These days, every baseball fan seems to have a theory why Derek Jeter, in the prime of his career, just can't seem to hit. Jeter's theory (and that of many others) is that he's mostly hitting into bad luck, and that the hits will start to fall as a simple matter of statistical probability.
It's not a bad theory. Stats tend to regress to the mean, which is a smart way to say that things even out over the long haul. But it's not true all the time, at least not over the course of a single baseball season.
We took a look at the absolute worst single seasons that great hitters (most of them Hall of Famers or future locks) have ever experienced. These are outliers, bad seasons that weren't caused by injury, illness or age. If Jeter continues his current course, his will be one of the worst superstar seasons in baseball history -- and he'll move up on this list.
10. Derek Jeter, 2004
Jeter's two-month slump is truly extraordinary -- despite his recent good run (.400, 1 HR, 7 RBI in last six games), he's still batting only .220 with about a third of the season gone, an average 92 points below his current lifetime mark and 104 points lower than his 2003 batting average of .324. His power numbers have also been sub-par.
There are reasons to believe that Jeter will rebound and have a decent season, but, if he's like most of the players on this list, bad starts begat midseason struggles which begat continued late-season slumps.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 2003 10 52 .324 .393 .450 2004 4 23 .220 .277 .336 (through 47 games)
9. Wade Boggs, 1992
Boggs went into the 1992 season with one year left on his contract, a .345 lifetime batting average, and a pretty good idea that the Red Sox didn't want him back for 1993. In early September, he told Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe that the Sox had "kicked me in the teeth" with their two-year, $9.2 million offer.
Perhaps that explains, in part, why Boggs hit only .259 in 1992, why he hit below the Mendoza Line for the entire month of August, and why he could only muster a .227 average at Fenway. There doesn't seem to be an alternative. He came back in 1993 with a .302 mark for the Yankees, and hit .342 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Even in the second-to-worst year of his entire career, at age 40, he managed to hit .280 for the Devil Rays.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1991 8 51 .332 .421 .460 1992 7 50 .259 .353 .358 1993 2 59 .302 .378 .362
8. Eddie Mathews, 1958
Between 1952, when he was a 20-year-old rookie, and 1959, not a single major leaguer hit more homers than the Braves' slugger, who belted 299 in his first eight seasons. And from 1953 to 1961, he never finished a season with a slugging percentage below .500 -- except 1958.
During that season, Mathews' average dropped 41 points, to .251, and his slugging percentage fell 82 points, to .458. His batting misery continued in the World Series, a rematch against the Yankees. In 1957 the Braves won and Mathews made a solid contribution at the plate; in 1958, the Braves lost with Mathews batting a measly .160 and striking out 11 times. In 1959 he returned to form, hitting .306 with a league-leading 46 HRs and 114 RBI.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1957 32 94 .292 .387 .540 1958 31 77 .251 .349 .458 1959 46 114 .306 .390 .593
7. Juan Gonzalez, 2000
Juan Gone's 2000 season could go down as one of the more bizarre superstar skeins in recent memory. In his previous four seasons with Texas, he'd averaged 43 home runs and 140 RBI with a .314 batting average. In 1996 and 1998 he was the AL MVP. But when he was traded to Detroit with one year remaining on his contract, his numbers plummeted, as he managed only 22 homers and 67 RBI in his Motor City season.
There were circumstances: trade talks in June that had him possibly going to New York; an emergency leave to tend to his sick 4-year-old daughter in Puerto Rico in July; and, worst of all, Comerica Park, which had cavernous dimensions that were so unsuitable to Gonzalez that he made it clear he wouldn't sign with the Tigers unless they brought the fences in. He hit better by far on the road in 2000 than he did at home.
The fences stayed put. Juan was gone again, this time to Cleveland for the 2001 season, where he was back to his usual huge numbers and led the Indians to first place in the AL Central.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1999 (Texas) 39 128 .326 .378 .601 2000 (Detroit) 22 67 .289 .337 .505 2001 (Cleveland) 35 140 .325 .370 .590
6. Johnny Bench, 1976
Strange: In 1976, Bench was playing for what may have been the greatest starting eight of all time, one of the best teams ever in major-league history, and all the while he had by far the worst year of his career. The Reds finished 102-60 in the regular season, with Bench hitting only .234 with 16 HRs and 74 RBI, far off his 1975 and 1977 performances with the Big Red Machine.
But he made up for it in the playoffs and World Series. In the Reds' three-game sweep of the Phillies in the NLCS, he went 4-for-12, including a double and a homer. In the World Series, he demonstrated that, despite Thurman Munson's rise, he was still the best catcher in baseball. Against Munson's Yankees, he hit .533 (8-for-15) with 2 HRs and 6 RBI in another Reds sweep, and was named the World Series MVP.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1975 28 110 .283 .359 .519 1976 16 74 .234 .348 .394 1977 31 109 .275 .348 .540
5. Carl Yastrzemski, 1971-72
In 1970, Yaz had a monster season, leading the AL in OBP, OPS, and runs scored, and finishing among the top 10 in almost every other major offensive category. In February 1971, the Red Sox rewarded him by making him the highest-paid player in baseball with a three-year, $500K contract.
And then came a two-year slide in which his power declined and his batting average hovered nearly 30 points below his eventual lifetime mark. Though age was starting to take a toll, he'd return pretty much to form in 1973 and produce very good, if not great, numbers throughout his mid-to-late thirties.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1970 40 102 .329 .452 .592 1971 15 70 .254 .381 .392 1972 12 68 .264 .357 .391 1973 19 95 .296 .407 .463
4. Cal Ripken, 1992
Ripken was named the AL MVP in 1991, despite playing for the sixth-place Orioles. The following season, all of his important numbers (except games played) plummeted, while paradoxically, the O's were in contention most of the season and finished third, only seven games behind first-place Toronto.
Playing at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Ripken never found his groove, and endured a 73-game homerless streak and 200-point drop in slugging pct. Meanwhile, in the midst of that streak, in August, he signed a contract for $32.5 million. Ripken found himself being booed in his own park. In mid-September, when he finally broke the dinger drought, he marked his 1,715th straight game -- and reporters marked their notebooks with calls for Ripken to rest. That seemed to be the only possible reason for his inexplicable slump, from which he recovered somewhat (though not spectacularly) in 1993.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1991 34 114 .323 .374 .566 1992 14 72 .251 .323 .366 1993 24 90 .257 .329 .420
3. Mike Schmidt, 1978
Philadelphia's Hall-of-Fame third baseman, who'd averaged 38 HRs and 107 RBI between 1974-77, had a sudden, unexplained dropoff in 1978, a prolonged slump that didn't abate even when manager Danny Ozark batted him leadoff. In Philly, of course, the fans booed, and Schmidt remarked, "I'm booing me on the inside while they're booing me on the outside."
If not for his 21s HR in '78, Schmidt would have piled up 14 straight years with 30+ HR, an incredible streak. But it wasn't to be. Here are Schmidt's numbers, with his off year (1978, as a 28-year-old) in the middle of the stats sandwich:
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1977 38 101 .274 .393 .574 1978 21 78 .251 .364 .435 1979 45 114 .253 .386 .564
2. Willie McCovey, 1964
The 25-year-old McCovey, who was the NL rookie of the year in 1959, had his breakout year as a slugger in 1963, leading the NL in homers with 44 and driving in 102 while hitting .280. But in 1964, his performance suffered as he managed to hit only .220 (his lifetime average would be .280), and hit only 18 HRs with 54 RBI. In 1965, he returned to his big-time production he would maintain the rest of the decade.
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1963 44 102 .280 .350 .566 1964 18 54 .220 .336 .412 1965 39 92 .276 .381 .539
1. Mark McGwire, 1991
On July 19, the 27-year-old A's slugger, mired at .190 despite an injury-free season, said, "I'm close. I know I'm close. I feel good. It's hard to explain to people ..." Unfortunately for McGwire, he wasn't close -- he was at .202 in late August, and finished the season at .201, with only 22 HRs and 75 RBI.
McGwire, who finished up in 2001 with a career .263 average, wasn't hurt -- he played 154 games and, wrote Frank Blackman in the San Francisco Examiner, "superb" defense. And, McGwire told Blackman, he was as puzzled as everyone else by the extended slump.
"This has been the most mind-boggling year," McGwire said. "Why things are happening the way they're happening, I don't know. I'm doing everything to change things. There was a time things were starting to turn around, and I hit another brick wall. Why have I hit so many brick walls this year? I don't know."
HR RBI BA OBP SLG 1990 39 108 .235 .370 .489 1991 22 75 .201 .330 .383 1992 42 104 .268 .385 .585
Frank Robinson, 1963: Robinson had a terrible season at the peak of his career, but he was playing through injuries.
Ernie Banks, 1963: Banks, who hit 37 homers in 1962, was doing just fine until mid-June -- he'd blasted 15 dingers up until then -- but played the rest of the season with a case of the mumps and finished with only 18 home runs.
Roy Campanella, 1954: Campy's average dropped from .312 in 1953 to .207 in 1954, but he played all season with a chipped bone in his left hand.
Thanks to Dave Schoenfield, Scott Ridge, Mark Simon, and Jeff Bennett for research assistance.