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Establishing a new Mendoza Line

It’s harder than ever to get a hit, does .200 really mean what it used to?

Texas Rangers v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

It seems there are just two things that have escaped this high-inflation economy we find ourselves in: weed, and offense in baseball. MLB’s OPS is just .680, the third-lowest since 1968, but OPS gets a boost from power at the expense of plain ol’ hitting, and sure enough, leaguewide batting average is just .234, the lowest of any season from 1968-2022, inclusive.

Just as inflationary pressure causes us to accept that certain prices are never coming back — I’m never paying below a dollar for a liter of gas again — we’ve got to accept, at least temporarily, a shift in what we think good players can do at the plate. This is true at the top of the leaderboards, where Aaron Judge’s 1.033 OPS is more of an outlier than Manny Ramirez’s 1.105 OPS in 1999. Judge is less productive than Manny, but because offense has been so deflated, relative to the league Judge has been better.

This works on the other side too, particularly when it comes to batting average, and that’s the focus of this post. For decades, Mario Mendoza has been the standard line for what’s playable in the majors — in nine seasons, he hit above .200 in four, below in five, and that eponymous line has become a quick reaction gauge to whether or not a guy can cut it in the majors.

But if everyone’s hitting is depressed, we need to start adjusting for that. This isn’t a one year trend, either, batting average specifically has been on a continual downward trend since the offensive peak of the Steroid Era:

And the Yankees, specifically, have a few guys that will hover around the old Mendoza line — Joey Gallo, Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino are all below the mark, Gallo the closest at .198. But if we know that, adjusting to a deflated league, Aaron Judge is better on a relative basis than Manny Ramirez, these guys are doing better on a relative basis than Mendoza himself.

For the length of Mendoza’s career, the league hit .261, or about 20 percent better than Mario could manage. However, the Mendoza line isn’t .215, it’s .200, or 30.5 percent worse than the rest of the league. If we assume then that the definition of “playable” in the 70s and 80s, a higher average era, was 30.5 percent worse than the field, the same should apply to this very depressed offensive environment, no?

In 2022 this means that the new Mendoza line is .163. Now I don’t want to pick on Kyle Higashioka, but at the time that I’m writing this, Gallo is hitting .198, Trevino .178 and Higgy .161, so perhaps, we should call this new line the Higgy line, purely for the sake of clarity. Like Mendoza, Higgy is more than just the shorthand his name soon will become synonymous with.

But even this season is an outlier — batting average last year was .244; in 2020, .245. Wrapping those seasons into 2022, we get a leaguewide average of .243. Therefore, our new three-year Higgy line is .169, and y’know what, we like round numbers, so let’s move that up to .170. The name all of a sudden is much more fitting.

So how does the 2022 Yankees stack up against our outlier Higgy line, the single-season mark representing perhaps the nadir of offense? Not so bad you notice:

The Yankees have been hot lately, so pretty much everyone comes into play Sunday above the benchmark, save, again, for Mr. Higashioka. Now what about our three-year mark, that .243 average and .170 Higgy line that is hopefully a little more representative of your chances of getting a hit?

Now it appears I may owe Mr. Higashioka an apology. In the spirit of naming conventions like the Mason-Dixon and Sykes-Picot lines, perhaps this new benchmark should be called the Gallo-Higgy line. I started this project on Friday, fortunately, a couple hot games since have dragged Gallo’s three-year average above our Gallo-Higgy line.

Unfortunately for all of us, bread no longer costs a nickel, and rent is not $400 a month. We can wail and gnash our teeth and talk about how great Things Used To Be, but if I send my landlord $400 on June 1st, I’m going to be looking for a new apartment. Similarly, if you’re continuing to judge players on an outdated frame of reference ... look I’m not going to tell you how to fan, but you’re probably missing the external, structural affects that have changed the game.