1968: Reviving the Dead Ball Era
1968 is known as "the year of the pitcher" for good reason. The American League hit a combined .230 with a .297 on-base percentage, and even the world champion Tigers finished with a .235 team batting average.
Denny McLain's 31-6 record is still remembered 40 years later, but the right-hander's 1.96 ERA was only good for fourth place in the AL behind Luis Tiant (1.60), Sam McDowell (1.81) and Dave McNally (1.95). Add in Tommy John's 1.98 ERA, and there were five starters with sub-2.00 seasons.
This was the season when Carl Yastrzemski's .301 average was good enough to lead the American League. Besides being the only AL regular to finish above .300, the season was a dominating offensive performance by Yaz. His 119 walks put the Hall of Famer well above the rest of the pack. Toss out Mickey Mantle's 106 BB as he was pitched around because of little protection from a weak Yankees lineup, and no one else in the AL walked more than 84 times. Red Sox third baseman Joe Foy took the bronze medal for bases on balls in '68.
Yaz's .426 on-base percentage was 36 points higher than runner-up Frank Robinson (.390). Combine Yastrzemski's OBP, league-leading .922 OPS, 32 doubles and 23 home runs (impressive numbers in 1968), and what might appear to be merely decent offense by current standards is an exceptional effort. The Boston left fielder's 283 times on base put him miles ahead of second-place Bert Campaneris (231).
League-leading offensive stats in various categories look like something from 1907. Tigers second baseman Dick McAuliffe's 95 runs scored topped the AL. Hawk Harrelson (109) and Frank Howard (106) were the only players to pass the century mark in RBI.
Campaneris led the league with 177 hits, and it took him 707 plate appearances to get there. Cesar Tovar came in second with 167 knocks. Reggie Smith's 37 doubles wouldn't even be noticed in the 21st century, but it was enough to top the American League in '68.
A's first baseman Danny Cater came in second with a .290 average, while Tony Oliva took third with a (by his standards) subpar .289 season. The top 10 was rounded out by Vic Davalillo (.277), Campaneris (.276), Harrelson (.275) and Howard (.274).
Howard's major-league best 44 home runs in Washington's RFK Stadium during this offensively meager season is a slugging feat that has never gotten the recognition it deserves. Tigers left fielder Willie Horton was a distant second with 36.
When it comes to studying 1968, it's the lowlights and bottom of the barrel that makes the season fascinating. The White Sox were in the 1967 pennant race until the last weekend of the season despite a .225 team batting average. Even though the team average rose to .228 in 1968, the rest of the offensive stats were dreadful.
Just 397 walks led to an AL-low .286 OBP. The south siders also brought up the rear in homers (71) and runs scored (just 463, or 2.86 per game). Pete Ward and Tommy Davis tied for the team lead in RBI with 50, and Davis had just 16 extra base hits (5 doubles, 3 triples, 8 HR) in 456 middle of the order ABs.
Combine that with a slight dropoff among the team's capable pitching staff, and it's no surprise that the White Sox finished in an eighth-place tie with the Angels during the last season of a 10-team league. The Yankees set a live ball era record low with a .214 team average, but middle of the pack power and OBP combined with decent pitching was enough for an 83-79 record. That was a nice rebound after a three-season tumble that included ninth and tenth (last) place finishes.
In the "How low can you go?" department, 20 AL position players with at least 150 ABs finished 1968 with sub-.200 averages. George Scott was the biggest decliner by far. The Red Sox first baseman regressed from a 19 HR, 82 RBI season with a career-best .303 average in 1967 to just 3 HR, 25 RBI, and a .171 campaign in '68.
The 132-point plunge in batting average is an all-time record. Those kind of numbers would be unacceptable for a middle infielder, let alone someone playing at a position reserved for sluggers. Scott's performance easily ranks among the worst offensive efforts by a first baseman, but he earned a Gold Glove for his skill around the bag.
Tigers shortstop Ray Oyler is often described as the worst hitter of the live ball era. A .175 career average (221 for 1166) includes a .135 (29 for 215, 59 Ks) campaign in '68. An even 20 walks gave Oyler a .213 OBP, which was 27 points above his .186 slugging percentage. Given that he appeared in 111 games during the season, it's obvious that Detroit manager Mayo Smith valued Oyler's ability with the glove. Johnny Sain served as the team's pitching coach in 1968, and he described Oyler as one of the best defensive players he had ever seen in his long baseball career.
Smith's other options at short were Dick Tracewski (.156, 4 HR, 15 RBI in 213 AB) or Tom Matchick (.203, 3 HR, 14 RBI and just 10 BB in 227 AB). This trio of hitless wonders combined for a .165 batting average.
The rest of the roster was sensational by '60s standards. With 185 home runs, the Tigers led the majors by a huge margin, as the Orioles were next best with 133 bombs. Horton's 36 HRs were a career best. Add in Bill Freehan (25), Norm Cash (25) and Jim Northrup (21), and Detroit could and did go deep when a big hit was needed.
Al Kaline (10 HR, 53 RBI, .287) missed 60 games with a broken hand from a hit by pitch, but the Tigers didn't skip a beat. Gold Glove centerfielder Mickey Stanley put up decent numbers (11 HR, 60 RBI, .248) by 1968 standards. When Kaline returned to the lineup in the second half of the season, Smith had the pleasant problem of choosing between four talented outfielders.
The surplus became a real dilemma when making a World Series lineup. Even though Kaline had the least ABs among the starting outfielders during the season, Smith didn't want to bench "Mr. Tiger" during the team's first postseason appearance since 1945. Then there was the complete lack of offense at short. . .
Normally a traditional baseball man, Smith turned riverboat gambler when he put Stanley - who had almost no major league experience as an infielder - at SS when the Tigers faced the Cardinals in the Series.
Even though '68 Tigers alumni have declared their confidence in Stanley and his ability to play any position in interviews over the years, it was still a gutsy, high-stakes move. The novice was tested immediately when speedy Lou Brock led off for the Cardinals with a grounder to short in Game 1.
Stanley handled the chance cleanly and ended up making two inconsequential errors in the seven-game Series while Oyler saw action in four games as a late-inning defensive replacement. Down 3 to 1 against St. Louis, Detroit came back to become world champions thanks to Mickey Lolich's three complete-game victories.
One other stat was also low in addition to the runs scored and offensive numbers. Fans were less than thrilled with the glut of 2-1 games, as five of the 10 AL teams failed to draw 1 million paying customers. Even the second-place Orioles (943,977) and third-place Indians (857,996) generated little enthusiasm, while the A's had a season attendance of just 837,466 during their first year in Oakland.
The scarcity of runs was cured not just by lowering the mound from 15 to 10 inches in 1969. Adding four new expansion teams (Seattle, Kansas City, San Diego and Montreal) in both leagues created jobs for dozens of second-rate hurlers and fading veterans, and the pitching-dominated era of the '60s came to an end.