Around 1993 I remember a conversation with a friend about what milestone we would see next. Would it be someone hitting more than 61 homers in a season or would it be a guy hitting .400? We eventually agreed that hitting 62 homers was easier than hitting .400, but we had no clue the steroid era was coming. With the roid controversey, I feel some of the luster is off breaking the single season home run record. We can’t even start an AN conversation about the Hall of Fame without the comments sinking into a steroid swamp.
With all the advanced stats now, some of the luster is off the milestone of hitting .400 too. Batting average might not be as good a metric to use for hitting as people used to think. It would still be exciting to see someone make a run at .400. I set about looking through the stats of the recent players who have come close in order to try to see if I can spot the next guy to do it, or at least get close....
As a kid, I vividly remember the Jersey Day game at Met Stadium in August 1977. The Twins beat the White Sox 19-14 and Rod Carew was flirting with .400. At one point in the game after he got a hit, the scoreboard flashed "Rod Carew BA .401" and the crowd went wild. My two siblings and I treasured those Munsingwear jerseys and wore them for years. Carew finished that year at .388, and it seemed someone hitting .400 was eminent.
George Brett hit .390 one year, and Tony Gwynn hit .394 in ‘94, the strike shortened year, but here in 2011 it’s now been 70 years since Ted Williams hit over .400 in 1941.
Below is a graph of the season by season BA of all the guys since Carew who have had a season above .370 plus a couple other batters. I figured .370 is a reasonable cut off to get some comparison data. If you use 500 ABs as a round number, someone would need to have 200 hits in 500 ABs to hit .400. So a guy who hit .370 got within about 15 hits of hitting .400. Less than 1 hit per week more would have gotten .370 hitters to .400
In this link, Pete Rose is quoted saying:
"Going 200-for-600 is hard enough, I think it's impossible for somebody to go 200-for-500. I cannot not conceive of that."
I’m not sure I agree with Pete, but I do understand Tony Gwynn’s concept of "nullifying at bats". His premise is that it is really hard to hit .400 in a lot of ABs, it’s easier the fewer ABs you get. Most big leaguers can go 4 for 10, in 10 ABs, 40 for 100 is harder, 200 for 500 is a LOT harder. As the sample size goes up it is harder to avoid regressing to a batting average closer to the league average. The premise is a batter needs to be lucky to finish above .400 unless his skill level is way way above the average major leaguer. Gwynn nullified ABs by going on the DL for about a month every year, Williams and Bonds took a ton of walks. Looking at the above chart, the guy with the most ABs on the list is Ichiro, with 704 in a year he hit .372. Carew hit .388 in 616 ABs, maybe the best year batting average-wise on the list since Williams, all things considered. He had a lot of ABs and still got very close.
In my chart I listed the year the batter hit for the highest average and his age. Ted Williams is an outlier here, he is an outlier in everything though, his era, his power, he was a true all time great and hitting .400 was just one amazing thing he did. Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 at age 22 but he also hit .388 at the age of 38. Ted really oughta make this list twice. He, like Carew and Gwynn, made a run at .400 relatively late in life. I think this means that these guys were actually getting better at hitting while their bodies were getting worse. Gwynn and Carew won a ton of batting titles each and later in life this was sort of their thing, the thing they took pride in, maybe above all else. The both served a ton of singles into left field. I don’t mind a guy like that, although that kind of guy is not going to be as valuable as a Ted Williams or a Bonds or a Pujols.
Many of them fall into the category of singles contact hitter guys. I’d expect this kind of guy to make a run for .400. Of the hitters who have hit more than .370 over the last 40 years, the "outliers" are Bonds and Galarraga. Bonds for obvious reasons. Galarraga is a guy who had that ONE high average season. He is sort of makes the case that we don’t really know who that next .400 guy is going to be. Galarraga did not hit over .300 the year before he hit .370, the only guy like that in the last 40 years. Another thing Galarraga did is play for Colorado, like Larry Walker and Todd Helton. I’m starting to believe the next .400 hitter might play for the Rockies.
Joe Mauer is an interesting case. He is about the right age, and he bats lefty and he keeps his yearly number of ABs down with injuries and walks. But he plays catcher and he plays in a pitcher’s park now. When I look at his games by position, he tends to catch about 100 games, and DH in another 20 and miss the rest. I think for him to really make a run at .400 he might need to be playing another position. I know when I caught it was tough to have a good 3rd or 4th AB in a game, just because of all the fatigue of catching.
What I learned making this table is that the top 3 single season average guys in my lifetime, Gwynn, Brett and Carew were obvious. The 4th best guy surprised me, Larry Walker. I didn’t notice that he hit .379 one year. In addition to that, in the year before his best year he hit .363, he ranked the highest in that stat. He put up some monster years, and I believe Coors Field had an effect.
I tried to find out what these 13 hitters had in common. I’m not sure about the idea that I can make conclusions about what a bunch of statistical outliers have in common, but there are some obvious trends. Some conclusions: The next guy to make a run at .400 should bat left handed, be in his late 20s, play a corner infield position or outfield, and nullify ABs with walks and/or injuries. The year before he hits above .370 he should hit around .330. He should hit above .350 about 3 times in his career. With 3 of the 9 guys to hit over .370 in the last 40 years coming from Colorado, it would probably help if this guy played in Colorado. You know who so far fits ALL these criteria? Carlos Gonzalez. A couple more years above .330 and he looks like a viable .370 hitter.
It would be fair to critique this post as not "who is the next .400 hitter", but "who is the next guy to go over .370". But I thought it was better to look at this data than the data from the 20’s when a bunch of guys hit over .400 but the game was so different. When Williams did it in ‘41 it had already been 11 years since someone had hit .400. He was already an outlier. Hitting .388 at 38 in 1957 might be more amazing.
Sadly, there are no current Athletics on my list. I blame our foul ground. I was trying to find some reason to believe it could be Daric Barton or Ryan Sweeney, but at least now I don’t see it. But they are both young enough, they play the right positions, first they each need a nice .330 season.