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The Dirty Little Secret About .400 Hitters

Can we talk about .400 hitters? They ain’t always what they’re cracked up to be, you know.

As with so many things baseball, they’re often the right guy at the right time, not exactly a product of context, but an exploiter of it. So with Ty Cobb and George Sisler gaining eligibility in this election—owners of five of the twenty-eight .400 seasons in history are on our ballot—let’s take a little look at the contexts faced by .400 hitters.

Stephen Jay Gould famously essayed on this very subject in “Where have all the .400 hitters gone?” Since then, many smarter minds than ours have taken up the question as well (a nice summary here). Two of the biggest reasons for our lack of .400 hitters appear to be

  • continual improvement in the quality of play, reducing the variation among individual players and the likelihood of an outlying performance
  • league averages in a historically normal range—it’s easier to hit .400 when league batting averages are near .300 than when they are near .270.

These two points account for other sub-arguments such as the style of play (place hitting versus power hitting) and the emergence of relief pitching (today’s players don’t face tiring starters for a fourth time during a game). But they don’t tell the whole sordid story.

See, when we look at these seasons closely, a pattern emerges.

1876 NL .265
Ross Barnes .476
The first season of the National League.

1884 UA .245
Fred Dunlap .412
The first and only season of the third-rate Union Association that was major in ambition only. It had one dominant team, you guessed it, Dunlap’s.

1887 AA .273
Tip O’Neill .435
Pete Browning .402
For 1887, MLB decreed that four called strikes were an out. It reverted to three for 1888. The AA’s batting averages from 1886 to 1888 tell the story: .243, .273, .238.

1894 NL .309
Hugh Duffy .440
Tuck Turner .418
Sam Thompson .415
Ed Delahanty .404
Billy Hamilton .403
The pitcher’s mound moved backward ten feet in 1893, and offense shot up from 5.1 runs per game in 1892 to 6.6 runs per game in 1893. In 1894, it zoomed northward again to 7.4 runs per game. The entire league’s batting average rose from .245 in 1892 to .280 in 1893 and then to .309(!) in 1894. To put this in perspective, Duffy’s record setting .440 average was 42 percent higher than the average batter. When George Brett hit .390 in 1980, his average was 47% higher than the league’s .269 average. And Duffy’s league let pitchers bat, Brett’s didn’t. Things settled a bit as the decade ground on, but it was still a pinball offense until the league contracted to eight teams following the 1899 season. Oh, and the foul-strike rule didn’t exist until the 1900s.

1895 NL .296
Jesse Burkett .405
Ed Delahanty .404

1896 NL .290
Jesse Burkett .410
Hughie Jennings .401

1897 NL .292
Willie Keeler .424

1899 NL .282
Ed Delahanty .410

1901 AL .277
Nap Lajoie .427
The AL was an expansion league in its first year with less talent concentration than the NL. Lajoie was by far its biggest star.

1911 AL .273
Ty Cobb .420
Joe Jackson .408
For 1911, the AL introduced a new cork-centered baseball. Runs rose from 3.6 to 4.6, and batting averages from .243 to .273, a similar percentage rise to the 1890s.

1912 AL .265
Ty Cobb .409
The new baseball stuck, and for one more year the hitters had their day. Until pitchers caught up by defacing and sliming balls so that they would dip and dive. Batting averages slid downward again until…

1920 AL .283
George Sisler .407
The spitter was outlawed, grubby baseballs were replaced during games, and Babe Ruth revolutionized offense. Offense exploded and the league batting average rose from .268 to .283. The 1920s were the greatest conditions for hitters between the 1890s and the 1990s.

1922 AL .285
George Sisler .420
Ty Cobb .401

1922 NL .292
Rogers Hornsby .401

1923 AL .283
Harry Heilmann .403

1924 NL .283
Rogers Hornsby .424

1925 NL .292
Rogers Hornsby .403

1930 NL .303
Bill Terry .401
1930 was the crowning touch, the capstone on the big 1920s offensive bang. Runs scored slid downward as the depression went on. Batting averages settled around .280 by mid decade then slid to the low .270s as the 1940s approached.

1941 AL .266
Ted Williams .406
By 1941, league averages slide to levels not seen in twenty years. Williams faced the third lowest league batting average among these 28 hitters and the highest quality of play. Given that combination, his .400 season (52 percent higher than his league) is the most impressive in history.

To recap, we have:

  • three seasons with significant rule, equipment, or style changes that made offensive totals go nuts: 1887, 1911, 1920.
  • eleven seasons that immediately followed one of those major changes and during which offense stayed nutty: 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1899, 1912, 1922, 1923, 1925, 1930
  • two expansion years: 1894 and 1901
  • the first year in NL history: 1876
  • plain-old 1941.

So the dirty secret about .400 seasons is this: with one exception, they always occur at times when the pitching-hitting balance or the overall quality of play is thrown all out of whack. Which explains a bit about Tony Gwynn’s .394 average in 1994 (a year after an expansion, during a time of crazy high run scoring), doesn’t it? And which makes the runs at .400 by Brett, Rod Carew (.388 in 1977) and Ted Williams (again! .388 in 1957) all the more impressive.

Will the .400 hitter ever make a return? You know, it’s probably bound to happen by random chance, just like Miguel Cabrera’s triple crown season. But unless we see a rule change that makes the slider illegal or lets batters swing metal bats, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

—Eric

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