I’d like to divert from my usual topics to discuss one of my hobbies today. Baseball. The national pastime. For those of you who are unfamiliar, baseball is a game played with a ball, a stick, a glove, and a baseball diamond. I’m not going to get into all the rules here, as I’m sure someone else has already done this. I’ve studied baseball history for about 15 years now and in that time, no one has come close to hitting .400 (that is, having a base hit in 40% of at bats). Tony Gwynn in 1994 hit .394 in a strike-shortened season, but who knows which way he would have went if the season went all 162 games? My guess is he would have ended up somewhere in the .370s or .380s. No offense, Tony. It’s just that the media pressure would have driven you crazy, much like what happened to Roger Maris in 1961 when he broke the single season home run record by one in a longer season than the previous record holder. But if anyone could have done it, it would have been Gwynn. He was a pure hitter, with little power and a knack for hitting line drives and a good eye. His career batting average nears .340, which is the highest in the last 60 years. And there’s the rub.
For the most part, people don’t hit for obscenely high batting averages anymore. Why? There are plenty of reasons, and I’ll start with what is the most prominent one. Strikeouts. Batters strike out quite a bit more than they did 70 years ago, when Ted Williams became the last baseball player to hit .400. Statistics show that somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of balls put in play are base hits. That would add around 20 or 30 points to someone’s batting average if they never struck out. Pitchers are far more skilled than they were in the first half of the 20th century. I’m not saying that there were no skilled pitchers back then, just that there were fewer in proportion to the amount we have today. They throw harder, have more movement on their pitches, and with the use of multiple relievers in a single game, there are fresh arms pitching the majority of the game as opposed to the 1900-1960s era where most starting pitchers pitched at least 20 complete games in a season. There are specialist relief pitchers today who come in just to face one batter. There are more pitches today than ever before. The hitter is constantly guessing at which pitch out of dozens is going to be thrown. Thus, there are many, many more strikeouts.
Every .400 hitter struck out less than 8% of the time in that respective season. How many players today strike out less than 8% of the time? It would be cumbersome for me to look that up, so I’ll estimate that it is probably between 1 and 5 percent of all Major Leaguers. Also, it helps to walk quite a bit in a quest for .400. The less at bats you accumulate, the better chance you have to hit .400. Why? Because that means you don’t have to get as many hits. If you walk 100 times in a season, that is 100 plate appearances that don’t factor into your batting average. It definitely pays to have a patient presence at the plate if you truly want to hit .400. If you look at what Ichiro Suzuki did just a few years ago, breaking the single season hits record, you’ll understand what I mean. He hit .372 that year, which is excellent, but he had over 700 at bats. Not plate appearances, but at bats. Granted, he is a leadoff hitter and would not have been able to break the record had he walked 100 times or hit much deeper in the lineup. But he would have had a much better chance of hitting .400. But he is not exactly a power hitter. Pitchers don’t mind giving up a few singles, so I highly doubt Ichiro was intentionally walked much. He has a threat of hitting the long ball, but for the most part, he is a contact hitter. His speed and contact ability allow him to collect many infield hits, therefore padding his batting average to higher than your average player. Speed is a definite advantage when it comes to hitting .400. So, patience and speed are two other factors that would contribute to the creation of the perfect .400 hitter. If you can steal some cheap hits with your speed and be patient enough to take a bunch of walks so that your at bats total goes down significantly, you are upping your chances for .400.
I would also argue that in this day and age, a player with respectable power would be more likely to hit .400. Not your typical slugger, but someone who hits maybe 20-25 home runs a year. Someone who will occasionally be pitched around to get to a weaker batter. Obviously, a consistent hitter would also be at the top of the list. Someone who has similar stats each year would be more likely to be able to reach the .400 mark due to their well-disciplined personality. Somebody an awful lot like Ted Williams. The year he hit .400, he also led the league in home runs. He was known as both a power hitter and an average hitter, and struck out very infrequently. He walked quite a bit, as his #1 ranking of all-time in on-base percentage shows. Quite frankly, someone with his caliber would have a hard time hitting .400 today, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. Lady luck must be on your side if you ever hope to get into this exclusive club. Certain flares that you hit must fall in. You must accumulate at least 10-20 infield hits. For some reason, you must be a left-handed batter. Why? Because left-handed batters have an advantage against right-handed pitching, which is still a majority to this day. Both Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn were left-handed batters and they both had the highest career batting averages of the last few decades.
It would also help to miss a small chunk of time if you are going to hit .400 for a season. As long as you amass 502 plate appearances, you still qualify for the batting title and your record will be official. I know it could be called cheating to some, as I was extremely mad in the 1990s when Mo Vaughn narrowly missed a batting title to go along with his 40 home runs due to rival New York Yankee Bernie Williams, who had much fewer plate appearances than Mo. Not only that, Bernie Williams, on the final game of the season, went 2-for-2 and was taken out of the game. Mo, who had over 600 at-bats, had a batting average that was within 0.2% of Mr. Williams, and came up short. But for the .400 hitter, there will likely be no one even close in terms of BA. So, no harm, no foul. I would say between 550 and 600 plate appearances would be a good number, with maybe a 15 day disabled list stint placed somewhere during the season. Look at Chipper Jones. He won the batting title in 2008 with a mere 534 plate appearances due to I believe 2 stints on the 15 day DL. .364 BA is nothing to sneer at. He only had 439 at-bats, due to his patience at the plate. 90 walks certainly helps your batting title goal.
So, here are the criteria for the perfect .400 hitter: A player who strikes out very little, walks rather frequently, has speed to beat out infield hits, has formidable power to attract intentional walks, has fewer than 600 plate appearances (although this is not a necessary requirement), and has to be a pretty consistent hitter, and most likely left-handed. Or a switch hitter. This would have to be someone who can avoid cold streaks and be able to rattle off some hot streaks. It would also have to be someone with very thick skin, as the media can create a ton of pressure. A player who can recognize pitches very easily, someone with the great eyesight of Ted Williams. Not to mention a knack for being lucky when others are not. So the question is: Is there anyone playing in the MLB right now who I think could hit .400?
Right now, I just don’t see it. I don’t see a single player who possesses all of these qualities to the extent necessary to truly put together a .400 season. I could be wrong and someone might get lucky. There are just so many factors that contribute to a season like this that it would take some sort of miracle for any current player to hit .400 for an entire season and qualify for the batting title. It’s a long season, and you never quite know what’s going to happen. Perhaps in the next 20-50 years, we’ll find someone who can accomplish this feat. But I don’t want him to be handed this .400 crown, like a team out of contention giving him fastballs down the middle because they want him to succeed so badly. I guess .400 is baseball’s version of the 4 minute mile. Although, it kind of goes backwards instead of forwards. The mile record is well below 4 minutes now, but it’s been almost 70 years since someone hit .400, and even before that, very few did. It’s only been done 35 times, all before 1942.
I think we have a .400 hitter on the horizon, but I can’t say for sure. If things fall right into place for a player having an already amazing season, then it can happen. As for hitting .500, forget it. We’ve got to hit .400 before we can even talk about .500. Most of the .400 hitters did it before 1900. That was when baseball was in its infancy. Whoever eventually does this will have to be a superman. And be extremely lucky. But I have faith and so should you.
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