erik lundegaard

Saturday December 13, 2014

When Lou Gehrig's Last Season > the Mariners Last Season

It's really wrong to write about this. I admit that up front. But onward.

While reviewing the movie “The Theory of Everything,” about physicist Stephen Hawking, I looked up the numbers of Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse” for the 1920s and '30s NY Yankees who set an MLB record for most consecutive games played and then became the first famous person to die of the moto-neuron disease that afflicts Hawking, and that, of course, bears Gehrig's name. Back in the 1960s, Hawking was given two years to live but he lives to this day. I thought that was astonishing, and I wanted to get my years right when I compared. Because didn't Gehrig stop playing in 1939? Yes, when he was diagnosed. And didn't he died in 1941? Yes, two years after diagnosis. The same timeframe Hawking was given. Yet Hawking lives.

Then I became distracted by baseball stats. 

Gehrig is one of the great hitters in baseball history. Being a member of the lifetime .300/.400/.500 club (average/OBP/SLG) is exemplary, but Gehrig was a member of the .300/.400/.600 club. Only six players in baseball history have slugging percentages over .600 but Gehrig's was way over, at .632. It's third all-time—behind only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

So I traced the downward trajectory of this great hitter.

In 1936 he won the MVP award and led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS. In 1937 he led the league in OBP and OPS. In 1938 his numbers dropped precipitously. For the first time in a full season, he batted under .300 (.295), and for the first time since 1926 his OPS was under 1.000 (.932). In three years, his homerun totals had gone from 49 to 37 to 29. He only hit 3 in September 1938—his last off of Dutch Leonard on Sept. 27. It would be the last one he ever hit. 

Was he already feeling the effects of the ALS that would take his life? Was it age? Some combo? Because by spring 1939, he was definitely feeling it. Something was wrong. He knew it. And on May 2, 1939, after only four singles in 8 games, he famously took himself out of the lineup. His stats for the season: .143/.273/.143.

Then it hit me. A .273 OBP? Nobody wants that, particularly Gehrig, whose lifetime OBP is .443  (fifth all-time); but, under the circumstances ... that's not ...

I mean, didn't the Mariners have players last season who had lower ... ?

We did. We had eight guys with OBPs worse than Lou Gehrig's when he was afflicted with ALS:

  • Corey Hart: .271 (68 Games Played)
  • Austin Jackson: .267 (54 GPs)
  • Chris Denorfia: .256 (32)
  • Mike Zunino: .254 (131)
  • Abraham Almonte: .248 (27)
  • Jesus Montero: .235 (6)
  • Stefen Romero: .234 (72)
  • Jesus Sucre: .213 (21)

Two things to note about the above: backup catcher Jesus Sucre had 61 at-bats and drew zero walks. Zero. .213 batting average, .213 OBP. He shouldn't be on the team. 

And the second guy on the list, Austin Jackson, was actually our leadoff hitter after we acquired him midseason from the Tigers. Jackson leads off because he's speedy and old-school managers like speedy guys up front, but also perhaps because he's shown a talent for drawing a walk, and new-school managers know it's good to have a high-OBP guy up front. But a .267 OBP isn't it. We'll see if, at 28, he can bounce back. 

Anyway, I don't want this to be a thing. I don't want this to be an OBP version of the Mendoza line. Because it's remarkable that Lou Gehrig managed 4 hits and 5 walks in 8 games in 1939. But it is an indicator where the M's troubles lie. Only one of these guys, Zunino—who could at least catch well and crunch homeruns—was a regular. But added together, they played 411 games. Essentially 2.5 of the nine men in our lineup, or 27%, had OBPs lower than Lou Gehrig when he had ALS.

And not to put any added pressure on anyone, but you know how many times Gehrig struck out in his 33 plate appearances in 1939? Just once.

Posted at 10:18 AM on Saturday December 13, 2014 in category Baseball  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard