It’s been said that over the many years that the game has been played, not much about it has changed. For the most part this is true. There are however things that have changed about the game. Some things for the better, some for the worst. One alarming change has been specialization. By specialization, I mean that it is now perfectly acceptable for a player to hit below .260 and strike out 100+ times in a season in exchange for 30-40 home runs in a year. This change in the game makes me marvel at a player like Joe Sewell.
Who was Joe Sewell?
Sewell was an infielder (primarily SS and 2B) who played for both the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees between 1920-1933. He began his career after teammate Ray Chapman killed by an errant pitch (Chapman is the only player to be killed by an injury in a major league baseball game). Sewell was a career .312 hitter and finished with 2,226 hits. He won 2 World Series titles, one with the Indians in 1920, one with NY in 1933. Sewell was inducted into the Hall of Fame of in 1977 via the Veteran’s Committee.
A quick look at those numbers and you may ask, what was so special about Sewell. The answer lies in how frequently Sewell went down on strikes; better yet, how infrequently he went down via strikes. In 8,333 plate appearances (7,132 ABs) Sewell struck out a total of 114 times! He basically struck once every 62.5 at bats. He holds the major league record for fewest strikeouts over a full season with 3 in 1932. In three other seasons Sewell struck out only 4 times (1925, 1929, 1933). Twice, Sewell recorded more HRs than strikeouts (1929, 1932).
What This Means By Today’s Standards
Sewell is second all time in AB per SO (behind Willie Keeler). If you don’t believe me about the change in trends here’s a stat for you. The active leader in the category is Ben Revere. He strikes out once every 10.06 at bats. Revere sits tied for 661st place on the all time list. This is proof that striking out has become a more acceptable outcome for an at bat. To go even further with this in Sewell’s record-setting season, the league leader in strikeouts was Bruce Campbell with 104. 2016’s league leader was Chris Davis with 219. In 1958 Harry Anderson was the last player to lead the league with fewer than 100 Ks. Today’s players who strike out the fewest still strike out at about 6 times the rate that Sewell did.