Big Fat Zero

Nearly 1,000 times in baseball history, a big-league hitter has qualified for the batting title and hit no home runs. Fourteen more players are angling to join that group this year, having hit zero homers so far while still compiling the required 3.1 plate appearances per team game.

One of those players, amazingly, incomprehensibly, is David Ortiz.

 
It's unlikely all 14 players will end the season in such a state. They'll either hit a home run in one of the 500 or so plate appearances they have left, or they'll continue to struggle so badly that their available at-bats will dry up and they'll fall short of qualifying.
In fact, since 2000, only five players have ever finished a season with no home runs while playing full-time — Rey Sanchez in 2001, Scott Podsednik and Jason Kendall in 2005, and Reggie Willits and Juan Pierre in 2007. This happened a lot more often before the mid 1990s and the offensive explosion. Thirty-nine players did it in the 1980s, and after six players did it through 1992, only three more did it the rest of the decade.
These hitters historically have played the three classically offense-deficient positions: Second base, shortstop and center field. None has ever been a full-time designated hitter. Kendall in 2005 was the only catcher to do so since 1945. The last first baseman was 40- and 42-year-old Pete Rose in 1980 and 1983. Ron Hunt in 1974 was the last third baseman, and Greg Gross in 1974 was the last right fielder. A surprising number of left fielders, including Podsednik have accomplished this ignoble feat in recent years.
It is nigh impossible for David Ortiz ultimately to join this list. He will certainly hit at least one home run this year, and if he somehow does not, he better not qualify for the freaking batting title. 
That said, have any of these hitters fallen anywhere near as far as Ortiz, who hit 23 homers last season?
Well, no. Obviously not. Every player on the list falls into one of three categories:
  1. Light hitters whose single-digit homer power broke the wrong way for a season.
  2. Aging hitters who were never great sluggers and had long since slid into mediocrity.
  3. Young players still finding their way (and in the case of Kirby Puckett went on to hit 30-plus homers). 

So what's the steepest plummet among truly prolific sluggers?

Here are the players who have hit 50 or more homers at least once in their careers, with the largest drop in homers from one full-time season to the next:
  • Hack Wilson, 43 (1930-31) 
  • Brady Anderson, 32 (1996-97) 
  • Luis Gonzalez, 29 (2001-02)  
  • Roger Maris, 28 (1961-62)  
  • Johnny Mize, 27 (1940-41)  
  • Barry Bonds, 27 (2001-02)  
  • Hank Greenberg, 25 (1938-39); 19 (1946-47)  
  • Babe Ruth, 24 (1921-22)  
  • Mickey Mantle, 24 (1961-62)  
  • David Ortiz, 19 (2006-07) 
  • Alex Rodriguez, 19 (2007-08)  
  • Albert Belle, 18 (1996-97)  
  • Jimmie Foxx, 17 (1940-41)  
  • Mark McGwire, 17 (1990-91) 
  • Greg Vaughn, 17 (1999-00)  
  • Prince Fielder, 16 (2007-08)  
  • Willie Mays, 15 (1955-56, 1965-66) 
  • Sammy Sosa, 15 (2001-02) 
  • Andruw Jones, 15 (2006-07)  
  • Ralph Kiner, 13 (1953-54) 
  • George Foster, 12 (1977-78)
  • Ken Griffey, 12 (2007-08) 
  • Ryan Howard, 11 (2006-07)
  • Jim Thome, 10 (1997-98) 
  • Cecil Fielder, 9 (1991-92)  

There's a lot of noise here and no real pattern. You've got your plethora of unusual career arcs among players from the mid- to late 1990s (McGwire's early career plummet before surging back, Luis Gonzalez's 57-homer campaign in his early 30s, Brady Anderson). Other oddities include Hank Greenberg's whole career and those players who hit so many homers in one year that even a great season the next year shows up as a large drop (Bonds, Sosa, Maris, Mantle, Ortiz, Rodriguez).

Two drops stand out as career-ending falls off the proverbial cliff: Wilson's collapse from 56 home runs at age 30 in 1930 to 13 the next year. He hit 23 in 1932, then hit nine and six before retiring. And Foxx's alcohol-fueled disappearance at age 33, when he hit just 19 homers in 1941 after clubbing 35 the year before. He hit eight in 1942, his final season.
This is all just a collection of interesting stats. Ortiz may come back and make us forget this abysmal start. Or this may really be the end of a terrific run we will always remember. In either case, it's difficult to come to terms with. Having this conversation at all is painful.
27 comments… add one
  • Its amazing to me that Johnny Damon could have 10 more HRs than Ortiz at any point in the season, let alone 6 weeks in…

    sam-YF May 18, 2009, 12:19 am
  • It’s amazing that I have hit as many home runs this season as Ortiz.

    doug YF May 18, 2009, 1:53 am
  • Having this conversation at all is painful.
    Ortiz said this to reporters after Thursday’s game:
    “Sorry, guys. I don’t feel like talking today. Just put down, Papi stinks”
    That makes me want to cry. Ortiz doesn’t have the swagger that he used to. He’s late on 90mph fastballs, and can’t seem to make full contact on anything.
    It makes me wonder how much of it is mental. Going into this season he kept talking about needing a power bat to replace Manny. I voiced concern that despite the stats that showed he did better without Manny (which Paul put together in another great post) if it was in his head then it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps a good sports psychologist could do the trick. I could easily see a bad first week to the season spiraling out of control in Papi’s mind.
    In any case, I hope he’s back in the lineup tonight. He’s still walking a lot, and pretty soon pitchers will start giving him pitches to hit.
    This really is depressing conversation for a Monday morning. And there’s an off-day today too? Bah.

    Atheose May 18, 2009, 7:53 am
  • Hack Wilson must have been juicing.

    Hudson May 18, 2009, 10:02 am
  • I wonder how many dying quails Ortiz has hit at Fenway, to right, that would have been bombs at YS2.5?

    SF May 18, 2009, 12:01 pm
  • SF: http://www.boston.com/interactive/graphics/20090515_ortiz/
    Maybe, maybe, one.
    He hasn’t hit a ball more than 370 feet this year. That’s really sad.

    AndrewYF May 18, 2009, 12:28 pm
  • I wonder how many dying quails Ortiz has hit at Fenway, to right, that would have been bombs at YS2.5?
    Yeah, cause Fenway’s an extreme pitcher’s park. Plus, what’s it down the right field line? 299 feet?
    And can we please get the software naming style, right? :) Version a new whole numbers while revisions are decimals. So the new park is 2.0 while the one they moved out of was 1.X where X == any number you think appropriate.

    Rob May 18, 2009, 12:35 pm
  • Yankee stadium 2.5 will be the one in 2010 when they move back the RF walls.

    AndrewYF May 18, 2009, 12:37 pm
  • I don’t understand the shit-talking by Sox fans of the new Stadium? As was said earlier, Fenway has the Green Monster which makes many a soft liner/pop fly at least a single…
    Damon’s hr yesterday was a HR pretty much anywhere, right?

    krueg May 18, 2009, 1:03 pm
  • Jesus, guys, it was a serious question, I just wanted to know the answer. I can’t check on hittracker because that tracks dingers. Thanks, Andrew, for the link.
    This wasn’t a dig at Yankee Stadium, it was a serious question. Fenway’s right field is pretty deep, except just near the pole, which is an odd homer. The power alley is deep in right, and an opposite field homer over the Monster is a solid poke. Ortiz is having an AWFUL year, I just want to know if the ZERO homers is the anomalous signpost of his horrid year. In other words, it could just be bad luck that he has zero. That wouldn’t change the horrific nature of his season, but it would change the number.

    SF May 18, 2009, 1:25 pm
  • Awesome graphic, Andrew. The scary thing is that Ortiz has hit SEVEN total flyballs to the pull side of right field. So he’s either got no pitch recognition, no bat speed, or no power left, or is ONLY looking to go the other way. I wonder if he’s got something physically wrong with him that is causing him discomfort, and therefore he can’t swing with any authority.
    The breakdown is severe, and cataclysmic for his career. The Sox will have some tough decisions to make with him in a couple of months (I think they stick it out with him for a good part of the season, no matter the struggles) and certainly this offseason if he never gets going.

    SF May 18, 2009, 1:30 pm
  • Why not send him to Pawtucket on an “injury” rehab? Nothing like mashing in AAA to regain confidence.
    And SF you can’t be so naive, especially after all the criticism here, to think that question wouldn’t be interpreted as a barb. Furthermore, you’re neglecting Ortiz’s own history as a Sox – he’s usually hit much better at Fenway, like +.100 OPS, than on the road.

    Rob May 18, 2009, 2:47 pm
  • It was a serious question, let’s just leave it at that. I got my answer, and I am thankful for that.

    SF May 18, 2009, 3:08 pm
  • But you can’t repair confidence if confidence isn’t the issue. It is not clear yet that this isn’t some sort of irreparable physical decline. So all the time in AAA might do nothing for Ortiz. I say let him play it out on the big league squad, and in a month or two if the warm weather and a little coaching hasn’t fixed things and the Sox are still in the hunt, make a move to acquire someone. Or, do nothing – if they are still in the hunt perhaps Ortiz’ lack of production isn’t such an enormous issue, except sentimentally.

    SF May 18, 2009, 3:12 pm
  • It is not clear yet that this isn’t some sort of irreparable physical decline.
    I don’t see how that happens in the time frame we’re talking about. To me, it’s either mechanical or mental. More likely, it’s a combination of both. Some time in AAA (or even A+) cold do wonders – get him hitting again and feeling good.

    Rob May 18, 2009, 4:23 pm
  • I read somewhere that Papi’s pop-up rate has increased noticeably the last two years and his line drive rate is down a lot. Obviously, his batting avg/obp points to something being way off with him, but I wonder if he’s following the path of Tino “Captain Pop-up” Martinez, who was unwatchable at the end.
    Yankee Stadium sure seems like a homer heaven but has anyone else noticed that there are currently 18 players who are currently on pace to hit more than 40 home runs this season. Is there a spike reminiscent of 1987 going on here?

    Nick-YF May 18, 2009, 4:29 pm
  • River Ave had great video of one of our favorite targets, which I had never seen before:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5hK90Itwb8&feature=player_embedded
    So. Embarassing. I wonder if he does this jimmy when he’s wrong – like he was this weekend. It would explain why he takes so long to correct himself – too busy speaking in tongues.

    Rob May 18, 2009, 5:02 pm
  • I remember seeing that a little while back Rob, it’s good stuff. As if his voice wasn’t bad enough.

    Atheose May 18, 2009, 6:04 pm
  • On another note, rumor has it the Sox are talking with Cleveland about trading for Victor Martinez.

    Atheose May 18, 2009, 6:11 pm
  • How would one ever know whether Sterling needs medical attention?

    SF May 18, 2009, 6:14 pm
  • Ath – Cleveland reportedly would demand more for Martinez than they would for Lee. That translates to Buchholz to start, and at least Lars in addition.
    It’s not going to happen.

    AndrewYF May 18, 2009, 7:25 pm
  • Yeah, that sucks Andrew. You know his price would be high–especially with him leading the league in batting average right now.

    Atheose May 19, 2009, 7:19 am
  • ” read somewhere that Papi’s pop-up rate has increased noticeably the last two years and his line drive rate is down a lot”
    Actually that’s not correct:
    Year LD% GB% FB% IFFB HR/FB
    2006 16.7 % 36.4 % 46.8 % 8.2 % 26.1 %
    2007 17.2 % 37.5 % 45.3 % 4.4 % 17.2 %
    2008 18.6 % 36.5 % 44.9 % 8.4 % 14.8 %
    2009 21.2 % 26.9 % 51.9 % 16.7 % 0.0 %
    his line drive percent is up, but his infield pop-up’s are way up as well for this year.

    dw (sf) May 19, 2009, 9:46 am
  • I have been avoiding it since Friday, but I just took a look at the standings: the Sox are only 1 game ahead of the Yanks and a handful more above the Rays, both of whom are gaining momentum. It’s going to be a long summer if Papi can’t regain his form.
    Oh, and our starting pitching staff. It would be sweet if we had one of those.

    Atheose May 19, 2009, 1:15 pm
  • The Red Sox are struggling right now for two reasons, neither of which has to do with David Ortiz: Kevin Youkilis being injured and the starting pitchers’ inability to approach even a mediocre level of competence.
    Up until his injury, Youks and Jason Bay were doing a fine Ortiz-Manny impression. I’m not surprised that the lineup has begun to show an inability to hit when it’s missing TWO of its top hitters, instead of just one.
    As for the Yankees, I’d be more worried if they weren’t sustaining their win streak on a series of high-luck margins of victory. Not that I’m not worried, mind you…

    Paul SF May 19, 2009, 2:38 pm
  • I don’t know where rotoworld got the lineup cause it’s not up on the Globe yet, but they say Ortiz is back at the 3 hole!

    dw (sf) May 19, 2009, 3:44 pm
  • ‘As for the Yankees, I’d be more worried if they weren’t sustaining their win streak on a series of high-luck margins of victory.”
    Talk about seeing things through your own team’s goggles. The sox sustained a good chunk of their winning streak on high-luck margins of victory as well. Including a few of the games against the yankees. Furthermore, the yankees slow start can also be attributed to injuries as well. I think that with both teams healthy and playing up to their best level, the teams should be close all summer.

    sam-YF May 19, 2009, 6:05 pm

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