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The Chase for .400 is (Kind of) On

 

Never mind no one’s come within 40 points of finishing a season at a Williamsian level in the last decade. In 2020, someone taking a serious run at one of baseball’s most coveted numbers is more complicated than current batting average trends.

By: Kevin Chroust, Bryan Holcomb, Lucas Haupt

The Arizona Diamondbacks were 20 games out of first place and 5 ½ back in the wild card when Ketel Marte singled to left in the bottom of the third inning of a 12-6 home loss to Miami on September 17. It didn’t mean a thing.

That may still be the case. But the breakout MVP candidate’s last plate appearance of the 2019 season helps frame a question it seems we can only seriously ask in modern baseball when the potential structure of the coming season is as fantastical as the idea of someone doing something that hasn’t happened in nearly 80 years.

That single put Marte’s June through September home batting average at exactly .400.

That’s Scenario 1.

Scenario 2: On Oct. 2, 2016, Joey Votto went 1-for-4 in a 7-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs for a Reds team that lost 94 games. An eighth-inning groundout dropped his average in his final 81 games of the season to exactly .400.

Scenario 3 doesn’t need to be as cute: Ichiro Suzuki hit .423 from July 1 on in 2004.

At first, we thought players might be spending their entire 2020 season hitting in similar conditions. Regardless of geography, we’re now looking at every player having a significantly shortened season with the summer months dominating the schedule. Might those of us non-octogenarians finally live through the day-to-day excitement of checking the morning paper’s box score our phone notifications as the chase for .400 plays out in September? One can hope. But one can also put numbers on it.

The Historical Reality of Batting .400 & The (Sorry) State of Contemporary Batting Average

Quoting Stats Perform MLB analyst Lucas Haupt when conceiving this story: “If only we could find Willians Astudillo a full-time job.”

That is to say: Batting average has for at least a decade become less of a priority, and valuing those who don’t strike out is a thing of the past. Teams are instructing players on how to better hit balls over fences, not between infielders or to the opposite field, and this has helped turn the chase for .400 into even more of a fairytale.

The best single-season batting average since Josh Hamilton hit .359 in 2010 was DJ LeMahieu’s .348 mark in 2016. Tim Anderson’s MLB-leading .335 mark in 2019 was the worst single-season league high (fractionally worse than Derrek Lee’s 2005 .335) since Eddie Murray hit .330 in 1990.

The league-wide strikeout rate has increased every year dating to 2008 and the swing-and-miss percentage has increased each year since 2010, so we’ve got fewer balls in play and a lower likelihood of these guys lucking into a few hits a week.

This matters because it’s historically supported that players who strike out with any regularity have no practical chance of hitting .400. There have been nine individual seasons in the live-ball era of qualifying players batting .400 or higher, accomplished by six individuals. Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby did it three times with the best average. He’s also the only player on the list to accomplish the feat with a strikeout rate of at least 7%:

Live-Ball Era K% of .400 Hitters

SeasonPlayerAVGK%
1941Ted Williams, Bos.4064.5
1930Bill Terry, NYG.4014.6
1925Rogers Hornsby, StL.4036.4
1924Rogers Hornsby, StL.4245.0
1923Harry Heilmann, Det.4036.4
1922George Sisler, StL.4202.1
1922Ty Cobb, Det.4013.9
1922Rogers Hornsby, StL.4017.1
1920George Sisler, StL.4072.7

So here’s our real problem: All these guys are dead. No one swinging a baseball bat on Planet Earth right now is striking out at any of those rates. In 2019, among qualifying batters, cracking the 10% mark was less common than sprinters cracking the 10-second 100 meters:

2019 Qualifying Batters Lowest K Rate

PlayerAVGK%
Hanser Alberto, Bal.3059.1
David Fletcher, LAA.2909.8
Michael Brantley, Hou.31110.4
Yuli Gurriel, Hou.29810.6
Kevin Newman, Pit.30811.7
Miguel Rojas, Mia.28411.8
Jean Segura, Phi.28011.8
Josh Reddick, Hou.27512.0
Alex Bregman, Hou.29612.0
Adam Frazier, Pit.27812.3

Luis Arraez hit .334 and had a 7.9% K rate, though his 366 plate appearances weren’t enough to make him a qualifying batter. But the idea of what constitutes a qualifying batter in 2020 is something we’ll come back to.

If we look back to the last players to strike out at Williams’ level, we have to go back to the turn of the millennium in a peak offensive era when contact hitting still mattered. And even then, we’re looking at a sample of five players, and four of them are related:

Last 5 Players to Strike Out at Rate of 4.5% or Lower

SeasonPlayerAVGK%
2001Juan Pierre, Col.3274.2
1998Tony Gwynn, SD.3213.6
1997Tony Gwynn, SD.3724.3
1995Tony Gwynn, SD.3682.6
1994Tony Gwynn, SD.3944.0

So no, these aren’t exactly trends that foreshadow the second-coming of Hornsby. But his era was particularly ripe for high batting averages, and players cared about contact. Player trends, though, are only part of this. We can’t settle for looking at the Jose Altuves and Charlie Blackmons of the world only in recent historical context because we’ve never had a season quite like 2020 is shaping up.

If 2020 is guaranteed to be one thing, it’s an anomaly in baseball history, so we’ve got to try to measure and compare it as such.

The Impossible Is Less Impossible Over 80 Games

Now that we’ve done everything we can to destroy our premise, it’s time to repair it as best we can and make the argument for why this could actually happen.

There are a number of factors to consider, some of which would be more relevant if MLB were to reverse course and elect to have certain teams play almost entirely in Arizona and Florida. We’re going to focus on those that have to do with the length of the season and the months in which it will be played. But average is average, right? So why would a shortened season matter?

Recall: Ichiro hit .423 from July 1 to the end of the 2004 season. That’s 51 points higher than his best single-season average, but it’s also a more accurate representation of what this season will look like.

Somewhat contemporarily, we think of the pursuit of .400 with Tony Gwynn and George Brett as examples. We tend to recall Gwynn hit .394 in a strike-shortened 1994 season. He played in 110 games. But Brett also played a shorter season when he hit .390 in 1980. He missed a month of the season and played in 117 games. Ted Williams played in 143 in 1941 when he hit .406 in a 154-game season (though his 606 plate appearances would have still qualified him for the batting title even in a 162-game season). But no player has seriously flirted with .400 while playing closer to full season as we know it in the 162-game context. There’s a much smaller sample size of players, but among those who have played in 160 games, Todd Helton (2000) and Ichiro (2004) share the all-time mark at .372.

Say MLB teams were to play half of that in an 80-game regular season. That means leaders will only need 248 plate appearances to officially qualify for the batting title. This is significant because the probably of batting .400 goes up as at-bats go down. Using binomial distributions, a .350 hitter would have about a 7% chance of batting .400 over 225 at-bats and roughly a 1% chance with 500. A .333 hitter would have about a 2% chance over 225 ABs.

This is what the probabilities look like for three different averages between 200 and 500 at-bats:

Probability of Batting .400

AB.300 Batter.333 Batter.350 Batter
2000.0016370.0283600.080470
2250.0008840.0212410.067492
2500.0004790.0159750.056808
3000.0001010.0084350.039616
3500.0000290.0047930.028382
4000.0000080.0027440.020469
4500.0000020.0015810.014840
5000.0000010.0009150.010805

You’ll occasionally hear someone say Gwynn would have done it in ’94 if they’d kept playing. That is of course possible, but math says otherwise. The longer you try to maintain something that is improbable, the less likely it becomes that you’ll succeed in beating the odds. So it makes sense that we’re continually let down after getting our hopes up for a .400 season:

Latest Date Hitting .400+ Since 1969

(Batting title qualifiers only; latest date for each player)
DatePlayerPlayer GamesAB ThruH ThruAVGK% ThruTotal K%
9/4/1980George Brett, KC99384154.4013.94.3
8/2/1993John Olerud, Tor105365146.4008.29.6
7/20/2000 (Game 1)Nomar Garciaparra, Bos75278112.4037.98.3
7/17/1997Larry Walker, Col92343138.40212.813.6
7/14/1997Tony Gwynn, SD87356143.4023.34.3
7/13/1983Rod Carew, Cal64254102.4028.29.0
7/10/1977Rod Carew, Min81317127.4017.97.9
7/5/1993Andres Galarraga, Col64255102.40014.014.4

It’s fun to look back on seasons like the above eight, but one thing we shouldn’t ignore is how we just can’t seem to find someone within the last 20 years that’s made a compelling case for .400.

That changes if we get more specific to the 2020 reality and look at 80-game spans rather than how long from the start of the season to the end of the season a player was able to maintain a .400 average. The average games played for those eight situations is 83.4, and all of those players were 80 team games into their season at the last point they were batting .400.

Let’s now look at the most recent single-season individual 80-game spans:

Most Recent 80-Game Spans with .400+ Batting Avg. & 248+ Plate Appearances

SeasonPlayerAVGDatesPA
2016Joey Votto, Cin.4026/30 - 10/1348
2010 Josh Hamilton, Tex.4016/6 - 10/3339
2007Chone Figgins, LAA.4016/1 - 9/18363
2004Ichiro Suzuki, Sea.4267/7 - 10/3378
2000Todd Helton, Col.4025/27 - 8/21348
2000Nomar Garciaparra, Bos.4004/17 - 8/06342
1997Tony Gwynn, SD.4014/11 - 7/16361
1997Larry Walker, Col.4014/14 - 7/15352
1994Tony Gwynn, SD.4014/21 - 7/22347
1993John Olerud, Tor.4015/14 - 8/10346
1985Wade Boggs, Bos.4027/7 - 10/3376
1980George Brett, KC.4286/2 - 10/4361
1977Rod Carew, Min.4064/17 - 7/21358
1969Roberto Clemente, Pit.4015/29 - 08/28329

If we had 80-game seasons every year, we wouldn’t be writing this article because someone almost certainly would have followed Williams to .400 already.

Votto has done it within the last four seasons, but it’s important to note the improbability of one of these spans occurring. Dating to 1969, there have been 141 instances of 80-game stretches on which a player hit .400 or better. That seems like a lot. It’s not. It’s taken 624,210 individual single-season spans in which a player had 248+ plate appearances for that to happen, so 0.226%. But that’s considering 80-game individual stretches. For more accurate numbers for the 2020 reality, we should look at 80-game team spans.

If we consider qualifying batters over spans of 80 team games dating to 1969, 0.0349% (210 of 601,560) have had a .400 average or better. Keep in mind, this includes various overlapping 80-game spans for single players in a traditional baseball season. But this still isn’t specific enough. Because league-wide batting average increases after April and May, we need to consider the time of year.

Starting July 1, there have been 28 instances of .400 or better from 39,299 qualifying spans over 80 team games in the last 50 years. That’s 0.0712%. And keep in mind, this percentage includes all qualifying hitters, not just hitters we’d deem to have a chance at batting .400.

Based on a historical half-season estimation of 185 qualifying batters at 248 plate appearances, this collective group would have a 1.5% chance of producing a .400 hitter in 2020.

It’s encouraging to see that there is actually a chance of this happening, and it for some might be more tangible because of recent history such as Votto’s 2016 finish. But we’ve been ignoring something obvious for 2,000 words now.

The league batting average in 1941 – the last season a qualifying player finished at or above .400 – was .262, and the last time we surpassed that league-wide average was 2008 (.264). Of the seasons dating to 1941 in which the league average was .262 or above, these are the league-wide batting champs:

MLB Batting Champs Since 1941 with League Average of .262 or Higher

SeasonMLB AVGBatting ChampionAVGPlayers .350/+
1999.271Larry Walker, Col.3792
2000.270Todd Helton, Col.3725
1996.270Alex Rodriguez, Sea.3581
1994.270Tony Gwynn, SD.3945
2006.269Joe Mauer, Min.3470
2007.268Magglio Ordonez, Det.3632
1995.267Tony Gwynn, SD.3682
1997.267Tony Gwynn, SD.3723
1998.266Larry Walker, Col.3632
2004.266Ichiro Suzuki, Sea.3722
1950.266Billy Goodman, Bos.3541
1979.265Keith Hernandez, StL.3440
1993.265Andres Galarraga, Col.3703
1980.265George Brett, KC.3902
2005.264Derrek Lee, ChC.3350
1953.264Carl Furillo, Bro.3440
2003.264Albert Pujols, StL.3592
1977.264Rod Carew, Min.3881
2001.264Larry Walker, Col.3502
2008.264Chipper Jones, Atl.3642
1948.263Stan Musial, StL.3763
1987.263Tony Gwynn, SD.3703
1949.263George Kell, Det.3430
1941.262Ted Williams, Bos.4063
2009.262Joe Mauer, Min.3652

This is to say Ted Williams was not like his contemporaries, but also that no one since the Red Sox left fielder has been able to distance himself from the pack quite like he did. Without a Williamsian variance or an Ichiro-like presence in baseball, we probably need a significant boost in league average to have a run at this.

But there is a bit of encouragement in that shortened 1994 season. Yes, Gwynn hit .394, but it’s also worth noting that five players hit .350 or better. This makes mathematical sense given what we learned about binomial distributions above. It’s also interesting to note the league-wide average in the shortened season jumped to .270 from .259 in 1990-93. We could say this was the start of the offensive boom – and there would be truth in that – but that’s a sharp increase and would be ignoring the fact that it did drop slightly to .268 over the next three seasons. Again, sample size matters.

Now, the 2019 league-wide batting average was .252, which is another step in the wrong direction. The league-wide average from July 1 on was .257.

Possibly a better way to look at this is with AVG+, which can be used to calculate the percent departure a player is from the league average. It uses 100 as a baseline and either adds or subtracts from that the percentage above or below the league average for a given timeframe. If we look at AVG+ for 80-game spans beginning July 1 or later and assume last season’s .257 average from July 1 is a good baseline, we find that a player would need an AVG+ of 155.6 or higher to bat .400. So how common is this historically? In the last 50 years, we have a two-man list over 155:

80-Game AVG+ of 155 or Higher Beginning July 1 or Later

(Excludes players' overlapping spans at or above 155 and displays date of highest AVG+)
SeasonPlayerAVGMLB AVGAVG+Dates
2004Ichiro Suzuki, Sea.429.270158.87/8 - 10/3
1980George Brett, KC.424.269157.67/5 - 10/1

Even Williams in 1941 would have been fractionally under 155. So regardless of league average, it takes a truly historic departure from the norm to even approach .400. But if 2020 is guaranteed to be an anomaly, is it really such a stretch to think anomalies won’t come from that?

The Florida and Arizona Project

When we conceived the idea for this piece back in April, it seemed like a very real possibility we’d be playing the regular season in non-traditional parks. MLB has moved away from that, but local governments are going to have the final say on whether baseball is played in their cities, states or countries (Canada), which means we still may have certain teams moving homes.

With that, here’s how we’d project a total shift back to Arizona and Florida leagues to impact offense. A lot goes into this, including park dimensions, temperature, humidity, elevation and historical performance:

LeaguexAVGxOBPxSLGxOPSxISOxK%
Cactus.267.337.462.798.19521.6
Grapefruit.255.324.437.760.18222.2

Not surprisingly, the conditions in Arizona are more in line with an offensive spike. To compare it to recent history, a shortened Cactus League setup would potentially bump batting average 15 points from last season’s .252 mark (which interestingly was up from .248 in 2018). Last year’s K rate was 22.4%, so we’d likely see a dip there.

Recall we stated there’s a 1.5% chance of someone batting .400 in 2020. That’s assuming teams play in their traditional parks. If we rewind a few weeks and were to play in a Cactus League environment, that increases to 6.9%.

And because the Cactus League AVG+ equivalent would be 150, we’d have more qualifying spans in the last 50 years. Namely, we’d have Wade Boggs, Votto, Gwynn and Barry Bonds added to the list of Ichiro and Brett:

80-Game AVG+ of 150 or Higher Beginning July 1 or Later

(Excludes players' overlapping spans at or above 150 and displays date of highest AVG+)
SeasonPlayerAVGMLB AVGAVG+Dates
2004Ichiro Suzuki, Sea.429.270158.87/8 - 10/3
1980George Brett, KC.424.269157.67/5 - 10/1
1985Wade Boggs, Bos.409.265154.37/5 - 9/29
2016Joey Votto, Cin.397.258153.87/2 - 10/1
1993Tony Gwynn, SD.410.270151.77/2 - 9/28
2002Barry Bonds, SF.404.267151.47/2 - 9/28

This list of course makes us question whether we have a player who fits this profile in Major League Baseball at the moment. It makes one wonder what those players in their prime would do in 2020. But it also makes one wonder who might step up and take us for wild, if asterisked, ride.

As for the obvious names, Jose Altuve’s a .359 July hitter since 2014, and his .388 July average last season wasn’t even in the top five, so we might have something intriguing to follow by August. Mookie Betts has hit .342 from July on the last two seasons. Christian Yelich hit .400 in July 2018 and .357 from July 1 on.

Tim Anderson hit .357 from July 1 on his way to the 2019 batting title, but he also struck out in 21.1% of those plate appearances. Could Anthony Rendon make a run at it in his new park? What about Ketel Marte after his breakout 2019 in which he hit .356 with a 12% K rate from July 1 on?

Or is it someone less recognizable like Hanser Alberto or Jesse Winker or Luis Arraez? Arraez hit .334 in his first MLB season. The Twins second baseman struck out 7.9% of the time. Sure, that was in 92 games, but in 2020, that’s more than enough to make us wonder and more than enough to count.