In 2021, the Mendoza line is not so scary

Even baseball fans who don’t like stats know the batting average. If it starts with a 4, it’s historically good. Starting with a 3 is ...


Even baseball fans who don’t like stats know the batting average. If it starts with a 4, it’s historically good. Starting with a 3 is good, a 2 is good, and if it starts with a 1… well, even a casual fan knows it’s time to send that player down the miners.

But this season, as baseball’s collective batting average has dropped to 0.243, the dreaded “1” is appearing more and more. Batters, emboldened by teams that prioritize power over consistency, swing more and more for fences, and with that their averages have dropped. Many even fell below 0.200, a threshold known as the Mendoza line, which was named in honor of Mario Mendoza, a lightweight fielder in the 1970s.

In Thursday’s games, 20 players with at least 200 home plate appearances – enough to be considered regulars – were hitting below 0.200. At the end of the season, they could be joined by several more who are approaching those thresholds in terms of batting averages or home plate appearances.

In the last full season, 2019, there were only 15 of these players. Further on, it was difficult to keep a place in the list with such a low average. Twenty years ago, in 2001, there were only five hitters below 0.200, and 50 years ago, in 1971, there were six.

A player who reaches less than 0.200 can keep his job for a variety of reasons. Maybe the manager expects the player to improve. Maybe he’s a youngster who needs to be at bat. Or maybe the options behind it are even worse.

But some of these Mendoza Line hitters bring real value to their teams. That’s because, of course, the batting average doesn’t tell the whole story.

Take Paul DeJong of the St. Louis Cardinals, who hits .196 in 370 home plate appearances. He’s playing a great shortstop, a key defensive stance and has 17 homers. Baseball reference gives him 1.3 WAR, the best total among our under-200 hitters.

Ryan Jeffers of the Minnesota Twins also does his job. Despite hitting .199, he has scored 13 homers in 277 home plate appearances and plays the popular receiver position. His base slugging percentage over 0.673 is by no means an All-Star caliber, but he leads the group below 0.200.

The Reds’ Eugenio Suarez is hitting .183, but has been put home 535 times, the most players in the group. He stayed in the lineup by hitting 27 home runs, which is 31.4% of his 86 hits.

Unfortunately, some hitters hitting under .200 don’t have much else to show for their seasons. They just can’t hit. At the bottom of the table is the Pirates’ Michael Perez, who hits 0.141, the lowest single-season rating this century for a player with 200 or more home plate appearances. Perez has to be a very good receiver to endure this ineffectiveness as a hitter.

Brewers outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is hitting .163, without a lot of power and with few walks. This gives it an OPS of just 0.501. It would be even worse if he hadn’t shown a knack for getting hit with throws – 10 times this season. He’s great defensively and can play all outfield positions, which is why he continued to bat.

Per WAR, the weakest players are Suarez and Jarred Kelenic, a 21-year-old outfielder for the Mariners. Among the game’s top prospects heading into this season, Kelenic has 13 home runs, but his .602 OPS isn’t great and his defensive numbers are pretty poor.

While none of the under .200 players are a Class A asset this season, a few players who flirt with the Mendoza Line are actually quite valuable.

Joey Gallo, who traded from the Rangers to the Yankees this year, reached .204, but would be welcome on just about any baseball team. While he leads the majors in strikeouts, he also leads the AHL in marches, with 109. Add 38 home runs and Gallo has an .837 OPS to round out his top tier defense, which totaled 4.8 WAR. Sure, the Yanks would love it if Gallo could hit .300 – or even .250 – but his skill set makes him a real asset despite the batting average.

The Padres’ Ha-Seong Kim hits .206, but plays an infield so solid his WAR is a respectable 2.0.

And what about Mario Mendoza, the player whose name has been linked to mediocrity for decades. Was he unfairly maligned by myopic focus on the batting average? Did he have any hidden skills that helped his team?

Well, not on the plate. Mendoza played nine seasons with the Pirates, Mariners and Rangers from 1974 to 1982. While his career average was 0.215, he had five seasons in which his average fell below the dreaded line which carries her name.

He didn’t add much else to the offense: His best season based percentage was 0.286, and his hitting percentage was only over 0.300 once. He played semi-regularly in just two seasons, 1979 and 1980, with a poor Mariners team; his best goal total in those years was 16 and his best home total was two.

But he was playing shortstop, a difficult position to fill, and enjoyed a good defensive reputation, including the nickname of Man with Silk Hands. And after his major league career ended, he returned to Mexico where he long served as a player-coach in the Mexican leagues.

In 2000, he was inducted into the Mexican League Hall of Fame. His lifetime average was 0.239.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In 2021, the Mendoza line is not so scary
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