Language is rich with words and terms that recognize the contributions of historical figures. This can be a good thing, but also a bad one, depending on what’s being commemorated. You’d rather go down in history as the namesake of a popular sweater (like James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan) or a certain type of legal protection (Ernesto Miranda) than for those traits by which Nicholas Chauvin or Ned Ludd are best remembered. In baseball, former utility infielder Mario Mendoza belongs to the latter category. Thanks to some creative but cruel teammates on the 1979 Mariners, Mendoza’s name has become synonymous with hitting futility. To fall below the Mendoza Line is to record a batting average below .200.
For a hitter both to qualify and to finish below the Mendoza Line actually represents a notable feat of ineptitude. One must not only fight the influence of the Regression Gods attempting to pull the hitter into the respectable company of the .200s, but also to play sufficiently well otherwise not to lose his job. It’s something Mario Mendoza himself never actually even achieved, coming closest in the black-magical 1979 season, but falling short due to manager Darrell Johnson’s mercy: Mendoza was frequently pinch-hit for in his third time up, was pinch-hit-for five times in his second plate appearance, and lost significant playing time to Larry Milbourne late in the season.
Since 1901, which leaves out the wacky 19th century for a number of very good reasons, only 25 qualifiers have finished the season below the Mendoza Line.
You’ll no doubt notice a few .200 hitters here. I’m including the players who round up to .200 as well: just as hitting .2997 isn’t really hitting .300, so too does a .1996 mark fail to reach the Mendoza Line. I knew there was no way all you fine people out there would let me escape making that shortcut!
But what’s extra fun is the 2018 season. With batting averages around the league dropping to .248, the lowest figure since 1972, conditions have almost never been better for Mendoza Lining. At the same time, baseball’s love affair with batting average has waned considerably since the early 1970s, and we’re down to few, if any, front offices that can be categorized as batting-average obsessives.
There haven’t been three Mendoza achievers since 1968, but the 2018 campaign has a real chance of equaling that feat or perhaps even surpassing it. Three qualifying batters currently stand below .200, with another three hitting .205 or worse.
I’ve left WAR in the table here simply to illustrate how surprisingly adequate some of these low-BA players have been overall. Joey Gallo and the bottom final four players on this list are heading toward league-average seasons, or somewhere in that vicinity. I would hope the Emperor of Threetrueoutcomia, Rob Deer, would smile at how his dynasty thrives.
At .161, Chris Davis is pursuing an even more hallowed goal. The official record for lowest qualified batting average is Rob Deer’s mark of .179 in 1991. Currently, my ZiPS projection system only has him making it up to .173, giving Davis a 62% chance at setting a new record, with the largest obstacle perhaps being the O’s shutting him down in September. Now, the “true” record really isn’t .179, but Adam Dunn at .171 in 2011. While Dunn actually hit .159 for the year, he fell below the 502 plate appearances he needed and MLB doesn’t “add” a hit in every at-bat for negative records the same way they add hitless at-bats for players that fall short. With six hits in six more at-bats, Dunn finishes at .171. Davis has a projected 45% chance of worsting (I know that’s not a word, but I like it!) Dunn as well.
As for finding three Mendoza-achievers in 2018, I ran the probabilities for the players most likely to actually finish the season below .200. You already have two players above 50% in Davis and Joey Gallo, giving MLB a real fighting shot at three or even four Mendozites.
I won’t run an exact probability overall, simply because I think the willingness of a team not to bench a player under these circumstances is something that a model can’t really answer all that well — except for the Royals, that is, who seem determined to play Alcides Escobar and max out his incentive clause for some bewildering reason. That said, you have five players with a real shot, while Adam Duvall is far less likely to qualify for the batting untitle with the Braves than with the Reds.
But before we go, it would probably be fair to do some kind of league-and-park adjusted Mendoza line. Hitting .200 in 1930 or in Coors is simply a more difficult feat than doing so in 1999 Coors Field is different than in 1968 Dodger Stadium. So I took each qualifying player’s batting average and at-bats to calculate the probability of a league-average player in their park finishing below the Mendoza Line. As one can see, Chris Davis’s 2018 is more than just a historical bat-melding of ineptitude with league environment.
The real hero of lousy hitting may not be Mario Mendoza but Jim Levey of the St. Louis Browns, who hit .195 in a league hitting .273. The 1933 season was truly the one in which pitchers threw down to the Levey and the Levey went dry. One Hall of Famer even made an appearance in the top 100, in the form of Ron Santo at 94th, hitting .227 for the 1962 Cubs.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.