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:
- Light hitters whose single-digit homer power broke the wrong way for a season.
- Aging hitters who were never great sluggers and had long since slid into mediocrity.
- 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.