The following is a guest post from Dan Gerwien, who you know as “DanGer’s Gleyber of Love” in the comments.
Sam Miller wrote a piece for ESPN explaining why no one will hit .400 in the modern era. It’s a great thought exercise and definitely worth reading the full article. He essentially argues that in order to end a season with a .400 batting average, you need a player that can excel in three categories:
- The ability to avoid strikeouts, which are always outs.
- The ability to hit homers, which are always hits.
- The ability to turn a big percentage of the rest (balls in play) into hits.
According to Miller, the .400 hitter would have to combine Andrelton Simmons’ ability to make contact, Chris Davis’ power, and DJ LeMahieu’s BABIP. The resulting Frankenstein’s Monster would hit *drumroll*… .396.
Ignoring the fact that .396 is a mere 4 points away from our stated goal of hitting .400, there’s actually a huge hole in the logic itself. It’s missing half the equation.
Ichiro Suzuki broke the single season record in 2004 with 262 hits, yet finished with *only* a .370 batting average. Tony Gwynn hit .370 in 1987 but did so with 44 fewer hits. This shows us that you can’t just hit your way to a higher average. In fact, Barry Bonds hit .370 in 2002 with almost half as many hits as Ichiro, but four times as many walks (foreshadowing!). Here’s a full comparison:
According to Section 9.21 of the official MLB Rulebook (page 136), here’s the formula for batting average:
… divide the total number of safe hits (not the total bases on hits) by the total times at bat, as defined in Rule 9.02(a) (Rule 10.02(a))
Hits divided by official at bats (H/AB). This also happens to be a ratio and like all ratios, you’re dividing one number into another number. In this case, a smaller number into a larger number. Miller’s article only focuses on how to pump up the top half of the ratio while ignoring the bottom half. So in addition to simply avoiding outs, we also need to reduce the number of ABs.
But how do we accomplish this without changing how often a player goes to the plate? The answer: Walks. Walks are considered a plate appearance, but not an official AB. Returning to the example above, remember that Bonds was able to hit .370 because his massive walk total cut his official AB all the way down to 403.
So we know that a player can hit at least .370, but what about .400? Is that even possible in today’s game? To determine what’s realistic, let’s establish a reasonable baseline.
Section 9.22 of the Rulebook (page 137), states that the batting title goes to:
… the player with the highest batting average … provided the player is credited with as many or more total appearances at the plate… as the number of games scheduled for each club in his club’s league that season, multiplied by 3.1 in the case of a Major League player…
To qualify for the batting title, a hitter must appear in 3.1 plate appearances for every scheduled game. In a 162 season, that works out to a little over 500 plate appearances, 502.2 PA to be exact. This is the bare minimum to qualify for the batting title, and therefore be recognized as hitting .400 in a single season.
OKAY, FINE, BUT IS THIS REALISTIC?
We’ve established that a player needs at least 503 PA to qualify, but we also know that most players have way more plate appearances, and therefore ABs, in a given season.
To get a sense of what is realistic, here are average numbers from the players that finished with the top 50 batting averages in 2017.
The typical .300 hitter last season had about 165 hits in 550 AB (620 PA), walked 55 times and struck out 100 times. Joey Votto, for example, played all 162 games in 2017 and had 179 hits in 559 AB (.320 avg) so we’re right in the ballpark (pun very much intended).
To get to .400, we have to give our ideal player a bit of help. First we’re going to bump up the hits to 200, an increase of 44. Altuve’s career average is 206 so we’re still within reason. Adding the hits, you’re up to a .364 batting average. An envious number that any ballplayer would take but nowhere close to our goal of .400.
Next, and this is key, let’s give our lucky player 50 more walks, bringing him up to 105. Joey Votto’s career average is 113 walk so again we’re still perfectly within reason.
Remember that a walk is considered a plate appearance, which is important to qualify for the title, but not as an AB. So by increasing walks by 50, we also reduce the total AB from 550 to 500.
THE FINAL PRODUCT
After all of our tweaking, we’re left with a .400 hitter who had 200 hits, 100 walks and 104 strikeouts in 620 trips to the plate. Scale this up to a full season and you’re probably looking at something closer to 220 hits and 144 walks. Last season, Charlie Blackmon had 213 hits and two players had 120+ walks, including New York’s own Aaron Judge. If Bonds had just 13 more hits in 2002, he would have hit .402 in 612 PA.
Admittedly, this is incredibly difficult to achieve and highly unlikely to occur, but maybe, maybe not as impossible as Miller’s article would lead you to believe. In the past 5 seasons, there have been 12 instances of a player with 200+ hits and 20 instances of a player with 100+ walks, but never both from the same player. Altuve has the hits but his career high in walks is 60. Votto has more than enough walks but maxes out at around 180 hits. Then again, maybe Votto could pull it off if he didn’t play in a home park with a below average hit factor. And maybe Colorado will be in the market should top 1B prospect Ryan McMahon not pan out …