Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Fine Art of Hitting .400

Nearly seven decades have passed since the last time a major league baseball player hit .400 over the course of a full season, but the number remains one of the most respected milestones in all of sports. Part of its magical nature stems from the fact that the feat has not been accomplished since 1941, a gap in which our nation and our world has changed immeasurably, but it has also become an important part of American sports because the last player to reach it was Ted Williams, who grew that summer from a lanky kid with unlimited potential to a player perched on the doorstep of immortality. Though Williams had enjoyed one of the best rookie seasons in history two years earlier and went on to win two Triple Crowns, two Most Valuable Player awards, six batting titles, and the unofficial title of “greatest hitter who ever lived”, it was in 1941 that he first announced – through his actions, ironically, in lieu of his usual deafening verbal pronouncements – his intention to one day be counted among the all-time greats of the game.

The legend surrounding Williams’ .406 average grows with every passing season. Each spring, baseball fans maintain a careful watch on the league leaders, hoping that this is one of those special years in which one player – maybe an up and coming youngster like Howie Kendrick, maybe a seasoned pro like Ichiro – defies statistical law and keeps his average at an astronomical level as the summer arrives. That dream has usually died by the time the All-Star break rolls around in mid-July, but sometimes we get a special treat; sometimes that player doesn’t hit the mid-season wall, doesn’t run into that killer 2-24 slump that dampens the spirit, cuts twenty points off his average and requires almost superhuman effort to get back to .400, and continues to push the mark that has come to represent the upper limits of human ability. We have seen eight of these prolonged runs since 1941, including seven in the last thirty years. Logic says it is just a matter of time until someone finally catches that unique combination of luck and skill necessary to get over the hump.

Some of the eight close calls since 1941 – in 1957, 1977, 1980, 1993, 1994, 1997 and two in 2000 – were compiled by players who were supposed to hit .400, guys like Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, and Nomar Garciaparra, while attempts by the likes of John Olerud, Larry Walker and Todd Helton were more unexpected. The failure of any player, expected or not, to put together a .400 average lends credence to the idea that trying to determine who specifically will be the next player to hit .400 is a futile task. A better and more productive use of time is to determine the type of player who is most likely to post a future .400 average by studying three major groups of hitters: the thirteen .400 seasons of the modern era (1901-1941), the four times since Williams in which players have come within eight hits (a .388 average or higher) and the four times in which players have maintained a mark above .400 as far as mid-season. Trends were noted in all three categories in order to assemble profiles for both the individual who might hit .400 and the situation in which it might occur.

Between 1901 and 1941, eight different players hit .400 a total of thirteen times. It is often viewed as an achievement from the Deadball Era, when the focus was less on homeruns and more on “small ball”, but that was clearly not the case: eight of the thirteen .400 seasons took place during the Babe Ruth-led offensive explosion of the 1920s. The average season for a .400 hitter from that time period looks like this:

NameBServAgeGABRH2B3BHRRBISBBBBAOBPSLGTBOPSPA
AverageL8.15271445601312304315191152864.410.475.6433601.118641

This average consists of a small sample size, but is telling nonetheless, providing a number of general probabilities upon which a reasonable profile can be based. It tells us, for example, that the average .400 hitter was a left-handed hitter; that he was a relatively young man, but was already an experienced major league player; that he piled up a lot of hits, but did not draw very many walks; and that despite the perception of a .400 average as the domain of singles hitters, he put up significant power numbers (just look at the slugging percentage and imagine that history has turned those triples into homeruns).

One item that won’t show up in any line of statistics is the fact that of the eight members of the .400 club, seven are in the Hall of Fame. The only player who needs to pay $9.50 to get in, as the good folks at Baseball Truth would say, is Joe Jackson, who was banned in 1920 for his involvement in the Black Sox scandal of the previous year. Still, Jackson’s play on the diamond during his thirteen-year career proved that he deserved a place in Cooperstown, meaning that for all intents and purposes, a .400 batting average is as much a guarantee for induction as 500 homeruns, 3,000 hits or 300 wins.

What does this tell us? Only that .400 seasons, to date, have not been fluke occurrences – every player who currently has one on his resume, even the lesser known such as Harry Heilmann and Bill Terry, is regarded as one of the best ever to step into a batter’s box. (Heilmann deserves mention as possibly the least known great hitter in baseball history. In addition to his .403 average in 1923, he hit .393 or better on three other occasions, including a .398 mark in 1927. Just one more hit that year would have given him a second .400 season.) This is not always the case with those who have made a run at .400 since Williams last accomplished the feat in 1941. All four who came the closest since that year are in the Hall of Fame, but none of the four who carried a .400 average into late July and beyond are likely to join them (Hall of Famer George Brett is actually a member of both groups – when he hit .390 in 1980, he was at .400 as late as September 19). The following two statistical lines show the average seasons of the first group and the second group:

Average (Group A – closest since 1941)

Name B Serv Ag G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB BA OBP SLG TB OPS PA
Average L 12 32.5 129 476 98 186 34 7 22 92 11 74 .391 .471 .628 299 1.099 558

Average (Group B - above .400 later than July 18, includes Todd Helton and George Brett)

Name B Serv Ag G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB BA OBP SLG TB OPS PA
Average L 6.2 26.6 146 535 116 199 49 4 32 120 12 83 .372 .456 .658 352 1.114 631

It is obvious from the stat lines for Group A and Group B that aside from being primarily left-handed, the players who make up each of these groups could not have been more different. The players in Group A, for instance, had played nearly four years longer and were more than five years older than their early 20th century counterparts. Only two of the thirteen members of the .400 club were older than thirty (Ty Cobb was 35 and Bill Terry was 31), while three out of the four members of Group A above had passed that age (Ted Williams was 38, Tony Gwynn was 34 and Rod Carew was 31).

Group A members are also notable in that their averages were lower than the .400 hitters in every statistical category except homeruns and base on balls. This is because of the four players in the group, only Rod Carew came close to playing a full season, missing just seven games when he hit .388 in 1977. The other three were sidelined for an average of forty games due to age, injury and labor discord.

The most startling aspect of this group is how close they came to hitting .400. In the 1988 film “Bull Durham”, journeyman minor leaguer Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) explained that the difference between hitting .250 and hitting .300 (the difference between a lifetime on minor league buses and a lifetime in five star hotels, in his eyes) was twenty-five hits a season, which worked out to about one hit a week over the course of a season. The players in this group didn’t even need that much. Gwynn, the closest of the four, hit .394 (165-for-419) in 1994; just three more hits (just three more gorks, ground balls with eyes, or dying quails, according to Davis) would have made history. Brett and Williams were also close, needing only five hits to join the select club (Williams would have become only the fourth player to hit .400 at least twice), while Carew came within eight.

The players in Group B, on the other hand, were more similar to .400 hitters in terms of age (26.6) and experience (6.2). They missed an average of sixteen game per season (a figure greatly dragged down by Brett’s 117 games played in 1980), stole far fewer bases and scored fewer runs, but walked more and provided nearly identical marks in total bases, OPS and runs batted in. With that said, while all five players who challenged .400 into late July were successful hitters for many years, Brett is and will likely remain the only Hall of Famer of the group. This is largely a matter of luck and circumstance: Nomar Garciaparra was on the fast track for Cooperstown before suffering through several injury marred seasons, while Larry Walker and Todd Helton enjoyed their best years with the Colorado Rockies and will forever be considered “Coors Creations”. An interesting dilemma, however, is to consider what might have happened to the careers of each of those players if they had managed to seal the deal and hit .400: the voting rules for the Hall of Fame specifically prohibit election of a player based on a single outstanding game or season (that’s why Don Larsen and Roger Maris don’t have plaques there), but none of the four are enough of a long-shot that a single .400 season couldn’t have meant the difference between being in and being out.

An interesting aspect of these three groups is the fact that the members are generally very distinct; there is rarely a significant gray area. Although the sample sizes are admittedly small, they allow for the development of a clear profile for future .400 hitters. Using the statistical data available, the following profile for the next .400 hitter can be assembled:

He will bat left-handed: Five of the eight previous .400 hitters were left-handed and accounted for eight of the thirteen .400 seasons. Two of the three men who had more than one such season were lefties (Ty Cobb and George Sisler), while Rogers Hornsby alone had three of the five seasons by a right-handed hitter. Of the eight players who have made a serious and extended run at .400 since 1941, seven have been left-handed hitters – only Nomar Garciaparra was right-handed.

He will be a veteran player just entering his prime: Six of the eight .400 hitters were between the ages of 21 and 30, while only two players – Cobb (35), who could hit .350 in his sleep, and Terry (31), who accomplished the feat in one of the best league-wide offensive seasons ever – were past thirty. Eight seasons came between the fifth and eighth career seasons for the individual player. This rule also holds true for the players who had .400 averages later than July 18, but not, interestingly, for those who have pushed that mark the hardest since 1941.

In terms of experience and age, the players who came the closest to .400 in terms of average and the players who were above .400 at the latest date were completely opposite. Three of the four men who hit .388 or higher were 31 or older and had played ten or more major league seasons when they made their run (only the 27-year-old Brett, who was in his eighth season, was younger), while of the five who stayed above .400 the longest (Brett is the sole player to be a part of both groups), four were between the ages of 24 and 27 and none had played more than nine seasons. The latter averages are more in line with the group of players who hit .400 in the early part of the century.

He will not draw a lot of walks: Williams was the only player (out of eleven total) to draw more than 100 walks in both his .400 season and the later season in which he approached that mark. Two players who were hitting .400 or higher into August, John Olerud and Todd Helton, walked more than 100 times.

He will be a Hall of Famer: Seven of the eight players who have hit .400 and all four who came closest since 1941 are in the Hall of Fame. Only Joe Jackson, who cannot be enshrined as long as he remains on baseball’s ineligible list, is on the outside looking in.

He will play for a small market team: With the exception of Garciaparra (an all-around anomaly who is also the only right-handed hitter in the bunch) and Williams, everyone who has made an extended run at .400 since 1941 played for a team located in a small market; in 2001, every other team was below the average major league market size. The only mid-level market was Toronto, while San Diego, Kansas City, Minnesota and Colorado were all well below average. Given the small sample size, this could just be a statistical anomaly (one hundred close calls will almost certainly include teams from New York and Los Angeles, for example), but there is also something to be said for the amount of pressure faced by a player in Kansas City as opposed to one in Boston. Advances in the media over the last decade mean that any player approaching .400 will be well covered (see below), but the smaller market player should still have room to breathe compared to his large-market counterpart.

It is not only important to consider the type of player who might one day hit .400, but also the type of environment within which such a player might exist. The following profile provides context for future .400 hitters:

Expansion will be involved: Six of the eight near misses occurred within three seasons of expansion, including five in the same league in which the expansion took place. It has been written that pitching and offense tend to return to an overall balance roughly within this time frame, allowing elite hitters a window of time within which they are able to capitalize on inconsistencies in the talent level of the pitching pool.

The media pressure will be intense: When Brett made his run at .400 in 1980, the media coverage was unbelievable, to the point that he took to holding daily press conferences to handle the large number of interview requests. Thanks to the advent of the Internet, 24-hour sports channels and the all-around globalization of news reporting since that time, any player even approaching .400 would be forced to deal with intense scrutiny while trying to accomplish an historic feat.

The initial thought here is to compare any run at .400 with the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa homerun chase of 1998. It makes sense on the surface, but the two are really apples and oranges. With McGwire and Sosa, the breaking of the record was nearly a foregone conclusion: McGwire hit number 62 on September 8, followed by Sosa on September 13th, meaning that the final three weeks of the season were largely a pressure-free contest to see which player would eventually hold the record. A .400 season is an entirely different animal: unless a player is hitting .450 in early September, the mark will be in doubt late into the season (Williams himself didn’t guarantee his .406 average until the last day of the year, when he went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader). The final three weeks, possibly the easiest part of the season for McGwire and Sosa, would undoubtedly be the most stressful time of the year for a player close to hitting .400.

The season will be somehow abbreviated: One of the most interesting things about .400 hitters is that no one has ever done so in a 162 game season. As part of a study on the frequency with which Roger Maris and Ichiro Suzuki would break the single-season record for homeruns and hits, respectively, in 154 and 162 game seasons, Bill James ran the numbers to determine the frequency with which Ichiro would hit .400 in each case. In the 200,000 computer simulated 162 game seasons he reached that mark or higher 809 times. Using the same simulation for the 154-game schedule, he hit .400 or better 954 times – an 18% increase that helps prove the idea that longer seasons contribute to fewer .400 hitters.

Real life facts help support the evidence provided by James’ study. Of the five players who have come closest to .400 since 1941 (including Larry Walker, who hit .379 in 1999), four missed at least twenty-two games; the only one to play a complete season was Rod Carew in 1977. The four shortened years happened for two primary reasons: injury and labor discord. Brett missed the most games of any player due to injury (forty-four) when he challenged Williams in 1980, while Gwynn made perhaps the most tragic run at immortality: his average stood at .394 when the players went on strike on August 12, wiping out the final 45 games of the season.

It will be tough to keep the chase together past July: Of the thousands of hitters who have played since 1941, only four have kept their average above .400 at any point after July 18: Brett (9/19/80), John Olerud (8/2/93), Walker (7/18/97) and Garciaparra (7/20/99). (Helton’s average was above .400 for the last time on June 10, 2000, but his average climbed within an eyelash (.399) on August 18.) Brett was the only one of those four who finished the season with a batting average higher than .372, as the other three tailed off badly when they hit the dog days of summer.

Gwynn, Williams and Carew, three of the four who have come closest to hitting .400, are on the opposite end of the spectrum: all had dipped below that level by the middle of July, but kept their averages high enough that an exceptional hot streak in September could have pushed them over the edge. This delicate balance meant that while media and fan pressure were certainly a part of the lives of these players, they had not yet been ratcheted up to the same level faced by Olerud in 1993 or Garciaparra in 1999. The door was open to lurk in the shadows and sneak up on .400 late in the year. (Yes, that’s a total of two overused clich├ęs in one sentence, and they don’t really fit. I don’t care.)

One thing that won’t happen again: Williams later claimed that the only reason he was able to post such a high average in 1957 was because his skills had declined somewhat and he was no longer the deadly pull hitter who had once refused to give in to the pitcher by going to the opposite field. Opposing teams were understandably slow to adapt to this change, allowing him many hits to left and left-center that he would not have had as a younger player.

It is highly unlikely that a player would be able to take advantage of such circumstances in the modern game due to the ever-increasing growth of videotape and computer technology. This development has been most evident in providing hitters an increased advantage, but also allows pitchers and defenses the chance to remain competitive. A weakness such as Williams’ might have slipped through the cracks in 1957, but such a tendency would be discovered much sooner in 2007.

One of these days, a major league baseball player will probably hit .400 again. And, given the effort that went into this breakdown, he will probably be right-handed, play for a large market team, and finish his career with no shot at the Hall of Fame.

(All statistics used in this article courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.)

11 Comments:

rukrusher said...

Well thought out article. Kudos.

Vinsane said...

Who among the active has a profile most similar to the one you postulate here? Can you predict who has the best shot at .400 in 2007?

Signal to Noise said...

Larry Walker was automatic HOF material if he'd hit for .400 season before the injuries set in, I think. It would have been the capper on a number of very good seasons stat-wise with both Montreal and Colorado.

frank said...

Are you familiar with Stephen Jay Gould's essay on this subject? He basically argues that while mean batting averages haven't shifted dramatically over time (not sure how accurate this is for the last decade or so), the amount of variation around the mean has gone down, meaning there are fewer outliers today than, say 80 or 100 years ago.

Of course, you can argue about what might cause the tails of the distribution to shrink (monetary incentives, technology, training methods, etc), but the bottom line is that it has, and so it's no surprise that .400 hitters don't happen anymore.

I couldn't find the Gould article but a student actually did a very basic study on standard deviations concluding that the odds of anyone hitting .400 in a season are now below 1% for any given year (he suggests it will happen once in 250 years based on the 0.4% number he calculated).

http://sandiego.sabr.org/boynton_award_2004.pdf

amr said...

Joe Mauer: Small Market Team, Young player just coming into Prime, Left Handed.

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Anonymous said...

Wouldn't a switch hitter have an advantage over a left handed hitter?

Run Up The Score! said...

You lost me at "Nearly". And I'm pretty sure that Von Hayes hit .400 or better for eight straight years. Blindfolded.

One More Dying Quail said...

STN - I think you're right. For a borderline Hall of Famer, a .400 season would push him over the top.

frank - Actually, Gould's essay was the thing that inspired me to write this. My concept was originally much longer and contained more information on what I took to calling the "fabric of the game". I was planning to use Gould's work in that section, but eventually ended up scrapping that end of the project altogether.

amr - interesting thought. Makes me realize that I didn't consider the position played by each player, which might have been telling.

anon - I was just forecasting according to what had already happened, and no switch-hitter has ever hit .400.

RUTS - Did you at least enjoy the word that you read? And I can't testify to your possibly hazy recollection of Von Hayes, but I did forget to mention that Fred McGriff once hit .468 for the Atlanta Braves. It was on my 1994 Super NES copy of Ken Griffey Jr.'s Slugfest, but still, .400 is .400.

jonathan said...

Chipper's coming! Righty, old, large-market team.

Should be first-ballot, but probably doesn't get the BBW vote without this .400 season.

Hmmm

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't think that a switch-hitter would have a great shot at .400. they usually are weaker at hitting for average with one hand, which would drive down the average.