When .294 won a batting title
The mound was high and the batting averages were low in 1968, earning that season the appropriate label as "The Year of the Pitcher."
Bob Gibson and Denny McLain were busy leading the mound madness in the Major Leagues that kept batting averages, on-base percentages and slugging percentages to all-time lows in the live-ball era. Carl Yastrzemski was the only American Leaguer to crack the .300 mark and he just barely made it over the bar, winning the batting title with the lowest average ever (.301).
But what about the Minor Leagues? Were they affected as greatly by the higher mounds, bigger strike zones and more pitcher-friendly umpiring?
Ask Tony Torchia. He was there. He spent much of the summer following Yastrzemski's lead while playing for Pittsfield, Boston's Eastern League affiliate. He won the batting title that season in the Double-A circuit, despite hitting only .294. It remains the lowest average of any Eastern League batting champion and the only one under .300. The previous low mark had been Tony Bartirome's .305 in 1956.
The title also put Torchia, now 63, in select company. He is one of only 33 Minor League batting champions since 1905 to win the title while hitting under .300. There have been only six such champions since 1913, with two of them winning titles in 1967 -- Minnie Mendoza (Southern, .297) and Charles Stewart (Florida State, .296).
According to the Minor League Encyclopedia, Tommy Boudreau (.277) collected a batting title with the lowest average ever while playing for Milwaukee's Arizona League affiliate in 1990. He also was the last sub.-300 player to win a crown. The lowest full-season average for a batting champion was .281, a mark shared by George Whitman (1906 Texas League) and Hunky Shaw (1910 Pacific Coast League).
Torchia's story, though, is also interesting because of how he won the crown. He began the season in the International League, but after a month was sent back to Pittsfield. As the season wound down, it became apparent he would have an insufficient number of at-bats to win. Teammate Carmen Fanzone, who led the league with 17 home runs and 75 RBIs, finished second in batting at .270.
|Sub-.300 Minor League batting champions|
South Atlantic (C)
E. Illinois (D)
S. Michigan (D)
Wisconsin St. (D)
Pacific Coast (AA)
Cotton States (D)
E. Carolina (D)
American Assoc. (AA)
Pacific Coast (AA)
Southern Assoc. (D)
Carolina Assoc. (D)
Pacific Coast (A)
Eastern Carolina (D)
Southwest Texas (D)
Western Tri-State (D)
Western Tri-State (D)
Florida State (A)
|*Precursor to International League
--Courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball
But the exception to rule 10.23(a) states "if there is any player with fewer than the required number of plate appearances whose average would be the highest, if he were charged with the required number of plate appearances or official at bats, then that player shall be awarded the batting championship or slugging championship." So league officials factored in an 0-for-22 skid onto Torchia's stat line -- which would give him enough at-bats to qualify -- and he still finished ahead of Fanzone.
"It was a unique thing," said Torchia, who despite being 5-foot-9 played first base. "It was kind of dubious because I got there a month late. But after applying the rule and seeing that I still would have led the league after going 0-for-22, they gave it to me.
"I'm sure I was hitting over .300 at some point during the season. But I wasn't thinking about winning a batting title. We were fighting for a championship against Larry Bowa and Reading. We never knew the rule about at-bats, we just figured I wouldn't have enough. Our general manager was Pat McKernan and he would go on to be the league president. He was a former English teacher in Pittsfield and he found out about the rule."
That gave Torchia two batting titles in six years. He won the 1962 Midwest League crown (.338) while playing for Keokuk in the Dodgers' system. The Red Sox drafted him out of the Los Angeles system the following season and he stayed with Boston for a dozen years, spending most of his career at the Triple-A level.
Boston hired Torchia as a Minor League manager in 1976, and he finally reached the big leagues in 1985 as Boston's hitting coach. He spent a year in the Majors before working in the San Diego, Colorado, Houston and Montreal systems. His most recent gig was as a manager in an independent league. Currently, he works for Major League Baseball International, helping to expose nations from around the world to the game.
"I was a good hitter, just not a good enough all-around player for the Major Leagues," Torchia said. "I wasn't a power hitter and they didn't have six-year free agents back then. If I had been a catcher or a second baseman with the way I hit, I probably would have made it.
"It was more gratifying to play for the championship in '68. After that year, there was expansion. I led the league in hitting and I wasn't that old, but I didn't get drafted by anyone and guys who hit .240 and .250 in that league did."
Torchia's experience in '68 certainly was unique. The mounds were lowered the following season and normalcy returned. Bob Kelly led the Eastern League in hitting with a .323 average in 1969 and no one has led the circuit with an average lower than .311 since Torchia.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com.