Major League Baseball's keepers of official records have decreed that in order to qualify for consideration for the batting title, you must have 3.1 plate appearances per scheduled game. Thus, in a 162-game season, you must have 502 plate appearances to qualify to appear on the official list of players ranked by batting average (with one caveat, mentioned below).
Let's get this out of the way right now: batting average is an old-fashioned way of listing players. There are many other statistics: OBP, SLG, OPS, and many advanced metrics that give a better idea of a hitter's real performance.
Adam Dunn was once one of the most feared power hitters in baseball. Sure, he struck out a lot, but he also drew tons of walks, hit a lot of home runs, and played in 152 or more games in eight of nine years from 2002-2010. His OPS in those nine years was .899 and OPS+ was 132 -- numbers that are All-Star quality. When the White Sox signed him to a four-year, $56 million contract before 2011, there wasn't any particular reason to expect that to change.
Certainly no one expected what did happen: Dunn simply stopped hitting.
Dunn thrilled Sox fans by homering on Opening Day, but his batting average dropped under .200 in his ninth game (the season's 15th) and, except for a handful of games in mid-May, never again raised its nose above the Mendoza Line.
When Dunn's average dropped below .170 on July 5, it sent those of us interested in such things scurrying for the record books. The lowest batting average for anyone who qualified for the batting title was .179, by Rob Deer, an outfielder for the 1991 Detroit Tigers. (Remarkably, Deer did not DH a single game for the Tigers that year.) Deer hit 32 home runs that year, which is the most ever for anyone who hit under .200, and...
Well, you get the idea. If Dunn could get to 502 plate appearances, he'd set all kinds of records, because with a .163 batting average and 436 PA at the end of August, he'd have needed to hit .250 (25-for-100, to use a round-number example) in September to hit higher than .179. There was no evidence that Dunn could hit .250 for a month in 2011 (his best monthly BA in '11 was .204 in May). It was a lock; he needed just 66 plate appearances.
Except that then-manager Ozzie Guillen thought the White Sox might still contend for the playoffs (a pipe dream, as it turned out). So he benched Dunn, who started only three games betwen Sept. 1 and Sept. 16; by that time, the Sox had essentially been eliminated. The PA countdown got pretty close; had Dunn averaged just four PA for each of the six games in the White Sox' final home stand, he would have made it.
And then the Sox stopped hitting; Dunn was stuck with only three PA in a couple of games, and for the final game he was benched ... six appearances short of qualifying.
So officially, Dunn has set no records. We can unofficially give him one, using a reversal of what is done when players are just short of winning a batting title. If a player were six PA short of qualifying and close to a batting title, you'd add six hitless at-bats and see if his BA were still high enough to win. If so, he gets the title.
In this case, let's assume Dunn went 6-for-6; that would make him 72-for-421, which would be a .171 batting average, still far lower than Rob Deer's. Congratulations (unofficially), Adam: You win.
Here are some other "worsts" for a player with at least 496 plate appearances in a season:
- Fewest hits, 66. (Next-fewest is 78, by Eddie Joost in 1943; Deer had 80.)
- Lowest SLG with at least 11 HR, .277 (Next-lowest, Don Wert, 12 HR, .299 in 1968)
- Lowest OBP with at least 75 BB, .292 (Next-lowest, Tom Tresh, 76 BB, .304 in 1968)
- Lowest OPS with at least 11 HR and 75 BB, .569 (Next-lowest, Tresh, .612 in 1968)
- Lowest OPS+ with at least 11 HR and 75 BB, 56 (Next-lowest, Frankie Crosetti, 73 in 1937)
- Fewest runs with at least 11 HR and 75 BB, 36 (Next-lowest, Darrell Evans, 48 in 1988)
I could go on, but you get the point. Dunn's season was worse offensively than pretty much anyone from the Year of the Pitcher, 1968, and he broke other records that had stood for seven decades. All of the above numbers other than Dunn's were set by players who qualified for the batting title, and except for Evans (who was 41 and in the twilight of his otherwise fine career), all were in their "primes", such as they were.
Dunn stands alone. At 31, he might have been a bit past his prime in 2011, but the White Sox weren't paying him in that way, and the steepness of his decline, from 21st place in NL MVP voting in 2010 to essentially "worst ever" in 2011, is unprecedented. (Dunn also was 6-for-94 -- .064 -- against LHP this year with 39 strikeouts. Probably half the right-handed-hitting pitchers on the White Sox could have done better than that.)
It won't count, since he didn't get those last six plate appearances. Dunn may focus on working out in the offseason and shake this year off and put together three decent years for the rest of his White Sox contract. But his monumentally horrendous year deserves to be recognized somewhere, so we've done it here.