Falling Down the Baseball Rabbit Hole

How one simple inquiry can turn into an unforeseen clicking journey.

Everybody has done this. You’re sitting on the couch, perhaps with a beverage of sorts. The television is on in the background even though you’re not watching. It’s been a long day and the time for relaxation has finally come. You open up your laptop.

“How often did Marcus Stroman use his slider in 2015?”, you think to yourself. Perhaps you needed to know for a blog post you were working on. Perhaps you’re trying to make a point in a petty Twitter argument. For whatever reason, you simply needed to know. After the answer has been found (16.4 percent of the time), you can return to whatever it is that you were going to do.

Three hours pass.

“Oh wow, Manny Ramirez appeared in five games with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011? I forgot about that!”

It is now midnight. The time has passed in what seems like the blink of an eye. Work starts in seven hours. You still need to take that laundry out of the dryer. Alas, the internet rabbit hole has claimed another victim. Like anyone, I too have wandered down many internet rabbit holes in my day. Youtube videos, baseball stats, memes, you name it. The worst rabbit hole recently that I have found myself falling victim to has been the Tik Tok rabbit hole. I am not proud to admit that Tik Tok has swallowed me for hours at a time. It is not healthy.

Oh well. Such is life.

Recently, one of my baseball dives began on a 2019 leaderboard looking at one of my favorite metrics in the game, hard-hit rate. Why? I was intrigued by Nelson Cruz‘s ability to consistently make hard contact at such an old age (2019 was his age-38 season). That year, Cruz had a hard-hit rate of 52.5 percent. This is the third-highest single-season hard-hit rate to date, or at least since 2002, the year this metric started being measured. For another article, the plan was to compare his knack for making hard contact to other aging stars of the past.

Aging stars of the past? Starting in the year 2002 or later? Visiting Barry Bonds’ Fangraphs page seemed like the perfect place to start. In 2004, at age 39, Bonds had a 46.3 percent hard-hit rate. Not quite on Cruz’s level, but still elite nonetheless. After uncovering the particular stat I originally set out to find, I found myself marveling at Bonds’ early 2000s stats. This is not new. Many baseball fans have probably done this. What can I say though, every time I look, my mind is blown.

In that ’04 season, Bonds’ wRC+ of 233 was beyond comprehension. Pitchers had zero interest in giving him anything to hit. His walk rate reflected that, sitting at 37.6 percent (all-time single-season record). The treatment of Bonds at the plate in the years after he broke the single-season home run record was unlike anything ever seen. Opposing pitchers were so afraid to pitch to him, it is possible that he still would have been productive, even without a bat. His on-base percentage of .609 was also an all-time single-season record. To top everything off, his fWAR was a godly 11.9. 

After a few minutes of immersing myself within the Bonds’ statistical trance, it was official. I no longer cared about looking up aging stars’ hard-hit rates. That article could wait. I had fallen down the rabbit hole. The reasoning for looking up any particular stat was gone. At this current moment, I needed to know if any other player age 39 or older had ever had a season with an fWAR even close to 11.9. Nothing else mattered.

The answer is no.  No player of that age has come remotely close to replicating Bonds’ ’04 season. The second greatest season ever by a position player age 39 or older came from Willie Mays in 1971. At age 40, the Say Hey Kid had an fWAR of 5.9, about half that of what his godson would produce 33 years later. Interestingly enough, I now found myself looking at Mays’ Fangraphs page.

The thing that caught my eye most was the fact that Mays had four separate seasons in which his fWAR exceeded 10. New question. In the history of MLB, has any other position player had four or more such seasons? In total, there have been 54 individual seasons in which a position player has reached that mark. Since 2000, there have been nine. Babe Ruth himself did it nine times. Rogers Hornsby did it six times. Bonds had five such seasons. And like Mays, Ted Williams also did it four times. That’s it though. That’s the list. Looking at active players, Mike Trout has a chance to reach four career 10 fWAR seasons. He currently sits at two. The only other active players with at least one such season are Mookie Betts (2018, 10.4) and Buster Posey (2012, 10.1). Having one season with an fWAR of at least 10 is an incredible feat. Having multiple is legendary. A player that has four or more is an all-time great. What about pitchers though?

On the mound, a 10 fWAR season is a much rarer feat. Because WAR is a counting stat and pitchers appear in far fewer games than position players do, getting to 10 is a much tougher thing to do. For a pitcher, this type of season has happened just 21 times. 13 of those seasons came in the 1800s and required 500 plus innings to reach. In the last 50 years, there have been five 10 fWAR seasons from a pitcher.

Crazily enough, the greatest individual season ever from a pitcher came from Pedro Martinez in 1999 (11.6 fWAR). Why is that crazy? Of every pitcher to have a season in which they were worth 10 or more fWAR, ’99 Martinez threw the least amount of innings (213.1). The only other pitchers in history to rack up more than 10 fWAR while throwing less than 300 innings were Roger Clemens in 1997 (10.7, 264) and Randy Johnson in 2001 (10.4, 249.2). Johnson is the last pitcher to do it. As an aside, the last pitcher to toss 300 or more innings in a season was Steve Carlton in 1980. This millennium, 2003 Roy Halladay has the highest single-season innings total at 266.

With the way pitchers’ arms are preserved today, it’s fair to ask whether or not we will see a pitcher post a 10 fWAR season ever again. In 2018, Jacob deGrom came close (9.0). 2015 Clayton Kershaw also gave it a good run (8.6). That said, starters are throwing less and less every year. If a pitcher were to have a 10 fWAR season again, it would take an all-time ’99 Marinez-like performance.

My rabbit hole dive concluded with a look at Martinez’s insane ’99 season. With the common theme of this dive being general greatness, it felt right to end it with the greatness of Martinez. Of his 29 starts that year, six resulted in him recording 15 or more strikeouts. 19 resulted in him fanning at least 10. His strikeout rate of 37.5 percent was the single-season record until broken by Gerrit Cole (39.9 percent) in 2019. Funny enough, Cole’s record was broken by Bieber (41.1 percent) in last year’s 60-game sprint.

Martinez was specifically dominant over his final 12 games (10 starts) of the regular season. In 77 innings, he was unhittable giving up 11 earned runs (1.29 ERA) on 44 hits. He struck 126 batters and walked 13. Over that span, opponents hit .163/.212/.245 against him. Martinez was also electric during the postseason pitching 17 scoreless frames. Let’s also not forget about his All-Star Game performance that year.

Of the nine home runs Martinez did let up that season, a majority came from stars of that era. Guys like Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome, Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Tejada, and Ryan Klesko were all fortunate enough to take Martinez deep. The final home run Martinez surrendered that year came against the New York Yankees on September 10, in a start where he struck out a season-high, 17 batters. The player that hit that home run was none other than three-time All-Star, Chili Davis. His solo shot was the Yankees’ only hit that game.

1999 was Davis’ age-39 and final season. His fWAR that year was 1.1, good for the 44th greatest age-39 season of all time and 14 spots behind that of Nelson Cruz (2.0). Sadly for Cruz, the shortened 2020 season stifled his opportunity to make age-39 history. Had he been given a full slate of games, he surely would’ve had the chance at possessing a top-five all-time age-39 season. That said, Cruz has shown no signs of stopping. He should have ample opportunity to one way or another make age-40 history in 2021.

With that, the time has come to snap back to reality.

What was the point of falling down that rabbit hole? In my opinion, there was none, and that’s the beauty of it. Although I’ve seemingly wasted the past few hours looking at a screen, I’m not all mad about it. Sure, it is well past midnight. No, I haven’t even started that laundry. And yes, I do have to wake up in a few hours. That doesn’t bother me though. At the end of the day, I will always find a way to carve out a bit of time to do this. Sometimes it’s okay to unplug from the world and lose yourself elsewhere. Whether it’s reading a great book, listening to an awesome album, or falling down the baseball rabbit hole looking at stats, it doesn’t matter. Losing yourself elsewhere for a bit of time is one of the purest ways of living in the moment, even if we don’t realize it.

 

Design by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)

Nathan Hursh

Nathan Hursh has been a baseball fan for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Pittsburgh and loves the Pirates. Don't hold that against him though, he has suffered enough because of it. Find Nathan on Twitter and Instagram at Nathan_Hursh.

  • Avatar Erik says:

    Who makes the article artwork?! Cruz in a top hat is priceless.

  • Avatar Ryan says:

    I’ve often thought been impressed by the artwork put together for Pitcher List articles. I’d say they’re the best around.

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