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 Baseball-Reference.com 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.

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58 Comments on "Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp, and their shot at baseball history"

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Jimbo
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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.

Ed
Guest

Actually Fernandez was “only” hitting .372 at the all star break.

bstar
Guest
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… Read more »
Neil L.
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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… Read more »
bstar
Guest

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.

Mike L
Guest

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.

Hartvig
Guest
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… Read more »
Mike L
Guest

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?

Lawrence Azrin
Guest
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… Read more »
Richard Chester
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No team with a .400 hitter ever won a pennant.

PP
Guest

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

John Autin
Editor
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… Read more »
mosc
Guest
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… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
Richard Chester
Guest

On 7/8/79 and on 6/20/82 Ben Oglivie had games with 3 HRs and 1 BB in 4 PA.

mosc
Guest

Surprised Bonds isn’t on the list. I guess he got walked so many times that even 3HR was pretty rare.

I guess it’s not that rare to have 3HR whenever they actually pitch to the guy.

John Autin
Editor
Bonds had 4 games of 3 HRs. Two were in Coors Field. One of those went 11 innings with his 3rd HR (#63 on the year) coming in the 11th, after the Giants had already gone ahead by 2 runs and had men on 1st and 2nd (hence little reason to walk him). He had 6 PAs, with 3 HRs, a walk and 2 outs. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/COL/COL200109090.shtml The other one in Coors, his 5 PAs went HR, 4-pitch walk, HR, HR, double. http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/COL/COL200208270.shtml He also had 3 HRs and a double in this game in Atlanta, but no walks: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/ATL/ATL200105190.shtml His… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

No other searchable games of 3 HRs in which all PAs are HRs, BBs or HBPs.

Richard Chester
Guest

JA: here’s what I found:

3 HR,1 BB and 4 PA: 25 occurrences
3 HR, 1 BB, 1 HBP and 5 PA: 2 occurences
3 HR, 2 BB and 5 PA: 9 occurrences

John Autin
Editor

My results exactly, Richard.

JDV
Guest

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.

John Autin
Editor

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?

Paul E
Guest
JDV: 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… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
“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… Read more »
JDV
Guest
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… Read more »
no statistician but
Guest

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.

Richard Chester
Guest

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.

birtelcom
Guest
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… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest

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.

John B
Guest

“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?

Graham Womack
Guest

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.

John Autin
Editor
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.) —… Read more »
bstar
Guest
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… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

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.

bstar
Guest
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… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

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.

PP
Guest

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?

John Autin
Editor

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.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

JA,

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.

http://scores.espn.go.com/mlb/recap?gameId=210822116

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

66
63
50
64
49

…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.

John Autin
Editor

Thanks, VoomZ. I fixed it.

Shping
Guest

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?

John Autin
Editor

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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