José Altuve and the Quest for .400

Jose Altuve has the skill set to hit .400, but it still likely isn't to happen. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Jose Altuve has the skill set to hit .400, but it still likely isn’t to happen. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

José Altuve stands in a strange place in baseball. His batting average, at .337 as of Monday, leads the American League and led all of baseball for much of the season. That, in itself, is not surprising: Altuve led the majors in batting in 2014, finishing the season with a .341 average. In fact, his .311 average since his rookie year, 2011, is bested by precisely one player over that span: two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera. So talk of Altuve as a great hitter is widespread, as it should be.

But in terms of records, even those with the best batting averages are rarely mentioned in connection with the hallowed figure in that field: Ted Williams’ .406 average in 1941. That makes sense, in some ways. Altuve’s season high this year, .366 on Aug. 20, is still 34 points shy of .400, not an easy distance to make up with just a month to go in the season. But there is also another reason: many observers of the game consider Williams’ mark to be unreachable by modern hitters.

Whenever a modern player gets within shouting distance of .400, the usual objections surface. Hitting .400, one 2014 article claimed, “has forever gone the way of the jitterbug and flannel uniforms for a variety of reasons. The game now tilts to specialization. Modern bullpens. A media crunch that would make the September spotlight impossibly blinding.” Add to that the recent explosion of defensive shifts, and Williams’ mark can come to look unreachable.

But are these analyses accurate? Do the changes in the game actually affect the quest for .400, or is the real problem that Williams was a uniquely talented player, the likes of which is rarely seen in any era. Is the modern game the only thing holding Altuve and his brethren back? It’s worth examining the theories one-by-one.

Different Pitchers

In a Washington Post article earlier this year, Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew reflected on his own flirtation with .400 (he hit .388 in 1977, the year he won the MVP award). “Pitching today, you’re not seeing the same pitcher every time…. You might see four or five pitchers during the game, younger guys who are fresh and throwing hard.”

There is no doubt that teams use relievers differently now than they did in Carew’s day. He had 471 plate appearances against starting pitchers in 1971, and batted .397 against them. He had 223 PAs against relievers, and hit “only” .368. In contrast, as of Sept. 15 this year, Altuve has hit off starting pitching in 417 PAs with a .375 average against them–not far off Carew’s pace. Against relievers, though, Altuve fares worse, with a .279 average in 230 PAs. Not only is he hitting far worse against relievers, he’s hitting against them more often: 35.5 percent of the time, compared with Carew’s 32.1 percent in 1977. Relievers are being used more, and more effectively.

The difference is even more pronounced in comparing Altuve’s 2016 season to Williams’s 1941 campaign. Retrosheet has the play-by-play for only 75 of Williams’s 143 games that year, but in those games, he hit an astounding .487 against starting pitchers in 248 PAs. Against relievers, Williams batted .353 in just 71 PAs. The drop-off hurt Williams less, since those PAs against relievers were just 22.2 percent of his total. Back then, seeing a fresh pitcher late in the game was not nearly as common; complete games accounted for 43.6 percent of games in 1941, versus just 2.1 percent in 2015. Even in 1941, facing a well-rested reliever took something off a batter’s average; the difference now is that it takes more and does so more often.

Repeat appearances

A related point often raised is that, as pitchers stayed in the game longer, hitters of old would learn their mechanics, notice patterns, and (aided by the pitchers’ fatigue) hit better against them in later innings. Here, the results fit the story less completely. Looking at Williams’s average by plate appearance, we can see that his best average was in his second time at the plate per game, when he got a hit more than half the time–.509. As the game went on, Williams’s average actually declined. By his fifth PA, he hit a merely mortal .308.

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A similar pattern holds for near-.400 hitters closer to our own time. In 1977, Carew was at his best in his third PA, worst in his fourth. In 1980, when he hit .390, George Brett’s average declined from first to fourth PAs, then rebounded in the late innings, but there is no clear pattern of improvement against tired pitchers. Similarly, in Tony Gwynn’s 1994 season (.394) and Ichiro Suzuki’s 2004 effort (.372), both hitters are fairly consistent across plate appearances.

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Altuve’s average per PA this year distinctly departs from this pattern. He hits in the high .300s for the first four PAs (.365 overall), but in the fifth PA and later, he loses two hundred points off his average, falling to .145 overall. Late innings have not been Altuve’s friend in the quest for .400. Given the modern pattern of pitching, this result overlaps almost completely with his season split between starters and relievers, except for the fourth PA, which is almost always against a middle reliever in 2016. In that PA, Altuve is at his best, hitting .379. Perhaps the penalty he pays against closers is offset, somewhat, by hitting better against middle relief.

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It’s a Long Season

Two theories that overlap somewhat arise from an analysis of Williams’ 1941 season. Williams started the year with an ankle injury and played only one full game before April 29. Although he pinch hit several times before then (there was no short-term disabled list in 1941) that meant that Williams had only 19 PAs in April. He re-injured the ankle in July, which meant there were a further 13 games that month in which he either pinch hit or sat out entirely. That left him with 606 total PAs, about 70 fewer than he would see in a typical season at that point in his career.

This leads to two theories. The first: that maintaining a .400 while playing a full 162-game season is extremely difficult. Pete Rose elaborated on this point in 2014: “I think a guy could hit .400, but I don’t think anybody in the world can get 200-for-500. I think you can get 350 at-bats, 300 at-bats and hit .400, but to get 200-for-500, that’s .400.” Williams had 456 ABs in 1941, which at first seems to confirm Rose’s point. On the other hand, Williams went into the last day of the season hitting slightly below .400. Only going 6-for-9 in a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics boosted his average to .406. For Williams, the short season may have helped, but those last nine at-bats helped even more.

Some of the other near-.400 seasons follow this pattern. Brett’s 1980 run was interrupted by a month-long stretch on the disabled list in the middle of the season. We he came back to active service on July 10, he hit an astounding .488 for the rest of the month. Brett finished the season with 515 PAs and just 449 AB. Gwynn’s 1994 run was similarly brief. After missing six games in April, he played almost every day until the players went on strike in mid-August. When the rest of the season was canceled, he had just 475 PAs and 419 ABs.

Although both Brett and Gwynn would surely liked to have played more, it is hard to deny that their abbreviated seasons may have helped their averages. That said, Carew’s 1977 season is all the more impressive in that he played nearly every day, finishing with 694 PAs and 616 ABs. Only two players have ever hit .400 with more PAs than 694–Rogers Hornsby (1922) and Bill Terry (1930). Altuve, by playing almost every day (he led the league in ABs last year) helps his team with his durability, but likely reduces his chance at the record books.

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Missing April

The other theory derived from Williams’ 1941 season considers not just the number of games missed, but the timing. By missing those cold early-season games in April, the theory goes, Williams avoided what is for most ballplayers the worst month to hit. Furthermore, the major league season used to start later in April than it does now—the 1941 Red Sox played their first game on April 15—letting even healthy players avoid the coldest days. This April effect holds for some of the other hitters who approached .400. Take out the month of April, when he hit .289, and George Brett would have finished with a .407 average in 1980. Ichiro’s .372 average in 2004 would have been 20 points higher without his April ABs.

But one development in the modern game is more helpful to the would-be .400 hitter. April is thought to be harder to hit in because of the cold weather. In 1941, this was more pronounced, with all of major league baseball being concentrated north of Washington and east of St. Louis–a region full of chilly April days. Now, with the spread of the game to the warmer parts of the country, cold Aprils are less an issue. Gwynn hit .395 in April 1994 in sunny San Diego, one point above his average for the year. Altuve’s April 2016 performance fits this pattern. In that month he hit just .265 in road games in cold cities (i.e., where the high temperature on the day of the game was in the 60s or cooler) while hitting .345 in April games either at home in Houston or in warm road games. So, while the early start to the season harms the modern high-average hitter, expansion to the South and West cancels much of the effect.

Advances in Defense

One major change even since Ichiro’s .372-hitting 2004 season is the rise of defensive shifts. Shifts have been widely credited (or blamed) for lowering batting averages major league-wide. As a 2014 New York Times article says, there are accounts of a shift being used against Williams as early as 1941, but that was a rare exception. The modern practice of moving fielders many times within a game is revolutionary, and believed to be the cause of reduced offense.

Detailed information about fielding does not exist for most of the seasons discussed in this article, but we can examine Altuve’s performance against the shift on his FanGraphs player page. The numbers show that, at least for some hitters, the effect of the shift is exaggerated. In 2016, Altuve has hit .344 when a normal defense was in place and .431 when a shift was employed. The sample sizes are small, admittedly, but the numbers are consistent across his career: .333 without the shift .426 with it. Offense may be down across baseball but, at least in Altuve’s case, the shift is not the reason.

Can It Be Done?

These stats show that changes in baseball since 1941 weigh against the would-be .400 hitter, but maybe not to the extent pundits have claimed. When MLB added eight more games and started the season earlier in April, it did hitters no favors, but playing those games in warm-weather venues mitigates a lot of the harm. Defensive shifts are increasingly popular, but as Altuve’s stats show, they are not always a hindrance to a hitter who uses the entire field. Having too many at-bats is a problem for some, but as Carew demonstrated in his 1977 season, it need not be fatal to the effort.

The biggest problem facing Altuve and other high-average hitters is their performance against relievers. In this, they face a challenge unlike those dealt with by Williams, or even Carew, Brett and Gwynn. Because he is good with his glove, Altuve stays in games until the end, while a less capable fielder might be lifted a for late-inning defensive replacement. Until he learns to master closers and situational relievers, .400 will remain out of reach.

That said, it is clear that the attainment is not as unreachable as it seems. Some records, like Cy Young’s 511 career wins, or Sam Crawford’s 309 career triples, almost certainly belong to a bygone age, never to be equaled. But hitting for average is a skill that still holds value in the modern game. In 1977, 1980, 1994 and 2004, we saw hitters fall just short of .400. That they came so close should give us hope that the mark is not out of reach forever. Someday, someone—maybe José Altuve, maybe someone else—will get there.


Kyle Sammin is a lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania. Read his other writing at his personal website, and follow him on Twitter @KyleSammin.
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James Attwood
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Barry Bonds came very close to hitting .400 in 2002. Sure, the average says he only hit .370, but he also walked 198 times. This droppped his AB all the way down to .403. He was 12 hits short of the mark for the season. With as many pitches “close” but not fully in the zone that he spit on in his quest to force pitchers to let him him actually hit or to put him on, he probably cost himself the .400 batting average as much as the opposing pitching managed to keep him under. In 2004, he was… Read more »
There will be no Bonds Jr
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There will be no Bonds Jr

Harper walked 125 times last year, 73 short of Bonds’ 2002.

Joey Votto walked 143 times last year, which puts him at 27th all time on the single season walk leaderboard.

There have been four seasons where a player walked 170 times. Bonds did it three times and Ruth did it once.

There have been eleven seasons where a player walked 150 times. Bonds 4, Ted Williams 3, Ruth 2, McGwire 1, Eddie Yost 1.

Kyle Sammin
Guest

Walking a lot is a big part of it. It reduces your total ABs, and forces pitchers to pitch to you. I think one of Ichiro’s few flaws is that he doesn’t walk a lot. The year he hit .372, he had 704 ABs (most in MLB that year) and only 49 walks.

dominik
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dominik

Harper has too high Ks and likely he Needs too much pull tendency and Elevation to get an elite HR total. that Profile usually is not ideal for BABIP.

The walks do certainly help though because it shortens the sample size and thus gives variance a better Chance.

dominik
Guest
dominik
Big Problem is the increased strikeouts. More strikeouts mean that you Need an even higher BABIP and even a BABIP above .380 is extremely rare. HRs mean that you can have a slightly lower BABIP. If you have 1 HR for every 1.5 Ks a .400 BABIP is enough, so preferably you would have a higher HR/K Ratio allowing for a Sub .400 BABIP. Gwynn in his near .400 season had an exeptional HR/K Ratio (12/19) so that he was able to “only” have a .389 BABIP (still extremely high). Having such a HR/K Ratio is quite rare. most power… Read more »
Rob
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Rob

You need Miguel Cabrera hitting skills with speed: use the whole field with power. Plus you need to just be locked in all year, no cold spells at all, and a lot of BABIP luck. Cabrera (2013), Mauer (2009), Chipper (2008), Ordonez (2007) might have been able to make a run at .400 if they had been fast. But even all that might not do it. Perhaps all that plus play in Colorado and they have an unusually warm year and take off the days you face Kershaw….

MGL
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MGL
It’s quite simple. The higher the league BA for ANY reason, the greater the chances of a player hitting .400. A high variance in BA talent helps. As does a good hitter having few AB. In fact, it is probably necessary for a player to have as few AB as possible and still qualify. And of course the player’s home park is going to have a strong influence. It is much more likely for a .400 hitter to come from the Rockies. The whole reliever thing is nonsense. It’s only about the overall BA of the league. If relievers stink… Read more »
Leon
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Leon

Variance has actually gone down over time even if league average has been fairly stable.

Philip
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Philip
Great article, Kyle. But on the April weather issue? You wrote: “The other theory derived from Williams’ 1941 season considers not just the number of games missed, but the timing. By missing those cold early-season games in April, the theory goes, Williams avoided what is for most ballplayers the worst month to hit. … But one development in the modern game is more helpful to the would-be .400 hitter. April is thought to be harder to hit in because of the cold weather. In 1941, this was more pronounced, with all of major league baseball being concentrated north of Washington… Read more »
87 Cards
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87 Cards
The “Missing April” segment of the this article set me to wandering about the effect of night baseball on Williams and Atuve. In 1941, Williams played 136 day games/576 PA/.401 BA/ -League Average was .266–Williams was +135 over the AL average. He played only 7 night games /30 PA/.500 BA/-League Average was .276–Williams was +224 over the AL average. Fenway Park installed lights in 1947. in 2016, Altuve has played 50 day games/ 228 PA/ .349 (+94 over AL average of .255). Altuve has logged 100 night games/441 PA/ .329 (+70 over AL average of .259). He also did a… Read more »
Kyle Sammin
Guest

Night vs. day is something I hadn’t considered, and it’s a good point. When I looked at Altuve’s April 2016 schedule, I looked at highs and lows, but maybe looking at the exact game time temp, which we have access to now, would yield more illuminating results.

Thanks for reading!

Philip
Guest
Philip
James Attwood wrote: “Barry Bonds came very close to hitting .400 in 2002. Sure, the average says he only hit .370, but he also walked 198 times. This droppped his AB all the way down to .403. He was 12 hits short of the mark for the season. With as many pitches “close” but not fully in the zone that he spit on in his quest to force pitchers to let him him actually hit or to put him on, he probably cost himself the .400 batting average as much as the opposing pitching managed to keep him under.” Ted… Read more »
Philip
Guest
Philip

87 Cards said…
“Perhaps the widespread advent of night baseball is another element in the 75-year search for a .400 hitter.”

Spot on.

Interesting, too, how the ahistorical record might look with just day-only baseball:

American League East Division Champions

1975 – Boston Red Sox .630
league batting champion: Fred Lynn, Bos. .391

1976 – Boston Red Sox .599
league batting champion: Ron Leflore, Det. .399

1977 – Boston Red Sox .667
league batting champion: Rod Carew, Min. .408

1978 – Boston Red Sox .691
league batting champion: Rod Carew, Min. .376

(not adjusted per scheduling)

BaconBall
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BaconBall
If the “…recent explosion of defensive shifts…” is considered one reason a .400 BA is unattainable then why has the BABIP average stayed about the same since “shifting” became prevalent? NL BABIP went from .281 in 1991′ to .285 in ’92’ to .294 in the expansion year of 1993, before hitting .300 in ’94, and it has been within a few points of that ever since, even WITH shifting! Were the fielders so much superior before the Ragin’ Roid era? What caused the sudden and dramatic increase? Why has shifting not lowered it? If it is true that, “Relievers are… Read more »
Patrick
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Patrick
What about the fact that fielders are more athletic today than they were years ago? For example, Routine ground balls might have gone for a hit 15% of the time in 1950 but only 10% now. Another thing is the increased strikeout rate. In order to hit .400 you have to get lucky on balls in play. More value is placed on power than AVG. For example MIke Trout hit in the .320s his first year and than 290s in his next two. He bulked up and traded power for speed and average. What if he instead and focused on… Read more »
BobDD
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BobDD
The more casual fan (and those prejudiced against sabermetrics) do not realize, or have forgotten that the number one reason why walks are so good is because it means that the hitter is forcing the pitcher to throw strikes. And every hitter (even Berra, Guerrero etc.) has a higher hit/power rate swinging at balls in the strike zone than outside the zone. Lots of walks certainly add great value to a hitter, but the real reason why it would take someone with lots of walks to ever hit .400 is because that type of hitter is hitting more hittable pitches,… Read more »
aweb
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aweb

There have been a few 365-day .400 stretches in recent times. I can’t find the link, but I recall Boggs, Gwynn, and Ichiro all had year-long stretches of batting .400, or were darn close to getting there. Brett stunk in April 1980 and 1981, so he didn’t make it. So it’ll take a particularly well-timed hot streak by someone who already hits for a very high average, like Altuve.

My other guess – Trout. He has a historically high BABIP, hits enough homers, and might just stop striking out so much one year.

Philip
Guest
Philip
aweb said: “There have been a few 365-day .400 stretches in recent times. I can’t find the link, but I recall Boggs, Gwynn, and Ichiro all had year-long stretches of batting .400, or were darn close to getting there.” Spot on re: Gwynn. His .400 plus mark spanned parts of 3 seasons. Tony Gwynn went 53 for 122 in 31 games from August 1, 1993 until the end of the season. In the strike-shortened 1994 season he was 165 in 419 at bats in 110 games. Then, to start 1995, he went 19 for 39 in 10 games thru May… Read more »
shin min ah
Guest

so like me like you do

thats so
Guest

wow can you do it

BaconBall
Guest
BaconBall

“More value is placed on power than AVG…” because CHICKS DIG THE LONG BALL!

Barney Coolio
Guest
Barney Coolio

This is related, but I am not sure if it was specifically mentioned. Seeing the same pitcher more often helps the batter. And in an 8 team league, with no interleague games, and 4 man starting rotations, Ted Williams would have seen the same pitchers many more times than today’s players do.

Philip
Guest
Philip
Barney Coolio said: “This is related, but I am not sure if it was specifically mentioned. Seeing the same pitcher more often helps the batter. And in an 8 team league, with no interleague games, and 4 man starting rotations, Ted Williams would have seen the same pitchers many more times than today’s players do.” We’ve heard this a lot, that seeing the same pitcher more often helps the hitter. Often that means in a game situation, when the starter began tiring. That is true today. But in Williams’ time, seeing the same pitcher might not have helped him as… Read more »