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The .400 Problem

Photo via Baseball Collection on Flickr
The last player to bat .400 remains Ted Williams, back in 1941, when he hit .406. That says something about how impossible batting .400 is. However, consider this: the highest BABIP since 1980 belongs to Jose Hernandez, when he hit .404 on balls in play in 2002.

BABIP removes all strikeouts and home runs. It only considers balls in play that stay on the playing field. If a player can't post a .400 BABIP, there is virtually no hope of them batting .400 straight up. There are debates from time to time about if anyone will hit .400 again, and it sure looks impossible to me in today's game.

There are several theories as to why .400 isn't threatened in today's game. The revolution of bullpens makes some sense. Better scouting would make sense too. The lack of segregation, as well as the explosion of international players in today's game, could perhaps play a role. Baseball has expanded substantially since Williams hit .400 also. Maybe the proliferation of teams across the nation has something to do with it.

In general, many of the most intuitively plausible arguments have something to do with the nature of the game itself changing drastically. If that were the case, it would seem reasonable to expect that BABIP across the board has sunk since Williams batted .400. Interestingly, that simply is not true. The league-wide BABIP in 1941, when Williams batted .406, was .280. In 2002, when Hernandez posted a .404 BABIP, the league posted a .296 BABIP. In fact, as the following graph shows, BABIP league-wide has generally been increasing the past 60 years:

How come nobody hits .400, even in environments that at first blush should be more conducive to high batting averages?

The simplest answer is that fewer balls go into play. There are good arguments that pitching to contact is important, but great pitchers have the stuff to generate whiffs when needed. Strikeouts have always been a part of the game, but not at the frequency we see today. A generation ago, 100 strikeouts in a season was a mark of shame for a hitter. Now, hardly anyone blinks at that rate. In fact, the 9 highest single-season strikeout totals in MLB history have come since 2007. Furthermore, 25 of the top 50 single-season totals are owned by current players, and 55 of the top 100. Neither of those totals count players such as Sammy Sosa and Richie Sexson either, who show up on the list rather frequently, and did not retire all that long ago.

I doubt anyone would say that strikeouts are desirable, but they are certainly more permissible in today's game than ever before. It probably should not be too surprising, because sabermetrics have revealed the value in home runs and working deep into counting. A negative consequence of gearing hitting more towards both of those strategies is an increase in strikeouts. That's only exacerbated by the heavier usage of bullpens, and the realization that pitchers are often more effective in shorter stints.

Add it all up, and the average baseball game today is longer, and features less contact. What is strategically advantageous creates a product that is aesthetically inferior. A good game is a bad game, and I'm far from the first person to notice this problem. Tom Verducci wrote a piece about this issue over a year ago in Sports Illustrated.

Since Verducci's 2010 article, things have only gotten worse. Strikeouts are still a huge part of the game, but there are indications that defense is figuring out how to convert more balls into play into outs. For starters, the cutter continues to become more and more popular. The secret in its effectiveness for most pitchers is that it's harder to square up, as evidenced by a BABIP a full 40 points lower than the average for all pitches. Unlike many other pitches, it's not that hitters are prone to missing it; rather, they are prone to making weak contact.

On top of that, the information age has erupted across baseball, thanks to more advanced fielding data, and the iPad. It's getting harder to hit 'em where they ain't, because "they" know where the hits are most likely to go. The Rays are making a living off of this, and concocting odd (for now) alignments, but with great results. Other teams are bound to catch on, just like they did when they realized the Athletics cobbled together effective offenses on the cheap during their "Moneyball" era.

Given what teams know about offensive strategies now, and how it is getting progressively harder to get a ball to drop in for a hit, what incentive is there for hitters to make more contact? What's stopping hitters from going for home runs even more? Isn't that the logical direction for most hitters to go, given how pitching and defense is evolving? As much as Yankees-Red Sox marathon contests are loathed by baseball fans, that's the type of game baseball is most likely heading towards in the future, barring some sort of significant change.

I like how mystical the .400 batting average feels. It's one of those numbers that makes baseball seem so magical. There have been some serious runs at the number within memory too. Larry Walker batted .379 in 1999. Tony Gwynn batted .394 in 1994, and perhaps would have cracked .400 that season if not for the strike. We'll never know. John Olerud batted .363 in 1993, but flirted with .400 until a slump at the end of the season. George Brett batted .390 in 1980, and much like Olerud, slumped right at the end of the season.

However, even with the most contemporary close calls, there are none in the past decade. I do not think that is a coincidence. The game has evolved, and the .400 hitter could very well be dead. Maybe that's the price of progress, but to me it doesn't feel much like progress. The death of .400 batting averages might be a symptom to a problem.*

*You, the astute Musings reader, might have already thought of this, but there's a reasonable statistical explanation for the phenomena of rising BABIP rates without players even having high enough individual BABIPs to make a run at .400. Baseball's globalization has expanded the available talent pool without the league expanding. If the pool has really increased without more job openings, then an even slimmer sliver of the cream of the crop is making the majors (assuming the ceiling on talent hasn't gone up with expansion of the pool, just the amount of elite talent available). As a result, it would be reasonable to expect less variation in player talent, and thus less variation between the best and worst seasons from individual players. .400 averages have always been wild exceptions, and maybe the talent gaps between players are just too small these days to allow for such anomalies. Personally, I think this is a factor, but there's still an issue with how unaesthetic walks and strikeouts are.

Winning will always be the most important thing in any sport, but any fan intuitively feels a difference between victories. Envision a walk-off win. What do you dream of seeing? A walk-off balk? A walk-off hit-by-pitch? Those are victories (even in the final at-bat!) but they feel anti-climactic. They simply aren't as pleasing as other ways to win games (home runs and suicide squeezes, to name a few).

Major League Baseball needs to wake up and realize that the game is trending towards a place where the most strategically sound outcomes are also some of the most boring things to watch. What's a team to do? "Look good" and lose, or clock marathon contests, rife with pitching changes and hitters watching balls and strikes alike whiz by, and win? The product will be better if there are more incentives for teams to strive for more exciting outcomes.

Today's post was about identifying a problem. Tomorrow will be about my crack at a solution. I welcome your solutions in the comments thread though.