Putting pressure on the defense

Jack Cust is in the process of redefining the idea of Three True Outcomes. With 25 home runs, 105 walks and 164 strikeouts in 507 plate appearances in 2007, Cust avoided the defense a whopping 58 percent of the time, the highest rate of any hitter going back to 1956.

Despite his slow start this year, Cust is at it again. In games through the end of April, Cust has just one home run, but his 22 walks and 27 strikeouts in 91 plate appearances have him back at the top of the True Outcomes leaderboard through April at 55 percent. It’s frightening to think that number will probably climb if he ever finds his power stroke.

But what about the other end of the spectrum? The guys who, when they come to the plate, keep the defense on their toes? With that in mind, here is a list of five hitters going back to 1956 who have the single-season lowest Three True Outcomes percentage and how they did it.

5. Bobby Richardson, 1963 – 3 HR, 25 BB, 22 SO in 668 plate appearances
True Outcome% – 7.5%

Richardson was the Yankees’ light-hitting second baseman at the end of the great Yankee dynasty of the 1950s and ’60s. Entering 1963, he was coming off the best year of his career where he hit .302/.337/.406 with 37 walks and 24 strikeouts and finished second in the MVP voting. His 1963 season had to be something of a letdown as Richardson managed a .265/.294/.330 effort. Despite his struggles to reach base, he finished 10th in that year’s MVP vote. That was undoubtedly helped by the fact he was and excellent defender.

He finds himself here because for the 1963 season, he cut his walk to 3.6 percent and strikeout rate to 3.5 percent, but remained in line with his average output as a hitter. Over his 12 year career, Richardson hit .266/.299/.335 with 34 home runs.

While Richardson was a revered member of those World Champion Yankee teams, he was an out machine. He finished second in outs in 1963 which was the only year from 1961 to 1965 where he did not lead the league in that category. It didn’t help that he routinely hit leadoff or second later in his career.

While the 1963 Yankees won the AL pennant for the fourth straight year, they certainly carried a bunch of low OBP players. Richardson at .294 along with Clete Boyer at .295 and shortstop Tony Kubek at .294 helped hold the Yankees team OBP to .307 which ranked them seventh out of 10 teams in the league.

That Kubek led off and Richardson hit second for Ralph Houk’s team would melt the internets if that happened today. I’m pretty sure Tom Tresh wasn’t happy about his lack of RBI opportunities.

But the Yankees were able to make up for their collective inability to get on base by doing what they normally did—they pounded the ball into oblivion (adjusted for era, of course) Their 188 home runs and .403 slugging percentage ranked second in the AL and they averaged 4.4 runs per game, which also was good enough to rank second. The best hitting team in the AL that summer was the Minnesota Twins, but they finished in third place with 91 wins.

However when the Yankees ran into the superior pitching of the Dodgers in the World Series, their offensive shortcomings could no longer hide. New York hit just .171/.207/.240 and scored only four runs in getting swept.

Richardson played three more years for the Yankees and saw his OBP decrease each season until he retired in 1966 at the age of 30.

4. Nellie Fox 1963: 2 HR, 24 BB, 17 SO in 582 plate appearances
True Outcome % – 7.4%

It’s not surprising that Fox would end up on this list as he was the ultimate contact hitter of his era, never striking out more than 18 times in a single season. In fact, Fox was the toughest batter to whiff in 1963, striking out just once every 31.7 at bats. His strikeout rate actually jumped from 1.9 percent in 1962 to (for Fox) a whopping 3.2 percent in 1963. He makes the top five on the strength (or lack thereof) of his 24 walks, which was a career low. For the year, he hit .260/.299/.306 with 140 hits in 539 at bats and his on base percentage was also the lowest mark of his 19-year career. It was his worst full season since his rookie season in 1950.

Like Richardson, Fox was Chicago’s number two hitter (behind either Mike Hershberger or Jim Landis.) The White Sox were in first place as late as June 14 that year, but couldn’t match the Yankees in the power department and faded over the second half of the season before finishing in second place, 10.5 games back.

Fox was traded that offseason to the Houston Colt .45’s in exchange for Danny Murphy and Jim Golden. He played two seasons in Houston and finished his career with a .288/.345/.363 line.

Averaging a strikeout every 42.7 at bats for his career, Fox finished as the fourth most difficult hitter of all time to strikeout. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

3. Tim Foli, 1982: 3 HR, 14 BB, 22 SO in 528 plate appearances
True Outcome % – 7.4%

Foli was the number one overall pick in the 1968 draft by the New York Mets and was able to play 16 years in the majors as a light hitting shortstop. Following the ’81 season, Foli joined the California Angels and it looked as though he would play out the remainder of his career as a utility infielder. But after regular Rick Burelson went down in April of that year with a torn rotator cuff, Foli was thrust into the lineup where he finished with a .252/.273/.308 line for the season.

His 14 walks that year at the time was the record for the fewest free passes in a single season from a player who appeared in at least 150 games. He also was the toughest hitter to strikeout in the league that year, whiffing just once every 21.8 at bats. Combine those two ingredients with his lack of power (he had 25 career home runs) and it’s not surprising he made this list.

Foli’s career is about as nondescript as you can get, but he did lead the AL in sacrifice hits in ’82. The Angels won the AL West that year and Foli hit .125/.125/.125 in the five game loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

He shifted to the utility role the following year and hit .252/.263/.300 in 88 games. He retired after being released by Pittsburgh in June of 1985.

2. Tim Foli, 1979: 1 HR, 28 BB, 14 SO in 587 plate appearances
True Outcome % – 7.3%

Hey, he’s here again.

Only this time, 1979 was the best offensive season of Foli’s career where he posted career highs across the board, hitting .288/.330/.340. He began the year with the New York Mets, but appeared in only three games before he was traded to the Pirates for Frank Taveras.

Foli’s high on base percentage in 1979 is due to the fact he walked more than usual in drawing 28 free passes. It should also be noted that he was hit by a pitch nine times that year, which obviously helped. He also set a career high with 153 base hits (128 of which were singles.)

And just like his ’82 season, he was by far the toughest hitter to strikeout in the NL in 1979, going down on strikes once every 38 at bats. Over the last 30 years, no player has posted a better ratio—Tony Gwynn came closest, striking out once every 35.7 at bats in 1995.

Foli carried his career year into the postseason for the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates, hitting .333/.268/.417 in their three game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS. In the seven game classic against the Baltimore Orioles, Foli hit in six games posting a .333/.375/.433 line while scoring six runs. That post season he had 38 plate appearances and drew two walks and no strikeouts.

Foli is the anti-Cust.

1. Matty Alou 1970: 1 HR, 30 BB, 18 SO in 718 plate appearances
True Outcome % – 6.8%

Compared to the previous three hitters, Alou’s inclusion on this list (and overall first place finish) is a bit of a surprise. Unlike Alou, Richardson and Foli struggled to get on base throughout their careers. And while Fox was his peer as a hitter, he was 35 in the ’63 season and well past his prime.

But for Alou, the 1970 season came just as he was leaving what was a very productive stretch of his career. While Alou (31 career home runs) never hit for power, his performance as a hitter in the four years from 1966 to 1969 was solid all around. He hit .334/.368/.409 over those seasons and even led the NL with 231 hits in 1969.

In the 1970 season, Alou hit .297/.329/.356 which means while he owns the record of lowest True Outcome percentage in a season since 1956, he had the most productive year among those in the bottom five. He makes this list (and takes the title) on the strength of striking out just once every 37.6 times at bat which led the NL that season and was the best rate of Alou’s career. His next-best rate came in 1971 when he whiffed once every 22.6 at bats. For his career, Alou struck out in 6.5% of his at bats, but in 1970 he sliced that to an incredible 2.7%.

Alou was the ultimate contact hitter that year, collecting 201 hits and leading the league with 171 singles. He was primarily the leadoff man for the Pirates, although he did see some at bats as the number two hitter. On a team with Bob Robertson, Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, it’s not surprising Alou came around and scored 97 runs.

The Pirates won the NL East that year and Alou hit .250/.357/.333 as the Bucs were swept by the Reds in the NLCS.

Here’s the kicker: In that very same year, Alou’s brother Jesus had a True Outcome percentage of 7.6 percent for the Houston Astros which just missed this list as it was the sixth lowest of all time.

Combined, the Alou brothers had 1,205 times plate appearances and put the ball in play 1,119 times. The greatest brother combination of all time in putting pressure on the defense.

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