Fans of the Cubs or just baseball history in general recognize the number 191 (or 190 not so long ago) as one of baseball’s most incredible feats. It is of course the record number of runs Hack Wilson drove home in his remarkable 1930 season. During that same campaign, Wilson also swatted a then league record 56 round-trippers and batted a very healthy .356.
Rather than celebrate Wilson’s remarkable achievement for what it was, I’m here to ask the question, “Is that really the best he could do?” In particular, I’ll examine whether or not a 200 RBI season might have been in reach if only Wilson had “hacked” a bit more and walked a bit less. You see, Wilson not only paced the senior circuit in homers and RBI but in walks as well.
While these 105 bases on balls reduced Wilson’s RBI opportunities significantly, it’s not immediately evident whether a less disciplined batting eye would have taken Hack all the way to 200.
To assess the impact of his bases on balls, I’ll start by looking at how many RBI they added to his total. The number appears to be one. In the final game of the season, Wilson drew a third inning, bases loaded walk off Cincinnati pitcher Si Johnson to bring in the second Cubs run of the game. (This game was notable in its own right as the Cubs rebounded from a 9-0 deficit to win the game 13-11.)
As for the more interesting half of the ledger, we can now attempt to estimate how many RBI Hack’s walks subtracted from his total. Thanks to the Event Finder feature in Baseball-Reference, we can quickly identify the men on base for each of Wilson’s bases on balls. Here are the results, adjusted so that Wilson’s intentional walks are not considered. (Four came with runners on second and third, and one came with runners on first and third.) Conveniently, the numbers total to 100, so no calculator is needed to say, for example, that 41 percent of Wilson’s unintentional passes came with no men aboard.
- 41* – bases empty
- 14 – runner on 1B only
- 18 – runner on 2B only
- 7 – runner on 3B only
- 12 – runners on 1B/2B
- 5 – runners on 1B/3B
- 2 – runners on 2B/3B
- 1 – bases loaded
*Event finder shows 38 but a game-by-game tally shows 41 to be correct.
Next we can see how Wilson fared when he didn’t walk. (For simplicity, I’ll ignore other non-AB such as HBP and sacrifices.)
- 19% – single
- 6% – double
- 1% – triple
- 10% – home run
- 64% – out
We can now apply these outcomes to the baserunner distributions above to arrive at the following results.
From here we can now estimate the number of RBI. In some cases, such as when the bases are empty or the outcome is home run, no guesswork is needed. In other cases, such as a single with a man on second base, I’ll assume runners take the extra base two-thirds of the time. Again for simplicity, I’ll not assume any RBI on outs.
Obviously the methods here are not airtight, but our result is a total of 23 RBI. Remembering that Wilson earned a single RBI via base on balls, the net gain is then 22 RBI, leading to 213 RBI on the season.
Is this really how Hack Wilson would have done had he never walked? Not a chance! In reality, nickname aside, we should presume that chasing bad pitches would have negatively impacted production. Still, we can regard 213 RBI as an upper bound or best case scenario.
For a lower bound we can build a table similar to the above but apply the assumption that Wilson loses all power and bats a paltry .100 when swinging at ball four.
Here, he drives in only four runs, resulting in “only” 195 RBI. Whether Hack could have driven home 200 then would seem to depend on just how much chasing bad pitches would have impacted his success as a hitter. If his numbers remained Hack Wilson-like, the double-century mark would have been a cinch. Conversely, had he become Max Scherzer at the plate, 200 would have proved elusive and perhaps have even cost him an RBI!
Of course, what any analysis of this type glosses over is how abandoning plate discipline would have affected the at-bats where Wilson did not walk. Were he to have approached not just the 100 plate appearances considered but all 709 of his plate appearances with Javier Baez-like abandon, it seems extremely unlikely that he would have batted anywhere near .356 or approached his slugging average of .723. Rather than wonder if he could have driven in 200 we might instead wonder whether he would have set the RBI record at all.
From that perspective, we might view his league leading discipline at the plate not as what cost him 200 RBI but what got him to 191 RBI in the first place. (Indeed, among the top ten RBI seasons of all-time, only Chuck Klein finished lower than sixth in bases on balls.) Either way, Chicago baseball fans were treated to an incredible season by an amazing player with our city and sport the richer for it.
Author’s Note: Dedicated to fellow chapter member John Racanelli, a Hack Wilson superfan without equal.