If you listened to any Pittsburgh Pirates broadcast in the last twenty years, you probably heard the phrase “the Mendoza line” in reference to a slugger with a wicked case of the Mondays every at-bat.
That “line” is drawn at the .200 batting average mark, so a player hitting below .200 during the season or over the course of his career is said to be under the Mendoza line. Tracking this serves two purposes:
- Fans can easily identify which player to throw stuff at.
- Without ducking, players generally avoid most items thrown at them because they are, literally and figuratively, slumping.
It’s also a measure of offensive aptitude, says baseball historian David Neft:
“What the significance of it is … if you are a terrific defensive shortstop, you can play regularly in the major leagues with a low batting average. But there’s a limit to how low the batting average can get without losing the job. You can be Mark Belanger (.228 career batting average), who could keep his job for years at that level. But at .195, he somehow would’ve broken the barrier and he would’ve lost his job.”
So from this, we can assume that Mario Mendoza, the guy the Mendoza line was named for, probably couldn’t figure out which end of the pine to swing, much less make a flip to second base without tripping over his own two cleats.
Mendoza was a brilliant defensive shortstop who spent parts of his seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers from 1974-1982.
Even though the Mendoza line is commonly accepted as .200, Mendoza himself had a lifetime .215 batting average. He flirted with a .200 average though, hitting .198 in 1977 with the Pirates and again in 1979 with the Mariners.
Mendoza explained the term’s origin in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in July 2010:
“My teammates Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte used it to make fun of me. Then they were giving George Brett a hard time because he had a slow start that year, so they told him, ‘Hey, man, you’re going to sink down below the Mendoza Line if you’re not careful.’ And then Brett mentioned it to Chris Berman from ESPN, and eventually it spread and became a part of the game.”
“Nobody would remember Mario Mendoza if not for that,” Neft says. “This happens in sports and in baseball. There’s no question that Tinker, Evers and Chance are better known and thought to be better ball players than they actually were. There is this media thing of sports when something becomes well known and something becomes very popular.
“So the Mendoza line becomes something that people associate with low hitting infielders. It has nothing to do anymore really with Mario Mendoza.”
Oh. So I just wasted all this time proving Mendoza was a more productive out hitter than Brett or Bochte? Fine, guess I’ll just scrap it.
Sticks and stones
Brett and Bochte really didn’t have room to talk when it came to ragging on Mendoza. Despite his low batting average, Mendoza made sure his outs counted. As Neft points out, Mendoza would’ve been asked to sac bunt more often than Brett or Bochte, but the sample size for each player across four seasons is telling.
Elias Sports Bureau lists the criteria for a productive out as follows:
- A successful sacrifice for a pitcher with one out.
- Advancing any runner with no one out.
- Driving in a baserunner with the second out of the inning.
Here’s the breakdown of the seasons where Bochte, Brett and Mendoza each had at least 21 opportunities to record a productive out.
Here are those numbers aggregated:
Bochte – 60-145, or 41%
Brett – 70-166, or 42%
Mendoza – 61-136, or 44%
Granted, Bochte’s .282 career average and Brett’s prestigious membership to the 3,000 hits, 300 home runs, and career .300+ batting average club trump Mendoza’s ability as a productive out hitter, but it’s a small victory for the offensively-challenged shortstop. Mendoza’s real value was his career .960 fielding percentage, good for 146th all-time among shortstops.
Does it vindicate Mendoza as a poor offensive infielder? Definitely not. There were plenty of seasons where Mendoza had just four or five opportunities at the plate to make a productive out, but the numbers make it interesting to explore.
A numbers game
Fans nearly riot when their star player strokes two home runs in the first month of play or their ace pitcher sports a 6.45 ERA through two games. They call for the skipper’s head after a 3-5 record to open the season and demand cleaning house and starting from square one.
This trend isn’t new, Neft says.
“It’s always been happening, it’s always been manifesting in the same way,” he says. “There are more things for people to look at and talk about, more ways to second guess the manager and the general manager. But that’s their sport. If you’re not on the field, you have that chance to be an armchair general manager or an armchair manager.”
The beauty of baseball numbers is they become significant only when a large enough sample size exists, Neft says.
“I really never pay any attention to a player’s stats until a third of the way through the season because they don’t mean a great deal. Similarly, when somebody says, ‘Oh, this guy is a terrific hitter against this pitcher, he’s .400 against him.’ Well, he could be 4/10 against him, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Universally, across every sport, fans are optimists. Choruses of “this year’s gonna be the year” ring throughout the offseason in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and teams do occasionally surprise fans by playing above their expectations. But naturally, some teams play worse than they’re expected to.
“That’s part of the fun. It’s part of rooting for a team. … If that didn’t happen, you wouldn’t have to play the games. You could anoint the champion on Opening Day.”
But that wouldn’t be any fun. Unless you’re a Cubs fan. Then you can just watch this commercial over and over and cry into your pint of Haagen Daas: