In 2021, the Mendoza Line Isn’t So Scary
Even baseball fans who aren’t into statistics are familiar with batting averages. If it starts at 4, it is historically good. Starting with 3 is fine, 2 is fine, and if it starts with 1… well, even a casual fan knows it’s time to send that player to the minors. .
But this season, baseball’s collective batting average has dropped to .243, with the dreaded “1” appearing more and more. Batsmen, buoyed by teams that prioritize power over consistency, swing fast for the fence, and with that their average has dropped. Many have sunk below .200, a range known as the Mendoza Line, named after Mario Mendoza, a light-bodied infielder in the 1970s.
Through Thursday’s game, 20 players with at least 200 plate appearances — enough to be considered a regular — were hitting below .200. By the end of the season they could be joined by many more people who are near those thresholds in batting average or plate performance.
In the last entire season 2019, there were only 15 such players. Also, it was difficult to have a roster spot with such a low average. Twenty years ago, in 2001, there were only five sub-200 hitters, and 50 years ago, in 1971, there were six.
A player who hits below 200 may continue his work for a number of reasons. Perhaps the manager expects the player to improve. Maybe it’s a young player who needs an at-bat. Or maybe the choices behind that are worse.
But some of those Mendoza line hitters are providing real value to their teams. This is because, of course, batting average doesn’t tell the whole story.
Take Paul Djong of the St. Louis Cardinals, who is hitting .196 in 370 plate appearances. He plays very good shortstop, has a prime defensive position, and has 17 home runs. The baseball reference credits him with 1.3 battles, the best total among our sub-.200 hitters.
Ryan Jeffers of the Minnesota Twins also gains weight. Despite batting .199, he has 13 homers in 277 plate appearances and plays the crucial position of catcher. His on-base plus slugging percentage of .673 is by no means an All-Star caliber, but it tops the sub-.200 group.
Eugenio Suarez of the Reds is batting .183, but has been sent to the plate 535 times, more than any player in the group. He has placed himself in the lineup by scoring 27 home runs, which is 31.4 percent of his 86 hits.
and the worst
Unfortunately, some hitters who are batting under 200 have nothing more to show for their season. They just can’t hit. At the bottom of the table is Pirates’ Michael Perez, hitting .141, the lowest singles season century for a player with 200 or more plate appearances. Perez has to be a very good catcher to withstand that ineffectiveness as a batsman.
Brewers outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is hitting .163, without much power and with only a few runs. This gives him an Ops of just .501. It would have been even worse if he hadn’t shown a knack for hitting the pitches – 10 times this season. He is excellent defensively and can play in all outfield positions which is why he has been batting.
By WAR, the weakest players are Suarez and Jared Kelenik, a 21-year-old outfielder for the Mariners. Among the game’s top prospects this season, Kellenic has 13 home runs, but his .602 ops isn’t good and his defensive numbers are pretty poor.
On the edge of Mendoza, but thriving
While none of the less than 200 players this season are Grade-A assets, the few players who are flirting with the Mendoza line are actually quite valuable.
Joey Gallo, who was traded from the Rangers to the Yankees this year, is hitting .204, but that would be a welcome addition to any team in baseball. Although he leads the Chiefs in strikeouts, he also leads in the American League with 109s. Add in 38 home runs and Gallo has .837 OPS to complement his top-shelf defense, which has added up to a 4.8 battle. Certainly the Yankees would love it if Gallo could hit .300 – or even .250 – but his package of skills makes him a real asset, regardless of batting average.
The Padres’ Ha-seong Kim is hitting .206, but plays so solid mid-field that his combat is a respectable 2.0.
And what about Mario Mendoza, the player whose name has been associated with mediocrity for decades. Was he unfairly maligned for his short-sightedness on batting average? Do they have hidden skills that help their team?
Well, not on the plate. Mendoza played for nine seasons with the Pirates, Mariners and Rangers from 1974–82. While his career average was .215, he had five seasons in which his average fell below the dangerous line to his name.
He aggressively brought a little more to the plate: His best-of-season base percentage was .286, and his slugging percentage was just over .300. He played only two seasons, 1979 and 1980, semi-regularly with the poor Mariners team; His best walk total in those years was 16, and his best homer total was two.
But he played shortstop, a difficult position to fill, and enjoyed a good defensive reputation, including the nickname Man with the Silk Hands. And after the end of his major league career, he returned to Mexico where he had a long stint as a player-manager in the Mexican League.
In 2000, he was inducted into the Mexican League Hall of Fame. His lifetime average was .239.
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