Joe Sewell and the art of not striking out

By various measures, Joe Sewell might rank as the hardest player to strike out in baseball history. The Hall of Famer fanned just 114 times in 8,333 plate appearances lifetime, famous for going full seasons with four or six strikeouts. Lefty Grove, who never struck Sewell out in 96 at-bats, per Retrosheet, called him the toughest batter he ever faced.

I got to wondering recently if Sewell went his entire career without striking out twice in a game. I checked game logs on, and it’s close: Sewell struck out twice on May 13, 1923 and again on May 26, 1930. Sewell being Sewell, he didn’t strike out the rest of the 1930 season after May 26, finishing the year with three strikeouts in 414 plate appearances.

At the time of the 1930 game, Sewell was getting over a recent end due to illness to an 1,103-game consecutive games streak, second-best in baseball history at the time after Everett Scott according to Sewell’s SABR biography. Interviewed in the 1970s by Society for American Baseball Research founder L. Robert Davids, Sewell said also he was thrown off in the 1930 game by white shirts in the center field bleachers.

One of Sewell’s secrets as a hitter, after all, was his ability to keep his eye on the ball. He also favored contact over power, with just 49 homers lifetime, and he kept a comfortable stance that allowed him to adjust to any pitch.

“I followed the ball all the way,” Sewell said in 1960, while hitting coach of the Cleveland Indians, where he played most of his career. “I could even see it hit the bat. Anyone can– if he concentrates on picking up the ball and not watching the pitcher’s motion.”

That might be a good lesson for today’s hitters. With major leaguers striking out a record 37,441 times in 2014, Sewell’s career strikeout rate looks untouchable. Since 1950, just five players according to the Play Index tool have struck out under 500 times with at least 8,000 plate appearances: Nellie Fox, Jim Gilliam, Bill Buckner, Tony Gwynn and Juan Pierre.

Sewell, who died in 1990, would likely be aghast at today’s strikeout rates. “There’s no excuse for a major league player striking out 100 times a season,” he said in 1960. “Unless, of course, he’s blind.”

8 Replies to “Joe Sewell and the art of not striking out”

  1. Impressive! I wonder how he would’ve adjusted to the split finger, the 100+ mph pitches that are common now, & the knuckle curve. Times like this, I’d love to have a time machine and bring Sewell to 2014 and give him a shot at facing some of the newer stuff. He’d probably teach a lot of modern hitters how to hit stuff they think is unhittable.

    1. @Devon — I kept my piece short so there were some things I came across in the course of research that didn’t make the cut. One of those things: Sewell speculating in 1979 that he would have excelled on artificial turf [same interview, by the way, where he said Ron Guidry and Thurman Munson were the only two members of the then-current Yankees who could have made the 1932 club.]

    2. All those pitches you mention have been around for about 100 years. Dizzy Dean threw a splitter, though it wasn’t called that at the time. And Sewell had to deal with the spit ball. I think he’d do just fine and probably hit .400 on today’s candy ass pitchers.

  2. What would Earl Weaver say? (Earl didn’t think much of Rich Dauer’s “art” of being tough to strike out.)

    Black ink; Batting – 3 (rank = 537), Average HOFer ≈ 27
    Gray ink; Batting – 75 (rank = 329), Average HOFer ≈ 144
    Hall of Fame monitor; Batting – 68 (rank = 292), Likely HOFer ≈ 100

    I couldn’t help but notice his 3 for 19 stolen base performance in 1927.

  3. Joe DiMaggio with7673 PA falls a bit short of making the cut. With only 369 k’s in that amount of plate appearances he almost achieved striking out fewer times than he hit home runs, an awesome stat for a power hitter.
    If he had played one less season DiMag would have struck out only 333 times and have had a total of 349 homers. Had he also played in a more favorable ballpark for a righty, the stats would even be more outrageous.

  4. For those interested in Joe Sewell, I suggest reading The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell. It’s a fine book on the 1920 Cleveland Indians, when Sewell was a rookie entering the major leagues under very trying circumstances.

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