What is “The Mendoza Line”?

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We can only hope that Alex Gordon, Brandon Moss and Alcides Escobar have come out of their respective slumps and will not drop below the “Mendoza Line.”  What exactly is that!?

According to baseball lore, there was once a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates named Mario Mendoza.  He was involved in a trade from Pittsburgh to the Seattle Mariners in late 1978.  Up to that point, Mendoza was a career .204 batter.  The Mariners made him their everyday shortstop and was on the Seattle roster on Opening Day.  The first month that he was with the Mariners, he was having the best offensive production of his career, batting .250 by the end of April.  Then the bottom fell out.  He hit only .125 in the month of May and thing got even worse from there.  By the end of the season, Mendoza had a batting average of .198 and an on-base percentage of only .216.  Despite the lowly numbers, the Mariners played him nearly everyday.  Mendoza logged 1,082 2/3 innings in 148 games played at shortstop during the 1979 season.

According to accounts by Mendoza himself, he was made fun of by several of his teammates, including first baseman Bruce Bochte and utility player Tom Paciorek.  The story goes that George Brett was having a slow start at the plate in 1980 (the year he ultimately hit .390).  They warned him that he might sink below the “Mendoza Line” if he was not more careful.  Brett then retold the story to Chris Berman of ESPN and the phrase became a part of baseball.  Berman would regularly use the phrase on television to describe a player struggling at the plate.  The “Mendoza Line” was born!

There does not seem to be a clear and concise definition of the exact “Mendoza Line.”  Many sportscasters and statisticians draw the line at a .200 batting average.  This comes very close to the .198 batting average of Mendoza during the 1979 season with the Seattle Mariners.  Assuming that his is the threshold for a player to be below the “Mendoza Line,” then the question is:  How many Royals players in franchise history have achieved this feat?

To answer this question, one ground rule needs to be established.  The Royals player must have made appearances in at least half of the games during a single season, or 81 games.  Using this parameter, there have been five players in franchise history that have fallen below the “Mendoza Line.”  Here is a brief description of each player in chronological order:

 

#1 – Harmon Killebrew – 1975 season (Designated Hitter)

  • 106 appearances, 62 hits out of 312 at bats, 54 walks, 14 home runs, 44 RBIs

  • 34 innings @ first base, 342 plate appearances @ DH

At the time, it was a foregone conclusion that Harmon Killebrew was headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He had spent 21 years in the Minnesota Twins organization (formerly Washington Senators) before being released in January of 1975.  The Royals took a chance and signed the veteran to a one year contract with intention of making Killebrew a designated right-handed batter who would share duties with left-hander Tony Solaita.  In his last season with Minnesota, Killebrew only had a .222 batting average with 13 home runs.  It was hoped that Killebrew would have a comeback season along with being a role model to some of the young players such as John Mayberry, Hal McRae, Amos Otis, and George Brett.  Unfortunately, his batting average dropped even further. After a respectable month of April hitting .250, Killebrew went into a slump, batting only .195 in the month of May.  He showed great patience at the plate, drawing more walks than strikeouts in the second half of the season, but in the end, Killebrew had a batting after of only .199 for the season.  Despite this lowly average, his on-base percentage was .317 and was third on the team in home runs with 14.  It was the worst season of Killebrew’s career and after being released by the Royals, he retired from baseball.  Even though the “Mendoza Line” had not yet been invented, Killebrew is the first player in Royals history to achieve the feat during the 1975 season.

 

#2 – Joe Simpson – 1983 season (Utility Outfielder)

  • 91 appearances, 20 hits out of 119 at bats, 11 walks, zero home runs, 8 RBIs

  • 99 innings @ right field, 91 innings @ center field, 21 2/3 innings @ left field, 3 innings pitched

In December of 1982, the Kansas City Royals drafted Joe Simpson from the Seattle Mariners in the Rule 5 Draft.  Simpson had played four seasons with Seattle, primarily as a utility outfielder.  Simpson had a modest .257 batting average in 105 appearances with Seattle in 1982.  Now with Kansas City, Simpson was pegged to be a utility outfielder and first baseman.  The Royals were in a transition period with their outfield this season.  Amos Otis was in his last season with Kansas City and had limited playing time.  The Royals were playing rookie Pat Sheridan in all three outfield positions.  Butch Davis and Leon Roberts were also platooning in the outfield.  Simpson played at first base, backing up Willie Aikens.  Simpson has batting .250 in his first month of limited play, but then as Simpson began to receive more playing time, his offensive performance plummeted.  By the All-Star break, Simpson’s batting average fell to .160.  In the second half of the season, he batted only .161.  By the end of the season, Simpson finished with an overall batting average of .168.  His on-base percentage was above the “Mendoza Line” standard at .248.  It would be the last season of his major league career.  He made 91 appearances with the Royals during the 1983 season.

 

#3 – John Wathan – 1984 season (Catcher)

  • 97 appearances, 31 hits out of 171 at bats, 21 walks, 2 home runs, 10 RBIs

  • 421 innings @ catcher, 77 1/3 innings @ first base

Veteran John Wathan was one of the best utility players in Royals history.  He primarily played catcher during his career with Kansas City, but also played significant time at first base and in the outfield.  Wathan was now in the twilight of his career and playing a limited role as backup catcher to Don Slaught.  Wathan struggled at the plate all season with only a .182 batting average by the All-Star break.  He only had 69 more plate appearances with the Royals in the second half of the season.  He finished with a lowly .181 batting average, but with a significantly higher .271 on-base percentage.  Wathan’s next season would be his last as he had a significant role in the Royals winning their first-ever World Series.  

 

#4 – Buddy Biancalana – 1985 season (Shortstop)

  • 81 appearances, 26 hits out of 138 at bats, 17 walks, 1 home run, 6 RBIs

  • 451 2/3 innings @ shortstop, 6 innings @ second base

It was a strange season for Buddy Biancalana in 1985.  He became a household name because he was featured on the “David Letterman Show.”  He began the season with a very limited role as a defensive replacement at shortstop as well as a pinch runner, but ended the season as the starting shortstop of the World Series Champions of 1985.  Despite batting only .125 by the All-Star break, Biancalana was picked to replace Onix Concepcion as the primary shortstop for the Kansas City Royals in the postseason.  He had a respectable .278 batting average for the Royals against the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, but during the regular season, he hit only .188 with an on-base percentage of .277.  

 

#5 – Tony Pena, Jr. – 2008 season (Shortstop)

  • 95 appearances, 38 hits out of 225 at bats, 6 walks, 1 home run, 14 RBIs

  • 592 innings @ shortstop, 1 inning pitched, 2 plate appearances @ DH

Tony Pena, Jr. was the opening day shortstop for the Royals in 2008.  He was in his second year with the Royals after being traded from the Atlanta Braves for minor league pitcher Erik Cordier.  In the previous season, he started 145 games as shortstop and had a respectable .267 batting average.  However, his 2008 season started off miserably.  His batting average after the end of April was only .156 and his on-base percentage was a mere .175.  But the Royals stuck with him for the entire month of May.  By the end of the second month of the season, his batting average and on-base percentage remained the same.  Finally, Pena was replaced by Mike Aviles as shortstop   Aviles ended up fourth in the Rookie-of-the-Year voting that season.  Pena remained with the team for the remainder of the season, primarily being brought in as a defensive replacement at shortstop.  He even pitched one scoreless inning in emergency relief.  Pena finished the season with a .169 batting average and a .189 on-base percentage.  He appeared in only 40 more games in 2009 before ending his major league career.  Tony Pena, Jr. truly became the ultimate Royals player to fall below the “Mendoza Line.”

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Author: Tavish Whiting

I am an American Government teacher at Lee’s Summit North High School

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