Friday, August 9, 2013

Is The Next .400 Hitter Out There?

I recently offered up this random question on Twitter.

Is there an active player who's capable of a .400 season?
Very funny Ian, but this is a conversation about statistics and baseball. There's no room for jokes.

Ted Williams closed out the 1941 season with a .405 batting average. His was the last of the 28 .400+ seasons. There haven't been many serious runs since. These are the best since Williams topped .400 in 1941. I included their age that season and which side of the plate they bat from.

1946 - Stan Musial - .365 (25 - L)
1948 - Stan Musial - .376 (27 - L)
1948 - Ted Williams - .369 (29 - L)
1957 - Ted Williams - .388 (38 - L)
1977 - Rod Carew - .388 (31 - L)
1980 - George Brett - .389 (27 - L)
1985 - Wade Boggs - .367 (27 - L)
1987 - Tony Gwynn - .370 (27 - L)
1993 - Andres Galarraga - .370 (32 - R)
1994 - Tony Gwynn - .393 (34 - L)
1994 - Jeff Bagwell - .367 (26 - R)
1995 - Tony Gwynn - .368 (38 - L)
1997 - Tony Gwynn - .371 (37 - L)
1997 - Larry Walker - .366 (30 - L)
1999 - Larry Walker - .379 (32 - L)
2000 - Nomar Garciaparra - .372 (26 - R)
2000 - Todd Helton - .372 (26 - L)
2002 - Barry Bonds - .369 (37 - L)
2004 - Ichiro Suzuki - .372 (30 - L)
2009 - Joe Mauer - .365 (26 - L)

See a trend? One of my Twitter friends saw it coming.
Scott also thinks there's only one active player who was capable of a .400 season. That's Ichiro, whose best shot was in 2004. He hit .372.

Ichiro hit a ton of ground balls in 2004. His ground ball pecentage was 63.7%, the highest of his career. His fly ball percentage was the lowest of his career (17.9%). Ichiro didn't do it by bunting more. His bunt hit percentage was 40%, below his career mark (46.3%).

Ichiro also posted career-best marks for strikeout percentage (8.3%) and BABIP (.399, compared to .345 for his career).

Todd Helton followed a similar path to his .372 season in 2000. His strikeout percentage plunged to career-low 8.8%, and his BABIP that season outdistanced his career pace. It was one of the best offensive seasons in the history of Major League Baseball, but it wasn't enough to produce a .400 batting average.

There is a formula to hitting .400, but few are capable of putting all the ingredients together.

Stan Musial won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1946 and 1948, when he came closest to hitting .400. He hit a modest .312 in 1947. I thought it might be interesting to look at some key stats for Musial during those three seasons.

Stan Musial 1946 / 1947 / 1948
Strikeout Percentage: 4.4% / 3.5% / 4.9% (Career: 5.5%)
BABIP: .367 / .301 / .355 (Career: .320)

Ted Williams was 22 years old and in only his third season in the big leagues when he became the last player to hit over .400 in 1941. A couple years later, he went to war and lost three seasons from the prime of his career. After returning, he made a couple more runs at .400: 1948 and 1957, when he hit .388 at the age of 38. Here's how those three seasons compare.

Ted Williams 1941 / 1948 / 1957
Strikeout Percentage: 4.5% / 6.4% / 7.9% (Career: 7.2%)
BABIP: .378 / .368 / .367 (Career: .328)

Tony Gwynn was a modern master at chasing the elusive .400 mark. There was a lot of buzz in 1994, before the strike abruptly ended the season. Gwynn was hitting .393, and not seeing how his pursuit would end was one of the most bitter disappointments that surrounded the work stoppage. Gwynn also made runs in 1987, 1995 and 1997. Here are some of his numbers from those seasons.

Tony Gwynn 1987 / 1994 / 1995 / 1997
Strikeout Percentage: 5.1% / 4.0% / 2.6% / 4.3% (Career: 4.2%)
BABIP: .383 / .389 / .364 / .363 (Career: .341)

Tony Gwynn's walk percentage was really high in both 1987 (12.1%) and 1994 (10.1%). He was never big on drawing bases on balls. He finished in the top 10 in the N.L. just once, in 1987. Meantime, he led the N.L. in hits 7 times. Ichiro also rarely draws a walk, but he led his leage in hits 7 times during his career.

In that sense, Ichiro and Gwynn are very different from the mold of Ted Williams. Williams never led the A.L. in hits, but he was a league leader in walks 8 times. In his .400 season in 1941, his walk percentage was 24.3%, the second highest of his career. In 1954, his walk percentage was 25.9%. He hit only .345, perhaps because his BABIP for that season was .317.

Larry Walker rarely drew a base on balls, struck out a lot and was never a league leader in hits. Still, when he was able to contain the less pleasant parts of his game, he was one of the best hitters for average in his generation. He hit .379 in 1999, after hitting .366 and .363 in the previous two seasons. He did it by controlling his strikeouts.

In 1999, Walker's strikout percentage was 10.1%, the best of his career. That season he hit .379. His on-base + slugging percentage was 1.168, one of the highest ever for a single season. What's scary is that it was even higher in 1997 (1.719). That season Walker hit .366.

OPS isn't just a good indicator for Walker. It holds for the best seasons of Ted Williams and Stan Musial, as well as other players who posted high batting averages during their career seasons, Jeff Bagwell (1.2009 in 1994) and Todd Helton (1.1617 in 2000).

So, when we're looking for the next .400 hitter, do we use Ichiro and Gwynn as the model? Or, is the player we're looking for more like Larry Walker? On the list of the top 500 OPS seasons in MLB history, you'll find Gwynn only once. Ichiro is nowhere to be found.

George Brett made the list. His OPS in 1980 was 1.1181, the 68th best all-time. His batting average was .389, one of the best runs at .400 since 1941.

You also need luck to hit .400, as seen in BABIP that exceed the career benchmark. You have to put the ball in play. Nothing eats away at batting average like strikeouts. Finally, history tells us batting left-handed is almost a must.

So, are there any contenders among active players?

Miguel Cabrera may the best hitter of this generation, but he doesn't appear to fit the profile of a .400 hitter. Cabrera is currently posting a 1.1202 OPS in 2013. That would be the 66th best all-time, but it still can't approach Larry Walker in his prime. Cabrera also has the historical misfortune of batting right-handed.
Joe Mauer bats left-handed, so he has that going for him. He posted a 1.0309 OPS in 2009, when his batting average reached his career peak at .365. However, some of Mauer's career trends are troubling. His strikeout percentage is rising.

Joey Votto posted a 1.0240 OPS in 2010. He's just 29 years old. He's already led the N.L. in walks three times. But it can't seem to offset his high strikeout percentage. Still, he could post a career-best batting average in 2013, approaching .330.

Strikeout percentage is a big issue for Mike Trout as well, though there's hope that he's young enough to improve his plate discipline and perhaps improve his batting average in the process. He's already showing the eye and approach needed to boost his walk percentage to among the best in baseball. There is one other issue. He's got that dang right-handed batter thing hanging over him.

The truth is that few players look capable or even interested in hitting .400. Baseball history is a vast, seemingly endless ocean. I would expect we'll see another someday, but I doubt it will be anytime soon.