Stan Musial and not striking out

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
12:30
PM ET
I wanted to point out a couple of interesting Stan Musial links. First, Matt Philip has a graphical tribute to Musial's amazing career here. Check it out.

Rob Neyer has a nice column on what Musial meant ... to a Royals fan.

[+] EnlargeStan Musial
AP Photo/Warren M. WinterbottomStan Musial demonstrates the form that won him the National League batting title in 1943.
Finally, Dave Cameron has a piece at FanGraphs on Musial's amazingly low strikeout rates, particularly for a power hitter. In 1943, Musial struck out just 18 times in 700 plate appearances. In his greatest season in 1948, he hit 39 home runs and struck out just 34 times. As Dave points out, strikeout rates have changed over time, so he translated Musial's strikeout and power rates to 2012 levels:
Now, if we simply multiply those index numbers by the league norms of 2012, we get the equivalent of Musial’s career K% and ISO numbers. Since the league average strikeout rate last year was 19.8% and the average ISO was .151, that would give Musial a modern K% of 10.1% and a modern ISO of .290.

You will not be surprised to learn that no hitter in baseball last year posted an ISO of .290 and a K% of 10%. In fact, no one even came remotely close.

[snip]

This probably seems like an obvious conclusion – there were no hitters in baseball last year who could match one of the best power/contact hitters in baseball history. This unique set of skills is what made Musial great in the first place, and you didn’t need two context adjusted index stats to tell you that Musial was a special player in that regard.

Still, it’s hard to imagine what a Musial-like player would even look like in today’s day and age. Just using his career K% and ISO numbers, you’d essentially be looking at a hybrid of Darwin Barney‘s contact skills and Josh Hamilton’s power.

Musial wasn't the only player of his era to combine power with low strikeout rates. The year Ted Williams hit .406 he struck out just 27 times (while drawing 145 walks!). His career strikeout rate of 7.2 percent isn't much higher than Musial's 5.5 percent.

Joe DiMaggio famously hit nearly as many home runs (361) as he had strikeouts (369). His strikeout rate of 4.8 percent was even lower than Musial's.

Of course, Musial, Williams and DiMaggio are three of the greatest hitters of all time.

But there were others from that period as well. Ted Kluszewski is remembered today for his cut-off uniform sleeves, so you may think of him as a big swing-from-his-behind slugger, but his career strikeout rate was just 5.6 percent. From 1953 to 1956, he hit 171 home runs and struck out just 140 times.

Yogi Berra was a famous bad-ball hitter, but he was able to put the bat on the ball, even most of the bad ones. He had 358 home runs, just 414 strikeouts. In 1950, he hit 28 home runs and struck out 12 times. That's a good week for Adam Dunn.

Johnny Mize? OK, another Hall of Famer. In 1947-48, he hit 91 home runs against just 79 strikeouts. Career K rate: 7.1 percent.

From 1940 to 1960 there were 37 players who batted at least 2,500 times and had a lower strikeout rate than Musial. Now most of those guys didn't many home runs, and Dave is right in that Musial's twin skills were historically unique.

The closest modern equivalent would be another Cardinals legend, Albert Pujols, with a career strikeout rate of 9.6 percent. In fact ... from 1992 to 2012, there were 38 players who batted at least 2,500 times and had a lower strikeout rate than Pujols. Twice, Pujols nearly pulled off the "more home runs than strikeouts" feat, 46 and 52 in 2004 and 49 and 50 in 2006. (Barry Bonds had 45 home runs and just 41 strikeouts in 2004.)

The trouble when comparing generations is that too many end up concluding, "Geez, all the great hitters played in the 1920s and '30s and '40s and '50s. Look at those guys! They hit home runs and never struck out! They don't make hitters like that anymore!"

There's an issue I have with that theory, however: The pitching wasn't as good. It wasn't close to being as good as now. I'm not knocking Musial or Williams or Kluszewski by pointing this out, but if you don't believe the pitching hasn't improved, than you believe that all these special hitters played in the same generation, and that even though hitters today have all these advantages those players didn't -- video, weight training, offseason workouts and so on -- they're not as good.

I believe the best ARE as good. But the game changes. In this case, the pitching has improved over time, for a lot of reasons such as bigger, stronger pitchers who throw harder and have nasty changeups and paint the corners. Sure, there was more emphasis on putting the ball in play back then, but in 1949 there were also 4.1 walks per nine innings compared to just 3.7 strikeouts. In 2012, those figures were 3.1 and 7.6.

And the game is still evolving. Even in 1992, the strikeout rate was just 5.6 per nine innings.

Stan Musial was great. But so are Albert Pujols and Buster Posey and Robinson Cano and Joe Mauer and Miguel Cabrera -- even if they do strike out more than The Man did.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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