Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp, and their shot at baseball history

It’s old news that Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp are having career years. With the season roughly one-fifth complete, each man is hitting around .400, Hamilton a few days removed from a four home run night, Kemp already hearing “MVP” chants in Los Angeles. It’s no bold statement that Kemp and Hamilton each have a shot at being baseball’s first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Hamilton would win the award if the season ended today, and Kemp is trailing in the National League only for RBIs.

It would be wonderful for Hamilton and Kemp, their teams, and for baseball if either man made a run at the Triple Crown. And as it stands, Hamilton and Kemp have a shot at something rarer.

There have been 16 Triple Crown winners in baseball history from Paul Hines in 1878 to Yaz. Meanwhile, there have been just six seasons where a player hit .350 with 50 home runs: Mickey Mantle in 1956, Jimmie Foxx in 1932, Hack Wilson in 1930, and Babe Ruth in 1920, 1921, and 1927. For what it’s worth, Mantle’s the only Triple Crown winner among this bunch.

A full list of the .350, 50 homer seasons is as follows:

Rk Player HR BA Year ▾ Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B RBI BB SO OBP SLG OPS
1 Mickey Mantle 52 .353 1956 24 NYY 150 652 533 132 188 22 5 130 112 99 .464 .705 1.169
2 Jimmie Foxx 58 .364 1932 24 PHA 154 702 585 151 213 33 9 169 116 96 .469 .749 1.218
3 Hack Wilson 56 .356 1930 30 CHC 155 709 585 146 208 35 6 191 105 84 .454 .723 1.177
4 Babe Ruth 60 .356 1927 32 NYY 151 691 540 158 192 29 8 164 137 89 .486 .772 1.258
5 Babe Ruth 59 .378 1921 26 NYY 152 693 540 177 204 44 16 171 145 81 .512 .846 1.359
6 Babe Ruth 54 .376 1920 25 NYY 142 616 458 158 172 36 9 137 150 80 .532 .847 1.379

Some men came close. Jeff Bagwell was hitting .368 and on-pace for 55 home runs when the 1994 strike began. Larry Walker batted .366 with 49 home runs in 1997 for the Colorado Rockies. Barry Bonds hit .370 with 46 homers in 2002 and .362 with 45 homers in 2004, averaging over 200 walks those years. The walks limited Bonds to just 773 at-bats between those two seasons and with even 50 more at-bats instead of walks either year, he’d have likely gotten his 50 home runs.

Other men have been limited by their ballparks or eras. It’s a reason five of the six .350, 50 homer seasons occurred in the offensive golden age of the 1920s and ’30s. Imagine Willie Mays in Fenway Park of those days or Ken Griffey Jr. in the Baker Bowl, the Philadelphia Phillies’ bandbox of a park then. Playing his 1993 season on the 1930 Phillies, Griffey’s numbers project via the stat converter on to .354 with 53 home runs. Griffey tops .350 and 50 homers for his converted 1994 season as well. Similar projections can be made placing any number of all-time greats on the Rockies or Texas Rangers of the late 1990s, a comparable hitting era.

So much of offensive success in baseball is a product of run environment and ballpark effects, which makes the seasons that Hamilton and Kemp are having all the more impressive. Pitchers hold a slight advantage so far, with teams averaging 4.19 runs a game, as opposed to 5.55 in 1930 or 5.08 in 1999. Four runs a game isn’t a pitching renaissance, but it’s far from offensive conditions that would favor hitters amassing stupefying numbers. Even so, Kemp is currently on-pace to hit .385 with 63 home runs, Hamilton .406 with 76 homers.

Is some leveling off to be expected? Absolutely. Both men have averaged about 50 points lower in OPS in the second halves of their seasons. Hamilton has a checkered injury and personal history. Kemp plays home games in Dodger Stadium, a ballpark that does hitters few favors. And baseball history is seemingly littered with men who flirted with .400 for much of a season only to wind up hitting .337. There’s a reason, maybe several, that more men don’t hit the milestones we speak of here. It will be interesting to see how Hamilton and Kemp wind up.

58 thoughts on “Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp, and their shot at baseball history

  1. 1
    Jimbo says:

    Last player to have a .400 average at the all star break to my knowledge was Tony Fernandez. Nobody talked about it much, but he made the all star game, finished the year at .328, and didn’t play in mlb the next year. It was all very odd.

    Frank Thomas was batting .353 with 38 homers when the strike hit in 1994. Albert Belle was at .357 with 36 homers.

  2. 3
    bstar says:

    I think the odds are very remote for one of these two great players to accomplish .350 and 50 HR. Probably the best shot for Kemp or Hamilton to accomplish even one of these feats is Josh hitting .350+ because he did hit .359 in 2010. But he’s never come close to even 40 HR let alone 50, and with his injury history it’s hard to imagine him getting enough PA to make a serious run at this. I think 40 would be a more reasonable goal for Hamilton.

    The ballpark Kemp plays in is going to make 50 HR really tough, and hitting .350 as a right-handed hitter in a scoring environment that seems to be trending down seems a tough task as well. Only 12 right-handed hitters post WWII have hit over .350 in the National League, with six of those happening in the high-offense era between 1993 and 2008:

    • 49
      Neil L. says:

      bstar, a suggestion for you.

      When you want to save a Play Index search result, click on the SHARE button at the top of the table, then select “link URL” from the options that open up in the Toolbox.

      Next, optionally, give your search a custom name and then click on the “save comments and report” button.

      Then reload the Play Index home page and scroll down to the bottom. You will see your saved report at the bottom.

      Right mouse-click the link and paste it into your comment. It just creates a shorter, more manageable link for the results you want to share. 🙂 See below.

      • 51
        bstar says:

        Thanks, Neil, I will bookmark this page and refer to it next time I want to post a link from the P-I. I knew something was fishy when my link came out that convoluted and long-looking.

  3. 4
    Mike L says:

    Every time I see Ruth’s 1920 and 1921 numbers, I shake my head. How could this guy be that good? 1927 gets all the attention because of the 60 HR’s and because the ’27 Yankees are the benchmark of seasonal greatness, but 20 and 21 are otherworldly. Talk about completely reinventing a sport. In 1920, his three closest competitors combined for 51 HR’s. In 1921, Ken Williams and Bob Meusel tied for second with 24 each.

    • 5

      At some point, I’m going to look at how many teams Babe Ruth outhomered from 1920 on. I hear some talk about how he did this individual seasons, but I have a feeling that with some teams, Ruth did it for several years cumulatively.

      • 10
        John Autin says:

        I believe that Ruth specifically out-homered his former team something like 10 of the next 12 years.

        • 26
          Lawrence Azrin says:

          Not only that, Ruth out-homered the Red Sox team HR leader _by far_ all 15 years he was with the Yankees. His lowest seasonal HR total was 25, and most years the RS leader never came close to that.

          After he was traded by the Red Sox after the 1919 season, the RS never had a real HR hitter till Jimmie Foxx in 1936 (41 HR). Here are the Red Sox HR leaders from 1920 to 1934:

          7, 5, 12, 13, 13, 11, 7, 6, 12, 6, 16, 14, 18, 10, 11

          Babe Ruth hit an average of 33 MORE HRs A YEAR than the Red Sox leader from 1920 to 1935.

      • 21
        Jason Z says:

        You are correct Graham.

        Ruth nuggets that make you shake your head…

        July 18, 1921 he becomes the career homerun leader
        with number 139, as we know, he raises the mark to 714.

        1920-outhomers every AL team
        outhomers every NL team but the Phillies. (Baker Bowl)
        1921-outhomers every AL team but the A’s, (Baker Bowl) and
        outhomers 4 NL teams.
        1922-Ruth “only” outhomers 1 team in each league,plays 110 games
        1923-Ruth outhomers 2 AL teams and ties a third.
        Ruth outhomers 1 NL team.
        1924-Ruth outhomers 5 AL teams.
        Ruth outhomers 3 NL teams.
        1925-Ruth has a career worst season and outhomers no team.
        1926-Ruth outhomers 5 AL teams.
        Ruth is outhomered by every NL team, first time this
        happens in either league when he is healthy.
        1927-Ruth outhomers every team in the AL.
        Ruth outhomers 5 teams in the NL,
        1928-Ruth outhomers 4 AL teams.
        Ruth outhomers 3 NL teams.
        1929-Ruth outhomers 2 AL teams and ties a third.
        Ruth ties the Cubs and finishes on HR behind the Giants.
        1930-Ruth still outhomers The Bosox, JA below is correct.
        Finally, the NL completely catches up, in a year of
        crazy offense Ruth is outhomered by every team by at
        least 17 homers.
        1931-Ruth again outhomers the Sox,and two other AL teams.
        Back to his old tricks, Ruth again outhomers 3 NL teams.
        1932-Every NL team outhomers Ruth. Even the Bosox do, 53-41.

        • 23
          Jason Z says:

          from 1920-1932 out of 195 opportunities, The Rajah of Rap outhomered the other team 71 times.

          • 24
            Jason Z says:

            From 1920-28 the average AL team hit 56.9 homeruns. Ruth for those season averaged
            46.8 per season.

            I’ll stop now. The Sultan of Swat just gets
            me going.

        • 27
          Lawrence Azrin says:

          1948 was the last year anyone had more HRs than an entire team in the same league. Joe Dimaggio had 39 HRs, Joe Gordon had 32 HRs, the Senators had 31 total.

          I think it would be impossible nowadays for any player to have more HRs than an entire team. Checking randomly, in 1972 The Rangers had 56 HR, Dick Allen had 37. This is the sort of search that the B-R P-I was invented for.

          • 29

            I think it’s still possible if baseball gets another 60 home run hitter who hits the majority of his shots at home and does it in a season where some team like the A’s or Pirates does especially bad at the plate. It’s highly unlikely, of course, though it’s possible.

          • 36
            Lawrence Azrin says:

            I did some furthur research and was surprised to find that not too long ago, two NL players came within one of having as many HR as an entire NL team:

            1981 – Mike Schmidt (31), San Diego (32)
            and if you do not wish to accept a strike year…
            1979 – Dave Kingman (48), Houston(49)

            Ted Williams in 1949 was the last player to have as many HR as an entire team (White Sox, 43).

        • 35
          Paul E says:

          Wow ! He was like Bonds on steroids !!

    • 7
      Hartvig says:

      I was thinking that same thing myself last night and trying to decide which of his seasons were more impressive and if Mantle’s 1956 season was betters because of better scouting, integration, etc. I still can’t decide. One thing I did notice that might be easy to overlook is that what Ruth accomplished in 1920 he did in only 142 games and another was that the Yankees still used him as a starting pitcher in both ’20 & ’21 (1 start each year plus another game in relief in ’21).

      I’d love to see another triple crown winner particularly if it could be as exciting as Yaz’s was which came not only in the heat of a terrific pennant race but the crown itself was in doubt right up to the final game.

      • 8
        Mike L says:

        Hartvig-it’s interesting that most of the triple crown winners did not play on pennant winning teams. Think that says anything about the value of any individual player, or is it just noise?

        • 18
          Lawrence Azrin says:

          The last three triple crown winners _did_ play on pennant winning teams, two of them winning the World series, the other going to game seven.

          There just have not been enough Triple Crown winners to correlate with winning team records, but in general, the TC winner’s team has a good record, even if they don’t go to the WS (all are pre-division play):

          1967 AL – Carl Yastrzemski: 92-70, WON PENNANT by one game, lost WS in 7 games
          1966 AL – Frank Robinson: 97-63, WON WORLD SERIES in 4 game sweep
          1956 AL – Mickey Mantle: 97-57, WON WORLD SERIES in 7 games

          1947 AL – Ted Williams: 83-71, 3rd, 14 GB
          1942 AL – Ted Williams: 93-59, 2nd, 9 GB
          1937 NL – Joe Medwick: 81-73, 4th, 15 GB

          1934 AL – Lou Gehrig: 94-70, 2nd, 9 GB
          1933 AL – Jimmie Foxx: 79-72, 3rd, 19.5 GB
          1933 NL – Chuck Klein: 60-92, 7th, 31 GB (only losing record)

          1925 NL – Rogers Hornsby: 77-76, 4th, 18 GB
          1922 NL – Rogers Hornsby: 85-69, 4th, 8 GB
          1909 AL – Ty Cobb: 98-54, WON PENNANT by 3.5 games, lost WS in 7 games

          1901 AL – Nap Lajoie: 74-62, 4th, 9 GB
          1887 AA – Tip O’Neill: 95-40, WON WORLD SERIES
          1878 NL – Paul Hines: 33-27, 3rd (of 6 teams), 8 GB

          I thought that Hugh Duffy won the TC in 1894 – what happened? How did Sam Thompson pick up six more RBI?

        • 25
          Richard Chester says:

          No team with a .400 hitter ever won a pennant.

        • 30

          I think this partly has to do with playoff format. The last time there was a Triple Crown winner, baseball still had no division or league championship playoffs (that came two years after Yaz’s historic season.)

          I assume today that a Triple Crown winner could power his team to at least a wild card spot and perhaps a run through the playoffs, particularly if he got hot late in the season.

    • 9
      PP says:

      Ruth’s ’23 season produced his highest war though the raw stats are a bit lower, and it’s also better than ’27.

  4. 11
    John Autin says:

    Nice article, Graham.

    It’s interesting to see that Hamilton — who, like virtually all Rangers, has much better career numbers at home (+100 in OPS) — is so far murdering the ball on the road, .458/1.532, with just 4 of his 14 HRs in the Ballpark.

    Meanwhile, Kemp’s career splits are surprisingly balanced — the slashes are almost identical, and he’s actually hit far more HRs in Dodger Stadium (80-60).

    I do think that either one could do the .350/50 thing this year, and I’d rate their chances about equal — Hamilton getting a home-park edge but less likely to play enough games to do it.

    • 32

      Thanks, John. It’s nice to see guys play above their career split levels. It gives me hope for players like Chase Headley who seemingly remain stunted in bad ballparks for their skill sets.

  5. 12
    mosc says:

    You know, all this discussion about the best offensive performances ever got me thinking about what to do with walks. I mean, I’m sure there’s a game from Bonds where he hit 2HR and got intentionally walked in his two or three other plate appearances. What more is the guy supposed to do? He can’t MAKE people pitch to him. If Hamilton had been walked intentionally his last time up, you’d say “Too bad that double didn’t carry over the fence”. The double almost becomes worse than a walk if you’re asking for perfection somehow, doesn’t it?

    Can anybody look at 3HR games where the only other PA’s were walks? How common is that feat? 2HR games probably opens the floodgates too much. Probably best to stay at 5 or more plate appearances?

  6. 22
    JDV says:

    Hamilton today leads MLB (not just AL) in all three categories, as was the case with Kemp about a week ago. That leads in to my opinion that, since the advent of inter-league play, the concept of AL and NL leaders has lost all of its legitimacy. As impressive as it would be for a player to lead in HR / RBI / BA among all players who play for teams assigned to one or the other league…you get my point just by the wordiness of the description.

    • 28
      John Autin says:

      Can you elaborate? I don’t get your point. Do you feel that the 15 to 18 interleague games per team — 9% to 11% of the schedule — really makes the whole notion of separate leagues untenable?

      • 31

        My initial reaction is to agree with John, JDV, though there might be something to what you’re saying. Maybe it’d make sense to look at statistical parity between the NL and AL and see if it’s been consistently higher since inter-league play began in 1994. My guess is that if there’s been a change, it’s been minimal and that the leagues maintain a similar degree of autonomy to before.

    • 37
      Paul E says:

      If you’re saying inter league play makes a sham of the Triple Crown tradition (in addition to every other tradition it basically makes a mockery of), I agree…sign me up…. no doubt. And yeah, I see your point.
      Still, if one of these guys goes .340 45 135 and wins the Triple Crown, that’s a pretty good year regardless of the Dodgers playing Minnesota and KC or Texas playing the Astros and Padres.
      It just defies logic that these divisions within a league as well as the wildcard atre usually settled on the last day of the season after 15-20 games are already factored in against another league. Like are you really the NL wildcard winner if you go 13-5 against the AL and your next closest rival goes 7-11 against the AL?
      Bud Selig is a total dope and his employers just don’t care…

      • 43
        John Autin says:

        “these divisions … as well as the wildcard are usually settled on the last day of the season”

        Paul, I’m tossing the penalty flag for hyperbole.

        Even on last year’s thrilling final day, only the wild cards were in play. All six divisions were won by at least 6 games.

        In 2010, 2 NL playoff spots were in play on the last day (NL West and the wild card). No AL playoff spots were in play within the last week; the Yanks and Rays knew that whoever lost the division race would take the WC.

        In 2009, the AL Central was the only spot in play in the last week (and it went to a playoff). There were no meaningful races in the NL’s last week; Colorado wound up 3 games behind LA for the division, but again, it was already certain that whoever lost that race would be the WC.

    • 39
      JDV says:

      John, I do think interleague play makes the notion of separate league leaders untenable. I believe this regardless of what percentage of the schedule is played against teams from the other league. However, if statistics were maintained separately for league games — which I don’t really advocate — then league leaders could more legitimately be crowned.

      Graham, while statistical parity is an important factor, I don’t think it could ever be properly or popularly applied in determining league leaders. Only a return to balanced scheduling could remedy that mess.

      Paul…I think we probably agree on several points regarding the Selig legacy. Your example of those 15-18 games determining playoff spots is valid. Sometimes, we just have to hold our nose and watch.

  7. 33
    no statistician but says:

    For what it’s worth, in 1956 Mantle finished 20 HR ahead of the next in line, Vic Wertz, who was having a career year in home runs. Is this the biggest margin for anyone besides Ruth?

    After 29 games, by the way, Mantle he was batting .409 with 15 HR.

    • 34
      Richard Chester says:

      It is the biggest margin after Ruth. After Ruth and Mantle comes Cy Williams with a margin of 19 HRs in 1923. After that comes John Mize with 18 in 1940, Ralph Kiner with 18 in 1949 and Jimmie Foxx with 17 in 1932.

  8. 38
    birtelcom says:

    Kemp over his last 16 games has been .288 BA/.415 OBP/.519 SLG/.935 OPS/3 HRs. Splendid numbers, especially in a relatively low run-scoring environment, but the inevitable regression to the mean is already well begun after his transcendant first 15 games of the season.

    In 2008, Albert Pujols led the six-team NL Central in BA and RBIs and tied for the home run lead in the division. That NL Central Triple Crown may be more comparable to winning a Triple Crown in an 8-team league pre-1961 than would the nearly impossible task of leading a 14-team, 15-team or 16-team league in all three categories.

    • 40
      Lawrence Azrin says:

      Some fans (not here!) just don’t acknowledge the theory of Small Simple Size. It _is_ fun to extrapolate early in the season, just to enjoy video game-type stats.

      Kemp and Hamilton may indeed contend for the Triple Crown, but I don’t see them putting up TC numbers on par with the great 20s/30s hitters.

  9. 41
    John B says:

    “Jeff Bagwell was hitting .368 and on-pace for 55 home runs when the 1994 strike began.”

    What people tend to forget is that Bagwell’s season actually ended before the strike. He was injured on the hand and was set to miss the rest of the season. A couple days later, the strike took effect; Bags had played in 110 games out of 114, and with his numbers, he was an easy MVP pick.

    What if the season had played out – would Matt Williams have been named MVP? Moises Alou? Bonds, 4th in 5 years?

    • 42

      Oops, my mistake. Good catch, John!

      I assume with a full season, Matt Williams would have made a run at the home run record and probably won MVP.

      • 44
        John Autin says:

        The point is moot, so of course I’ll argue it….

        Although Williams was on a pace for 60.6 HRs, these are reasons I don’t think he was the leading candidate for MVP:

        — He was hitting .267 (with a .319 OBP, for those voters who cared).
        — The Giants were 5 games under .500.
        — The team with the best record, Montreal, had two strong candidates in Alou and Walker, both hitting over .320/.980.
        — The team with the 2nd-best record, Atlanta, had two strong candidates in McGriff and Justice. (And of course Maddux led the league in WAR.)
        — When McGwire shattered the record in ’98, Sosa won the MVP in a landslide. The Cards didn’t contend, while the Cubs won the wild card in a playoff.

        • 47
          bstar says:

          Perhaps if the season had gone on for another couple of weeks but not ended naturally, Williams may have won if he was still on pace to break Maris’ HR record; I don’t think the BBWAA was interested at all in WAR or even OPS or OBP all that much back then. If the regular season had ended naturally and Williams had fallen off the pace of Maris by quite a bit, that may have opened the MVP up to Moises Alou of the Expos had Montreal hung on to beat the Braves out for the re-formed NL East and held onto the best record in the league.

          • 48
            John Autin says:

            b — I cited OPS and WAR as shorthand to indicate good seasons, not to imply that MVP voters cared.

            Even if the season had been played out and Williams had broken Maris’s record, I’m not convinced that it would have moved the MVP voters all that much, if he also batted under .270. MVPs from losing teams usually come only when there are no strong candidates from the contenders, or somebody has a fantastic year in all the triple crown categories.

          • 50
            bstar says:

            I don’t know, JA, we are talking about the all-time single-season HR record, a mark perhaps only succeeded in importance at that time by the career HR record and maybe Dimaggio’s hitting streak. Steroids had yet to taint these records like they would in the years to come. And Williams, despite playing on a team with a losing record, did finish 2nd to Bagwell in the actual vote.

            If Williams had only gotten to say, 55 HR, then that would probably have opened the door for Alou or Walker if the Expos won the East or possibly even Greg Maddux and his stunning 271 ERA+ if Atlanta had beaten out Montreal.

          • 56
            John Autin says:

            b @55 — You may be right; I may have lost my sense of the magnitude of that record due to the explosions that soon followed.

            But I wouldn’t read too much into Williams placing 2nd in that vote. Remember, there were no pennant races, so something that’s usually a big factor in MVP voting was rendered moot. I suspect that even the stubbornest “gotta be on a winner!” guys wound up voting based purely on stats that year.

  10. 45
    PP says:

    Sosa had 3 3-run homer games between Aug 9 and Sept 23, 2001, in each game he had 3 hits and 3 runs scored, and in one of them he was taken out after the 7th inning apparently, though I have no idea why?

    • 46
      John Autin says:

      PP — Looks like Sosa was just being given a little rest in a blowout win. It is a bit curious, though, since there was a good chance he’d come up again (he was taken out after the 6th inning) — and in fact, his spot in the order did come up in the bottom of the 8th.

      • 53


        Your link is to the game on the Aug 23rd instead of the 22nd.

        Don Baylor explained taking him out like this:
        “It’s not about embarrassing the other team.”

        What a dick.
        I once paid three dollars to get Don Baylor’s autograph at a card show.

        What really bugs me, though, is how does Sosa have this five year stretch of homers:


        …and only lead the league with 50 and 49 ???

        That is too weird.
        Are we certain that the world didn’t actually end on August 12th, 1994?
        This might all be a very strange dream.

  11. 52
    Shping says:

    Geez, Hamilton is definitely in a historic groove. It’s not really early anymore (yes and no) and look at those on-pace numbers. But what’s with all the diving-in-to-firstbase? Never seems like a good move. Is it possible to find any numbers illustrating that?

    • 55
      John Autin says:

      Didn’t Hamilton hurt himself diving head-first into home plate last year and miss some time? Or am I thinking of someone else?

      Diving into first base has been scientifically shown to be slower than running through the base. I don’t have any numbers on injuries, though.

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