I grew up idolizing Don Mattingly. I always love talking about his career strikeouts. In 7,003 official at-bats, Donnie Baseball only struck out 444 times, or once every 15.77 AB’s.
As amazing as that seems, he is far from the hardest batter to strike out in history. In fact, his 15.77 is actually tied for 265th all-time. For the most part, the era in which a player played can have a lot to do with these kinds of stats. But, era aside, have you ever wondered who was the hardest person to strikeout in history?
The top two hitters in this ratio are leagues in front of everyone else. Wee Willie Keeler, who played from 1892 to 1910, struck out once every 63.17 at-bats! Right behind him in second is Joe Sewell at 62.56 at-bats per strikeout. Sewell played from 1920 to 1933.
Both men had remarkable careers and both are in the Hall of Fame. Keeler batted a staggering .341 for his career, and Sewell a stout .312. But where Keeler was a clear winner in batting average, Sewell edges out Keeler in on-base percentage with a .391 to .388 advantage.
I bring up OBP because there’s an argument to be made that Sewell was actually harder to strike out. If you go by plate appearances, Sewell walked to the plate a total of 8,333 times and struck out only 114 times, or once ever 73.10 PA. Keeler took 9,607 trips to the dish and struck out 136 times, a pace of once every 70.64. Either ratio is simply absurd, but the nod goes to Sewell here.
So at a simplistic level, it’s a basically a push.
A great article by Jon Frankel goes even deeper into an era comparison, taking into account even the changes in the rules of foul strikes. This is somewhat sabermetric view which seems to give Sewell the edge. Either way, both the simplistic view and the advanced metrics view really show negligible difference between the two players.
The fact is, they were the two hardest players in history to strike out.
Looking at it from the at-bat perspective where their numbers are 63.17 and 62.56, they are leagues ahead of anyone else in history. Third on the list is Lloyd Waner at 44.92, and then everyone else. Keeler and Sewell are simply immortal when it comes to avoiding the whiff.
Keeler put up single digit strikeouts in 9 seasons in which he played 100 games or more (and one in which he played 99). His best season was 1897 when he batted .424 with an OBP of .464. He scored 145 runs. He only struck out five times in 618 plate appearances. In 1899, he struck out twice in 633 PA.
Sewell’s stats are not quite as bulky but still plenty impressive. His best year was 1923 when he batted .353 and got on base 45.6% of the time. In 1925, he came to the plate 699 times and only struck out in four of them.
You can’t lose with either guy, but if you had to pick one, who you got?