Every player who makes the major leagues is good at baseball. Sometimes, that’s not immediately apparent because of the presence of other players. Take Barry Bonds, for instance. Whatever else you might think about Bonds, he was extremely good at baseball, better than virtually everyone he ever played with or against (you know why, right?). A regular major leaguer, who could play baseball better than 99.999% of people on the planet – let’s call him J.T. Snow, for the sake of argument – is better than the vast majority of players they encounter on the way to the majors, but can’t hope to match the likes of Bonds.
However, every now and then the J.T. Snows of the world go on a hot streak, and actually do hit like Barry Bonds for a month or so. Not peak Bonds, because peak Bonds hit 73 homers and slugged over .800 and walked 232 times in a single season. Not for any comparable period of time, because Bonds had an OPS+ over 150 in 18 of his 22 seasons, and over 200 in six of those. There have only ever been four individual player months – months! – in baseball history of at least 80 plate appearances that match Bonds’ 2004 season slash line of .362/.609/.812. Three of them are Bonds himself. The fourth? Babe Ruth in July 1920. That was also a good season.
I’m getting sidetracked. Where were we? Oh yes, J.T. Snow. While players of Snow’s calibre can’t hope to match peak Bonds, there are those occasions where the hot streaks can at least elevate them to match the level of Bonds’ career production. The vast majority of players presumably never reach these heights, even over a single month. Sustaining a 1.051 OPS even over 30 days is really, really difficult. So the question at hand is this: who is the worst hitter who still managed to compile a Barry Bonds month? The criteria are simple: players had to at least match Bonds’ career OBP of .444, slugging percentage of .607, and have a minimum of 80 plate appearances in the month. It’s Play Index time.
Since 1913, there have been 1693 instances of players having a single month that matched or beat those Bonds OBP and slugging marks, from Shoeless Joe Jackson in May 1913 to Aaron Judge in September 2017. Many of these names appear frequently, which is hardly a surprise: Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout. The older names that crop up often are just as familiar: Jackson, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial. The only three players who lead Bonds in career OPS, Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig, are least surprising of all.
That’s not what we’re here for. This is about the players who we wouldn’t expect to see on this list. One more criterion needs to be added: this time, only players who had a tOPS+ of 200 or greater for the month were included. These players would need to be performing so outlandishly above their true talent level that they were hitting twice as well as usual.
With the extra qualifier, there are just 27 results. The player who outperformed their season-long production by the greatest margin deserves a mention, because he appears here twice. Ron Cey, long-time Dodger and six-time All Star, hit .425/.543/.890 in April 1977, with nine homers, five doubles, and 20 walks to just 13 strikeouts, good for a 254 tOPS+. Cey had a perfectly good season in ’77, with a 114 OPS+, but that month was so outlandish it would be stellar for anyone, even Bonds. He’s at both ends of the list, because his .357/.475/.612 line in May 1973 was equivalent to a tOPS+ of exactly 200. The fact that Cey did this twice on a list of just 27 results is notable, but it hardly makes him worthy of worst player to hit like Bonds; in fact, he’s one of the easiest to rule out.
Cey ranks third by career OPS+ out of these 26 players after an excellent career in which he hit 316 homers, got on base at a .354 clip, and amassed over 50 WAR in total. Had he come up a few years earlier, or not become a such a defensive liability over the last five seasons of his career, he may well have garnered more support in Hall of Fame voting. Similarly, Jason Giambi (July 2005) and Matt Kemp (April 2012), who are the two batters ahead of Cey by OPS+, can also be easily disqualified. While Kemp may have severe defensive shortcomings these days, no-one can question his talent with the bat, and he was at the height of his powers in 2011-12. By the raw numbers, Giambi had the best single month of anyone on this list, slugging .974. Only Bonds, Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Thomas, and Hank Greenberg have ever had higher single-month slugging percentages.
Many others can also be dismissed based on their overall career lines, even if the individual seasons in question were not as impressive in some cases. Carlos Gonzalez, for instance, just made it onto this list with a terrific September after a largely miserable previous five months, but Cargo has both a history of these white-hot streaks and a significantly above-average batting record overall, even with the park adjustments from Coors Field.
Felipe Alou‘s presence on the list is possibly the most bizarre, not because of his.400/.470/.620 slash line in May 1970, but because of how he arrived at that line, and the context of the rest of his season. Alou doubled 11 times, walked 15 times and did not strike out at all that month, yet somehow ended up with an OPS of just .675 for the season, taking just 17 more free passes in the other five months and failing to post a monthly OBP higher than .273 the rest of the way. His 11 doubles made up almost half of his 25 for the year. Alou was certainly much too good to be the worst player to hit like Bonds, but this is definitely a story to explore another time.
There are in fact only five of these players who have a career OPS+ under 95, one of whom is Gerardo Parra, who has also been a clearly above-average MLB hitter in at least two full seasons and has an entirely respectable career .731 OPS. That takes us down to four contenders: Al Gallagher, Brandon Inge, Hector Cruz, and Ray Mack.
Some readers may remember that Brandon Inge was an All-Star once. The reason was his Bonds month in April 2009, in which he hit .319/.447/.667 with 7 home runs. Inge hit .230/.314/.406 for the Tigers that year, which gives you some idea of how the rest of the season went. As ludicrous as it feels to type these words, Inge might be too good to win this award. He had a genuinely valuable offensive season in 2004, and a couple more average ones in the subsequent two years. His career .685 OPS still makes him an appealing choice, but let’s examine the other contenders.
Al Gallagher had the shortest career of all 26 players at just 442 games and 1433 plate appearances, most of those coming for the Giants in the early 1970s. While Gallagher could get on base, he did not have much power: his career slugging percentage of .337 is comfortably the lowest of any player on the list. Even in the month in question, August 1971, he only hit two home runs, to go with six doubles and three triples, for a .427/.472/.646 line. Considering the fact that Gallagher barely walked – just six in total for the month – it’s about the least Bondsian of all these lines. It propelled Gallagher to a career-best 104 OPS+. According to the Baseball-Reference Bullpen, Gallagher is also tied for the all-time major league lead for most names, along with Christian Frederick Albert John Henry David Betzel, or Bruno Betzel, as he was commonly known. Gallagher’s full name was Alan Mitchell Edward George Patrick Henry Gallagher, or apparently ‘Dirty Al’ to his teammates.
Hector Cruz has a similarly uninspiring career line, without Gallagher’s hit tool. Slashing .225/.301/.353 over 1806 plate appearances, Cruz nonetheless managed to put up a 1.109 OPS for the Reds in August 1979, 422 points higher than his .687 for the year. Cruz rarely got a shot as a full-time player; he did somehow get Rookie of the Year votes in his first and only full season in 1976, but as he also hit .228 with a .625 OPS, it’s not a shock that he never got more than 400 plate appearances in any of his subsequent seasons. At -3.5 career bWAR, he was the least valuable major leaguer in the Cruz family, which is no insult in the case of his more famous brother, Astros star José Cruz (54.2), or even his nephew, José Cruz Jr. (19.5), but perhaps is with regards to his far less well-known brother, Tommy Cruz, who got just two major league plate appearances and appeared in only seven games in total.
Rounding out the list is Raymond Mlckovsky, better-known as the rather more pronounceable Ray Mack, who had a 76 OPS+ over the course of 791 major league games, all but 22 of them for Cleveland. Mack was a second baseman lauded for his glove, which is just as well considering his bat. His SABR Bio leads with the details of the two crucial plays Mack made to preserve Bob Feller’s no-hitter on Opening Day 1940, and it would prove to be his best season, as he also produced a Bonds month in May of the same year, slashing .429/.510/.643 on his way to an overall .755 OPS; unspectacular, but still league-average. Mack’s career OPS was .631, and it was .606 after this 1940 season, so things didn’t go quite so well from 1941 onwards.
As that SABR Bio notes, Mack soon had a lot more to think about than how to replicate his performance in May 1940: the Second World War interrupted his career, first working as an aircraft design engineer while playing part-time for Cleveland in 1944, then missing the 1945 season altogether when he was inducted into the army. By the time he returned to baseball in 1946, his days as a full-time player were over, and he retired after the 1947 season at the age of 30.
So who is the worst player to hit like Bonds for a month? Inge had by far the longest career, with more genuinely productive offensive seasons, but also outstrips the other candidates for genuinely terrible offensive seasons. Cruz and Gallagher both fit the bill with regards to providing very little positive value with the bat outside of their one hot month, but they also had extremely short major league careers. Mack seems to hit that sweet spot, with no other real period of strong offensive production and a long enough career that the sample is not insignificant. His second-highest monthly OPS meeting the PA minimum was .777, almost 400 points lower than his Bonds month.
Mack’s best month also came extremely early on in his career, in a season when Cleveland barely missed out on a pennant, finishing just a single game behind Detroit. He feels like the most appropriate “what if?” candidate. Mack wasn’t a great hitter, but there’s an alternate universe in which he was, in which he managed to sustain some of that May 1940 production, and in which factors beyond Mack’s control didn’t interrupt his career. One doesn’t have to look far to find another example of how relative this can all be. Mack hit .378 and slugged .685 as a 21-year-old in his first minor league assignment in the Northern League in 1938. He might be the worst major league hitter to replicate Bonds for a month, but in the 1938 Northern League, Ray Mack was Barry Bonds.
For those wondering, J.T. Snow had two Bonds months, back to back, in July and August 2004. Yes, it was largely as a platoon player, and yes, he was often batting immediately before or after Bonds in the lineup, but he still had to hit, and for two months his production was equivalent to one of the greatest hitters of all time. Almost any major league hitter can hit like Bonds for a month or two. Of course, Bonds himself had six Bonds months in 2004. Only Bonds could hit like Bonds all the time.Next post: Tales of the Key Departures That Broke Our Hearts
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