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What’s a “pure hitter” anyway?

Apr 10, 2013, 9:12 AM EDT

Rod Carew swing

That Wade Boggs post put the term “pure hitter” — as in “he’s the best pure hitter …” — in my mind. You hear it a lot. Boggs was called that. Tony Gwynn. Rod Carew. Whoever is the batting champ type at any given time tends to have that moniker hung on him.  But I really don’t get it, actually. And in some ways it seems like a backhanded compliment at best, a bit of obfuscation at worst.

As it is commonly used, “pure hitter” seems to mean “a hitter for average but no real power.” No one ever called Barry Bonds “the best pure hitter of the 90s” or whatever. Ted Williams is often called the best hitter who ever lived and maybe he was, but no one ever calls him a “pure hitter.” Why? Too many homers!  To be a “pure hitter” you sort of have to be a contact hitter. Which, in effect, distorts the term “pure” to mean “one dimensional.”

And when you do that, are you not giving a backhanded slam to great contact hitters? Tony Gwynn was a GREAT HITTER. There can be no denying that. I get that when you call him a “pure hitter” you’re trying to give him his own category so you’re not comparing him to Mike Schmidt or Barry Bonds — a comparison Gwynn would lose because they were better and more productive than him overall — but adding that “pure” on there has the effect of adding an asterisk. Of signaling that he’s not the best, even if you intended to give him a compliment. I don’t think that’s the idea any more than I think it diminishes Gwynn or whoever to note that, well, maybe he wasn’t the absolute best even if he was outrageously good at a certain thing. You can be great at some stuff and not great at others and still be great. Saying a guy doesn’t do one given thing well isn’t to say he’s bad at baseball.

And if “pure hitter” is a backhanded slam to the contact hitters, it’s a front-handed slam to more well-rounded hitters. Is there something “impure” about a guy who mixed in a bunch of homers, walks and strikeouts to his hit total? Hank Aaron had over 3,000 hits even if you took all his home runs away! No one ever calls him a “pure hitter.” But is there anyone you’d rather have at bat than Hank freakin’ Aaron?

I know I’m spilling a lot of ink on something almost 100% unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But “pure hitter” is a phrase that bugs me. It’s in the same league as a lot of other broadcaster phrases that sound good and give the illusion of imparting wisdom but which really serve to obscure what’s going on in a baseball game and what’s important (see also “nice piece of hitting” and “professional hitter”).

I wish we could cut that junk out.

  1. alamosweet - Apr 10, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    “It’s a name for a high-average line drive hitter who can do his business in any park. It’s descriptive of a valuable type of hitter.”

    This from sleepyirv above seems a brilliant description. As I try to think of any these days, I wonder if they even exist anymore. Power and patience have become prized over singles the other way and high average.

    Also, I don’t see the need to call for the abolition of such ambiguous and weird turns of phrase. Without them, we wouldn’t get the chance to parse their meaning in such a fun way.

    • elmo - Apr 10, 2013 at 1:25 PM

      There are a number of thoughtful definitions of the term in this comments thread. Although obviously people’s interpretations vary. Perhaps what some find irritating about “pure hitter” is that it’s a subjective term. Thus we don’t always know whether it’s being used intelligently to express something…or just to fill time during a slow inning. I think either can be true, depending on who’s doing the talking.

      • alamosweet - Apr 10, 2013 at 1:33 PM

        I find the slipperiness of the term to be its most endearing attribute.

  2. mianfr - Apr 10, 2013 at 1:30 PM

    Related: Why does no one call Ichiro a pure hitter?

    My gut is too good at fielding, but Cal Ripken was no slouch early in his career, if I recall, and I also don’t seem to remember Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs being looked at as Mark Reynolds-type liabilities…

    • alamosweet - Apr 10, 2013 at 1:34 PM

      I think Ichiro is today’s finest example of a pure hitter, now that you mention it!

      • therealtrenches - Apr 10, 2013 at 6:39 PM

        I think Ichiro has always swung too early in counts. He doesn’t give the rest of his team enough of a look at the pitcher. That’s part of a lead off hitter’s job. Whether or not that disqualifies him from “pure hitter” status is anyone’s guess, but he’s not a “pure hitter” in the way I’ve received the definition from three generations of baseball fans in my family.

  3. dexterismyhero - Apr 10, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    I think McGarrett said it best on Hawaii 5-Oh…..Bookem Dano, “pure smack” as he licks his fingers!!!!!!!

  4. nobody78 - Apr 10, 2013 at 4:31 PM

    Googling Ted Williams and “pure hitter” gets about 21,000 results, with piles and piles from major media outlets and other reputable sources — including Joe DiMaggio (http://www.baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php?p=willite01).

    • sophiethegreatdane - Apr 10, 2013 at 5:52 PM

      This is proof of nothing, and a distortion of how search engines, and the web in general, works. Simply because a search returns results doesn’t mean there is validity to the context of the search, or any meaningful relationship between the search terms. Damn near any two random terms squished together in a search will return hits.

      The results are fairly meaningless at best, and downright worthless at worst.

      For yucks and giggles I googled Van Halen and cupcakes. Guess what? I got 300,000 hits. It means, essentially, nothing.

      It does, however, give you some insight into MY problems. :)

      • stlouis1baseball - Apr 10, 2013 at 6:12 PM

        There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with Van Halen.
        Cupcakes however, are vastly overrated.
        But admittedly…I am NOT a cake person. Even in “cup” form.

      • nobody78 - Apr 10, 2013 at 7:14 PM

        Seriously, I agree that the number of hits doesn’t mean much. But I did look at the results of the search before making my post, and there are many, many examples in which Williams is spoken of as a “pure hitter.” For example, here, here, here, here, here (where Steinbrenner says he was a better “pure hitter” than Ruth!), here, here, etc.

        People talk about Williams ALL THE TIME as a pure hitter, and often as baseball’s greatest “pure hitter.” That was my whole point.

      • djpostl - Apr 10, 2013 at 11:29 PM

        Kudos for doing the legwork and finding all those sources where they did indeed refer to Williams as a “pure hitter” but…

        That Van Halen + cupcakes post was mint so he wins by split decision lol.

  5. minordav3 - Apr 11, 2013 at 8:31 AM

    Pete Rose = pure hitter

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