Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Phillies' Batting Champ Drought

The last time a Philadelphia Phillie won a batting title, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, Elvis was inducted into the Army, and the average American worker made $3,851 a year. You could say it's been a while.

Richie Ashburn, with a .350 average in 1958, topped no-names Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Hank Aaron and was the last Phillie to win a batting crown. The other seven National League teams in 1958 have since seen a player win at least one title, and newcomers like Colorado, San Diego, and Montreal/Washington also have produced batting champs. Florida (which began play in '93 and whose Hanley Ramirez leads the NL now), New York ('62), Houston ('62), Milwaukee ('69/moved to NL in '98), and Arizona ('98) are the others without batting champs.

Batting average is the only major hitting or pitching category in which the Phillies have drawn a title blank since 1972. Ryan Howard claimed home run and RBI titles in 2008, Curt Schilling took the strikeout crown in '98, John Denny led the league in victories in '83, and Steve Carlton took the ERA title in '72.

The Phillies batting-average dry spell actually isn't so unusual, considering the team has had few high-average-hitting stars since 1958. Aside from Pete Rose, most of the team's batting-title contenders rode one-year hot streaks. The closest were Jim Eisenreich, who hit .361 in 1996, and Bake McBride, who hit .339 in 1977. Both would have led the league, but the platoon players had too few at-bats to qualify.

Since 1958, 12 Phillies have finished in the top five in hitting, with three second-place finishes: Tony Gonzalez (.339 in '67 to Roberto Clemente's .357), Rose (.331 in '79 behind Keith Hernandez's .344), and Rose again (.325 in '81 to Bill Madlock's .341),

However, in the last 27 years, just four Phillies have finished in the top five: Lenny Dykstra--fourth in '90, John Kruk--third in '92, Bobby Abreu--third in '99, and Chase Utley--third in '07.

No Phillie is currently in the top 10 this season, so the streak figures to continue. Of the current players, Utley and Shane Victorino figure to have the best shot, though neither seems likely to pull it off. Average-wise, Utley goes hot-and-cold too frequently, and Victorino's high-water mark seems to be in the .310 to .320 range.

Who does that leave as a possible future batting champ? In a few years, perhaps Triple-A stud Michael Taylor, or Double-A star Domonic Brown. Good thing Ruben Amaro kept them off the table at the trade deadline, or the Phillies' streak could easily stretch another decade or so.

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