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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, August 12, 2002
Where have you gone, Mark McGwire? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Late in the evening on September 3, 2001, I was driving around St. Louis, trying to find a place to stay. It was my first time to the city, and I was surprised to find myself on a road called the Mark McGwire ExpresswayI’d never been on a road named after a baseball player before. I admired the civic display of adoration, but I couldn’t help wondering how strong it would remainfor while at that time, the eponymous McGwire’s record of 70 home runs in a single season still stood, the 2001 season was not going well for him.
Earlier that day, in San Diego, McGwire had gone 0-4 for the Cardinals in his first start since August 23; he had been sidelined with a hamstring injury. Fortunately, he was on the right end of a no-hitter, thrown by rookie Bud Smith against the Padres. Unfortunately, both the injury and the 0-4 were typical of his season.
And that same day, in San Francisco, Barry Bonds had hit his 58th home run of the season against the Colorado Rockies, on his way to 73. McGwire’s record would be broken after just three years, and as his reign as the King of the Home Run ended, so did his baseball career, as he quietly retired without the fanfare that marked the departures of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn.
What a shame. For all the praise and renaming of limited-access highways, McGwire was probably underrated. And while I don’t begrudge anyone their decision to retire, whenever a player seems to do so out of a sense of duty, I have to wonder if their team wouldn’t have been better off if they’d stuck around. Tino Martinez, McGwire’s replacement in St. Louis, has a lower OPS than McGwire posted in any of his final ten seaons. Of course, OPS isn’t everything, but it’s also not hard to think that a healthy McGwire could have done a lot better than his 2001 numbers.
And while Bonds breaking McGwire’s record had many positive consequencesfirst among them was Bonds finally getting some credit for being one of the greatest hitters in baseball history—it also had the effect of diminishing McGwire’s accomplishments to some degree. Though McGwire could never rightfully claim a spot among the top echelon of all-around great hitters, it is my belief that he was the most powerful hitter ever to play.
One measure of power I’m fond of is home runs per ball in play. It shows how often a player hits a home run on a ball he’s hit into fair territory. That provides a better measure of opportunity than simply using at bats, because using balls in play doesn’t penalize the hitter for striking out. Between 1901 and 2001, there have been only seven times that a player with at least 300 plate appearances has had a rate higher than .15—which means they hit a home run more than fifteen percent of the time that they put a ball in play. Here are those seven seasons:
NAME HR/BIP YEAR Mark McGwire .200 2000 Mark McGwire .196 1998 Barry Bonds .190 2001 Mark McGwire .169 1999 Mark McGwire .167 1996 Mark McGwire .159 1995 Mark McGwire .155 2001
(It’s noteworthy, by the way, that the next two highest marks were also set in
McGwire utterly dominates this category. In 2000, one in every five of his balls in play resulted in a home run. He was able to hit 32 home runs despite putting only 160 balls in playthe fewest balls in play any other player had while hitting at least 30 home runs was 256 by Kevin Mitchell in 1994. McGwire appears three more times in the top 50 in home runs per ball in play, for a total of nine appearances. Babe Ruth and Sammy Sosa are tied for the second most appearances at four apiece, and Bonds has three.
The same seasons listed above appear in the top ten of some other leaderboards:
Home Runs Per Hit RANK NAME HR/H YEAR 1 Mark McGwire .518 2001 2 Barry Bonds .468 2001 3 Mark McGwire .461 1998 4 Mark McGwire .448 1999 5 Mark McGwire .448 1995 6 Mark McGwire .444 2000 7 Mark McGwire .394 1996 8 Dave Kingman .387 1973 9 Roger Maris .384 1961 10 Barry Bonds .366 1999 Total Bases Per Hit RANK NAME TB/H YEAR 1 Barry Bonds 2.634 2001 2 Mark McGwire 2.625 2001 3 Mark McGwire 2.520 1998 4 Mark McGwire 2.503 1999 5 Mark McGwire 2.494 1995 6 Mark McGwire 2.444 2000 7 Dave Kingman 2.355 1973 8 Barry Bonds 2.355 1999 9 Mark McGwire 2.341 1996 10 Don Mincher 2.309 1964
They also appear in the top ten of OPS divided by batting average, which—while far from being a perfect stat—provides a quick and interesting glance into which players are better than their batting average might indicate. (Interestingly, among the leaders in this category are both Jay Buhner and Ken Phelps.)
RANK NAME OPS/BA YEAR 1 Mark McGwire 4.312 2001 2 Barry Bonds 4.206 2001 3 Mark McGwire 4.100 1995 4 Mark McGwire 4.093 1998 5 Mark McGwire 4.027 2000 6 Mark McGwire 4.025 1999 7 Rob Deer 3.918 1991 8 Barry Bonds 3.841 1999 9 Mark McGwire 3.838 1996 10 Dave Kingman 3.831 1964
Last year was a notable one for McGwire. His .808 OPS in 2001 was the highest ever by a player hitting below the Mendoza Line, followed by Roger Repoz and his 1971 mark of .707. It may have been the most underrated season ever by batting average. Hits didn’t come easily for McGwire, but when they did come, over half of them were home runs. And he averaged more bases per hit than anyone else ever except Bonds in 2001.
Given the possibility of healthier times for McGwire, and the flukish nature of batting average, it’s tempting to speculate as to how he might have done in 2002 and beyond. In any case, he had a spectacular career putting up some of the best power numbers ever. For that, he deserves a great deal of credit.
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