Preposterously large human being Dave Winfield was probably better than you think.
The major leagues are simply a difficult place for extremely tall hitters to thrive. In the history of Major League Baseball, according to MLB Network, only 13 players six-foot-six or taller have recorded at least 1,000 plate appearances.
With an enormous strike zone to defend, big guys are particularly vulnerable to the strikeout. Therefore, by far the most common way for them to make it in the majors is by hitting for an inordinate amount of power. Of the 13, three puttered out, recording fewer than three WAR during their careers. The remaining ten have each notched at least a dozen wins above replacement over the course of their respective careers. Huge hitters in the majors have either flamed out or been particularly good, without a ton of in-between.
These lopsided results make sense—it’s rare for human beings that large, and that strong, to also be coordinated enough to consistently hit a baseball. While the 10 who made it have combined for exactly 3,226 homers (a more than healthy 323 per player), nine of them also finished their careers with or currently possess a strikeout rate of at least 19.9%. Though the current league average strikeout rate is 23.3%, that low mark belongs to Frank Howard, the 6’7” slugger who played from 1958 to 1973. Despite Howard’s K% residing below the modern mean, he struck out considerably more often than the average big leaguer during his era, as the strikeout rate over those 15 years vacillated between 13 and 16 percent.
The only two active sluggers on the list, Yankees outfielders Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, rock career strikeout rates of 31.4% and 28.1%, respectively. Stanton’s is still well above average, while Judge is on pace to set the all-time record. Each and every enormous hitter struck out more often than his peers, with a significantly larger strike zone to manage. Even the successful ones only hit for enough power to boost their BABIP and slugging, offsetting the batting average and on-base percentage hits taken due to frequent strikeouts.
In the history of Major League Baseball, all mammoth mashers have fallen into the prototype of the strikeout-prone home-run hitter … except for one.
Dave Winfield — 6’6” and 220 lbs. during his playing days — is one of the all-time great hitters in Yankee history, and baseball history as a whole. He’s a Hall of Famer with 12 All-Star appearances, seven Gold Gloves, and six Silver Sluggers. He’s also probably the most decorated player of the aforementioned bunch. However, the thing that makes him statistically unique among a group of physically rare specimens, is that he barely ever struck out compared to his peers, and especially in comparison to his behemoth brethren. Over his 22-year career, Winfield whiffed only 13.6% of the time. Between 1973 and 1995, the outrageously lengthy stretch during which Winfield played, the league average K-rate steadily rose from about 13% to over 16%. Further, all three of Winfield’s seasons during which he eclipsed the century mark in strikeouts came in the latter portion of his career—at ages 34, 39, and 41.
In comparison to the other big boppers, Winfield is in a league of his own in terms of his ability to consistently put the bat on the ball. Adam Dunn, one of the aforementioned ten, and the all-time leader in career strikeout rate amongst retired players (28.6%), had recorded more strikeouts than Winfield did in his entire 22-year career by just his 11th season. Winfield, the only towering hitter to reach the 3,000 hit-mark, didn’t get there with a dink-and-dunk approach; he also clubbed 465 homers, more than anyone else on the list as well. He’d have made the Hall as a contact hitter or a power hitter, easily cruising to the greatest share of the vote in his first appearance on the ballot. Though he never finished higher than third in MVP voting, he finished in the top-12 nine times, including a fifth-place finish as a 40-year-old member of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992.
Baseball is a fickle beast that rewards sustained greatness over time, though outliers abound in small sample sizes. Of course, in an individual game, the hitter with the best contact, is not guaranteed to have the best stat-line, or even a single hit. More broadly, scrolling a list of league MVPs can turn up surprise one-hit wonders like Zoilo Versalles, Jim Konstanty, or Roger Peckinpaugh. Whether it’s off-the-field issues that derail a generational talent like Josh Hamilton, or an unstable physical foundation undermining presumed years of dominance, as was the case with Matt Harvey, success in baseball often ends at least as quickly as it’s begun. The truly great players are not just the ones with the highest peaks, but those who can sustain All-Star production over long stretches of time. Although Dave Winfield’s particular physical form might suggest a boom-or-bust producer, to a certain degree, it belies his rarely matched combination of contact and power, as one of the truly great unique talents baseball’s ever seen.