The longevity of baseball records such as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Ted Williams' .406 season (both in 1941) are cited as evidence of the impressiveness of such feats.
Another record that is a reliable indicator of a hitter's effectiveness has gone virtually unchallenged since it was set in 1931, and a milestone that has stood for 75 seasons is completely overlooked. Journeyman Earl Webb hit .333 (seventh in the American League) for the Red Sox in that Great Depression year, but that wasn't his top statistic.
The left-handed hitting outfielder smacked 67 doubles in 589 at-bats during the best season of his career. Not only has Webb's record stood for three quarters of a century, but it has never been seriously challenged since 1936, when Joe Medwick hit 64 two-baggers for the Cardinals. Hank Greenberg also came close with 63 doubles in 1934. Prior to Webb, the league recordholders were George Burns (Indians) with 64 in 1926 and Paul Waner's (Pirates) 62 doubles in 1932.
Since most of the yearly and career doubles leaders are among the top players of all time or at least All-Star caliber performers, Webb's long-running reign is something of an anomaly. While he did hit .306 lifetime with five teams from 1925 to 1933, Webb recorded just 2161 big league ABs and 661 hits in that span.
Like many players of the era, Webb's career didn't progress in a normal, orderly 21st century pattern. Aside from a four-game cup of coffee with the Giants, Webb didn't see significant time in the majors until he was 29 years old. Some SABR members have speculated that Webb might have stopped at second base on potential triples to pad his doubles record, but that seems unlikely.
Statistics and records attracted far less publicity 75 years ago than they do today. ESPN, MLB.com, Bill James and his disciples plus the hordes of TV cameras that are a part of the scene today didn't exist. Even Ty Cobb's 4000th hit in 1927 received scant attention and generated little newspaper copy, so a fringe record like doubles was sure to be ignored.
Although it's easy to assume that Webb flicked piles of opposite-field doubles off the Green Monster in '31, that hypothesis doesn't stand up, as Fenway Park's famed left field fence didn't reach its current height until 1934. Webb may have picked up a few two-baggers to left, but most of his home field doubles landed in Fenway's spacious power alleys.
How about hitting 60 doubles, which is still well short of breaking Webb's record? Charlie Gehringer is the only player besides Medwick to reach that mark in the past 70 years, as he smacked 60 two-baggers in 1936. When going through the list of the top doubles hitters, one thing becomes obvious. Whether they are sluggers (Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, Don Mattingly), line-drive types (Pete Rose, Wade Boggs, Joe Sewell) or from the dead ball era (Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker), players who produce 35 or more doubles a season with regularity are consistently among the best hitters in the game.
While there are occasional jourmeymen exceptions among the league leaders such as Billy Gardner (36 doubles for the Orioles in 1957) and Lee Maye (44 with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964), the parallel between doubles and overall hitting ability is obvious. The stats for "swing from the heels, high strikeout" types support this argument.
Take two of Dave Kingman's typical seasons as an example. In 1976, "Kong" slugged 37 home runs with 86 RBI for the Mets. His other stats include a .238 batting average (113 for 474), 135 strikeouts, 14 doubles and just 28 walks for a meager on-base percentage of .286.
Kingman's second tour of duty with the Mets in 1982 was an even more extreme exercise in one-dimensional offense. His .204 average (109 for 535) stands out despite 37 HR and 99 RBI. Just nine doubles and 156 Ks made Kingman the ultimate all-or-nothing hacker. His 59 walks were an improvement over 1976 and bumped his OBP to .285.
Rob Deer was a more selective version of Kingman, and he cloned Kingman's 1976 (113 for 474/.238) performance with the Brewers in 1987. Deer's 28 HR and 80 RBI came with an American League record 186 whiffs and just 15 doubles. On the plus side, Deer drew 86 walks for a decent .360 OBP.
Deer compiled some of the most unusual stats in history with the Tigers in 1991. He hit just .179 (80 for 448) with 25 HR and 64 RBI. There were no quick ABs for Deer that season, as he had 175 strikeouts and 89 walks. Deer had just 14 doubles while putting up this freak show of a performance.
Not many players can add 68 points to their batting average and still come in under .250, but that's what Deer did in 1992 when he hit .247 in 393 ABs. The stat line includes 32 HR, 64 RBI and 20 doubles, or six more than the previous season in 55 fewer ABs. Deer's strikeouts and walks declined to 131 and 51, respectively.
When it comes to all-or-nothing sluggers (with the emphasis on nothing), Dave Nicholson stands out from the pack. Touted as the great hope for the power-starved White Sox in 1963, Nicholson came through with 22 HR and 70 RBI. That was the good news.
The rest of the stats includes a .229 average, 175 strikeouts and just 11 doubles in 449 ABs. Nicholson's lack of ability to make contact reached surreal proportions in 1964, when he whiffed 126 times in just 294 at-bats. Thirteen homers and 39 RBIs were accompanied by just six doubles and a .204 average. Nicholson did draw some free passes, as he piled up 102 walks over those two seasons.
For his career, Nicholson hit just .212 with a staggering 573 Ks in 1419 ABs. His 61 homers nearly doubled his puny total of 32 doubles. Mark McGwire's final year in 2001 is something like Nicholson or Deer. Big Mac's 29 homers in just 299 at-bats looks good, but he hit a meager .187 with just four doubles and 118 strikeouts.
On the other end of the power spectrum, defensive whiz Rafael Belliard is an ultimate example of the sure-handed middle infielder with "automatic out" written on him. In a long career (1982-98), Belliard had just 55 doubles in 2301 ABs. A .221 average, .270 OBP, two home runs and 142 RBI round out the stats.
Although he had four triples in 286 at-bats with the Pirates in 1988, Belliard managed to avoid hitting a double all season. A .213 average and 11 RBI doesn't look out of place in his year-by-year numbers.
A steep falloff in doubles can be a sign of aging and declining offensive production.
Musial - a doubles machine and an eight-time National League leader in that category - hit just 10 two-baggers in 337 ABs with a .255 average in his final season in 1963. The decline in his usually high number of doubles had begun four seasons earlier. Likewise, Rose had just 14 doubles and 0 HRs while hitting .245 in 493 ABs at age 42 in 1983.
Gil Hodges was a clutch-hitting slugger and Gold Glover at first base, but the ravages of age also caught up with him. Playing on bad knees in 1961 and 1962, the New York fan favorite hit just five doubles in 342 at-bats with the Dodgers and first-year Mets. Solid-hitting, four-time Gold Glove shortstop Alan Trammell had just a pair of doubles over 193 ABs during his final season with the Tigers in 1996.
The trend can also apply to role players. Eddie Robinson slammed 16 homers in just 173 ABs with the Yankees in 1955 (Yankee Stadium's short rightfield fence didn't hurt the lefty swinger). There was a lone double among his 36 hits. Robinson's .208 BA wasn't as bad as it looked, as 36 walks led to a .358 OBP.
That the was the last hurrah for a three-time member of the 100-RBI club. Robinson bounced among five American League teams in 1956 and 1957, hitting just .196 (52 for 265) with seven doubles, eight dingers and 26 RBI.
Take a look at historically weak-hitting teams, and you'll find they almost always bring up the rear in the doubles department.
The punchless 1942 Phillies (42-109) scored just 396 runs. While they edged out the New York Giants by a 168-162 margin in doubles to avoid last place in that category, the Giants outhomered the Phils by a 109-44 margin. In addition, the Polo Grounds seems to be a unfriendly environment for doubles.
With a .231 team average and a roster of inexperienced pitchers and position players, it's no surprise that the 1952 Pirates finished at 42-112. The team hit 181 doubles (last in the majors) in spacious, extra base-friendly Forbes Field while scoring 515 runs.
As second-year expansion teams, the Mets and Houston Colt .45s spent 1963 scoring as few runs as possible.
The Colts his .220 with 464 runs scored, while Casey Stengel's collection of castoffs hit .219 and produced 501 runs. The 170 doubles by the Colts and 156 two-baggers from the Mets were the lowest in the majors.
Opposing pitchers welcomed the San Diego Padres when they debuted in 1969, as the team hit just .225 (.281 OBP) with 464 runs scored even though they faced expansion-diluted pitching. Not surprisingly, the Padres were last in the NL with 180 doubles.
The 1972 Texas Rangers proved to be even more inept than they were as the Washington Senators the year before. Rangers pitchers could have won a lawsuit for nonsupport, as the offensive numbers included a .217 team average, 461 runs scored in 154 games and an American League-low 166 doubles.
Texas hitters (for lack of a better word) proved their versatility by also finishing last in home runs (56), triples (17), OBP (.288) and slugging percentage (.290). On the bright side, the 54-100 team's 926 strikeouts were good for 10th in a 12-team league. Six Rangers with 125 or more plate appearances hit under .200.
Doubles reached a low ebb in the American League from 1967 to 1974, a time when home runs and batting averages were also down. No one reached the 40 mark in those eight years, and the league leaders include Tony Oliva (34 in 1967), Reggie Smith (33 in 1971) and Lou Piniella (33 in 1972).
Pedro Garcia became perhaps the worst player to ever lead the league in an offensive category when he tied with Sal Bando by swatting 32 doubles in 1973. The Brewers second baseman had a solid (for the era) rookie season, hitting .245 with 15 HR and 54 RBI. It was straight downhill from there, as Garcia hit .199 in 452 ABs in 1974. Toss out his rookie stats, and the balance of Garcia's career shows a .208 average (253 for 1217) and just 62 walks.
With the inflated offensive numbers of the steroid era, the 201 doubles by the 2003 Tigers (43-119) are as dismal or worse than some of the weak-hitting teams of previous decades. That's because the next lowest total in the AL was the 274 two-baggers by the Rangers.
Who knows how many routine fly outs from 1980 are now doubles? Fifteen of the 36 seasons of 50 or more doubles in the National League have taken place since 1995, and 14 American Leaguers have done the same. That's nearly a third of the 44 seasons of 50 or more doubles in AL history.
A number of current and recent players have a knack for ending up at second base with one swing. The list includes Todd Helton, Luis Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Garret Anderson, Carlos Delgado, Edgar Martinez, Mark Grace and Jeff Cirillo. Albert Pujols whacks plenty of doubles as well, as he racked up 51 each in 2003 and 2004 along with 47 in 2001. Pujols' gaudy numbers in doubles and homers are comparable to Lou Gehrig. Keep an eye on Freddy Sanchez, as the 2006 NL batting champion (.344, 200 hits) also topped the league with 53 doubles.
Craig Biggio leads active players with 637 doubles, good for ninth all-time. Biggio needs 70 hits in 2007 to reach the 3000 level, and he could end up as high as fifth in doubles (passing Brett's 665, with Wagner, Yaz and Lajoie in between) depending on how he performs. The Astros star has had seven seasons with 40 or more doubles. Biggio topped the majors with 44 two-baggers in strike-shortened 1994. He also led both leagues with 51 doubles in 1998 and 56 in 1999.
Using a sharp fall in doubles as a warning indicator, Frank Thomas is the player to watch in 2007. The Big Hurt has seven seasons of 35 or more doubles on his resume, including an American League-best 46 in 1992. The Big Hurt had just 11 doubles in 466 ABs with the A's to go with his 39 HR and 114 RBI. Will Thomas continue his impressive run production with the Blue Jays, or will he decline rapidly as he approaches age 39?
So who is the king of doubles? Who would you want at the plate with runners on first and second down a run or two in the ninth inning when a long gapper or rope down the line will tie or win the game?
Speaker and Musial are the obvious choices, but I wouldn't cry if Cobb, Brett or Boggs were hitting for my team. From the right side, Biggio or Edgar Martinez are the modern picks, with Lajoie as another excellent choice.
While teams with fewer hits will naturally score lower in the doubles category, the difference goes beyond comparing batting averages. Good all-around hitters consistently smack the ball hard, which naturally leads to high doubles totals. In more than a few cases, young players with gap power (think Brett and Musial) develop into sluggers, while those who hit humpbacked singles and routine fly outs have to find new careers.