Will Anyone Hit .380 in a Season Again?
At least since I became a major league baseball fan in 1978, the conventional wisdom has been that no one will ever hit .400 in a season again. As I’m sure you know, Ted Williams was the last hitter to bat .400 in a full season back in 1941. With every passing year, it seems more certain that Williams will be the last .400 hitter.
Actually, I think anything is possible, so I think that perhaps the best way to put it is that it is much more likely than not that no one will bat .400 in a full major league season in the lifetimes of anyone reading this post. I do, however, believe we are certainly more likely to see another .400 hitter, than we are to see another 30 game-winning pitcher.
I was thinking about this today, and I wondered whether or not we have seen the last .380 hitter (Tony Gwynn batted .394 in 1994 in 475 plate appearances, which would not have been enough in a 162 game season, but 1994 was a strike year). Including Gwynn, there have been only four such seasons since the end of World War II. The others are Ted Williams 1957 .388, Rod Carew 1977 .388 and George Brett 1980 .390.
For the following reasons I think we probably won’t see another .380 hitter in our lifetimes. First, a lot more relief pitchers. Aside from the fact that each of the last four .380 hitters was an all-time great in terms of what they used to call “pure hitting” (i.e., the ability to hit for average) who led his league or was in the top five in batting average many, many times, all four were left-handed hitters.
Aside from the fact that left-handed hitters are a step closer to first base after they hit the ball, left-handed hitters also get to hit with the platoon advantage most of the time. However, the steady trend of using more relief pitchers means that after the first two or three plate appearances in a game, left-handed hitters bat with the platoon advantage less now they have at any time in baseball history.
Second, modern major league defense is as good as it has ever been and getting better. Aside from the fact that major league players improve as a group from one generation to the next, modern statistical analysis, particularly in the last five or ten years, has changed the way baseball people look at defense.
Since the 19th century major league defense has been valued, particularly at the key defensive positions (catcher, shortstop, center field, second base and third base — first base defense was highly valued in the deadball era between 1900 and 1920). What has changed in recent years is better quantification of what makes a player good or bad at the major league level at every single position on the diamond and increased understanding that elite defense at every single position can be quantified so that players like, for example, Adam Dunn are now almost exclusively American League players because of the designated hitter.
In the 1950’s or 1960’s, if Adam Dunn and Gregor Blanco were playing on the same major league team, Dunn played every day and Blanco was the late inning defensive replacement and started only when someone else got hurt. Today, Blanco gets a lot more playing time in the course of a season because of much more sophisticated and elaborate statistical analysis. [Actually, my claim is not entirely accurate — in the ’50’s and ’60’s, teams would have hated Dunn’s low batting averages and enormously high strike out rates — see, e.g. Pat Seery. Instead, teams in that era preferred players like Hank Sauer, who had OPS numbers like Dunn, but hit for a higher batting average, struck out less and drew fewer walks.]
Third, because of modern statistical analysis, there are fewer “pure hitters” in the game than there once were. Players like Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki are not as appreciated as offensive players (Gwynn and Suzuki were/are elite defensive and base-running players under modern statistical analysis, and Rod Carew was one of the last players in baseball history famed for his ability to steal home plate) today as they once were.
Fourth, one of the biggest (and largely unknown) developments in the last five years is the increased use of defensive shifts on hitters. Teams are now using computers and statistical analysis to track where every batted ball by ever hitter goes on every ball-strike count. Many teams are now shifting based on the pitch count for every batter who has a statistically significant tendency to hit the ball in a certain place on that count. The Tampa Rays started this trend, had some success in the won-loss column, and other teams have followed suit assuming there is in fact a connection between more shifting and more batted balls turned into outs.
I doubt that defensive shifts work for every or even most players. Try shifting on an elite, pure hitter, and he’ll adjust to the shift, trying to to hit ’em where they ain’t. You also can’t use radical defensive shifts on fast players who can bunt, because they’ll just bunt you to death. However, many players are going to have their batting averages drop because of more shifting.
I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the .370 hitter. We’ve had eight of those (excluding the big years from Gwynn, Brett, Carew and Willliams) since 1945. An elite left-handed hitter playing for the Colorado Rockies, with half of his games in their spacious ballpark, could definitely hit. .370 again in our lifetimes.