The grand slam is arguably the most thrilling and exciting thing that occurs in a baseball game. The prerequisite to one, of course, is that the bases be loaded. In the 21st century, that’s been the case approximately 2.47 percent of the time in Major Leagu Baseball. That is about once every 40.5 plate appearances. And yet, in 2013, Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Nori Aoki entered the batter’s box 674 times; the bases were loaded for him … zero times.
Poor Nori Aoki played a full-ass season with nary a single opportunity to break out the rye bread and mustard. This when the average big leaguer would’ve been expected to have about 16.6 such opportunities. Here’s how that stacks up since 1973 (the start of full base-occupied data splits at Baseball-Reference):
A couple quick observations:
Perhaps your first thought might be that his Brewers simply must not have loaded up the bases very often. And while they did do so at a below average clip, it’s certainly not anything egregious:
Even within just the 2013 Brewers, Aoki stands out pretty glaringly among the distribution of their 122 (a totally normal number) overall bases loaded plate appearances:
By the way please note the presence there of a dot representing a guy who had just 14 plate appearances, and for two had the bases loaded (pitcher Donovan Hand).
Now, there is one big, fat caveat that I will not ignore: Aoki was a leadoff hitter, certainly the batting order position least conducive to plate appearances with the bases loaded. The rebuttal? All the other leadoff hitters over the last near-half century are also accounted for in that first chart and those ensuing three bullet points still hold true. However, if you’d fancy a chart that isolates just leadoff hitters for a more specific apples-to-apples comparison, this oughta show that it was still extremely abnormal:
The other 19 leadoff hitters combined still had the bases loaded for 1.83 percent of their plate appearances, just shy of three-quarters as often as MLB’s overall 21st century rate; and that’s even with Shin-Soo Choo’s presence there, whose 2013 season also happens to show up on that earlier chart of those very rare instances with as few as five such plate appearances.
This data suggests that on average even a leadoff hitter should be able to expect to find the bases loaded in the general ballpark of once every 54.7 times they bat. If that rate had applied to Aoki, he would’ve had 12.3 bases loaded plate appearances … 12.3 more than reality.
Want a more robust sample?
Though that includes all players, obviously there are plenty that were primarily leadoff hitters. Only two, just barely, have a percentage under 1.6 (Ichiro and Juan Pierre). Then it’s a pretty sizable jump up to Paul Goldschmidt in the antepenultimate spot from the bottom at 1.67 percent.
Thus an unequivocally conservative approximation for the going rate of leadoff hitters’ bases loaded plate appearances would be 1.6 percent (but by all indications the era’s actual rate for leadoff hitters was at least 1.8 percent). That’d still mean an average of once every 62.5 plate appearances. Again, ’13 Aoki had 674 plate appearances.
All of this differs in a key way from a lot of other statistical outliers. For example, in the 21st century, the average MLB player has homered about once every 35.7 plate appearances, but it’s not shocking that, say, 2005 Scott Podsednik had 568 plate appearances without hitting any homers. It’s merely a reflection of the type of player he was, a part of his baseball identity. Hitting home runs simply was not a part of Podsednik’s game.
Needless to say, a full season of never once batting with the bases loaded has nothing to do with any sort of fundamental baseball identity or particular player archetype. For the most part it’s just good old-fashioned randomness to a ridiculous degree. Isn’t it beautiful?
We can actually further expand this: the bases weren’t loaded for any of Aoki’s final 69 plate appearances of 2012 or any of his first 65 plate appearances of 2014. That means he went up to bat a grand total of 808 times in a row with no more than two baserunners aboard.
Here are some hypothetical things that would’ve been more likely than that:
The funniest counterpoint season to ’13 Aoki is probably 1989 Tom O’Malley, who in a season of just 11 plate appearances, had five with the bases loaded. What a spectacular contrast to 674 and 0.
Anyway, after the 2013 season, the Brewers traded Aoki to the Royals. The thing about Aoki is that by no means was he much of a home run-hitter, going deep about 39.5 percent as often as the average big leaguer throughout the course of his career. But as it relates to the possibility of a grand slam, you ought not blindly assume he wouldn’t have hit one had he indeed been blessed with any bases loaded opportunities in 2013.
Because the next year in Kansas City, while he hit just one home run all season, wanna guess how many baserunners were aboard for it?