CHICAGO — Baseball is a game of adjustments, so it probably is time to adjust one of the standard measures of what constitutes an overmatched hitter.
I’m referring to the Mendoza Line — a .200 batting average — which students of the game know is the dividing line between merely struggling and utter futility.
The term was named after Mario Mendoza, a light-hitting infielder who had a career .215 average. According to Mendoza, his former Seattle Mariners teammates, Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte, made up the term to make fun of him back in 1979, and it became famous the following year when they poked fun at Kansas City Royals star George Brett for a slow start.
“So they told him, ‘Hey, man, you’re going to sink down below the Mendoza Line if you’re not careful,’ ” Mendoza told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2011. “And then Brett mentioned it to Chris Berman from ESPN, and eventually it spread and became a part of the game.”
Mendoza wasn’t the worst hitter in baseball and actually batted .245 in 1980, so it might be unfair to use him as the symbol of ineptness. Either way, the term became part of the baseball lexicon, and I thought of him recently while listening to Chicago Cubs President Jed Hoyer defending the lack of hitting by current major league players.
Hoyer pointed out the increasing velocities of pitchers as reason to reassess when a hitter is struggling.
“I get defensive when people talk about the way the game is played or the fact hitters don’t do the things they used to do,” Hoyer said. “Hitters have never faced stuff like this ever in the history of the game. These hitters are facing challenges no one has had to face before in the game.
“So I think the mental challenge of hitting .230 (is great). That used to be a below-average batting average, and that player would be struggling. But now the league average is in the .235 range, and .310-.312 is (the average) on-base percentage.
“Those are numbers you would have felt in the past are below average, and those are now league average. For a player to be maybe sitting at those league averages, they’re not feeling like they’re performing well because they’re getting beat up night after night. And that presents real mental challenges to our hitters, and we have to appreciate that.”
The league average was .236 entering Thursday’s games, according to fangraphs.com, a drop from .245 in last year’s 60-game season. Most teams will be at the 60-game milepost in another 10 days or so, and it still is early in a 162-game the season. Still, there were 44 qualified hitters at .236 or below Thursday, from New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso (.236) to Cincinnati Reds infielder Eugenio Suárez (.149).
The last time the league average was below .240 for a season was a .237 average in 1968, the so-called “Year of the Pitcher.” Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 average led the American League, and St. Louis Cardinals starter Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA.
MLB responded by lowering the mound in 1969 from 15 to 10 inches, and the American League added the designated hitter in 1973 to create more offense. While MLB currently is experimenting with rule changes in the minors designed to help hitters, including moving the mound back and limiting defensive shifts it could take years before any changes take effect in the majors.
But if Hoyer is right, there is no time to wait. It’s time to make a change now to alleviate the mental challenges hitters face on a daily basis. That’s why it’s time to drop the Mendoza Line from .200 to .190 and help some hitters regain their self-esteem.
There were 13 players on Thursday hitting .200 or lower, including White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton (.199) and Cubs infielder David Bote (.191). With a newly created Mendoza Line of .190 there would only be four — Suárez, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (.155), Kansas City Royals outfielder Jorge Soler (.175) and Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor (.185).
Nine players would be free of the mental anguish associated with being under the Mendoza Line, not to mention the ones who haven’t gotten enough plate appearances to qualify.
If we really want to adjust to modern standards, perhaps it’s also time to rename the Mendoza Line, freeing Mendoza of a reputation he might not have deserved. The choice here would be to name it after Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez, who had a .197 average from 2018 through Wednesday’s games.
Ironically, though Sánchez is hitting only .174 this season, he doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for being under the Sánchez Line.
But it’s early.
Would a change in the Mendoza Line revive batting averages to the levels we grew accustomed to in the post-1968 years?
Velocity is likely to continue its climb until managers are able to use six pitchers a game throwing 99 mph or higher. The mental challenges for hitters will only grow, and those who are below the Sánchez Line will continue to be plagued by doubts that can’t easily be eased by multimillion dollar contracts. (Though that doesn’t hurt.)
But at least it’s a start. If you have any better ideas, I’ll forward them to MLB rules guru Theo Epstein.
If everyone puts their heads together, this crisis can be solved so we can move on to the most pressing issue of our times — rewriting the unwritten rule book.