10 Mind-Blowing Statistical Oddities from MLB History
Because the coronavirus pandemic has put Major League Baseball's future up in the air, there's no time like the present to dig deep into the league's past.
There are "10"—the quotation marks are there because these 10 actually contain multitudes—that we think the world ought to know about. Some are more obscure than others, and not all of them necessarily have a point. But if nothing else, they're things to tell your friends.
We'll begin with five for hitters and end with five for pitchers, and we'll go backward in time for each. Just not as far back as the 1800s, as those were the days when baseball was weird by default.
Sammy Sosa Was Both a History-Making and an Also-Ran Slugger
The strange part, however, is that Sosa didn't lead the league in homers during any of those three seasons. And while he did collect home run titles with 50 in 2000 and 49 in 2002, he led the league in slugging percentage neither during those two seasons nor in any other throughout his 18-year career.
So where are Sosa's records? As noted by MLB.com's Sarah Langs, the 292 homers he hit between 1998 and 2002 are the most over any five-year span in history. Further, his 279 homers between 1997 and 2001 and 266 homers between 1999 and 2003 rank second and third, respectively.
Nobody Took 'Em for the Team Like Ron Hunt
If there's a record that the average hitter would prefer not to set, it's probably the single-season mark for hit-by-pitches.
Mind you, we're using the word "somehow" facetiously. Whereas taking one for the team is a happenstance thing for most hitters, Hunt turned it into an art form. Though his 50 HBPs in '71 were easily his high-water mark, that was but one of six straight seasons in which he led MLB in plunkings.
Ultimately, 4 percent of Hunt's 6,158 plate appearances resulted in a hit-by-pitch. That's about twice the rate at which Craig Biggio got hit en route to his all-time record for the category.
Even During Joe DiMaggio's Finest Hour, Ted Williams Was Better
The 1941 season was one for extraordinary hitting feats. It was the year not only of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, but also Ted Williams' .406 batting average.
Between the two marks, DiMaggio's hit streak has more often been romanticized. After all, Williams wasn't the first batter to hit .400. Nobody had hit in 56 straight games before DiMaggio, and only Pete Rose (44 games in 1978) has come even remotely close in 79 years since then.
But hit streak, mit streak.
DiMaggio wasn't even the league's best hitter while his streak was going on. That distinction belonged to Williams, who saw DiMaggio's .408 average and 1.181 OPS between May 15 and July 16 and raised him a .412 average and 1.224 OPS.
Meaningful? Eh, not really. But it's one of many feathers in the cap of the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Joe Sewell Was a True 1-Percenter
At a time when the leaguewide strikeout rate is getting higher every season, we should all be able to appreciate Joe Sewell.
In a Hall of Fame career that lasted 14 seasons between 1920 and 1933, he racked up a .312 average and won two World Series. He also struck out a grand total of—drum roll, please—114 times.
Granted, this was before integration. Sewell also got to face the same seven teams over and over again, and those teams weren't loaded with the kind of live-armed hurlers who are commonplace in today's MLB.
Still, 114 strikeouts out of 8,332 total plate appearances is an otherworldly rate of 1.4 percent. At that rate, Sewell would require an additional 7,967 plate appearances just to match Mark Reynolds' single-season record of 223 strikeouts.
Babe Ruth's 1920 Season Boggles the Mind
More so than simply whether he did at all, a more interesting question regards precisely when Babe Ruth changed baseball forever.
Our vote is for 1920. That was Ruth's first season with the New York Yankees, and it ultimately yielded a .376/.532/.847 batting line and 54 home runs. Notably, those home runs were:
- 25 more than his record-setting 29 from 1919
- 35 more than the runner-up for 1920
- More than any non-Yankees team in the American League
For baseball, there was no going back after this. Home runs promptly proliferated throughout the 1920s, and the league's overall home run rate has remained on a steady uphill trend ever since.
Though some have fallen, many of Ruth's records still stand. Included among them is his .847 slugging percentage from 1920, which is still a high-water mark for the American League.
A Moment of Appreciation for Aroldis Chapman's Velocity
Though we obviously don't have velocity data for all of baseball history, it's good enough that we now have 12 years' worth of numbers for an era marked by ever-increasing fastball velocity.
If there's anything to be gleaned from it all, it's that Aroldis Chapman almost certainly has the best arm baseball has ever seen.
Perhaps this isn't the hottest take, but we figure it's still worth contextualizing just how alone Chapman stands among his fellow velocity maestros. To wit, he's thrown 81 of the 100 fastest pitches recorded since 2008. He's also thrown 2,115 more fastballs of at least 100 mph than the next guy (Jordan Hicks).
Altogether, Chapman has cracked 100 mph on 32.1 percent of his pitches. That effectively means he's hit triple digits more frequently than any qualified hitter has gotten hits over the last dozen years.
Nolan Ryan Wasn't Just Good at No-Hitters
Speaking of noted purveyors of hard fastballs, Nolan Ryan used his heater to plaster his name all over baseball's record books.
But why stop at his no-hitters? After all, Ryan also holds at least a share of the all-time leads for one-hitters (12), two-hitters (18) and three-hitters (32). All told, he had 69 total starts in which he went the distance and allowed no more than three hits.
When Bert Blyleven Served 'Em Up Faster Than Anyone Could Hit 'Em
Bert Blyleven had a great career that was finally deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame in 2011, so what befell him in 1986 was ultimately no harm, no foul.
And yet we can't help but be fascinated by the 50 home runs he gave up in his 36 starts that year. That still stands as a single-season record, and that's not even the weirdest part.
Though home runs did spike to 0.91 per game in 1986, the league leader on the hitting side of things (Jesse Barfield) only made it to 40 long balls. That was the first time there had ever been a 10-homer gap between the league's leading pitcher and the league's leading hitter—and, to date, also the last time.
To boot, here's some fun math: In 2019, 36 starts with a home run rate 48 points higher than the league average would have put Blyleven at 67 home runs allowed.
Steve Carlton's Great and Terrible Pickoff Move
Nothing was more instrumental in getting Steve Carlton into the Hall of Fame than his slider, which is arguably the best there's ever been.
Albeit to a lesser degree, Calton was also known for his superb pickoff move to first base. He's credited with 146 pickoffs at Baseball Reference, though other sources put the number at 144. Either way, it's an all-time record.
But as effective as it was, Carlton's pickoff move evidently wasn't perfect. This is apparent in the reality that he also racked up 90 career balks, twice as many as any other pitcher.
In case anyone's wondering, this wasn't "Balkin'" Bob Davidson's fault. The notoriously balk-loving umpire was behind the plate for only six of Carlton's 741 career games.
The Silver Lining in Luis Tiant's Worst Season
When 1968 gave way to 1969, the best season of Luis Tiant's career was promptly followed by his worst.
In fairness to Tiant, he pitched through injuries in 1969. His struggles also didn't preclude him from finding stardom again, as he went on to become an All-Star and Cy Young Award contender for the Boston Red Sox in the 1970s.
Besides, his '69 campaign wasn't a total loss. He somehow made it through the year with exactly zero wild pitches. It's not often that a pitcher does that while also logging over 240 innings, and only Tiant has ever done so with as many as 129 walks on the side.