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Redefining the Mendoza Line


Name-related baseball terms tend to be reserved for some of the best and brightest, and serve as the ultimate tribute of remembrance. Just to name a few, we have the Cy Young, handed to the best pitcher in each league. There is also the Roberto Clemente award, which the league gives to the player most associated with altruism and community work. Tommy John surgery just sounds better than ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, and someday we might even see the MVP renamed to the Barry Bonds trophy (yeah, right).

However, at the bottom of the barrel lies a distinction so lousy that nobody wants to be related to it, outside of pitchers hitting in the NL (maybe). All we know is that whenever we hear about the Mendoza Line, someone is either mired in a terrible slump, about to be demoted in some way, or both.

If you've ever wondered about the origin of this particular name, it comes from the Mexican-born shortstop Mario Mendoza, a glove-first player that somehow managed to stay in the majors for 9 seasons. The term was coined as a clubhouse joke, as Mendoza's teammates with the Pirates used to make fun of him for his terrible batting averages, always hovering around the .180-.200 range. After moving to the AL, the phrase was carried out with him, and once used to make fun of a slumping George Brett, who then mentioned it during an ESPN interview, leading the “Mendoza Line” to become a household name.

Since then, the term has been used as a threshold for a .200 batting average, even as Mendoza himself finished with a career .215 average. To finish off with Mendoza fun facts, know that he once played in the playoffs, once pitched in mop-up duty for the Pirates, and accrued a total of -3.2 WAR for his time in the big leagues. However, he is part of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, and was so good at shortstop that he was called “Manos de Seda” (silk hands), a nickname that was later used in Latin circles for Omar Vizquel.

The problem with the Mendoza Line is that it was awarded to a player that didn't get that many chances to hit in the first place. Mendoza's career-high in plate appearances was 401 for the 1979 Mariners, and he was never even close to qualifying for the batting title. Being on the field primarily as a defensive replacement or in spot-up situations, the light-hitting shortstop never really got a chance to get better (or worse) at the plate. Even then, batting around .200 during a team in which the league was hitting .265 was probably a good way to get noticed under a bad light.

However, we are now part of a time in which batting average is no longer used as a primary tool to differentiate hitters, and players with low averages can have value if they perform well in other aspects of the game. And in that trend, we are also part of a modern league-wide slump that has seen average drop year after year for a while now.

In an era in which defense is finally being measured in a more objective way, it may be tempting to think that even a player like Mario Mendoza would get a chance today, and could probably receive more reps to at least become playable at the plate. With this in mind, is the Mendoza Line outdated? Or should it just be renamed to better reflect the league's current landscape?

Going only by batting average, we could state that Mendoza's .215 number was 19% worse than the league average during his career (1974-1982). If we take it back to the .200 average that Mendoza was associated with, we are talking about being roughly 25% worse than what the league was doing. Translating this to our current era, we can observe that the last 9 seasons of MLB have seen a collective .259 average, suggesting that anyone hitting around .210 would be comparable to the career of Mario Mendoza, while being in the .195 range would be the “real” Mendoza Line.

During this 9-year span covering 2006 to 2014, only two qualified players fell below these norms, as catchers JP Arencibia (.207) and Jeff Mathis (.195) represented an exercise in ineptitude when they stepped up to the plate. Close by, we have Paul Janish (.214), Jayson Nix (.212), and Ryan Langerhans (.211).

However, as we said before, Mendoza himself never came close to being a player qualified for ratio stats, so we probably be better served by lowering the threshold. Mendoza's career saw him come to the plate for a total of 1,456 plate appearances, so we could probably lower the threshold to get a better representation. Using Frangraphs' leaderboard, and a 1,000-PA cutoff, we get the exact same players listed above, but going down even further, this time to 700 PA (avoiding pitchers in the process), the list gets more populated.

Lowest BA 2006-2014 (min. 700 PA)

Player

PA

Batting Avg.

Drew Butera

733

0.183

Brandon Wood

751

0.186

Jason LaRue

789

0.194

Jeff Mathis

2035

0.195

Rob Johnson

829

0.200

Koyie Hill

917

0.204

Brent Lillibridge

784

0.205

J.P. Arencibia

1614

0.207

Cody Ransom

741

0.209

Ryan Langerhans

1085

0.211

Jayson Nix

1465

0.212

Paul Janish

1206

0.214

Paul Bako

809

0.214

George Kottaras

858

0.215

Elliot Johnson

826

0.215

As we can see, the Mendoza-like list is full of backup catchers, failed prospects, and mostly regrettable players. The thing that stands out is that only three of them got as many PA's during the span as Mendoza got during his career, and only one of them, Mathis, could even stake a claim as a defensive wiz capable of offsetting his plate ineptitude.

So even during a time when defense is valued more than ever, and batting average is no longer the panacea it used to be, teams are still reluctant to hand out many free outs to the opposition. The young 2015 season currently has 10 players with an average at .215 or below, with 4 of them being below the infamous threshold.

Lowest BA 2015 (Qualified)

Player

PA

Batting Avg.

Stephen Drew

182

0.165

Matt Joyce

168

0.179

Jose Ramirez

167

0.184

Luis Valbuena

207

0.193

Chase Utley

194

0.200

Chris Carter

210

0.206

Asdrubal Cabrera

200

0.210

Marlon Byrd

185

0.212

Jimmy Rollins

217

0.213

Mike Napoli

200

0.214

While there are players like Utley, Carter, Cabrera, and Byrd that will continue to get chances to rebound, others like Drew, Rollins, and Napoli may soon become burdens to their teams – burdens that could be replaced really soon. The combined WAR of these 10 players is -1.2, so probably there is still something relevant about batting average.

In the end, while there wouldn't be an objective issue with going with something as the “Mathis Line” to reflect what batting anemia really is, there will always be something catchy and popular about the Mendoza Line (there was even a band named after it) as a term, and that will probably follow the light-hitting Mendoza to his grave. For a player that hit less homers in 9 years than Bryce Harper hit in 3 days, any kind of remembrance should be welcome.

 



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