What Would It Take to Hit .400 in the 21st Century?
Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, making him the last player to reach or exceed the .400 level over a full season. Hall of Famers Rod Carew (.388 in 1977), George Brett (.390 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.394 during the strike-shortened 1994 season) were the only serious contenders since then, which raises a logical question: Has hitting .400 become baseball's impossible dream?
Obviously, a player would need to catch every possible break to reach this ultimate achievement today. Four factors have turned a once rare feat into something that may be unattainable. First, let's blame diligent and hard-working groundskeepers.
When was the last time you saw a bad-hop hit at the major league level? What was once a periodic part of the action is virtually extinct. The modern field of dreams is much more than sod from a local farm that gets cut and watered as needed. Baseball groundskeeping has become a science of its own, with sophisticated drainage and heating systems employed to keep customized turf in prime condition. The lack of a fluke hop or two can turn a historic .400 campaign into a near miss .390-something season.
Scouting is also light years beyond what could have been imagined in the past. Spray charts display every ball hit by batters, and advance scouts pick up helpful information before each series. Using Gwynn as an example, what if the master of hitting to all fields was known to pull the ball against a certain pitcher? That tidbit wouldn't sneak by a sharp-eyed scout, and it would be known to the opposition.
Gloves that were once compact enough to be stuffed into back pockets have grown to the point where making one-handed catches of small dogs wouldn't be a problem. The modern hand basket takes away numerous hits each season, and that won't change in the future.
There are no late-inning breathers for 21st century hitters, and it goes beyond flame-throwing closers. Left-handed hitters can count on seeing lots of brief appearances from LOOGYs over the course of a season, and righty swingers get to deal with some nasty middle relievers who can make life tough.
If it was very difficult to reach the .400 mark prior to 1941, what are the chances of achieving such a feat now? Microscopic might be overstating the odds, but here is what it would take to get the job done in the post-steroids era.
Left-handed hitters only need apply to be the next Mr. .400. We're talking about a feat that has almost zero margin for error, and lefties are going to get a few extra hits by being closer to first base, not to mention the advantage of seeing fewer curves and breaking balls than righty swingers.
It won't take Michael Bourn's wheels to be a .400 hitter, but any serious candidate needs to have better-than-average speed to beat out a few infield hits or bunts over the course of the season. Carew, Brett and Gwynn were fast enough to pass this test.
Speaking of speed, the slashing Astroturf choppers of the 1970s and 1980s would have been lousy candidates for the .400 club. The most important ability needed to reach that lofty level is to consistently hit the ball hard - and I'm not talking about home runs.
Anyone who aspires to hit .400 needs gap power or better. That keeps the outfielders deep enough to allow for some bloop singles and humpback liners to plop for hits. If the outfielders cheat in to cut off singles, they're going to get burned with plenty of doubles and a few triples.
While they were both known as line drive maestros, Carew and Gwynn posted better than normal power numbers in their signature seasons. Carew had career highs in hits (239), HRs (14), RBI (100), doubles (38) and triples (14) in 1977. Gwynn came through with 12 homers, 64 RBI and 35 doubles in 419 at-bats. With 165 hits in just 110 games, Gwynn was on an incredible 243-hit pace over 162 games in 1994.
Brett absolutely smoked the ball in 1980, as he had 66 extra base hits (33 doubles, 9 triples and 24 home runs) in just 449 at-bats - or one per 6.8 ABs - while playing half his games at spacious Kauffman Stadium. His 118 RBI were a career high in just 117 games played, and Brett's 175 hits nearly duplicated Gwynn's pace.
Doubles are going to be a significant factor for the potential .400 hitter. The ultimate mark in batting average can be reached with 12 to 20 homers, but piling up doubles is a very reliable indicator of hitting at a consistently high level. That applies to contact hitters and big boppers alike. If you need more evidence, compare just about any Hall of Fame slugger's doubles column to seasons by Dave Kingman and other one-dimensional swing-from-the-heels types who hit .230 or less or Wade Boggs and Pete Rose to other hitters with similar home run totals.
Since hitting .400 is going to come down to catching enough breaks to turn a mind-blowing .380 to .390 season into a historic event, a lot of subtle factors, flukes and incremental improvements will come into play.
The serious .400 prospect will need to bump up his walk total from previous seasons - at least enough to lay off some bad pitches that would normally become outs. He doesn't have to become the next Eddie "The Walking Man" Yost, but pitchers are going to be inclined to nibble and work off the corners when dealing with a red-hot hitter. Better to take a walk or wait for a fat pitch than to chase marginal stuff.
A modest or better reduction in strikeouts is absolutely essential. An out may be an out in many situations, but putting the ball in play more often means greater opportunities for hits, and every swing counts in the chase for .400.
Brett featured a very rare combination of power and contact hitting in 1980, hitting 24 bombs with just 22 strikeouts. Gwynn fanned just 19 times in 419 ABs (a typical number for him) when he hit .394 in 1994, while Carew's 1977 totals (55 Ks in 616 ABs) were better than his career average.
What would keep a superior hitter from reaching .400? Despite Carew's 155 games played and 694 plate appearances in 1977, having the durability of Cal Ripken would be a detriment. The length of the season guarantees some slumps and tough stretches over 162 games, so here's how such a highly unlikely feat could happen.
Anyone with over 550 plate appearances won't hit .400, and you can carve that in stone. Playing even 140 games out of 162 is extremely wearying (plus the pesky odds against hitters really win out in the long run), so this honor won't go to a baseball ironman.
Since it takes 502 plate appearances to qualify for a batting title, a position player would need to start 115 or more games to be eligible. That probably wouldn't be enough to lead the league in any other offensive category except on-base percentage, but an abbreviated schedule works to the advantage of the serious .400 candidate.
Nudging over 502 plate appearances with a maximum of 550 means 115 to 128 starts depending on where the next .400 swinger hits in the order. Our potential Mr. X (short for exceptional) will almost certainly bat third, although leadoff is also a possibility. Missing at least 35 games means a stretch or two on the disabled list - and that can be a big boost in the run to .400.
Let's give Mr. X a minor injury just before the end of spring training and 15 days on the DL. Looks like he'll miss his team's opening road trip through the blustery northeast, where cold weather reduces batting averages. If X is in the National League this season, it also means he doesn't have to face the Phillies' formidable rotation. Bummer! (sarcasm off). Instead, X gets some rehab at-bats in the balmy Florida State League to regain his timing.
How is the interleague schedule this year? Does the National League candidate face the rag-tag Royals staff, or does he battle it out against the Rays rotation? Does the American Leaguer feast on the Pirates, or does he struggle against Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and the rest of the Giants staff at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park? Such incidents and flukes will make much of the difference in reaching .400, and they will be noticed only in hindsight.
The hit machine goes down shortly before the All-Star break for 20-plus days on the DL. That means he won't be hounded by hordes of reporters who would have ignored most of the other All-Stars to ask about his .396 average. Mr. X.'s absence and injury bug cuts the hype considerably, and any mentions of a .400 season downplays the possibility of it taking place. The lack of constant media exposure for now is one less hassle for Mr. X. Poor numbers (2 for 11) in his three-game minor league rehab stint also adds to the skepticism.
Like many players, our guy is a hot-weather hitter, and he'll be well rested for late July and August games in humid places such as St. Louis, Cincinnati, Texas (Dallas) and Kansas City. During his second stretch on the DL, the .400 candidate missed games started by two pitchers whom he struggled against at a 2 for 17 (.118) and 5 for 26 (.192) clip.
Mr. X goes 2 for 4 in his return to the lineup - but it would have been 1 for 4 if the opposing team's Gold Glove second baseman had been in the lineup instead of on the DL to make a nifty grab on the hard grounder X slashed in the hole for a single. The Gold Glover's replacement is sure-handed, but lacks the world-class range of the everyday player. These are the kind of under-the-radar positive factors that are needed in the race for .400.
Although the national media will camp at Mr. X's door eventually, playing in a smaller or more distant market will reduce the pressure for awhile. The trio of Carew, Brett and Gwynn made their quests for .400 in Minneapolis, Kansas City and San Diego, all far removed from the New York media machine. The team's media relations director senses the possibility of history in the making, and he proactively makes plans to limit X's access for interviews and other distractions.
His good fortune puts Mr. X in a reflective mood. The breaks in his favor have far outweighed the frozen ropes that became outs so far this year. There was the wind-blown fly ball that landed in the second row of the bleachers in early May, the pair of popups that fell between the infielders and outfielders in June, more seeing eye grounders that trickled past infielders than normal. Can he continue to defy the baseball odds for the rest of the season, or will the pattern even out? If everything doesn't turn out exactly right until the final at-bat, Ted Williams will remain secure as the last player to hit .400.