- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Here we stand, in mid-September, on the brink of history.
OK, so maybe it isn't the kind of history that has the History Channel on full red alert. But just because the Smithsonian isn't interested doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't care.
So stay tuned as all of these dramatic Marches Toward History go rumbling down the stretch:
The champion of nowhere
He's a man with a shot to become a batting champ. And no one will ever know it.
So it's time for us to step forward and tell you about a man who has had The Greatest Year Not Listed On Any Stat Sheet.
That man is Placido Polanco. He suits up every night for a team still located in the American League (the Tigers). He has a .336 batting average this year.
OK, now. Check your official American League batting leaders. What do you find?
You see Texas' Michael Young is the AL's leading hitter. Ah, but what's his average? It's .328 -- which would be eight points lower than Polanco's according to our calculator. But it's a funny thing. Look up and down that leader board, and you couldn't locate Polanco with the Hubble Telescope.
Why? Because he had the nerve to spend his first 43 games this season playing for the Phillies. Who play in the National League. And that stodgy old American League refuses to acknowledge that any of the stuff he did in that other league should count.
Now maybe that made sense like 80 years ago, when these two leagues only met in months named October. But those days are now defunct. And Polanco's case is especially nuts, since he actually got traded from one league to the other in June -- in the middle of interleague play.
So he got three at-bats against AL teams while he was in the NL (and went 2-for-3). And he got 47 at-bats against NL teams while he was in the AL (and hit .383).
But while the AL will count all 47 of his at-bats against the NL while he was a Tiger, it won't count any of his 155 at-bats against the NL while he was a Phillie. And we ask you: Does that make any sense whatsoever?
Correct answer: Nooooooo. But we're stuck with this system, anyway. And since we are, we should let Polanco know he still has a chance to become the third player in history to lead the major leagues in one of the triple-crown categories -- without leading either league. Which is one tough trick.
The last time this happened, according to the Elias Sports Bureau's Ken Hirdt, was 1997 -- when Mark McGwire hit 34 home runs in Oakland, then hit 24 more in St. Louis and wound up as the phantom home run champ, with 58.
The only other instance was way more bizarre. In 1990, Willie McGee was leading the NL in hitting (at .335) when he got traded in August to Oakland. And even though he hit just .274 the rest of the way, the NL was still pretty sure he was a .335 hitter -- and handed him the batting title.
In the meantime, another NL hitter -- Eddie Murray -- wound up with the highest average in the major leagues (.330). But he got no batting title out of it. Beautiful.
Now Polanco can join this esteemed group. At last check, he was only three points behind Derrek Lee (.339) -- the only man with the higher average in the entire sport -- and one point ahead of Albert Pujols (.335).
"Albert Pujols is my best friend," Polanco told Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler, the guy who first broke this gargantuan story. "Maybe the last day, if he's beating me by a couple of points, I'll call him and tell him to strike out a couple of times for me. We'll see. I'll talk to him about it. I'm going to tell him, 'You've already had your year.' "
Memo to the citizens of St. Louis: He was kidding.
But even if Polanco passes both of those guys, what will he get out of it? A trophy? A plaque? An autographed picture of Eddie Murray? Nope. He'll get none of the above -- even if he'll always be recognized as the official batting champ of the Useless Information Department.
But to his credit, Polanco has decided not to whine about this mess. After all, he went from being a part-time player in Philadelphia to a guy who wound up with a job -- and a four-year, $18.4-million contract -- in Detroit. So "if I tell you I'm not happy with it," he told Knobler, "God might punish me."
Well, maybe he's OK with this. But we're not. Phantoms belong in the opera, not in baseball. And if enough of you agree with us, we might even get this rule changed -- by the year 2298.
Apparently, Pudge Rodriguez has never read Moneyball. He might not know a "take" sign from a road sign.
And in case you hadn't checked the old BB column on your local stat sheet lately, Pudge is making Neifi Perez look like Rickey Henderson.
We're 5½ months into this baseball season. Which means enough baseball has been played that, last time we looked, 69 different players had drawn at least 50 walks.
Pudge, on the other hand, had drawn seven.
Five of which were even unintentional.
Think about this. Jeff Bagwell once walked six times in one game. Pudge has walked seven times all year. In 485 trips to the plate.
For the first five months of this season, this man drew exactly one unintentional walk in Comerica Park. And it was in the All-Star Game. It took eight more weeks (until Sept. 6) before he drew another one, in a real game. Which might be the most bizarre fact of this entire season.
Now there may be some people who think it's time Pudge started taking more pitches. But not us. We want him to keep that walk total right where it is. Because only three players in history have drawn this few walks in a season of 500 at-bats or more.
And the last one -- the immortal Art "Green Light" Fletcher -- played during the Woodrow Wilson administration.
There was George "Hack Man" Stovall (six walks in 565 at-bats, in 1909). There was Candy "Let It Rip" LaChance (seven walks in 548 at-bats in 1901). And there was Fletcher (six walks in 562 at-bats in 1915).
Then again, all of those guys played before the invention of the intentional walk (not to mention QuesTec). So, with the help of Lee Sinins' ever-invaluable Sabermetric Encyclopedia, we checked the intentional-BB era (1955-now) to see if anyone has even come close to drawing just five unintentional walks in this many at-bats.
Turns out only one player in that whole glorious half-century ever got to ball four less in a 400-at-bat season -- Alfredo "The King of Swing" Griffin (four unintentional BBs in 419 at-bats, in 1984).
But if Pudge stays at five, and reaches 525 at-bats, he'll officially have the worst walk rate of any full-time player in the modern walking era. (For which he really ought to win a boxed set of Swing Music CDs.)
So Pudge, keep on hacking, pal. Our panel of history lovers has given you (what else?) the green light, to swing at every pitch for the rest of the season.
Department of Homeland Francoeur-ity
Speaking of not walking ... we'd like to take this opportunity to express our undying admiration for Braves phenom Jeff Francoeur. Why? Because the man's a walking notes machine (so to speak).
After all, Francoeur managed to hit 10 home runs before drawing his first career walk. And you won't be shocked to learn that, according to Elias, he's the first man in the division-play era to pull that off.
Meanwhile, Francoeur was last spotted at 12 homers, five unintentional walks. Which gives him a shot at becoming the 13th player in the last half-century to have twice as many homers as unintentional walks (in a season with at least that many homers). The others, according to Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Encyclopedia:
Carlos Baerga (19 HR, 9 UNINT. BB) in 1994
Karim Garcia (16 HR, 6 UNINT. BB) in 2002
Roberto Kelly (16 HR, 8 UNINT. BB) in 1998
Andre Dawson (16 HR, 6 UNINT. BB) in 1994
Wayne Nordhagen (15 HR, 7 UNINT. BB) in 1980
Don Demeter (14 HR, 7 UNINT. BB) in 1966
Shawon Dunston (14 HR, 7 UNINT. BB) in 1995
Bill Schroeder (14 HR, 6 UNINT. BB) in 1984
Andres Mora (13 HR, 4 UNINT. BB) in 1977
Gary Gray (13 HR, 3 UNINT. BB) in 1981
Mel Hall (12 HR, 4 UNINT. BB) in 1990)
Shawon Dunston (12 HR, 6 UNINT. BB) in 2000
Finally, Francoeur also is closing in on an even weirder club -- the More Outfield Assists Than Walks Club.
After his first 52 games in the outfield, he was at 12 assists, eight walks. And Elias reports that, in the last 15 years, only two men played 40 games or more in the outfield and still managed to have more assists than walks -- Shawon Dunston (four assists, two walks) for the 2001 Giants and Robert Perez (four assists, two walks) for the 1998 Mariners and Expos.
But those two guys were both utility men. So the last regular outfielder we've come across who did this with at least 10 assists was Ellis Valentine (10 assists, five walks) for the 1982 Mets. If you can track down another, drop us a line at email@example.com. Our historical society is standing by.
As long as we're on this walk roll, how can we overlook Twins strike machine Carlos Silva, a pitcher who clearly thinks baseball is a contact sport?
Lots of people are beginning to notice that Silva never, ever walks anybody. After all, his 0.43 walks per nine innings would be the best walk rate in modern American League history. But loyal reader Kris Breuing has noticed something else about Silva:
He hardly ever strikes out anybody, either.
His 3.39 whiffs per nine innings rank next-to-last (behind his teammate, Joe Mays) among all qualifying AL starters. So Breuing wondered: Is all this contact Silva is allowing leading to some kind of record?
Well, yes and no. Silva's combined 3.82 walks and whiffs per nine innings isn't even close to a record we can put in the books -- since the legendary Slim Sallee had a 0.79 walk ratio and a 0.95 strikeout ratio (a combined 1.74) back in 1919.
But in the expansion era (1961-present), Silva is on pace to make history. The current record-holder is Steve Kline (father of the Orioles reliever). In 1972, he had a 1.68 walk ratio and 2.21 strikeout ratio, which adds up to 3.89.
So if Carlos Silva can just keep letting those hitters put those pitches of his in play, he'll be the official anti-Nolan Ryan (or is that the anti-Kaz Ishii?) of these post-expansion times.
The 50-50 Club
Only one pitcher in history has ever served up 50 home runs in one season. That was Bert Blyleven, who did it nearly two decades ago (in 1986) -- and has never looked at gophers the same since.
But this year, our man Bert might be getting company. Heading into the final three weeks of the season, Reds pitcher Eric Milton has given up as many homers (39) as Blyleven did at the same stage of his historic 50-bomb summer.
Granted, he since has fallen behind -- by allowing just one homer Tuesday, on the 19th anniversary of Blyleven's serving up a five-spot. But that doesn't mean Milton doesn't have all the credentials needed to reach the hallowed half-century mark, too.
He warmed up by allowing 43 gopher balls last year. And this year, he has cranked out one four-homer game, four three-homer games and more two-homer games (six) than no-homer games (five). So a few more like those, and 50 here he comes.
But wait. There's more.
Milton also has given up 53 doubles this year. Which means that if he can get to 50 homers, he'd be the first 50-50 man in pitching history.
And through his first 31 starts, he'd already allowed 98 extra-base hits. Which means he could easily blow by Jose Lima (108 in 2000) for the most extra-base hits doled out by any National League pitcher in the last quarter-century.
And now that he's arrived at 40 homers, he has joined Robin Roberts (three times), Blyleven (two) and Phil Niekro (two) as the only multi-season 40-bomb offenders of all time.
So we don't know if Doris Kearns Goodwin cares about this man's historic season. For that matter, we don't even know if Bert Blyleven cares. But the rest of us will be hanging on every pitch.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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