.
10:59 PM May 27th
 
Fireball Wenz
And I'm sure that he referred to Clyde Vollmer as "Dutch the Clutch."
8:14 PM May 27th
 
Fireball Wenz
Ed is my dad. Seriously.
8:12 PM May 27th
 
 
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