When pitchers and catchers report to spring training a week from Tuesday, one of the catchers arriving at Indians camp will be former Blue Jays farmhand Brian Jeroloman. A 27-year-old catch-and-throw type who has yet to make his major league debut and spent most of 2012 in Double-A, Jeroloman is no threat to crack the Indians' Opening Day roster, but his performance last year was noteworthy nonetheless. That's because Jeroloman came to the plate 155 times last year and didn't deliver a single extra-base hit.
In general terms, that performance was not out of character for Jeroloman. His only discernible skill at the plate is the ability to draw walks, taking ball four almost exactly once every six plate appearances over seven minor league seasons, a period over which is on-base percentage has been 36 points higher than his career slugging percentage of .335. In his player comment in the 2010 Baseball Prospectus annual, I described Jeroloman as having an "utter lack of power." That, of course, was intended as slight hyperbole, but in 2012 Jeroloman literally lacked power at the plate.
I was unable to find the minor league record for most plate appearances in a single season without an extra-base hit, but to put Jeroloman's 2012 season in some context, we can take a look at the major league records. The major league record for most plate appearances without an extra-base hit was set in 1890 by Jeroloman's fellow catcher Herman Pitz. In what proved to be his only big-league season, Pitz came to the plate 346 times for the Brooklyn Gladiators and Syracuse Stars of the American Association without picking up an extra-base knock, though that's not terribly surprising given that he was apparently a cartoon elf. Pitz holds that record with more than 40 percent more plate appearances than the runner up (who turned the trick in 1879) and is just one of three players, and the most recent of those three, to fail to collect an extra-base hit in more than 200 plate appearances.
The modern record for plate appearances without an extra-base hit was set by yet another catcher, the Browns' Jack O'Connor, who made 184 trips to the plate without an extra-base knock in 1906, his age-40 season. That, of course, was still more than a century ago. The liveball-era record for most plate appearances without an extra-base hit wasn't nearly as remote. It was set in 1973 by shortstop Dwain Anderson, who split that season between the Cardinals and Padres totaling 144 plate appearances without hitting for extra bases.
Again, Jeroloman did it over 155 plate appearances last year. So, already we can see how significant that was. Including nineteenth century elves and pitchers, just 11 men have had more plate appearances in a major league season without an extra-base hit, the most recent being O'Connor in 1906. Yes, Jeroloman did it in the minors, where such futility is surely more common, but it's still a remarkable feat. Consider that one need not always hit the ball hard to get an extra-base hit. A bloop into no-man's land behind first or third base can result in a double, as can a hard ground ball up either baseline. Given that, Jeroloman's lack of speed surely played a part as well, as did his overall lack of hits of any kind.
Jeroloman hit just .183 last year, collecting a mere 24 hits, all singles. In 1973, Anderson hit .121, collecting just 15 singles. O'Connor hit .190 with 33 hits, and Pitz hit .165 with 47 hits (though he apparently had some speed, swiping 39 bags). So what is the record for most hits without an extra-base hit? That belongs to yet another catcher, the exquisitely mustachioed Bill Holbert, who collected 50 singles for the Syracuse Stars and Troy Trojans in 1879. O'Connor's 40 hits are the modern record, but the liveball-era record is just two years old.
In 2010, the Indians' own Mark Grudzielanek, then in his final major league season at the age of 40, hit .273 with 30 singles in 119 plate appearances but not one extra-base hit. Grudzielanek hit .273/.328/.273 that season, good for a 71 OPS+. That stands as the third-best OPS+ in a season of at least 100 plate appearances that included no extra-base hits. The two men ahead of Grudzielanek are 1933 Yankees infielder Doc Farrell (.269/.376/.269, 78 OPS+ in 112 PA) and 1904 Pirates left fielder Jack Gilbert (.241/.353/.241, 83 OPS+ in 102 PA).
As for Jeroloman, he was actually called up to the Blue Jays in September 2011 but never got in a game, in part due to a hand injury. Last year, he missed nearly two months of the 2012 season with a right knee injury, failing to pick up an extra-base hit even during his rehab assignment in the low minors. Now he comes to the Indians as a non-roster invitee but could be as low as fifth on the catching depth chart behind Carlos Santana, Lou Marson, utility man Yan Gomes, another former Blue Jay, and fellow catch-and-throw minor leaguer Roberto Perez, who seems likely to be the starter in Triple-A. All four of those men are younger than Jeroloman, who once seemed destined to be J.P. Arencibia's backup in Toronto. Jeroloman could still find his way into that backup role for Cleveland this season given the right combination of injuries and performance, but a more realistic goal would be finding his way to second base without the help of a teammate.