Higher batting average than strikeouts

I was reading through Ken Burns Baseball over the weekend, and I was struck by a passage that noted Ty Cobb struck out 357 times in his career and sported a .367 lifetime average. While this passage turned out to be incorrect, since it didn’t count the first eight seasons of the Georgia Peach’s career, it got me thinking. Treating batting average as a round number, I wondered how many players who had at least 5,000 plate appearances retired with a higher batting average than number of strikeouts. From what I can tell, it’s a rare feat, and it might be unheard of today.

Baseball’s undergone many shifts over the years, and one of them is that players strike out much more these days. Joe Sewell played from 1920 to 1933 and fanned just 114 times in his career. Mark Reynolds almost did twice that in 2009. Heck, Sewell had whole seasons where he struck out less than Reynolds does in a day. Granted, Reynolds is far from the only player seemingly less concerned with making contact than swinging for power. The trend seems to go back to at least the 1950s. I don’t know what it is, if pitching has gotten better or coaches have de-emphasized contact hitting, but batters like Sewell are long gone from baseball.

The following is a list of players with at least 5,000 plate appearances who retired with a higher batting average than number of strikeouts. The list is by no means comprehensive, and I invite anyone to add to it. I organized the list by year of debut, and I think it’s worth noting that I didn’t find anyone who has played in the last 50 years or retired with a batting average below .300 and accomplished this feat. This exercise would also appear to favor lighter-hitting players, though Joe DiMaggio may deserve an honorable mention for his 369 lifetime strikeouts against a .325 batting average and 361 home runs.

The list is as follows:

Player Strikeouts Batting Avg.
Plate App.
Career Span
Cap Anson 330 .334 11331 1871-1897
Dan Brouthers 238 .342 7676 1879-1904
Buck Ewing 294 .303 5772 1880-1897
Pete Browning 168 .341 5315 1882-1894
Willie Keeler 136 .341 9610 1892-1910
Nap Lajoie 304 .338 10460 1896-1916
Tris Speaker 283 .345 11988 1907-1928
Shoeless Joe Jackson 164 .356 5690 1908-1920
George Sisler 327 .340 9013 1915-1930
Sam Rice 275 .322 10246 1915-1934
Joe Sewell 114 .312 8329 1920-1933
Pie Traynor 278 .320 8293 1920-1937
Riggs Stephenson 247 .336 5134 1921-1934
Freddie Lindstrom 276 .311 6104 1924-1936
Mickey Cochrane 217 .320 6206 1925-1937
Lloyd Waner 173 .316 8326 1927-1945
Joe Vosmik 272 .307 6084 1930-1944
Arky Vaughan 276 .318 7721 1932-1948
Cecil Travis 291 .314 5414 1933-1947
George Kell 287 .306 7528 1943-1957
Jackie Robinson 291 .311 5802 1947-1956

I wonder if any current or future player will eventually make this list.

16 Replies to “Higher batting average than strikeouts”

  1. This morning I was reding the Bill James and Rob Neyer pitching book. It is stated in the book, which came out in 2003, that they didn’t think Walter Johnson threw as hard as Mark Prior in 2003, but that the hitters were impressed with Johnson and thought he had the best fastball. It is also stated in the book that before Babe Ruth, baseball was a base to base war with more thinking involved on how to get the extra base, more steal attempts, bunts, hit and runs, ect. Ruth changed all that with the long ball. So, that being said, I think that todays pitchers throw much harder and because of the emphasis on stats that todays hitters tend to swing for the fences more. Most of the guys on the list probably had shorter swings and tried to place the ball more, hit’em where they ain’t approach. A shorter swing allows for more bat control, which allows the batter to wait longer on the pitch. Boggs, Gwynn and Mattingly sort of had that approach and note that only Mattingly had real power. Also noted, in Mattingly’s best power years(1985-87), he frequently batted second behind Rickey Henderson, so he knew fastballs were coming most of the time. I haven’t seen any Major Leaguers today that have the bat control of the old timers.

  2. It’s telling that the most recent entry on the list, Jackie Robinson, retired more than 50 years ago. It seems very unlikely that a modern-day player could join this group, as even Ichiro Suzuki, a classic contact hitter, has nearly 700 strike outs in his 10+ years (92 per 1000 PA). Strike outs are considerably more common today than in the 1950s. Here are the MLB strike outs per nine innings for every tenth year since Robinson’s time.
    1950: 3.9
    1960: 5.2
    1970: 5.8
    1980: 4.8
    1990: 5.7
    2000: 6.5
    2010: 7.1

  3. While I have no proof to back it up, I suspect that batters today are more concerned with working the counts and trying to put the pitcher at a disadvantage. More pitches, more strikes and more strike outs. As was pointed out earlier, when you look at old videos, the pitchers seemed to be slinging the ball with their arms and not putting their whole body into the pitch. That means that a pitcher who threw in the high 80’s to low 90’s was considered a “speed baller”. Now add in two more factors. The pitchers of today have, or would seem to have more stuff, more movement than ever on their pitches. They’ve even invented a new way of measuring the break and the difficulty, called the nasty factor to measure it. There’s probably also a measurable factor that’s added with the improvement of the catchers mitt. With today’s snappers, more than likely a foul tipped third strike would wind up being caught instead of ending up on the ground after bouncing off on of those old pillows.
    Want more? Look at the attitude of the hitters. Thinner handled bats, bigger swings and more three true outcome batters than ever before.
    We’re witnessing a new kind of game, couched within the old ways of viewing it. It’s great that you brought that out with this fine post.

  4. To be included in this list, a .300 hitter would have to have a strike out rate of less than 60 per 1000 plate appearances; a .320 hitter could have 64 per 1000, a .340 hitter 68, and so on. Yes, the game has changed. Very few players today strike out less than 100 times per 1000 PA. Less than 80 is extremely rare. Among actives, Jeff Keppinger might be the most likely player to join the group, but his chances are slim. He has a .281 lifetime average with 118 strike outs in 1887 PA (62.5 per 1000). To qualify, he would either have to step up his average to the .315 level or cut back on his already very low strike out rate. The situation is even worse for Alberto Callaspo. Also a .281 hitter, he has 139 strike outs in 1826 PA (76.1 per 1000). Not too many other candidates out there.

  5. I like Doug’s idea of the short swing. As I remember, each team in the 40’s and 50’s had at least a couple of guys that were “slap” hitters. But, I don’t see all of them on the list. So, I think the guys on the list had very good pitch recognition(READ:eye sight) and good enough reflexes to be able to wait until the last moment to swing.

  6. Nice article and a cool list… It certainly does help to show how much the game has changed (specifically regarding a hitters attitude). As for the players on the list, I think Joe Vosmik is the one I’m least familiar with and don’t know what position he played (time to head to baseball-reference).

    1. Vosmik was one of the three Red Sox outfielders a young Ted Williams said he would make more money in his career than combined when he was sent down to the minors in 1938.

  7. I believe in the old days there was more emphasis on putting the ball in play because the fielders — and their gloves — were not of the same quality as those of today.

  8. You missed at least one. Bobby Richardson has a career BA of .266, with 262 strikeouts in 5300+ AB.

  9. Here are six more to add to your list.
    Eddie Collins 1906-30: .333 BA, 286 SO, 12,041 PA
    Bill Dickey 1928-46: .313 BA, 289 SO, 7064 PA
    Johnny Pesky 1942-56: .307 BA, 218 SO, 5515 PA
    Frankie Frisch 1919-37: .316 BA, 272 SO, 10,100 PA
    Earle Combs 1924-35: .325 BA, 278 SO, 6507 PA
    Ernie Lombardi 1931-47: .306 BA, 262 SO, 6349 PA
    John McGraw only struck out 74 times in 4940 plate appearances. If you assigned him sixty additional strikouts to get to the 5000PA plateau, his career .334 average would suffer, but he’d still qualify.

  10. Other than Bobby Richardson, the list is pretty much devoid of players active in the ’60s or later. Rich Dauer of the Orioles had 3,829 ABs and struck out 219 times to go with his .257 lifetime BA, which for his era was pretty darn good. I’d like to see a list of players from the ’80s or later who qualify. I’m sure it wouldn’t be a long one

  11. Great topic. Just wondering if anyone has ever heard of a player having a higher strike out total than batting average? I ask because Adam Dunn currently has 165 strikeouts and has a .167 batting average. I have never heard of this happening – even for a pitcher. Does anyone have any insight on this horrible topic???

  12. While Tony Gwynn doesn’t qualify, he’s the closest thing in the modern era to an “old time” hitter – and he is the only one to do it against modern pitching.
    .338 avg/434 K – he had 10,232 PA and averaged 29K’s per 162 games for his career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *