Why Al Kaline was one of MLB's toughest ABs

April 7th, 2020

DETROIT -- When the Tigers celebrated the 50th anniversary of their 1968 World Series championship two years ago, was asked what stood out for him. He didn’t mention any of his big hits, despite going 11-for-29 with two homers and eight RBIs in the Fall Classic. He gave some mention to the Tigers’ rally from a 3-1 series deficit to upset the Cardinals for their first championship since 1945.

What stood out for Kaline were the team’s determination, the clutch hits from players off the bench -- and how thankful he was for the sacrifice Mickey Stanley made to allow him to play at all.

“I was honored to play on that team,” Kaline said, “because I missed five weeks with a cracked wrist. [Manager] Mayo [Smith] said, ‘We’re going to try to get you in the Series.’ And I said, ‘You can’t take [Jim] Northrup out. He had a great year.’"

Northrup didn’t have to sit, because Stanley moved from center field to shortstop.

“I could never thank him enough for agreeing to be a shortstop so I got in the lineup,” Kaline said.

Kaline was right: As great of an athlete as Stanley was, it was an incredible experiment, and Stanley said he spent the series nervous about potentially making a critical error. But on the flip side, the lengths to which the Tigers went to get Kaline in the lineup for their first World Series in nearly a quarter-century said a lot about Kaline.

In the Year of the Pitcher, a 33-year-old Kaline hit .287, which would’ve ranked third in the league if he had enough at-bats to qualify, with an OPS+ of 146. He batted .306 in the second half despite playing part-time, including games at first base for the first time in his career.

This is part of the beauty of Kaline’s career: More than the jersey he wore for 22 years, the bat he wielded was one of the best in the game for a long time. He won one batting title, hitting .340 as a 20-year-old in 1955 to become the American League’s youngest-ever batting champion, but he topped .300 eight other times, including a .313 average at age 37 in 1972, and finished in the AL’s top four seven times. He played at least 100 games in 20 of his 22 seasons, and he had an OPS+ of at least 107 in all but one.

If wins above replacement were a thing in Kaline’s time, he would ranked in the top 10 among AL hitters in 11 seasons. He did all this without a 30-homer season, and with just three seasons over 100 RBIs.

There was obviously no Statcast in Kaline’s day to measure bat quickness, launch angle or exit velocity, no predictive metrics to suggest what Kaline’s expected average or slugging might have been. But look through the stats available, and one overriding theme is clear: Kaline was a consistently tough at-bat.

As a 19-year-old in his first full pro season, Kaline struck out just 45 times and walked 22 times in 535 plate appearances. He went 21 consecutive games and 78 at-bats without a strikeout, according to baseball-reference. For each of the next 14 seasons, and 15 of the next 17, Kaline drew more walks than strikeouts. He finished in the AL’s top 10 for at-bats per strikeout six times.

“I was basically a line-drive hitter,” Kaline told FanGraphs’ David Laurila a few years ago. “I was a put-the-ball-in-play hitter who tried not to strike out. I moved the runners along if the situation called for it. I tried to be patient and get a good pitch -- I didn’t want to get myself out by swinging at bad pitches -- and I didn’t worry about getting two strikes on me. I felt that I could handle the bat well enough to hit with two strikes.”

When the situation grew tighter, the discipline was greater. When Kaline became the American League’s youngest-ever batting champion in 1955, he batted .360 with runners in scoring position, with almost as many home runs (eight) as strikeouts, and three times as many walks (28). With a runner on third and less than two outs, he fanned just twice in 54 plate appearances, compared to six sacrifice flies.

Part of that reflected the style of hitting at the time; Mickey Mantle and Larry Doby were the only American League hitters to strike out 80 times in 1954. But Kaline’s ability to stay disciplined yet hit for power and production was unique, and it reflected hand-eye coordination.

“Kaline’s got great wrists. He takes the ball right out of the catcher’s mitt,” then-teammate Harvey Kuenn said in 1954, as former Tigers beat writer Jim Hawkins wrote in Kaline’s self-titled biography.

Though that 1954 batting title created lofty expectations that weighed on him in ensuing years, it was far from a lucky season. Kaline won a batting title with a lower average on balls put in play (.339) than batting average (.340), a result of a high homer total and a low strikeout rate. Just two other Tigers in history -- Hank Greenberg in 1940 and Alan Trammell in 1987 -- hit .340 or better in a season with a lower BABIP.

While Kaline’s power ebbed and flowed over the years -- he hit a career-high 29 homers over just 100 games in 1962 -- the quick bat and sharp eye aged well. For his career, Kaline finished with a .297 average and .296 BABIP. Among Hall of Famers with at least 10,000 plate appearances since 1900, just 10 finished with a better average than BABIP: Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Billy Williams, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, Sam Crawford, Ernie Banks and Honus Wagner.

Among Tigers with 4,000 career at-bats, Kaline’s 1.25 walk-to-strikeout ratio ranks 10th best in franchise history, and second only to Kuenn among players after World War II. His 8.8 percent strikeout rate ranks 11th lowest.