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Don't hate me because I love Dave Kingman

Thursday 3/9/23

Dave Kingman is one of my favorite players in the history of baseball. I think I'd like to write an essay about Dave Kingman and put it in a book. The title of the essay could be the title of this journal post. I will likely take parts from this entry.

Dave Kingman has long been reviled. Certain players just seem to be loathed, as if people took what they were, as players, personally. Very few people, for instance, like Jeff Kent. I don't know why Jeff Kent isn't in the Hall of Fame. It's not because of his career. His career more than merits his inclusion in Cooperstown. It's something else. It's enough of a something else that Jeff Kent has never been close ballot-wise to getting into the Hall of Fame. People don't like whatever his career stood for to them. It's an unnatural reaction, but there's something that makes people have it. Maybe it was his mustache. But it's something, and it isn't ability or track record or merit.

Dave Kingman was this way, but far more so. It was like he was a villain when he played. He was "bad." If you were in Little League and wanted to pattern your stance or some such after that of Dave Kingman, the coach would pull you aside for a talking to, which would have an element of being about more than baseball. You had transgressed.

Kingman struck out a lot--though not to a historical degree, which is what one has long been led to believe--and hit for a low average. Modern analytics hate Dave Kingman, but not, it would seem, to the degree that they'd like to hate him. For instance, Kingman has a career WAR of 17.3. This is not good. It's rather horrendous. But there is more going on with Kingman--there is always more with the man nicknamed Kong. That is one reason why I like him so.

Let's look at the season Dave Kingman had in 1976. This was a lean time for offense in baseball--more so in the American League than in the National League where Kingman played, but offense was down everywhere. The league would attend to this--perhaps by doctoring the balls--the next year, when offense went up everywhere.

Kingman was on the Mets in 1976, the first of two stints he'd have with the team (Kingman played for a lot of teams, because Kingman had use, but also no one really liked Kingman so he never stuck around long, though during batting practice, everyone stopped and watched his mighty moonshots).

Kingman played in 123 games, with 510 plate appearances and 474 at-bats (the lack of separation between those numbers is both amusing and says a lot about the Kingman aesthetic). He had 37 home runs--good for second in the league, trailing Mike Schmidt by 1--and 86 RBI, which placed him tenth, despite missing a good chunk of the season. Kingman led the league in at-bats/home run, with 12.8. That is, he homered with greater frequency than anyone.

Kingman hit .238, with an on base percentage of .286. Do you know how bad a .286 on base percentage is? It's wretched. It's hard to be that bad. You'd almost have to have a plan to go about being that bad, and then execute that plan with efficiency. Or, you'd have to be wired a totally different way than just about anyone else. This was Kingman.

His slugging percentage was a robust .506, which was fifth in the National League. Now, the prevailing wisdom for years is that Kingman sucked. He was so bad at baseball, couldn't help your team, but he would hit home runs.

I'll both scale that back and go further. Kingman was not bad at baseball. He could definitely help a team. He had major value. But the reason these things were true is because Dave Kingman decided that he was going to do exactly one thing in the game of baseball. It was everything he was about, and ostensibly all that he was interested in, for the most part (he apparently felt somewhat differently in 1979, when he hit .288). Dave Kingman was a home run specialist. He hit home runs. He did nothing else. But he was so good at hitting home runs frequently, that he essentially tears the fabric of modern analytics in two. If modern analytics was an otherwise calm, professorial thinker, Kingman would cause modern analytics to throw a temper tantrum on account of not being able to make the thesis tally with the actual data.

In 1976, despite his dreadful, dreadful on base percentage, Dave Kingman's OPS--which is slugging percentage and on base percentage combined--was .797, which is pretty good. But let's look further: OPS+ adjusts for era. It contextualizes OPS. An OPS+ of 100 means, by this metric, you are an average offensive ballplayer. Kingman's 1976 OPS+ was 129. He was 29% better than the average offensive player. That's a lot. That's a huge amount. Suck it, Kingman haters!

Modern analytics really breaks down to something this simple. No one has ever said it, but I am going to say it: If you walk a lot, modern analytics will dig you. If you don't, it's going to be very hard to have an impressive WAR or OPS+, no matter what else you do. No matter your batting average, the runs you drive in. You need to walk. It really is that basic when it comes to modern analytics love. That's why WAR loves Bobby Grich. And why OPS+ loves Gene Tenace. If Bobby Grich didn't walk, and had better traditional stats, there wouldn't be zealots on baseball history discussion forums clamoring for his inclusion in Cooperstown. Mike Trout? It's the walks that makes him the darling of WAR.

Dave Kingman seemingly hated many aspects of baseball. He could not be bothered with those aspects. They kept him from his path of the straight and true. Walking was one of those things (ironically, given the path metaphor). In 1976, he walked 28 times. 4 of those walks were intentional, so he really walked 24 times. This, again, is hard to do. You have to be against walking to do this. Maybe you don't hate walking, but you want no part of it. The same goes for doubles. In 1976, Dave Kingman--with all of his power--hit 14 doubles. That's messed up. It's harder to only hit 14 doubles than it is to have as dreadful an on base percentage as Dave Kingman did and as few walks as Dave Kingman did. Nor did Dave Kingman have a lot of sacrifice flies. Only 3.

Do you see where I'm going with this? We can read between the white lines of the diamond here, to deduce that Kingman did not hit the ball in the gaps. He'd have more doubles. He did not hit deep fly ball outs--he's have more sacrifice flies. Dave Kingman either hit the ball way, way over the outfield wall, or, he pretty much struck out, or hit ultra-high pop-ups to the shortstop.

You could say that Dave Kingman kind of played the game of baseball like an asshole. He loved those home runs. Or he realized that that's what he was best at, and went hog wild in cultivating his specialty. He was Candide in his own garden of dingers.

But Bob Gainey is in the Hall of Fame for hockey, and he was a defensive forward. That was his specialty. No one says that Bob Gainey played hockey like an asshole. I think it has to do with Kong's devotion to the home run. It was like it was his god. His religion. His reason for existing. He was a believer. He lived in service to hitting the ball over the wall. Sometimes. More often than most, by far. But with a whole lot of surrounding outs.

But Dave Kingman did not care. The outs were worth it. Ten outs were worth a moonshot home run. Easily. Each and every time.

You should not be able to be as effective with things like OPS+ as Kingman was. For his career, that number stood at 115. That's better than a lot of superstars in the Hall of Fame. Cal Ripken, for instance. I think this is why there is a new generation of Dave Kingman haters. People with awareness of the modern analytics look back and they can't diss Kingman like they want to diss Kingman. More than 30% of his hits in 1976 were home runs! Granted, he didn't have that many hits, but even still--that is going to be quite a bit of production. And it all came exactly one way. With no variation. Total consistency.

I have come to embrace my love of Kingman. In earlier days, it was something I kept secret. People would look at you funny, almost as if you'd say you had a crush on the dog. But I am a proud Kingman man.

I will go so far as to say that if others lived their lives in similar devotion to the things they believed in, and legitimate ways of being productive--which Dave Kingman the home run hitter truly was--then the world would be a much better place.


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