The Kong Identity

Joey Gallo (left) could end up being this generation’s Dave Kingman. (via Keith Allison)

In the original 1933 version of King Kong, the flamboyant captor (Robert Armstrong) of the giant ape proclaimed him the Eighth Wonder of the World. Nobody ever said that about Dave “King Kong” Kingman, who retired more than three decades ago. He was not a great player, not even a good player; one-dimensional is an adjective often applied to him. He was a wonder of sorts, but one can be a wonder without being wonderful.

The King Kong nickname was understandable. Kingman was big (6-foot-6, 210 pounds) and strong. Though his hits frequently went over the wall, his behavior was frequently off the wall. Enigmatic was an adjective often applied. The other adjectives were less charitable but understandable, given his frequent tiffs with sportswriters.

Kingman’s rookie season, with the Giants, was almost a template for his career. The 29 home runs and 83 RBIs were solid, but there was the distressing matter of that .203 batting average. Not to mention 140 strikeouts. When he retired seven teams later (1986 was his final major league season), he had lots of home runs (442, including 16 grand slams), lots of strikeouts (1,816 total, never fewer than 100 in any full season), and a low batting average (.236).

Kingman not only hit home runs, he hit looooooong home runs. His natural uppercut swing often resulted in home runs that were high, wide and handsome (on April 14, 1976, his reported 540-foot home run was the longest in the 100+ years of Wrigley Field history). Hence his other nickname, Sky King, a reference to a 1950’s TV show.

Bill Jenkinson, the ultimate authority on long distance hitters, rates sluggers according to the distance of their home runs, not just the total. He ranked Kingman just ahead of Ralph Kiner but right behind Ted Williams – not a bad place to be. In Jenkinson’s rankings, however that puts Kingman in 13th place. If you’re superstitious, make of that what you will.

Kingman led the majors in strikeouts three times (1979, 1981 and 1982) and had 100-plus strikeouts 14 times (in 16 seasons). His 1982 season with the Mets was his career best/worst for strikeouts with 156.

Now if you’ve fallen in love with the Three-True-Outcomes statistic, you might think Kingman would be way up there on the career leader board. You would be wrong. Kingman didn’t walk much. Consequently, his career on-base percentage was just .302, and his TTO career mark is 38.57 percent, which is no great shakes today.

As for Kingman’s fielding, in most NL box scores he had 1B or LF next to his name, but he also played third base and right field. His career advanced fielding stats were negative at all positions. When it comes to fielding, the nickname King Klank might have been appropriate.

While Kingman was sui generis during his playing years, today he would have plenty of company. When Kingman retired, he was fourth on the all-time strikeout list. Now he is in 16th place. His career-worst 156 strikeouts is a ho-hum total in 2018; it wouldn’t get Kingman on the leader board today. He wouldn’t be in the top five, the top 10, or even the top 15. The top 20? Nope, not even.

(The all-time career strikeout leader, Reggie Jackson with 2,597, is in a different category altogether. He played 21 seasons and is in the the Hall of Fame.)

In a sense, Kingman was ahead of his time. Home runs and strikeouts are on the rise. The all-or-nothing approach at the plate has never been more popular. So Kingman’s progeny are legion. By way of contrast, the cinema’s King Kong spawned only one legitimate son (Son of Kong, 1933), though some film historians assert that he also sired a bastard son (Mighty Joe Young, 1949), who was a chimp off the old block. (For the record, there was a Joseph Young who appeared in one game as a pitcher for the St. Louis Browns in 1892. He retired with an ERA of 22.50. Not exactly mighty.)

In Kingman’s day, striking out 100 times came with a stigma, albeit a mild one if one also slugged a sufficient number of home runs. It is worth noting, however, that Babe Ruth, who was renowned for both home runs and striking out, never reached triple digits in strikeouts (his high was 93 in 1923). In 2017 every major league team had at least one player with 100 strikeouts. That should set off alarms, but many fans who savor the long ball also like to watch the big guys go down swinging.

Of all the hitters who have come along since Kingman’s retirement, whose career is most Kong-like? Well, in the early years of the 21st century, the Son of Kong was clearly Adam Dunn, who had many a tape-measure job in his 462 home runs. He struck out 2,379 times (third place all-time), and had a career batting average of just .237. Not surprisingly, his name appears at the top of the list for Dave Kingman’s Similarity Score on the Baseball Reference web site. The biggest difference is Dunn walked more than twice as often as Kingman (1,317 walks in 14 seasons). His career mark for Three True Outcomes was 49.9 percent.

Dunn could accurately be described as one-dimensional. Like Kingman, he spent most of his career in the National League. Fittingly, his nickname of Big Donkey forges a Donkey-Kong connection. True, he was as tall as Kingman, but he was 70-75 pounds heavier – more Kong than Kong! Bob Boone once said that Dunn looked “as if someone photocopied a normal human being at 140 percent.” When Bill Jenkinson was ranking long-distance hitters, Dunn was ranked No. 1 for players active at the time (2011).

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The post-Dunn line of succession is wide open, and we have candidates aplenty, but who is best suited to be the next Son (or Grandson?) of Kong? By the end of this article, he will be revealed (he is contained in the following list of major league strikeout leaders for 2017). Since Kingman’s season high for strikeouts was 156, I have set that as the threshold.

2017 Batting Strikeout Leaders
Player Strikeouts
Aaron Judge  208
Joey Gallo  196
Chris Davis  195
Khris Davis 195
Trevor Story  191
Justin Upton  180
Wil Myers  180
Steven Souza  179
Domingo Santana  178
Mark Reynolds  175
Keon Broxton  175
Miguel Sano  173
Jose Bautista  170
Adam Duvall  170
Tim Beckham  167
Matt Davidson  165
Giancarlo Stanton  163
Eric Thames  163
Tim Anderson  162
Rougned Odor  162
Mike Zunino  160

Keep in mind that to establish kinship with Kingman, a batter must have lots of tape measure home runs, lots of strikeouts, and a low batting average. Indifference to poor fielding is desirable. The enigmatic personality is not.

I’m not going to discuss everyone on the above list, but some are more Kingmanesque than others. Also, I have to address Aaron Judge since he is top dog.

Judge was the only hitter to surpass 200 strikeouts, but let’s put it in perspective. If Judge had 200 strikeouts every year, it would take him 13 seasons to surpass Jackson’s career total. Even so, given his offensive prowess, he could strike out 300 times a year and no one would care. Surely, he has some 500-foot-plus homers in his future (his 495-foot shot at Yankee Stadium against the Orioles on June 11 was the longest of the 2017 season), but he is not destined to be the next Kong. The next Reggie Jackson, maybe.

Steven Souza Jr. turns 29 after the start of the season, so I don’t think he has enough time to develop a Kong-like career. In 2017 the Rays led the AL in strikeouts (1,538) but hit 228 home runs, the most in franchise history. Souza led the way with 30. His average was a Kingman-like .239. If he were five or six years younger, he might bear watching. Too bad he was a late bloomer. At any rate, he will be hitting home runs and striking out for the Diamondbacks, not the Rays, in 2018.

Trevor Story is only 25 but his 191 strikeouts (tops in the NL) in his sophomore season certainly attract attention. To be sure, he got 24 homers and 82 RBIs, but those aren’t elite power stats. In fact, that total of 191 strikeouts was the second most ever by someone with fewer than 25 homers. (To be fair, he hit a major league-leading six 400-foot-plus drives that were caught). Like Souza, his batting average was .239. His .256 at Coors Field in 2017 is the lowest ever by a Rockie at that ballpark. If he keeps up the “good work,” he may one day be a match for Kingman. But I’m not betting on him.

Rougned Odor, second baseman for the Rangers, struck out 162 times in 2017. Odor also led the majors in the statistic of most outs made (506). This isn’t necessarily a negative. For example, Odor’s keystone partner, Elvis Andrus, tied for fifth place on that list with 485 outs, but he played in 158 games, had 689 plate appearances, had 191 hits and batted .297. By way of contrast, Odor hit 30 homers, drove home 75…and hit just four points above the Mendoza line. Even so, he just turned 24, so whether such a season will prove to be the norm or a departure from same is yet to be determined.

Still, one can’t help but be impressed that Roogie is one of just four players to hit 30 or more homers while hitting below .210. Two of them are Kingman and Adam Dunn. The other is Mark Reynolds (see below). In addition, Odor’s 2017 OPS (.649) is the lowest ever of any hitter who reached the 30-homer benchmark. Right behind him is Kingman…in second place (.686 in 1986), fourth place (.717 in 1982), and fifth place (.726 in 1985).

But despite Odor’s impressive resume, I don’t think he is the next Kong. Another season or two like 2017 and he won’t be around long enough to even think about challenging for the throne, even though he is signed through 2022.

Shortstop Tim Anderson (the White Sox’ first pick in 2013) is also 24 years old and also struck out 162 times. This was not a surprise, as he had struck out 117 times in 410 at bats in his rookie year of 2016. In 2017 he hit 17 homers with 56 RBIs and a .257 average, which doesn’t seem like a decent enough tradeoff for all those whiffs. Like Kingman, he isn’t given to walks. In fact, in 2017 he had a mere 13 bases on balls and led the majors with a 12.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As is the case with Odor, his longevity is tenuous. In addition to his offensive shortcomings, he made 28 errors, a sum even Kingman might envy.

As of now, Rougned Odor’s nemesis, Jose Bautista, is without an employer despite his record-setting 2017 season. What record, you say? The all-time Blue Jays strikeout record: 170, far surpassing his previous worst total of 116 in 2010. In that season, however, he led the league with 54 home runs and drove home 124, so the strikeouts fade into insignificance. In 2017, however, the payoff was 23 homers, 65 RBIs and a .203 average. For his career, he has fewer homers (331) and strikeouts (1,283) than Kingman, and at age 37, those may be his final figures. Not quite up to King Kong standards, but a respectable showing. He didn’t come into his own until that 2010 season when he was 29. That late start cost him a realistic chance to wear the crown of Kong.

Like Bautista, first baseman Mark Reynolds is without a job. In 11 seasons, he has 1,806 strikeouts (18th place all time). He’s only 791 behind Reggie Jackson. At age 34, Reynolds could be the all-time strikeout champ if only someone would sign him. He has 281 home runs to go with a .237 batting average.

In his rookie year (2007) he struck out 129 times in 366 at bats. Then he really went to town. He surpassed 200 the next three seasons and came within four strikeouts of making it four in a row. Oddly, his 2016 and 2017 seasons with the Rockies produced his highest batting averages (.282 and .267) since his rookie year (.279). He struck out 175 times in 2017, yet he went deep 30 times and drove home 97. I think this workman is worthy of his hire, but I’m a fan, not a GM. I think it would be a shame for one of the best nicknames (Sheriff of Swattingham) ever to pass into history prematurely.

The Brewers led the majors in 2017 with 1,571 strikeouts, and Domingo Santana led the Brewers with 178. The results were not bad (.278, 30 homers, 85 RBIs) but hardly extraordinary. Santana burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old rookie in Houston by striking out 14 times in his first 17 at-bats. Of course, only a blind man could keep up that pace, but Santana is only 25, so I wouldn’t count him out.

Oakland is a good place to fly under the radar, so it’s understandable that Khris Davis would not be the first name to come to mind if one was asked who had hit the most home runs over the last two seasons. Yet his total of 85 (42 in 2016, 43 in 2017) leads the way. At age 29, he may be emerging too late to realistically compete for the coveted Kong title. If he continues to hit 40+ home runs, however, he should stick around awhile, so that strikeout total may grow apace.

Since Khris Davis is nicknamed Krush, it’s not surprising that Chris Davis is nicknamed Crush. Davis has gone deep often enough (267 times) to counter his strikeouts (1,504). He will be 32 years old when the 2018 season opens, and he definitely has a shot at the Reggie Jackson career strikeout record.

In fact, Davis is actually striking out more as he gets older. He led major league baseball with 208 in 2015 and 219 in 2016. His 37.2 percent strikeout rate in 2017 was the highest in the majors and the highest of his career. His career batting average is .246 but it’s been going down in recent years. It wouldn’t take much to drop that another 10 points so he could retire with a mark close to Kingman’s. Davis has been a full-time first baseman with the Orioles since 2012, and his defensive skills have enhanced his job security. I wouldn’t say that disqualifies Davis from King Kong lineage, but adeptness in the field is incompatible with the Kingman persona.

This brings me to the most likely candidate to carry on the Kong tradition, but it pains me to say it (he plays for my hometown team, the Rangers): Joey Gallo.

Born in 1993 in Henderson, Nevada, Gallo was the 2012 Nevada Gatorade State Player of the Year at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. He hit 21 homers in his senior year and 65 total during his high sch0ol years – the most in state history. His home runs happened in Vegas but they did not stay in Vegas.

As a Rangers fan, I first became aware of Joey Gallo in 2013. At age 19 he hit 40 homers (38 for the Hickory Crawdads of the Single-A South Atlantic League). That was more than any other minor league player that season. He hit 42 in 2014, some with the Single-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans, some with the Double-A Frisco Roughriders. I got to see him in person at the latter venue.

There was no doubt he was a natural power hitter. In 2014 he was the Rangers’ minor league player of the year as well as the MVP of the All-Star Futures Game. Baseball America ranked him as the top power-hitting prospect in the country. Even his 2014 Topps Heritage card (No. 34) stated, “Joey is already a legendary home run hitter.” Nevertheless, the Rangers were careful not to bring him along too quickly.

At the beginning of the 2017 season he was just 23 and likely earmarked for more seasoning at Triple-A Round Rock. Then Adrian Beltre got hurt, opening up a roster spot for Gallo, who played third base as well as outfield and first base, his best position.

So Gallo not only started the 2017 season with the Rangers, he spent the whole season with them. Granted, one should never project too much from just one season, but let’s compare young master Gallo with young master Kingman. Both were 23 years old during their first full seasons.

Gallo went deep 41 times, drove home 81, and hit a mere .209. He struck out 196 times in 449 at bats. Gallo surpassed Kingman in homers and strikeouts by a wide margin though Kingman had a slightly higher average. But there is more.

Gallo’s .209 batting average was the lowest in history for a player with 40 or more home runs. His 2017 strikeout rate was 36.8 percent. For Three-True-Outcome fans, Gallo finished at 58.64 percent. He had the fewest singles (32) of any player with at least 502 plate appearances. His 94 hits were the fewest in a 40-HR season in major league history. Who held that record before Gallo? Adam Dunn, who had 110 hits while going deep 41 times for the White Sox in 2012.

Just as important, Gallo finished second in percentage of home runs of 400-plus feet. His 75.5 percent was behind only the Padres’ Jose Pirela, who led the league at 80 percent (though that was based on just 10 homers). The average distance of a Gallo dinger in 2017 was 426.68 feet. No 500-footers yet, but on September 17 he hit a 490-foot shot high onto the center-field terrace/batter’s eye in Anaheim. It was the third longest of 2017.

Also like Kingman, Gallo tends to get a bit more loft into his bombs. His home runs, while certainly hard hit, do not place him at the top of the leader board in terms of exit velocity. Judge had the hardest hit home run of the 2017 season at 121.1 mph. As one goes down the leader board, Judge’s name pops up several times, as does Giancarlo Stanton’s. Nelson Cruz hit a dinger clocked at 116.8 mph. Gallo’s best was 116.3, a 430-foot shot against Erasmo Ramirez of the Rays in Arlington on May 29. (Ironically, Gallo’s hardest hit ball (117.3 mph) of the season was a single!)

So far, offensively speaking, Gallo has it all: lots of home runs, many of them tape-measure shots with an arc, a low batting average, and strikeouts by the bushel. Physically, he sits between Kingman and Dunn, not as slender as the former, not has husky as the latter. Like Kingman, he plays first, third, and the outfield (the Rangers have indicated that he is penciled in for first base in 2018). Though perhaps not a candidate for a Gold Glove, he has not embarrassed himself in the field, but he may end up as a DH at some point. So far as I know, thankfully, he has displayed no enigmatic behavior.

That brings us to a heretofore undiscussed feature of Kingman and Dunn similarities: postseason experience, or lack of same.

In his first season (1971), Kingman was on the Giants’ postseason roster for the NLCS against the Pirates. He singled once in nine at-bats. It proved to be the only postseason hit of his career.

Dunn was on the Oakland A’s postseason roster for the Wild Card game in 2014, his last season, but he never came to the plate. When he retired only one player in history had more home runs and no postseason experience. Every baseball fan in Chicago, and many a casual fan elsewhere, knows who is No. 1: Ernie Banks.

I’m not saying that the lack of postseason experience reflects badly on Kingman or Dunn. Rather, it shows the importance of playing on mediocre teams when it comes to carving out a King Kong career. With rare exceptions, winning teams have no problem putting fans in seats. Mediocre teams need a draw and a player capable of going deep – and on occasion very deep – certainly helps. On a team going nowhere, a one-dimensional player isn’t such an obvious liability. Might as well keep writing his name in the lineup until someone better shows up.

On a contending team, every roster spot is precious. A contender may sign a one-dimensional player for the stretch run, as the A’s did with Dunn in 2014. The rosters expand in September and such a player just might come up with a game-winning hit that might make all the difference when it comes to qualifying for the postseason.

So getting back to Joey Gallo: His fate will be tied to the fate of the Rangers in coming years. For better or worse, they appear to be on a downward trend. After winning the AL West in 2015 and 2016, they were 78-84 in 2017, Gallo’s first full season. Given the Rangers’ relatively quiet offseason, the preseason pundits have been less than enthusiastic about the team’s prospects in 2018. With a new ballpark on way, the top management may be content to tread water for a few seasons. Once fans get used to the new ballpark and attendance starts to decline, the Rangers may get serious about winning again. Until they do, they can afford to keep a player like Gallo around, even if he doesn’t improve offensively.

Again, I hope I’m wrong. I want to see him cut down on the strikeouts, raise his batting average, and become a more complete player. In an article that appeared in the Rangers’ program magazine at the end of the 2017 season, he said that he believed he could hit .270 to .280. If he could do this, then he would not be next in line for the Kong Identity. But if his subsequent seasons resemble his rookie season…well, he may be the true heir to the throne of Kong. It may be his destiny.

Destiny, however, doesn’t come into focus quickly. It is easier to recognize in retrospect rather than in advance. So for Joey Gallo, like the famous wine that matches his surname, aging will tell the tale.

Then there is the matter of synchronicity. Remember that Kingman was No. 13 in the Jenkinson rankings of sluggers. Would you care to wager on what number Gallo wears with the Rangers? Yep, the elevator floor that dare not speak its name. Again, if you’re superstitious – or even if you’re not – make of it what you will.

Reference and Resources


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Dan Greer
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Dan Greer

My Kong is Trumbo. He had an off year, but played 3B very badly earlier in his career, and more closely fits the no-walk, high-whiff slugger. Not as fast as Kingman was, though

95mphslider
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95mphslider

Trumbo is the closest imo (the Kingman/Dunn comparison was always ridiculous to me), but I don’t think any two-true outcome player will ever be able to stick around long enough to match Kingman’s career totals. Kingman was a sideshow for bad Mets teams that were otherwise completely unwatchable. No one wants to watch Mark Trumbo do anything.

Michael
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Michael

Agreed. Trumbo feels right. Gallo walks too much to be a good comp.

Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

How about deJong from the cards? No walks,lots of Ks and good power.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

DeJong has decent defense at a key defensive position, so he is at least two-dimensional. He does have potential to be part of the shortstop wing of the Kingman Museum.

Fredchuckdave
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I too am pining for Mark Reynolds to sign just so he can break the strikeout record.

Edit: Also that Vegas joke is so awful that it’s funny, bravo.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

I would think Chris Carter would fit nicely into the Kingman mold, except he’s not good enough to hold a job at the moment.

KindleT
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KindleT

Thing is, Gallo can take a walk.

joel1985
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Yes right, and agree

marchandman34
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marchandman34

Thanks for the good read Frank…my add is to include Rob Deer between Kingman and Dunn…I too hope Gallo becomes a more complete player.

The Kudzu Kid
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I’m surprised Ryan Schimpf isn’t in the discussion. The problem is really that someone like Kingman just won’t get enough at-bats in this day and age to be a second coming.