Baseball 90: Johnny Mize
Johnny Mize is the sort of baseball player who doesn't exist anymore -- who perhaps CANNOT exist anymore -- and it drives many baseball fans crazy. Even fans who have never heard of the Big Cat, who don't know a single thing about him, miss him terribly.
In 1947, Johnny Mize hit 51 home runs.
That same year, Mize struck out 42 times.
Nobody else has ever done that. Nobody else in the history of baseball has ever hit more than 50 home runs and struck out fewer than 50 times. Willie Mays once hit 51 homers and struck out just 60 times. Ralph Kiner came close like that one year. When Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, he also struck out just 67 times.
But Johnny Mize, he was an absurdity: He matched great power with impossible contact. One year after his crazy, 51-homer, 42-strikeout season -- he was 34 years old when he did that -- he had another crazy one, smashing 41 homers while whiffing 37 times.
Wow, do we ever long for someone like Johnny Mize in 2018. Since 2005 -- just after Barry Bonds broke the game -- nine players have hit 50 home runs. Every single one of them struck out at least twice as often as they homered. The closest to that ratio was Jose Bautista in 2010, when he hit 54 home runs and struck out 110 times.
And as we know, striking out even 110 times in a season seems quaint now. Since Bautista, three players -- Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Davis and Aaron Judge -- have hit 50 homers in a season.
Stanton struck out 163 times.
Davis struck out 199 times.
Judge struck out 208 times.
This is how the game goes, we all know that. About one-third of all outs in 2018 were strikeouts. People argue about the root cause. Many fans believe the main reason is that hitters are swinging wildly and for the fences. The last three years, there were more strikeouts and more home runs in baseball than ever before. The New York Yankees just set the major league record with 267 home runs in a season -- but to get there they struck out 311 more times than the 1997 Mariners, the previous record holders.
Where have you gone, Johnny Mize?
Many of us -- and I am firmly in this camp -- think that hitters swinging up and going for the optimum launch angle is a small fraction of the cause. We think that the reason hitters are striking out is that pitchers are throwing an assortment of insane, otherworldly, unprecedented fastballs and sliders and cutters, and they come at you in 100-mph waves, and human reflexes can only handle so much.
And -- we'll get back to Mize in a minute -- I call this my "Vern Ruhle Theory." Vern Ruhle was a fine pitcher for 13 big league seasons from 1974 through '86. He pitched in 327 games, started 188 of them, and in his best year, 1980, went 12-4 with a 2.37 ERA and six complete games. He got two starts in the postseason that year.
Ruhle, best I can tell from video, threw his fastball 77 mph. Maybe. According to Rob Neyer and Bill James' Guide to Pitchers, Ruhle didn't even THROW a fastball. Sliders and sinkers. That was the whole repertoire.
And yet he threw 12 shutouts in his career.
[caption id="attachment_23451" align="aligncenter" width="414"] Mize is the only player in major league history to hit more than 50 home runs and struck out fewer than 50 times in a season.[/caption]
Let's go back to Ruhle's 1980 season. He struck out 55 batters in 159 innings. And yet, that same year, he walked only 29 batters, allowed only seven home runs, and the league hit .251/.287/.337 against him. Now you tell me: Do you think that line could exist in 2018? Do you think it's even remotely possible that a sinker-slider pitcher whose "fastball" didn't break 80 could strike out just three batters per game and be successful?
It was an entirely different game.
The game was even more different when Johnny Mize played. In 1947, when Mize had those 51 homers and 42 K's, he struck out once every 14 at-bats. That would have topped baseball by a substantial margin in 2018 -- Andrelton Simmons led the majors by striking out once every 12.5 at-bats, and nobody else in the game was at even at one K per 10 at-bats.
But in 1947, do you know where Mize finished in the AB/SO? Thirty-sixth. That same year, Emil Verban struck out eight times all year, Lou Boudreau struck out 10 times; in all, seven qualified hitters struck out fewer than 20 times. You tell me: You think they were just more skilled at putting the ball in play? You think they were just more determined at putting the ball in the play?
Or maybe that's what happens when the average fastball is something like 81 mph.
Mize did have extraordinary hand-eye coordination. He was a star tennis player as a young man, so that might have had something to do with it. His career can really be split in two -- split, as you might imagine, by World War II. Before the war, Mize was simply an extraordinary hitter. Before the war, Mize hit .336/.413/.588. He was, essentially, Stan Musial.
He hit the ball so hard in those days that even though he was known for being exceptionally slow, he led the league in triples one year, doubles another. From 1938 to 1942, five years, he led the National League in something every year.
1938: Triples and slugging percentage 1939: Homers, batting average and slugging percentage 1940: Homers, RBIs and slugging percentage 1941: Doubles 1942: RBIs and slugging percentage
Then he went into the Navy and missed three prime years. When he came back in 1946, he more or less picked up where he left off, hitting .337 and slugging .576.
But as Mize got older, he came to understand that his value was in hitting home runs. It helped him to be in the Polo Grounds, which matched his swing pattern. In 1947, he hit 29 of his 51 homers at home, and the next year he hit 25 of his 40 at the Polo Grounds. He wasn't the same hitter, but he was so smart and had such a great sense of the art form that he continued to be valuable until he was 40 years old and played in his fifth consecutive World Series for the Yankees.
In the 1952 World Series, when Mize was 39, he hit .400 with three homers in five games.
I have two favorite Johnny Mize stories. In Game 3 of the 1953 World Series, the Dodgers' Carl Erskine struck out what was then a Series record 14 hitters, and all game long, Johnny Mize -- who was on the bench -- screamed at his teammates to stop swinging at Erskine's curveball. Mize couldn't believe that these guys wouldn't just lay off that pitch. "Why are you swinging at that miserable, bush curve?" he yelled at his guys. Recognizing pitches, laying off the bad ones, making contact, had always comes so easy, so natural to Mize -- as the sportswriter Dan Parker wrote in a famous couplet:
Your arm is gone, your legs likewise But not your eyes, Mize, not your eyes
Then, with one out in the ninth, and the Yankees down a run, Mize came to the plate to face Erskine. And ... he struck out on a miserable, bush curve.
"A sweet out," Erskine told the writer Roger Kahn many years later.
The other story involves Mize's speech at the Hall of Fame -- absurdly, Mize got very little Hall of Fame support from the Baseball Writers of America. He topped out at 44% of the vote. It's inexplicable, really. Mize was almost, by any measure, the greatest first baseman in modern National League history when he retired, nobody else even comes close, AND he lost three prime years to the war. But for some reason, the writers just didn't see it, and it's one of the two or three biggest misses in BBWAA history.
Finally, in 1981, the Veteran's Committee voted him in.
"I had a speech ready," Mize told the crowd. "But somewhere along in 28 years, it got lost."