Monday, June 09, 2008

.380 is the new .400

Last week’s post about Chipper Jones got me thinking about “reasonable expectations.” Chances are Chipper won’t hit .400. If he doesn’t, his season will be appreciated but—in the long run—won’t be considered "truly significant" by milestone-standards. I’m not so sure that should be the case.

Every once in a while, we’re treated to a “run” at .400. People start to get excited if a player is above .400 in June but I’m going to classify a “run” as being around .400 in August. The most recent “runs” were by John Olerud in 1993 who was hitting .400 as of August 2nd, Tony Gwynn in 1994 who was hitting .394 on August 11th when the work stoppage hit, and Todd Helton in 2000 who was hitting .399 on August 18th. None were hitting .400 within 55 games of a full season. Getting excited about .400 in June, July or even August, is akin to the requisite—yet futile—excitement that occurs whenever a player gets halfway to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Nobody is going to break DiMaggio’s record and nobody is going to hit .400. There is no question in my mind that we need to ditch .400 as the milestone.

I’m sure most sabermetricians will have no problem with this since they don’t care much about batting average to begin with. I agree that batting average is a flawed measure but I think it becomes less flawed at the extremes. Most batting averages fall between .250 and .300. Having a batting average in that range does little to indicate the caliber of a season in terms of run production. For instance, a .300 batting average has historically been considered a good season, but it can be misleading (see; Pudge Rodriguez ’06). On the other hand, a .250 batting average has usually been considered a below-average mark but, in some cases, a player who hits .250 can have a very good season (see; Mike Schmidt ’79). However, at the extremes, there is less ambiguity. A player who hits .200 will have a truly horrible season 99.9% of the time. A player who hits .350 will have a great season 99.9% of the time. While “batting average” might be a dividing line between new school and old school statisticians, the significance of hitting .400—or the modern-day equivalent—should be intriguing to everyone.

If it were up to me, the novelty of “.400” would be a thing of the past. Unless we’re all married to the idea of seeing people fail over and over again, a new benchmark needs to be established. There has been an obvious shift in what is an attainable batting average. Ted Williams was the last player to hit .400 and that was 67 years ago. Only two players have hit .380+ in a full season over the last 50 years. Yet, there were 13 players who hit over .400 from 1900-1957. Nobody hits .400 anymore. Heck, nobody even hits .380 anymore. Interestingly, a number of players have hit .370 which seems to make .380 an ideal milestone. Below are the highest single-season batting averages in MLB since 1980 (this does not include strike-shortened seasons).

Larry Walker--------’99 .379
Ichiro-----------------‘04 .372
Todd Helton---------’00 .372
Nomar Garciaparra-’00 .372
Tony Gwynn---------’97 .372
Andres Galaragga---’93 .370
Tony Gwynn---------‘87 .370
Barry Bonds----------‘02 .370

It seems to me that .380 is the new .400. Assigning a new “bench mark” batting average for a single-season makes a lot of sense to me. Heck, it probably makes a lot of sense to you. However, the chances of .380 becoming the new historically significant milestone for batting average hover around 0%. It won’t happen for the same reason that nobody cared that Curtis Granderson was the first player in MLB history to reach 23 stolen bases, 23 home runs, 23 triples, and 23 doubles in the same season. All anyone wanted to talk about was that he was the fourth player to reach 20 in all four categories. People love round numbers. 20 and .400 are nice, round numbers. 23 and .380 are not. So, the next time someone gets into August with a .400 batting average and the nation grips for a run at .400, consider it mission accomplished if said player reaches .380. In fact, hitting .380 now would be an even more impressive feat than hitting .400 ever was back in the first half of the 20th century. There were six times as many players who hit .400 from 1900-1957 as have been players who hit .380 from 1958 to 2008.

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