Erasing the Mendoza Line

When Mario Mendoza played his last season in the majors in 1982, he appeared in just 12 games and batted a paltry .118/.118/.118; his wRC+ was -41. If all you know about the former shortstop is that his name has become synonymous with failure at the plate, those numbers likely aren’t all that surprising.

During Mendoza’s time with the Mariners in 1979 and ’80, he struggled to keep his average above .200, inspiring teammates Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek to tease him, dubbing the elusive mark “The Mendoza Line.” The joke might have ended there, but Royals slugger George Brett caught wind of the phrase when he got off to a sluggish start to the 1980 season, to the amusement of Bochte and Paciorek. According to Mendoza, his Seattle teammates told Brett, “Hey, man, you’re going to sink down below the Mendoza Line if you’re not careful.” Brett later mentioned it to ESPN’s Chris Berman from ESPN; it spread from there.

There’s a bit of a poetic twist to Brett being the one who helped popularize the expression. He started the season telling Berman, “The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who is below the Mendoza Line.” And while his early-season returns were below his lofty standards (he hit .245 in April, albeit with a 137 wRC+ and just a .245 BABIP), by mid-September he was hitting .394 ahead of a series against the Mariners, with a real chance to finish the season with an average above .400. Brett only went 2-for-11 that series, though, with three hits robbed by Mendoza himself; he ended the season at .390.

In terms of the actual statistic itself, the Mendoza Line is generally understood to be the .200 batting average the shortstop chased in 1979 (he ended the year hitting just .198). What it truly represents, however, is the point at which a player’s offense makes them a liability to their team, regardless of their defensive abilities. 

Now make no mistake, Mendoza was not a good player in the majors. His career line was .215/.245/.262. He had a career wRC+ of 38 and a career WAR of -2.9. Bad numbers, absolutely, though it should be noted that once we eliminate pitcher batting averages, Mendoza isn’t the absolute worst. That unfortunate title belongs to Bill Bergan, who we’ll talk about later. Still, despite his anemic bat and otherwise unremarkable career, Mendoza’s lackluster seasonal numbers in 1979 shouldn’t be all he’s known for. In the 1980 season, when George Brett used the phrase off the cuff, Mendoza actually had a .245 season. After Mendoza left MLB, he returned to his home country of Mexico and played so well he gained the nickname “Silk Hands” for his fielding. He managed in both the MiLB and the Mexican League until 2013. He was ultimately was inducted into the Mexican League Hall of Fame.

Those accolades don’t come to mind for most people when they hear “the Mendoza Line,” though, and all because a much better and more well-known player popularized a clubhouse joke. It’s highly unlikely that Brett was being intentionally cruel; he couldn’t have known what a lasting impact he would have when he used the now-infamous phrase. But the fact of the matter is that without all the press attention on Brett’s run at a .400 season, we probably wouldn’t even remember Mendoza’s name today, for better or worse.

The expression stands out for another reason. In a game where every aspect of on-field play seems to have a charming nickname, many of which are named for food (see: grand salami, ribeye, lobster, can of corn), very few are named for people. Pitchers can throw a Maddux, of course, but beyond that and the Mendoza Line, few plays take their sobriquets from those who originated them. There is another baseball term with a negative connotation that once had a player-named association, but the connection to the original player has been lost over the years. TOOTBLAN, the acronym for Thrown Out on the Basepaths Like a Nincompoop, was actually once connected to one player in particular. Chicago Cubs infielder Ryan Theriot had a bad habit of getting caught on the basepaths, leading to Chicago blogger Tony Jewell creating “The Ryan Theriot Adjusted On-Base Percentage” to account for his caught stealing attempts. TOOTBLAN only dates back to 2008, and has already lost its connection to Theriot, yet the Mendoza Line persists.

In baseball, where everything can be converted into an acronym or food-based nickname, there must be better options to reference a player’s sub-optimal offense. Let’s assess a few of the alternatives. If we wanted to stick with a player’s name, the “Bergen Line” would be a much more accurate choice, as Bill Bergen’s career line was just .170/.194/.201.

Bergen, a catcher for the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Superbas/Dodgers between 1901 and 1911, only hit two home runs over his entire career, an impressive feat over 11 seasons even in the Deadball Era. He remained valuable to his teams because, like Mendoza, he was a great defensive player. He had a career caught stealing percentage of 48%. But being a strong catcher didn’t help him when it came to his performance at the plate, and Bergen has yet to be eclipsed by another player in terms of such a poor average over such a long career. All this makes Bergen seems a far more likely candidate to be the name we associate with a rock bottom average. (He’s also unlikely to feel hurt by the phrase, as he has long since passed away.)

And if we don’t want to defame a player’s name, and a food reference is more your speed, perhaps the player is “burning a steak.” When a steak is burnt and the grill “lines” are obliterated, it doesn’t matter how good the cut was, because the flavor is gone. Baseball announcers do seem to love talking about barbecue, so this would probably be an easy adjustment.

One last option would be to go with the ever-popular acronym. To wit, I offer you BADBAT: Batting Average Detrimental to Baseball Activities in Total.

Regardless of what replaces it, it’s high time to erase the Mendoza Line. Baseball is a sport that is at its best when it highlights positive achievements rather than attaching player names to lifetime poor performances. New fans won’t be garnered by knowing which player is flirting with a sub-.200 average. It’s unfair to Mendoza, who accomplished so much after leaving the majors, to still be associated with what he didn’t do. Mendoza might have been a bad major league hitter, but it shouldn’t be what defines his career or keeps his name in use even now. While he’s never outright said he dislikes the phrase, he has noted “That is all people remember me for.”

It’s not exactly the legacy any player wants to leave behind. After all, who among us wants to be remembered for our worst season?

Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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3 years ago

George Brett had it right where most people get it wrong. The actual “line” of the Mendoza Line is from the Sunday newspaper. Most cities Sunday paper would print the baseball stats of every player in the league in one large data table. It was almost always ranked by batting average. If you were below Mario Mendoza in the Sunday paper you were in trouble, and that is what George Brett was referring to. It was never meant as a simple .200 average, but a moving target based on Mario Mendoza.

3 years ago
Reply to  jtrichey

That’s even funnier and worse. It’s also extremely relatable. There’s a guy at work that as long as we all work harder than, we know we’re doing okay.

3 years ago
Reply to  jtrichey

I believe that jtrichey has it right – however, the concept of the Mendoza line representing a batting average seems to have grown over time. While one hears of .200 as the line, in the past I have heard of even .250 referred to as the Mendoza line.