Short answer: Yes. Almost always.
I’m not breaking any ground when I make the statement that “players that have 200 (or more) hits in a season are (generally) good hitters”. It really seems like one of those statements that doesn’t need to be made, or proclaimed from the mountain tops. However, there is a reasoning for my madness.
Recently, on the Giants’ motherpage, Mike Krukow, in a video with Jay Berman, talked a little bit about the Giants and what they’ve done to improve their offense this offseason. On the topic of Melky Cabrera, Mike says: Cabrera had a 200 hit season. You don’t get a 200 hit season if you can’t hit. Which got me thinking. Have there been players that have gotten 200-plus hits in a season, and could still be considered poor, below average, hitters?
To find out, I ran a query on Baseball-Reference using their fantastic Play Index Tool (PIT). My search criteria was as follows: 200 hits or more in a single season, starting at 1960, ranked by batting runs. Why batting runs? Mostly because it should give us a more accurate reading on that player’s offense. Batting runs place a specific run-value on each offensive outcome (walks, hits, hit by pitches, etc.) and then adds them up into a number that is above or below average.
My search returned 216 different seasons in which a player had 200 hits or more in a season. Here is a histogram of that search.
The histogram gives us what I would consider to be a normal distribution. Most hitters that get 200 hits or more in a season fall in the +20 to +40 batting runs range. Those are solid, to great, offensive seasons. But, like most data sets, there are outliers — and that’s what interests me the most; which batters, in our dataset, had 200 or more hits in a single season and yet fell into the below average category for batting runs?
Here are the bottom 10 as ranked by batting runs
Rk Player Rbat H Year 1 Juan Pierre -17 204 2006 2 Matty Alou -14 201 1970 3 Michael Young -6 204 2003 4 Juan Pierre -6 202 2001 5 M. Grudzielanek -5 201 1996 6 Ralph Garr -4 200 1973 7 Bill Buckner +0 201 1985 8 Dave Cash +1 213 1975 9 Curt Flood +1 211 1964 10 Juan Pierre +2 204 2003
Juan Pierre’s 2006 might be the best case of a player having 200-plus hits in a season, and being a detriment on offense. In 2006, while playing for the Chicago Cubs, Pierre came to the plate a staggering 750 times. Pierre rapped 204 hits — 156 of which were singles — on his way to a slash-line of .292/.330/.388. By OPS+, Pierre was approximately 20% below league average as a hitter. So while Pierre was adept at getting hits (mostly singles) he didn’t hit for enough power, or get on base enough to be an asset offensively. Batting runs has Pierre at -17 runs (about -1.7 wins) on offense for his 2006.
It’s no surprise that Pierre appears three times on this “bottom 10″ list. He was truly great at taking lots of PAs (seven seasons with 700 or more), hitting singles, stealing bases, and playing pretty good defense (for awhile) in center field. He’ll try to continue his career this year with the Phillies on a minor league contract.
A beloved Giant, Matty Alou, makes the list at the number two spot. Alou’s 1970 season with the Pirates and the 201 hits he collected was worth -14 runs batting runs. Alou is similar to Juan Pierre in some ways. Both were high contact guys that routinely put the ball in play. For his career, Alou only struck out in 6.1% of his at-bats. In 1970, Alou hit a slash-line of .297/.329/.356 while leading the National League in ABs with 677.
Michael Young has often been considered an overrated player by the Sabermetric community. He’s a career .301 batter but he’s done most of his work in extreme hitting environments, and when you evaluate everything, he doesn’t look as good as you might think. He’s had some excellent years (2005 and 2009) but also some pretty average years (2003, 2008, and 2010), too.
Ralph Garr might have one of my favorite seasons of all time. First, he makes our list for his season in 1973 by smacking 200 hits for the Atlanta Braves. Garr, who was nicknamed Road Runner due to his speed, had an incredible year in 1974. Entering 1974, Garr was a career .318/.348/.420 (108 OPS+) hitter. He exploded in 1974 leading the NL in batting average (.353), hits (214), and triples (17). Garr hit a robust .353/.383/.503 (143 OPS+) in what has to be one of the most shocking years of all time. From 1975-83, Garr would never be able to repeat his career year, hitting .284/.321/.393 (98 OPS+).
Dave Cash’s 1975 is an interesting season. He led the National League in games played (162), PAs (766), ABs (699), and hits (213). And yet, by batting runs, he was a +1 hitter — barely above average. Much like others on our list, he’s what I like to term a hit compiler. He had a ton of PAs and put the ball in play a ton, only striking out 34 times on the season.
It’s amazing to me that you can have 200 base hits in a season and still have trouble being an asset on offense. We’ve seen that it’s rare, but it can be done. And that’s just one of the many reasons that makes baseball so damned weird sometimes.
(For those interested: Melky Cabrera’s 201 hit season in 2011 ranks him 161/219 on the list. He accrued +18 batting runs.)