Stat of the week: 1.13, the average number of 60-game stretches per season in which a player hit .400 or higher.
In the 79 years since Ted Williams hit .400, making him the last player to do so, much has changed in baseball and the world. When the Yankees took the World Series on Oct. 6, World War II (in which Williams himself served) was still two months out from making landfall on the shores of the United States. While Williams’ historic campaign took place just before the United States joined a war that would shape geopolitics for the rest of the century, the historic 2020 baseball season is taking place during the heart of the biggest public health crisis in a century. And while the last time we saw a .400 hitter we were defenders of democracy, about to fight off fascism abroad, we are now being subjected to it within our own borders.
Baseball in the United States has profoundly changed alongside the nation that deems it a national pastime; Williams would hardly recognize the game played today. So even in this shortened 60-game season, hopes for the first full-season .400 hitter in nearly 80 years seemed unrealistic to me at first glance.
Take for instance the fact that in 1941, the league average strikeout rate was 9.2 percent and the league average home run rate was 1.6 percent. In order for the average hitter to hit .400 then, they would have had to aim for a .430 batting average on balls in play (or BABIP, a batting average that does not include home runs or strikeouts). This is because you need to have 40 hits for every 100 at bats in order to hit .400. If you strike out (making it impossible for you to get a hit) in 9.2 of those 100 at bats, you need to have 40 hits for the rest of those 90.8 at bats. If you hit a home run in 1.6 of those 90.8 at bats, you only need 38.4 hits in the remaining 89.2 at bats, or a hit 43 percent (.430) of the time. The league average BABIP was .280 that year.
Last season, on the other hand, saw a league average strikeout rate of 23 percent and a league average home run rate of 4.1 percent, both more than double their 1941 counterparts. This means that the average hitter would have had to amass a .492 BABIP in order to hit .400. If you strike out 23 times every 100 at bats, you need a hit 40 times out of the remaining 77 to hit .400. If you hit a home run in 4.1 of those 77 at bats, you only need 35.9 hits in the remaining 72.9 at bats, or a hit 49.2 percent (.492) of the time. The league average BABIP last year was .298. While this is higher than the .280 we saw in 1941, it is .194 away from the target of .492, whereas .280 was only .150 away from its target of .430.
Clearly, it was easier for the average hitter to hit .400 in 1941 than it is now. Hitters have moved away from being kings of contact towards a more boom-or-bust philosophy: hit a homer or strike out. The lowest strikeout rate among qualified hitters last year was Hanser Alberto’s 9.1 percent, making him the only qualified hitter under the 1941 league average. Alberto, with his 2.3 percent home run rate, would have had to garner a .426 BABIP in order to hit .400, which has never been done in a single season, even if we lower the plate appearance threshold to 180 (or three plate appearances per game for a 60-game season, what you would need to be considered “qualified” for this shortened season).
However, the latter single season leaderboard fails to account for 60-game or 180 plate appearance stretches that occur in the middle of a season; it only looks at a season on the whole. For this, I headed over to FanGraphs’ special 60-game leaderboards. While these leaderboards do not track BABIP, I could deduce from the statistics they did track that some players likely managed higher than .426 BABIPs across 60-game stretches: players who struck out at higher rates than Alberto such as 2019 Cody Bellinger (16.4 percent on the season) and 2016 Joey Votto (17.7 percent) managed .400 averages in 60-game stretches.
After removing all overlapping stretches, I came up with a total of 63 60-game stretches from 1974 through 2019 (or 1.13 per season during that time) in which a player hit .400 or higher. Rod Carew did it four times; in 1977, his full season average was just .012 below .400. Tony Gwynn also did it four times; his full season average in 1994 was just .006 shy of .400, the closest anyone has gotten since Williams. Sandwiched between Gwynn and Carew is George Brett’s 1980 season, in which he hit .390 for the full season and had a 60-game stretch in which he hit a whopping .473, .015 higher than anyone else on the leaderboard. Brett had two other non-overlapping 60-game stretches in which he hit .400 or higher in his career. The only player to have more than one such stretch in the same season is Todd Helton, who had two in 2000. The first stretch was actually through his team’s first 60 games of the season—if play had ended there like it will this year, he would have finished with a .421 average. Unfortunately for Helton, it did not. He hit only .286 in his 77 at bats between the two stretches and .270 in his 111 at bats after the second stretch. Helton wound up hitting .372 on the season.
This year, Willy Adames has put up a .432 BABIP mark through his first 161 plate appearances (as of Sept. 14) and Tim Anderson has put up a .425 mark through his first 164 after achieving the sixth-highest full season BABIP of all time last year at .400. But alas, Adames has struck out at a horrid 34.8 percent rate, leaving him with only a .282 batting average. Anderson has managed better, striking out at a 20.1 percent clip, but is still well short of a .400 batting average at .362. He currently leads the league in batting average, presenting this season’s best shot at giving Williams a run for his money. While in today’s boom-or-bust game, we are far less likely to see a .400 hitter, coming into this shortened season, it was entirely possible we would. Anderson still has a shot; if he were to go 25-48 (.521) for the rest of the season, he could make it. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait until the next contact king, a move away from the current philosophy of hitting or another partial season to see a .400 hitter. In light of the drastic changes in baseball and political philosophy since Williams’ monumental season, there is no reason to think that baseball and the world won’t continue to change. In doing so, they may very well offer another such opportunity for a .400 hitter to emerge.