The Next .400 Hitter

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?

:rolleyes: Keep an eye on the pitching. Sheesh.

I think if Darin Erstad of the Anaheim Angels would have a good chance if he wasn’t batting leadoff and had some other guys around him, but he doesn’t, so he’s out.

With the addition of Ramirez to the Red Sox that might have improved Garciaparra’s chances.

Since Todd Helton plays in Colorado and that helps him, big time.

I don’t think Brett played the whole season when he hit .394.

Like fatherjohn said, with the way pitching is these days, you’d think someone would have done it by now.

I’ve have a feeling that Helton will be the next hitter to attain the .400 mark.

Joe Shlabotnik!

Don’t worry, if we ever get in danger of having another .400 hitter, Major League Baseball will raise the mound or widen the strike zone or tweak the rules in some other way to ensure that it will never happen.

You missed Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 in 1968.

Something happened to offense in 1988 and 1989; it just dropped like a stone all over the major leagues. I challenge you to find an American League player in the entire league in 1989 who would stand a 50/50 chance of making an All-Star team today with the same hitting stats.

Mark McGwire strikes out a HUGE amount. In 1998 he whiffed 155 times; in 1999 he whiffed 141 times, and this past year he whiffed 78 times in only half a season. McGwire is the purest home run hitter in major league history; he either walks, strikes out, or hits a home run more than just about anyone.

And Sammy Sosa’s on base percentages have been very good since his 66-homer year. In fact, Sammy always had trouble with his plate discipline before he had the 66-homer season; in 1998 he consciously tried to be more disciplined at the plate and started walking more. His OBP went up, and so too did his home runs. Not a coincidence. He still strikes out a lot, but it’s a product of taking more pitches, not swinging at anything with stitches. This past year he got his OBP up to .406 - not McGwiresque, but still outstanding for a guy with his awesome power. Actually, you could probably argue that Sammy’s 2000 season was better than his 66-homer season; he hit 16 fewer homers, but he hit 18 more doubles and got on base a lot more.

Oh, hell yes. Todd Helton could do it. Larry Walker could do it. ANYONE in Coors could do it. Nomar could do it. All it takes is a really good year and some luck.

Every time I scan through GD, this thread trips me up because, at a quick glance, it looks like “The Next .400 Hitler.”

Damn you, RickJay! I was just going to make the same points about McGwire and Sosa re: strikeouts and OBP.

Also known on Baseball Prospectus, of course, as the Three True Outcomes; epitomized in the past by Rob Deer and in the future by Russ Branyan. :slight_smile:

Dignan:

There’ve been a couple studies done which show that having additional protection in a lineup does not measurably increase a batter’s statistics.

If you mean George Brett when he hit .390, he had 515 plate appearances and 449 at-bats, but did only play in 117 games.

If you mean Tony Gwynn when he hit .394, the season was strike-shortened, but he played in 110 games. (Cal Ripken, by comparison, played in 112.)

Cervaise:

When discussing surprising leaders, let’s not forget Terry Pendleton’s league-leading mark of .319 in 1991 which, along with a whopping 22 home runs and 86 RBI (and .880 OPS, if you’re grooved on that kind of thing), was good enough to garner him the NL MVP.

As for the OP, I think several people might do it if playing for the Rockies–Ramirez, Garciaparra, and Carlos Delgado, for example. With the way things stand now, though, I’d agree that Helton’s got the best shot. The guy’s only 27. I’m still waiting to see the extent to which last year was an outlier for Darin Erstad. Anaheim’s stadium, however, is a pretty neutral hitting park relative to the rest of the league.

For what he’s getting paid, it had better be A-Rod.

There was an excellent essay on this topic by Stephen Jay Gould in his book Full House. He claims that nobody will ever attain an average > .400 again because of variance collapse. That is, the batters who did hit over .400 did so at a time when the best batters were several standard deviations from the mean, and at a time when defense was not as productive as it is now. The best batters are now not as far from the mean (as are the worst) and defense is statistically better than it was. His conclusions may or may not be correct, but it’s an excellent read nonetheless.

Gadarene:

Rest assured, the minute the Indians trade him, he will go on to bat .380 with 55 HR and an OBP of .425. The Curse of Colavito lives on in many subtle ways.

Plus, after reading Stephen J. Gould’s Full House, you will be overcome with the urge to tear your own hair out if you ever hear the words “Right Wall” again.

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Right Wall.

Right wall right wall right wall right wall right wall.
[sub]Nyeah.[/sub]

Well, I certainly respect the point about the curse of Colavito. But Branyan is more likely to hit 80 homers than he is to hit .380. He might, however, strike out 38 percent of the time. Possibly more than that.

Guy does have prodigious power, though.

Re the OP, I’d have to guess Helton, but if you put Helton anywhere but Colorado, he wouldn’t be in my top 10 most likely hitters to hit .400.

I have no statistical basis for my belief, but I think that, for a hitter to have a chance to hit .400, he has to walk a fair amount. It’s probably easier for a hitter to get 200 hits in 500 at bats with 125 walks than for him to get 240 hits in 600 at bats with 25 walks.

I think Manny Ramirez could do it if he were in Colorado. Helton might. Nomar might, but the low walk rate concerns me. Same for Vladimir Guerrero. I don’t see Delgado as likely (strikes out too much. I realize that Manny also strikes out a lot, but my belief that Manny is more likely than Carlos is intuitive).

Total dark horses: Edgardo Alfonzo, Luis Castillo, Rafael Furcal.

How likely is it that someone will do it? I think it’s tied to offensive levels (runs per game): If offensive levels stay where they are, and a hitter who hit .350 or higher outside of Colorado signs with the Rockies, the .400 barrier will be broken. I’d say there’s an outside chance it will happen anyway if offensive levels stay where they are.

Defense? Are you sure you don’t mean pitching? Defense doesn’t matter that much in baseball.

I’ve seen this argument before, and it’s pretty good. For the non-mathematically inclined, consider this analogy:

You take 10 of the best hitters and 10 of the best pitchers in the game, and stick 'em in the minors. Odds are that they’ll all hit 400 with 80 homers (for hitters) or strikeout 400 men with an ERA under 1 (for pitchers). This is because everyone else pretty much stinks, and the 10 great hitters face the 10 great pitchers only once in a blue moon.

Essentially, baseball 60-100 years ago was like this: everyone stunk, except for a few greats. The great players stood out even more due to everyone else’s general suckiness.

But I’m pretty sure it has to be pitching, not defense.

As for the next 400 hitter? Nomar’s pretty young and talented, but he’s already got more seasons under his belt than Williams did when he hit 400. If someone does hit 400, it will be much more impressive than it was 60+ years ago, a time when you could do it and not win the MVP award (Williams), or even the batting title (Jackson & Cobb).

Your general premise is true, but even within your own parameters, baseball 100 years ago differed a bit from baseball 60 years ago. And defense is an important component of that; after all, improved defense means fewer base hits regardless of pitching skill.

Take the Indians as an example–their pitching staff had a combined ERA of 4.84 in 2000, 8th of 14 teams in the AL. Their fielders, OTOH, had the fewest errors in either league (72). Their defense, despite the mediocre pitching, saved a lot of potential runs and allowed them to compile the third-best record in the league, better than the Yankees (.556 vs. .540 winning percentage). Cleveland had three Gold Glove winners in 2000 (more than any other team), all in the infield (2B, 3B and SS). If balls aren’t getting through the infield, runners aren’t getting on base.

I think you’re underestimating the effect of defense on preventing runs. Great pitchers might make defense less relevant (although not wholly irrelevant–even Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson need good fielders), but great defense can make bad pitching better.

Well, for one, the biggest all or nothing hitter in baseball was Dave Kingman. Now as to hitting .400… I agree Helton and Nomar are the best bets so far. It will have to be someone with a good eye and puts the ball in play consistantly. Have you checked out Ted Williams’ strikeout to walk ratio?

In 6677 career at-bats, Dave Kingman hit 442 home runs and struck out 1816 times. 33.8 percent of his at-bats resulted in a tater or a whiff. In contrast, Rob Deer had 3881 career at-bats, in which he hit 230 home runs and struck out 1409 times. That’s 42.2 percent.

Projecting Deer’s numbers into Kingman’s at-bats, by the way, comes to 395 home runs and 2424 strikeouts.

Oh, and in his short career, Russ Branyan has either struck out or homered in 48.2 percent of his at-bats. Just wait till he leaves Cleveland though, right, Phil? :slight_smile: