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Hitting .300 doesn't mean you're a hit

"He's been awful, the most unproductive
.300 hitter in baseball."

George Steinbrenner, on Don Mattingly

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
August 28, 1988

When "The Boss" shot his mouth off at the All-Star break, he included some nasty comments about some of his other "big-money players."

He called Dave Winfield, who was batting .356 with 60 RBIs at the time, a "me-first" ballplayer and chastised Ricky Henderson for sitting down because of injuries and then playing in the All-Star Game.

Most everyone rushed to Mattingly's defense. They pointed out that despite playing hurt, he was batting .310 with six homers and 21 doubles. The outpouring of support was overwhelming and coupled with a typical post All-Star Game hitting explosion by Mattingly it forced Steinbrenner to apologize.

"I'm backing off, I've got to back off," he groveled. "I wasn't calling Don Mattingly a bum. I just was saying Don Mattingly hasn't given me the kind of production he has in the past. His .310 has been unproductive.

"I'm sorry that it came out wrong about Don Mattingly and you can quote me," he said. Everyone did.

But no one took the time to analyze whether Big George was on the mark or not -- probably because no one is paid to grind out a weekly column on the statistical aspects of the National Pasttime. Except me.

Just how productive was Mattingly at the break compared to other .300 hitters? Steinbrenner might have been talking just about .300 hitters this year, but George is a man who sees the big picture. I'll bet he was looking down that long road toward the pantheon of the gods to Cooperstown and measuring Mattingly against all the great ones who had gone before him.

Well, I may be a fool for numbers, but I'm not about to research the productivity of every .300 hitter who ever lived. You'll have to settle for the 164 players between 1982 and the present who qualify, including this year's hitters as of last Monday.

Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of the .300 hitters are in the American League; 100 to be exact. A number of factors, including differences in ballparks, managerial philosophies, umpiring, pitching and the DH, make it hard to compare hitters from the two leagues. So, we'll limit the field and assume that when Steinbrenner called Mattingly "the most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball" he was referring to just American Leaguers.

Speaking of assumptions, let's make one more. Let's assume that when Steinbrenner called Mattingly "unproductive" he meant that Don wasn't contributing to the scoring of runs. As we've tried to hammer home in the very space, there is a surprisingly low correlation between batting average and scoring runs.

While it's hard to be an unproductive .300 hitter, Damaso Garcia, Johnny Ray, Al Oliver and Marty Barrett have proven it's possible to be a mediocre .300 hitter.

Steinbrenner's caterwauling probably had something to do with men he saw left on base in crucial situations, or some other unreliable, subjective criterion for measuring productivity.

A far better way (though not the only way) to translate a hitter's performance into its run production value is by using Runs Created Per Game, a formula devised by baseball stat guru Bill James.

The formula is outlined in the tiniest of type beneath the accompanying chart, but basically it's a stat that sucks up a plethora of numbers like at-bats, hits, extra-base hits, walks, stolen bases, etc., then breaks them down to a theoretical per-game status, and spits out a single number that tells you how many runs a team would theoretically score if it had nine such players in the lineup.

For instance, last year Wade Boggs parlayed a .363 average, 24 homers, 40 doubles and a slew of other impressive stats into an RC/Game of 10.97. Boggs not only wracked up the top RC/Game on the list, five of his six full years in the majors are among the top 12. The sixth was in '84 and ranks 66th out of 164.

Remember, this list doesn't include all the most productive hitters, just those who impressed the hell out of Joe Garagiola by batting .300 or higher. It excludes, for instance, Jack Clark's '87 season that would have ranked 1st on this list for National Leaguers, as well as the '87 seasons of Dale Murphy and Eric Davis that would have placed them forth and fifth, respectively.

Another man shortchanged by the .300 limitation is Pedro Guerrero, who claims the 3rd, 4th and 12th spots on the NL list but would also have checked in at the No. 17 position if he had hit two points higher in '83.

As it is, only Tim Rains shows up on the NL side of the chart as often as Guerrero.

As for Don Mattingly, he's represented on the list for his accomplishments of '84 through '87, but not for '88. As of Monday, he ranked 59th among American Leaguers at 6.61, but when Steinbrenner unleashed his tongue, Mattingly's RC/Game was 6.24, good for only 77th spot on the list.

An RC/Game of 6 is considered good, 7 is very good, 8 is excellent and 9 is other-worldly. Mattingly regularly hovers around the 8.5 mark, so for Steinbrenner to bemoan the 6.24 RC/Game of his troubled, extra-terrestrial super-star is understandable.

But was Mattingly "the most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball?" Please: You insult the memory of Bill Buckner.

American LeagueNational League



13.Evans Dw.'87.3058.65Sandberg'84.3147.29

16.Mattingly'84.3438.15Clark W.'87.3087.09

* Ave is Batting Average
* RC/G, or Runs Created Per Game, represents the theoretical number of runs a team would score per game with nine such players in the lineup. RC/G is derived after first computing Runs Created: RC = (Hits + Walks - Caught Stealing) x (Total Bases + .55 x Stolen Bases) / (AtBats + Walks)