Jake’s Takes: Batting .400: Analyzing the Challenge of an Old MLB Record

July 14, 2023

Jake’s Takes: Batting .400: Analyzing the Challenge of an Old MLB Record

This week’s edition of “Jake’s Takes” is back! Jake Moszkowski takes a long look at one of the most talked about stats in MLB history - batting .400! MLB teams value high-percentage batting averages, and the .400 mark has long represented an exclusive club of batters. Can Luis Arraez of the Miami Marlins do what hasn’t been done in over 80 years? We look at the history of batting .400 and use Huddle’s trading models to work out Arraez’s chances of joining one of the most exclusive clubs in baseball history. 

What is a batting average? 

It’s a measure of a baseball player’s ability to avoid striking out, grounding out, flying out… really, it’s a measure of a ballplayer’s ability to get hits. The importance of both getting a hit and not getting out is what statisticians measure - effectively calculating average as hits per at-bat without taking into account much other context. It’s worth noting that walks count as plate appearances, but not at-bats. An at-bat is officially counted when a batter reaches base safely through a base hit, fielder’s choice or error (excluding the catcher’s interference error), or when a batter is regarded as out in any way that is not considered a sacrifice. On the other hand, plate appearances are counted for each completed turn batting, regardless of what happened.

Baseball, increasingly driven by statistics and analytical minds, is hard. Maintaining a high enough batting average to keep your job over dozens of minor leaguers trying to take it is equally difficult. Flirting with baseball immortality, such as batting .400, is borderline impossible. Now, every sport has statistical milestones or achievements that to the average fan seem virtually unbreakable. Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in an NBA game. Wayne Gretzky’s career point total in the NHL (2,857). Jerry Rice’s career receiving yards (22,895). But baseball seems to have more of the “magic milestones” than most.

With the ever growing obsession with statistics, baseball fans can point to any of a dozen unbreakable records. Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive games with a hit streak. Barry Bonds home run record. Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games played. Heck, Cy Young has a half dozen records that are unbreakable. Ted Williams didn’t set a record by batting .400, but he does remain the last person in the MLB to achieve that hallowed number.

Batting .400, with or without additional context, is one of the hardest things to do over the course of a full baseball season. 

Per the Baseball Almanac, 35 times has a .400 average been accomplished over a full season. While at first glance, that may seem like a lot, when you dive into those actual occurrences, you begin to notice a trend. 22/35 seasons came in the 1800s. The average baseball season back then was around 120-130 total games played, 32 fewer games than are played in the modern-day MLB. Moreso, the last time a player batted .400 was Ted Williams back in 1941. 

To go back to our original question, did Ted Williams achieve a season-long batting average of .400+ by avoiding strikeouts, or by getting hits? Was he really that much better than everyone else at peppering shots into play, or was he the beneficiary of just plain luck? Can a major league batter really attain an ability to “place” the ball so that they get more hits than groundouts or fly outs?

What we can see, based on a combination of our data and information taken from Williams and other high-average batters, is that a batter needs to be nearly perfect in his approach to hit .400 over the course of a full season. 

"I hope somebody hits .400 soon. Then people can start pestering that guy with questions about the last guy to hit .400." Source: Baseball's Greatest Quotations (Paul Dickson, Collins Publishers, 10/2008, Page 348)

Williams believed, and the data backs up, that a batter needs to hit a high percentage of balls into play, get walked more than he strikes out, and shoot for more singles than extra-base hits to have a shot at batting .400. That elusive number has gotten harder to achieve in modern-day baseball, as many batters have eschewed hitting for average in favor of extra-base hit attempts, namely home runs. As a result, averages have gone down and flyouts/home runs have increased. 

That offensive explosion, which began in the early 1990s, can largely be attributed to a sudden and sharp increase in home runs (both by team / by player). The likelihood that a ball put in play becomes a home run has increased dramatically over the past thirty years, while the likelihood of a ball put in play becoming a single has remained relatively consistent. Some might attribute the increase of home runs to increased efficiency of defensive fielding shifts. I think you can also attribute the rate/frequency of long balls to an added obsession with hitting the ball harder and with greater launch angles.

Looking at play today, it’s easy to see why there’s a struggle for players to bat .400. Outside of the Miami Marlins’ leadoff batter Luis Arraez, nobody is batting over .335. Arraez is this season’s anomaly, batting .383 through 86 games and proving Ted Williams right. Arraez, nicknamed “La Regadera” or “The Sprinkler,” has a very legitimate chance to do what hasn’t been done in over 80 years. 

He’s got 126 hits through 86 games, only 22 of which are of the extra-base hit variety. Arraez also has more walks (27) than strikeouts (19). In case you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s where the “La Regadera” nickname comes from. Venezuelan baseball Winter League fans gave him that moniker in 2017, when he was peppering 61 hits in 45 games (0 home runs). 

If Arraez keeps up his pace, he’d be the first batter to hit at least .380 over the course of an MLB season since George Brett hit .390 in 1980 (albeit in only 117 games). Arraez’s ability to get hits on non-strikes is also what helps him keep pace. Pitchers, slowly recognizing that he’s going to get hits more than the average player, have been gradually adjusting strategies to throw him pitches outside of the strike zone. The average MLB batter hits around .150 on those types of pitches. Arraez, on the other hand, is hitting a ludicrous .320+ on those balls. 

Ultimately, we can delve into the data to see how Arraez is projected to do for the remainder (second half) of the MLB season. His projected average for the rest of the year is between .350 and .360, based on how he fares versus both right and left-handed pitchers. With the Marlins having played in 92 games, there are only 70 games left to be played this season. Our model projects that Arraez will play in 65 of them, with an average of 3.9 at-bats per game. That brings his total number of remaining at-bats to roughly 253. 

With a season total of 582 at-bats (or thereabouts), Arraez would need to finish the year with 233 hits to achieve a batting average of .400. The last player to surpass 230 hits in a season was Ichiro Suzuki (2007) with 238 hits. That season, Ichiro batted .351, with 238 hits out of 678 at-bats. While Arraez has 126 hits already, he would need 107 more to hit that magic number of .400. 

He’s got a very slim chance of achieving it, as his average dipped precipitously during the weeks leading up to the MLB All-Star game. Arraez went from batting .402 as recently as June 23rd to .383 only two weeks later. Our model gives Arraez about a 1.24% chance of hitting .400 this season. 

There is a lot of baseball left this season and history (and data) suggests that Arraez will not finish the season batting above .400. However, he’s blindingly positive and optimistic, insisting that he values team success over individual accolades. For the time being, he’s lucky - the 53-39 Miami Marlins are in the thick of the playoff hunt while he’s chasing MLB immortality. He’ll head into the second half of the season pushing the Marlins forward with his superb play, and knowing that as the games wind down, more eyes will be on his chase for history.