Batting cleanup in today’s MLB game: Mario Mendoza?

Back in the day, meaning last year, the Mendoza line was a label used to shame MLB hitters who couldn’t manage a batting average above .200. It was named after Mario Mendoza, a shortstop in the 1970s who managed to last nine years in the Major Leagues despite never posting an OPS above .600.

If current trends persist this season, a hitter with Mendoza’s stat line might find himself batting cleanup on some MLB teams.

Through Tuesday’s games, a total of 36 players with enough at bats to qualify for the batting title were batting under .200. That is more than 20 percent of all MLB hitters. The Major League average is .230, a drop of 12 points from last year, despite the implementation of the universal DH and stricter enforcement of rules against doctoring the ball. League-wide, OPS is down 52 points.  If you were a hitter whose OPS was down 52 points from last year, you would consider yourself to be in a moderate slump. Now multiply that by … well, everyone.

Mind you, this isn’t a case of a bunch of rookies and journeymen pulling down the group, nor is it mostly guys who are in the big leagues for their speed or defense. You could build a fairly noteworthy (not to mention expensive) All-Star team from the sub-Mendoza group. Joey Votto and Nelson Cruz are potential Hall of Fame candidates. Salvador Perez, Yasmani Grandal, Justin Turner, Kyle Schwarber, and Elvis Andrus are all making more than $15 million this year, probably not in the expectation that they would be featured in this article.

Others who are making serious money but not providing much return are Max Muncy, Carlos Santana, Jorge Soler, Ketel Marte, Avasail Garcia, and Rhys Hoskins. All told, those 14 players are making almost $190 million this season, which would be the seventh-highest payroll in baseball, without spending any money on pitching. Needless to say, with an offense like this, some pitching would come in handy.

One way to look at this is that these guys are proven hitters and that they will come around and, when they do, they will bring the overall average up with them. It’s also true that April stats tend to be overanalyzed because there are no other numbers on the ledger to mask the impact of a slump or hot streak. If Votto had hit .122 in September, it would have dropped his overall average 30 or 40 points, and only statheads would have noticed.

But the overall stats point to something larger. Only four teams are batting over .250 … and it’s not just averages taking a hit. Only nine teams are averaging more than one homer per game, compared with 27 teams last season. Again, 15 teams took at-bats away from pitchers and gave them to guys who do nothing but hit. The last time half the teams went to the DH, in 1973, the overall batting average went up 13 points, and home runs per game went up by 16 percent.

The most important thing to note is that most of these guys are still getting regular at-bats. While that might indicate that they have track records that justify patience, it also likely means there’s nobody else on the roster making a strong case to take away their playing time. That could be the worst takeaway of all.

We could spend another paragraph or two theorizing as to why this is happening, but the why doesn’t really matter. Baseball took a game that was starving for action and killed even more action. If you insist on looking at the glass as half-full, games are three minutes shorter this season than they were last year, which at least means they didn’t replace the action with more standing around.