Victor Martinez is having a remarkable offensive season. And it isn’t just the 31 homers and 31 doubles and the .333 batting average. What is remarkable is that in the inglorious age of the strikeout, Martinez has only struck out 40 times all season. He is on pace to finish with 43 strikeouts. When considering that remarkable number, it made me curious as to how many times since 1961 someone has hit over 30 homers with less than 45 strikeouts. So I went to my trusty baseball-reference.com and checked it out.
First of all, why did I only go back to 1961? Good question. The answer is that 1961 was right around the first time when the strikeout rate averaged five strikeouts per team per game (1959 to be exact). And even going that far back is problematic. The average strikeout rate in 1961 was 13.2% compared to it being 20.3% this season. If you go back further than 1961, then a low strikeout rate with a lot of homers just wasn’t that remarkable.
For example, Lou Gehrig had a remarkably low strikeout rate in 1934 (by today’s standards). But the strikeout rate for the league in 1934 was just 9.8%. It just isn’t the same kind of apple to an apple. The bottom line is that I chose to only go back some 53 years to 1961. That’s still a lot of baseball years.
Unless Victor Martinez goes on a strikeout binge in the last week of the season, he will be the eighth player since 1961 to put together that combination of 30 or more homers with 45 or less strikeouts. Moises Alou had 45 strikeouts with 30 homers in 2000. Gary Sheffield had 40 strikeouts with 33 homers in 1992. Barry Bonds did it twice, once in 1994 which most would say was legit and again in 2004 when most would say it wasn't.
I’ve left three other occasions out, haven’t I? Oh yes, all three belong to Don Mattingly. And Mattingly did it in three consecutive seasons from 1985 to 1987. The only players that put that combination together as many times or more times than Don Mattingly compiled their last one at least 30 years before Mattingly. And like I said, that apple wasn't an apple back then.
Those three years just go to show you how easily Don Mattingly would have made the Hall of Fame if his back didn't ruin his career. In those three years, he hit 96 homers and struck out only 114 times in 2099 plate appearances. That works out to a 5.4% strikeout rate for those three seasons. Martinez’s strikeout rate this season is 6.6%.
In Don Mattingly’s best season, 1986, he came to the plate 742 times and struck out only 35 times. Since 1961, only 26 players have compiled over 700 plate appearances with 35 or less walks. Mattingly is the only one with more than 30 homers that season. Rusty Staub had 24 in 1978 and no one else is over fifteen.
But it’s only fair to compare Victor Martinez’s season to Don Mattingly’s three seasons as evenly as possible. The first way is to compare the strikeout rate to the league average. If you take Martinez’s 6.6% strikeout rate and compare it to the 20.3% league average, then you have a 1/3.08 ratio for Martinez to the rest of the league.
Doing the same calculation for Mattingly’s three seasons from 1985 to 1987 respectively are: 1/2.5, 1/3.27 and 1/2.58. Only Mattingly’s 1986 is more impressive than this season’s personal strikeout rate to league rate for Victor Martinez.
If we go by wRC+, then Martinez has an edge over all three of Mattingly’s seasons. Martinez’s wRC+ of 164 compares with the respective 151, 160 and 142. But then again, this is Martinez’s only season thus far with a wRC+ higher than 130.
If you go by offensive runs, Martinez has compiled 42.8 offensive runs this season. Mattingly’s respective numbers were: 44.5, 54.2 and 33.4. So Mattingly has the edge there except for 1987. The biggest difference in the wRC+ number is Martinez’s walk rate of 10.4%. Mattingly was at 7.7%, 7.1% and 8.1% for those three seasons.
Intentional walks may account for that difference. Victor Martinez has been given a free pass 26 times! Mattingly’s totals for intentional walks for those three years were: 13, 11, 13. If you go by just non-intentional walks, the numbers become remarkably similar.
In short, Victor Martinez is having a season that a peak Don Mattingly would be very proud of. But Mattingly did it three times and had a 5.7% strikeout rate for his entire career! Martinez’s is over 9%. In fact, since 1961, only twenty players had a lower career strikeout percentage. And none of those twenty had an career ISO within 25 points of Mattingly’s.
Take nothing away from Victor Martinez on the offensive season he is having. He has been remarkable. And his 40 strikeouts are certainly something to gawk at and marvel over. But take this season for Martinez, easily the best of his career, and just try to wrap your mind around the fact that Don Mattingly did it three straight seasons.