The Most Powerless Modern .400 Seasons

Chris Getz hit his first home run in 1,144 plate appearances against Atlanta last night. It was rather overshadowed when the Braves smacked three home runs off of Kelvin Herrera in the eighth inning as if they had a whole lineup full of Chris Getzes. Getz does not have much power, but he does make up for it with other skills. Yeah, right. Getz is off to a pretty hot start (for him, certainly) this year, but he is a pretty terrible hitter. Over 1351 career plate appearances, he has a .258/.314/.323 (.286 wOBA) line. His utter lack of power is only part of the problem.

There have been hitters who have excelled without much power, of course. Even before Getz’s shot off of Kris Medlen, I had been thinking about looking at hitters who managed big numbers without much power. Baseball fans like benchmarks: 500 home runs, .300 batting average, 100 runs batted in, 20 wins. Some of them may be more telling regarding a player’s actual value than others, but we understandably like those standard numbers. So I decided to look at .400 hitters — well, .400 wOBA hitters. I think of a .400 on-base percentage as an “awesomeness benchmark,” and since wOBA is scaled on on-base percentage, it works well enough.

For the sake of historical curiosity, here are some of the .400 wOBA seasons with the fewest home runs.

I chose to limit the search to players with at least 500 plate appearances in a season. I also limited it to seasons from 1955 on, as the linear weights used as the basis for wOBA are best suited to that era. Initially, I just wanted a list of five players, but there were three two-way ties, so it will be a list of six players with the fewest home runs and at least a .400 wOBA (yes, wRC+ adjusts for park and era, but I enjoy the obviousness of the .400 wOBA baseline). Some players, like Chuck Knoblauch in 1995 and Keith Hernandez in 1979, just missed the list. Perhaps there are not too many surprises here, but hopefully it will be of interest to someone besides me nonetheless.

Two-Way Tie With Seven Home Runs

Tony Gwynn, 1987: .409 wOBA (153 wRC+), .380/.447/.511. This is hardly a shock. It was probably the best year of Gwynn’s career (Gwynn had better rate stats in 1994, but that season was cut short by a strike). Gwynn had seasons with a little more power, and, of course, he almost never struck out. The main difference between this season and Gwynn’s other big years is that the walk rate easily the highest of his career: 12.1 percent as opposed to his 7.7 career walk rate.

Joe Cunningham, 1959: .414 wOBA (145 wRC+), .345/.354/.478. This might be called a “surprise,” but I am not sure that is really the proper word given that I am pretty sure I had no idea who Cunningham was before I did this query. Does that make me a bad baseball fan? Given that he is less known than (and hardly in the same league as) the others discussed here, he deserves a bit more space. Cunningham was not even a superstar in his time, and only made the All-Star Game once, in this season, and he led baseball with a .453 on-base percentage, edging out The Walking Man, Eddie Yost (Cunningham finished second to Hank Aaron for the National League batting title).

Cunningham was a very similar hitter to Yost, his rough contemporary. Neither had much power, although they were not utterly powerless. Both had very low strikeout rates, but obviously, given their high walk rates, they were not hackers, either. While 1959 was the year for which he is probably best remembered (and the lack of home runs is what gets it onto this list), Cunningham was probably better in 1958 (.421 wOBA) and just as good in 1957. Cunningham in on no one’s list of all-time greats, but he did have some excellent seasons with the bat. Learning about players like Cunningham is a big reason for doing posts like this.

Two-Way Tie With Five Home Runs

Wade Boggs, 1983: .416 wOBA (155 wRC+), .361/.444/.486. This is about as unexpected as Gwynn being on here. Let’s see who he is tied with…

Wade Boggs, 1988: .427 wOBA (167 wRC+), .366/.476/.490. Boggs has two other seasons in the top ten, his 1985 and 1986 seasons in which he hit only eight home runs. Like Gwynn (a very different hitter, of course), there is not much left to write about Boggs that has not been written before. The 1983 season was his first full season, and all the ingredienst were there: almost not strikeouts, very good walk rate, and tons of doubles. While 1988 was pretty clearly Boggs’ best season with the bat due to the 24 home runs, 1987 was much of a “Wade Boggs” season, as it included a higher walk rate, a lower strikeout rate, and very few home runs. For perspective: last year Miguel Cabrera had .4127 wOBA with 44 home runs, an awesome year with the bat. Yet Boggs’ had a higher wOBA 1988 despite just five home runs and a .123 ISO.

Two-Way Tie With Three Home Runs

Rod Carew, 1974, .401 wOBA (153 wRC+), .364/.433/.446. Another all-timer about whom I have nothing to add. This is a list of excellent hitting seasons despite a lack of power, so obviously a relative lack of power is something all these players share. How such players doing it generally breaks down into two categories: either they take tons of walks like Boggs, Cunningham, and the last player on the list, or they are hackers who do not walk that much but maintain very high BABIPS, as with Gwynn and Carew.

None of these players struck out much, but it is interesting that early in his career (certainly before this season), while Carew was not Mark Reynolds or anything, he did have strikeout rates in the mid-teens. By 1974, that was pretty much over, as he only struck out in about seven percent of his plate appearances. Carew’s walk rate was also improving at this point in his career, so it was a unfair to classify him as being a “very talented hacker” as I may have above. This was not his best season with the bat, but it was one of them, despite a lack of power even by his standards.

Richie Ashburn, 1955, .409 wOBA (147 wRC+), .338/.449/.448. Ashburn is an endearing and much-loved character in baseball history. One of my favorite Bill James quotes is about Ashburn, and rather than repeating here, I will refer the reader to another post I did along similar lines as couple of years ago. What is really funny is that in 1955 Ashburn had the highest single-season ISO of his career at .111. I guess if Chris Getz wants to look anywhere for hope, he should look to Ashburn. How Ashburn managed a .396 on-base percentage with a number of walks when he was just about no threat to hit one out is amazing to me.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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I would declare Carew the champ based on his .082 ISO. What’s sad is the number of corner IF or OF in this list, positions you’d expect power from.


My picks:

John McGraw, 1899: 1 HR, .494 WOBA
Hughie Jennings, 1896: 0 HR, .461 WOBA
George Sisler, 1922: 8 HR, .481 WOBA
Roy Thomas, 1900: 0 HR, .401 WOBA*
Nap Lajoie, 1906, 0 HR, ,413 WOBA

* As a specific response to Thomas, who was known for fouling off every pitch in the strike zone, sometimes more than 20 in a row, the NL changed its rules after this season to make fouls strikes up to strike 2. Made no difference to Thomas, who continued to lead his league in walks every year.