Joe Sewell: The Ultimate Contact Hitter
Mike Whiteman March 22, 2021
In January 1931, the Yankees signed Joe Sewell to take on their third base position. The thirty-one year old longtime Cleveland shortstop was a .320 career hitter, and had finished in the top ten in MVP voting in four of his ten seasons for the Indians despite a seemingly diminutive 5’6” frame.
He was slowing a bit, having just recently been moved to third, and his 1930 season average of .289 was pedestrian in an American League with a .288 total batting average. Released by Cleveland, he sought to prove he still had good baseball left in him.
Sewell had been well known for taking over the shortstop position for the Indians in summer 1920 when Ray Chapman was killed by a Carl Mays pitch. As a 21-year old rookie, he batted .329 down the stretch, and was a significant contributor to the AL Pennant and World Series winners.
In his first season in Pinstripes, he returned to .300 (.302) along with a .390 OBP. In July he was moved up to the second spot in the batting order and was a catalyst for an offense that scored 1067 runs on the season.
He was a very good player for over a decade, and would be later enshrined in Cooperstown. Aside from that, he had a superpower that made him one of the most unique players in Major League Baseball history.
Playing in 130 games, he struck out just eight times during the 1931 season. Yet for Sewell, that was a lot.
Joe Sewell was a contact hitter. An extreme contact hitter.
In his last season in Cleveland, he struck out three times; in 1929, he struck out four times.
In the Yankees’ World Series championship 1932 season, he struck out three times in 576 plate appearances. He struck out once about every 168 at bats, a modern day (post-1900) MLB record for at bats per strikeout (AB/SO). In fact, he didn’t strike out that year until July.
How did he do it? When asked, he said “It was just a simple matter of keeping my eye on the ball,” and claimed he could see the spiraling seams on a baseball when pitched, and when it met his bat. Speaking of which, he claimed that he wielded only one primarily bat through his career, a 41-ounce Ty Cobb model he named “Black Betsy” that was given to him as a rookie by one of his teammates.
Now it’s reasonable to question if that eye-popping stat is a product of an era where a batter who stuck out frequently was looked down upon. How do we put this feat within the context of today’s game?
In 2020, Tommy La Stella led the majors with 16.3 AB/SO. He struck out in 10.6% of his plate appearances, just about half of the MLB rate of 21.6% for the season. In 1932, Sewell struck out in .05% of his plate appearances. That season, American Leaguers struck out 8.3% of the time. So, Sewell wasn’t just a contact hitter, but a freakishly successful one.
Sewell holds the top three, and four of the top five AB/SO rates in the modern era. His career mark of 62.5 AB/SO trails only Hall of Famer Willie Keeler’s 63.1. I look at Keeler’s mark with a slight grain of salt as his career was beginning when pitchers were adjusting to the move to the 60’6” distance from the pitcher’s rubber to home plate in 1893. The offensive shift at that time was significant, and I think aided him and all batters in making contact.
Using these numbers, I figure Sewell strikes out fewer than 20 times in 600 plate appearances in today’s game.
Now, I’m aware of the strategic change of today’s game and realize if Sewell played today, he may not be as fixated on contact. A look at the “most similar by ages” at Baseball-Reference.com shows a very interesting match at ages 22, 23 and 24.
It was Derek Jeter.