Okay, enough about states’ rights and evolution and Cabinet appointments and all that high-falutin’ crap. As we wait to see if Ted Williams will recover from heart surgery, let’s talk about something really important.
When, if ever, will we get another .400 hitter?
In the last fifty years, the top batting average seems to hover around an average of .360 or so, but ranges up and down quite a bit. Unless I missed something, the AL range is a low of .316 (Robinson, 1966) to a high of .390 (Brett, 1980), while the NL range is from .313 (Gwynn, 1988) up to the near-miss .394 (Gwynn again, 1994). A cursory glance suggests averages have been creeping up overall in the same period. This past season, the AL and NL champs were tied at .372 (Garciaparra and Helton).
(Gwynn’s '94 mark is within spitting distance of the magic .400 level. Assuming an average number of AB’s and walks, he fell short by about one extra hit every fourth game. Ouch.)
(BTW, what the hell’s up with .313 being the NL-best mark in 1988? I’m glad my Mariners are an AL club, even if they did stink back then (68-93 in '88). If every single player on every team I saw was at .313 or less, I think I would’ve stuck my head in an oven. Anyway…)
Much has been written about the new trend toward high-scoring games with lots of offense. You can blame the ball, saying it’s got extra zip; you can talk about the owners futzing with game mechanics, such as lowering the mound; you can talk about how expansion has thinned the pitching pool and made it easier for hitters to make contact.
Of course, you have to ask why averages dropped below .400 in the first place. There’s a fair number of .400-plus marks from 1910-1930, then Williams set the last one in 1941 – and since then, nothing. Lately, there’s lots of blame on expansion (again) making players tired, especially those on the West Coast who regularly have to fight the time zones. Purists will also complain about night games and visibility. It’s an endless (though entertaining) debate.
In the last few seasons, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa handily breaking Maris’s supposedly insurmountable HR record showed what hitters can do if they single-mindedly apply themselves. (The difference between them, of course, is that Sosa regularly K’s himself, while McGwire has a pretty good OBP.) What would happen if a player came along and dedicated himself the same way McGwire has, except to knocking out singles and the occasional double? Maybe you take an outstanding technical hitter, like Edgar Martinez, and you put him on a team with a “hot” park, like the Rockies. 'Course, the DH thing would be an issue with that particular example, but you get the idea.
Now that the HR record has fallen, is the .400 milestone the next great achievement waiting to happen? How likely is it? Are there any current players who have a shot at it? Will something major have to happen – say, another expansion round that further dilutes the pitching pool – before this becomes realistic?