Joe Sewell Scoffs at Today’s Hitters

One of the best parts of having a membership to the baseball Hall of Fame, besides the free admission, of course, is the weekly e-mail from the Hall. Every Monday, as the afternoon blah’s begin kicking in at the office, a shining light emerges on the horizon of my inbox. It is the Inside Pitch and it is awesome.

The weekly newsletter features one historical baseball event involving a Hall of Famer that went down over the course of the week. This week’s event featured Joe Sewell, the former Cleveland Indian and New York Yankee infielder. Sewell played 14 seasons in the big leagues and racked up 2,226 hits and a .312 batting average. He was part of the 1932 World Series winning Yankees’ team.

Sewell’s career, however, is more impressive for what he did not do than for what he did.

You see, Joe Sewell goes down in history for being the hardest player to strikeout of all time. In 7,132 career at-bats, Sewell struck out a grand total of 114 times, roughly equivalent to half of a peak Mark Reynolds season. That’s once every 63 at-bats or once every 17 games. Sewell struck out in only 1.6% of his career at-bats. For the last nine years of Sewell’s career, he did not reach double digits in strikeouts a single time! Chris Davis does that with consistency in a single week.

Of hitters of recent vintage, Tony Gwynn comes to mind when thinking of players who are hard to strikeout, but even he does not hold a candle to Sewell. Gwynn struck out 434 times in 10,232 at-bats, once every 24 trips to the plate. That’s nearly three times as often as Sewell.

Sewell’s name made the weekly newsletter because on May 13, 1923, he actually struck out twice for the first time in his career. He followed that up with 32 consecutive punchout-free days at the office. Sewell struck out twice once more in 1930. That game also came in May. Incredibly, Sewell struck out only once the entire rest of the season.

Using the same tobacco covered bat his entire career, Sewell registered two seasons where he struck out three times, and three seasons where he struck out only four times. In five different seasons, he was hit by pitches more frequently than he struck out. What Joe Sewell called a season, Chris Davis calls a Tuesday.

Sorry if I’m picking on Davis, but it’s just too easy.

Davis has already struck out 50 times this season in only 30 games. Chances are high that he will out-strikeout Joe Sewell‘s entire career before the All-Star break. But, lest you label Sewell merely a slap-happy punch and judy hitter, take a look at his .413 slugging percentage (Steven Souza and his 52 strikeouts have a .415 slugging percentage this season). He had five 40-double seasons and two double digit triples seasons. His ability to avoid a strikeout cannot just be chalked up to Sewell being a weak-hitting shortstop in an era when weak-hitting shortstops were the norm.

I realize the way the game is played has changed dramatically since Joe Sewell played the game, and do not expect the game of baseball will ever see a player finish the season with single-digit strikeout totals. Pitchers have improved dramatically, and the introduction of flame-throwing relievers have upped the strikeout rates dramatically in the game of baseball. All told, 70 players struck out more in 2014 than Sewell did in his entire career. The strikeout is not viewed as disdainfully as it was during Sewell’s era, and is viewed as an acceptable tradeoff for home run power.

Among qualified hitters this season, only Michael Brantley, Daniel Murphy, and Melky Cabrera have struck out less than ten times. Dee Gordon leads the Majors with a .426 batting average, and he has struck out 17 times this season. Surprisingly enough, even though I picked on Chris Davis for striking out, Steven Souza has struck out even more often. Mike Trout won the American League MVP last season with 184 strikeouts.

Joe Sewell, though, would probably still not care. He might even be rolling over in his grave, “There’s no excuse for a major league player striking out 100 times a season,” Sewell said in 1960 (long before the strikeout train really got rolling), “Unless, of course, he’s blind.”

Well, Joe, I hate to tell you, but there are a lot of blind major leaguers running around out there today.

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