The other Billy Ball

When most fans think of “Billy Ball” in 1980 they think of Billy Martin’s Oakland A’s. Under Martin’s leadership the team improved 29 games and jumped from seventh to second in the American League West. This brand of Billy Ball was characterized by aggressiveness on the base paths, pushing starting pitchers to their breaking point, and approaching every game with maximum effort and intensity.

1981 Granny Goose trading card

Here in Chicago we had another brand of Billy Ball going in the person of Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner. Not yet an All-Star, Buckner nonetheless entered the 1980 season with a .291 career batting mark and a well deserved reputation as one of the game’s top contact hitters. Remarkably, Buckner had never once struck out more than twice in a game and had a per 162 game average of only 29 whiffs. In his three seasons as a Cub to date he struck out 69 times. And that’s total, not per season!

As Cubs fans know, 1980 would prove to be Buckner’s best season ever at the plate, pacing the National League with a .324 average and swatting 41 doubles. His hot start to the season saw him bat .383 for the month of April while striking out a total of…are you ready for this?…zero times! Who does this?? In my lifetime maybe Ichiro, Tony Gwynn, and Rod Carew.

1980 Topps trading card

Imagine then the outrage in the “Baseball in the 80s” Facebook group when Craig Judges dared to characterize Buckner’s career–2715 hits, .289 batting average, and all–as below average! Naturally the entire argument hinged on relatively modern analytics like WAR and OPS+, which only compounded the outrage of the army of commenters. Even I got in on the action, questioning whether OPS/OPS+, which treat strikeouts and productive outs equally, could fairly be applied to a player who virtually never struck out.

True, today’s baseball intelligentsia has the data to prove that a hitter’s strikeouts are, at least within a hair, no worse than other outs since A) they often occur with two outs or the bases empty, and B) preclude double plays. But seriously, does anyone in their right mind truly believe that Bill Buckner’s amazing zero-strikeout April did nothing for his team?

Thus began my quest to restore this baseball hero’s honor, proving his preternatural ability to make contact really did matter. To do this, I reviewed every one of his out’s, inning by inning and game by game, tracking how often his “productive outs” moved a runner over who eventually scored. I wanted to show that Buckner’s brand of Billy Ball mattered.

After 50 outs, which took me past April and into early May, I gave up. Had I proved my case that quickly? Just the opposite, I’m afraid. Of Buckner’s first 50 outs, of which none were strikeouts, there were only two where runners advanced at all. Exactly zero of these runners went on to score. In other words, Buckner’s 50 contact outs helped the Cubs offense exactly as much as if all 50 had been strikeouts. Mind blown.

Whatever your view of analytics, I should stress here that this conclusion is not based on analytics (though it might have been predicted by them). Rather, it’s a methodical look at Buckner’s actual plate appearances. Just how long did it take for one of Buckner’s contact outs to actually matter?

The big day was May 9 in a 6-3 loss to the Giants and Vida Blue. Buckner, already 0 for 2 on the day, came to bat in the bottom of the fifth with runners on first and third and no outs and hit a grounder that scored Lenny Randle. Take that, sabermetrics! Then again, how much did the run matter given that the Cubs lost by three? For a truly productive out, we should look for one that not just changed the score but changed the outcome of the game.

Such a game may have come on May 25 when the Dodgers visited Wrigley. Cubs hitters came to bat in the bottom of the ninth down 1-0 at the hands of ex-Cub hurler Burt Hooton and reliever Bobby Castillo. When Bill Buckner, batting fourth that inning, came to the plate, there was one out with runners on first and third. Buckner’s fly out to left advanced Lenny Randle from first to second while the lead runner, Tim Blackwell, held at third. (My guess here is the speedy Randle took advantage of a throw home.)

While Buckner’s productive out did not directly score any runs, Larry Biittner followed with a grounder that Dodger shortstop misplayed, causing both the tying and winning runs to score. Had Buckner simply struck out for his at bat, leaving runners at the corners, Biittner’s grounder would have at best tied the game and at worst produced a game-ending double play.

By the time the Cubs won this wild one, Buckner was 97 outs into the season. Remarkably, only two came by way of the strikeout and none were double plays. Replace every one of these 97 outs with strikeouts, and there would have been no change in the win-loss column. Out 98, however, turned a likely 16-20 record into 17-19. Obviously, that extra win is not nothing, but it sure is less than what I expected to see.

Still, count me among the many fans who admire Buckner’s approach to hitting. I’ll continue to die on the hill that the game’s much more interesting when balls are put in play. At the same time, my up close look at Buckner’s 1980 season very much changed the way I look at “Billy Ball.” Fun to watch? Yes. Makes a difference? Not really.

Ultimately then, do I go full modern, and re-assess Buckner (career OPS+ of 100) as a totally average hitter, hence a downright bad hitter for a first baseman? On one level, yes. The Cubs would likely have won more games with just about any other National League team’s starting first baseman. At the same time, I still see Buckner as one of the better hitters of his era if not a borderline Hall of Famer.

This may sound illogical, so I’ll resolve the paradox by saying I’ll never fault a guy for doing his job well. When Buckner played, strikeouts were regarded as much worse than other outs. Likewise, the base on balls, which Buckner saw even fewer of than strikeouts during his career, had not yet attained the exalted status it holds in the game today. Put the ball in play, and good things will happen. That’s certainly the advice I always got.

Had managers or coaches told Buckner they’d rather see 100 walks and 100 strikeouts than 20 of each, who’s to say he couldn’t have done it? Forget value for a second and just think about the skill it takes to put balls in play at the level of a Bill Buckner. Should it be harder or easier than that to recognize and lay off a bad pitch? In my mind, there’s no question. Even the great Ted Williams would have surely agreed, calling hitting a baseball “the hardest thing to do in sports.” So here we have the single most difficult thing to do in all of sports and a man who did it better than almost anyone else in recent history. The impact of his greatness may be rather ho hum in retrospect, but the talent was absolutely elite and should remain worthy of our marvel.

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