This was inspired by Garret Craig’s piece 1961 a few days past on the dynamic duo in the middle of the Detroit lineup. But lets take that line of thought in a somewhat different direction: Imagine a career year from Miguel Cabrera – the kind of year where he simply runs away with the MVP like Justin Verlander ran away with the Cy Young last year. Last year he hit 30 home runs – knock that up to 40. Last year he struck out 89 times, let that fall all the way to 60. Add 35 points to last year’s BABIP. Guess what you get if you mix those three ingredients into the 2011 Miggy blend…? A nice, round batting average of .400.
Most records and milestones in baseball lack drama, relevance or plausibility. Career records depend more on longevity than simple talent and take decades to reach – they lack drama. Most single-season records or milestones either seem like products of a bygone era or have been cheapened by the steroid era. No one is likely to win 30 games in a season and if anyone mounts a chase of Barry Bonds‘ 73 home runs I doubt the fanfare will approach that which surrounded Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. There are such that are relevant and within reach, but for some reason just don’t excite fans as much – like Ichiro Suzuki‘s record-breaking 262 hits in 2004. Few pursuits would excite a fan base, not just in one city but across the country, as much as a chase of the .400 batting average – a milestone kept tantalizingly out of reach from even the best players since Ted Williams in 1941.
No one has actually sustained a .400 average over the course of a full season in 70 years and the reason for that is fairly simple: Pitchers are getting awfully good – and part of that can be chalked up to the invention and perfection of new pitches. Statistically-minded baseball fans tend to chalk power and BABIP up mostly to hitters, and walk and strikeout rates up more to pitchers. Obviously in all cases, both sides of the equation do have some control but one side is assumed to have more. We also believe, with ample evidence to back it up, that the raw ability of players in all sports including baseball is far higher now than it has been in the past. If hitters are better and pitchers are better, we would expect to see that league-average BABIP and isolated power have been rising (and they have) along with strikeout rates (and they have too). Walk rates have been relatively flat, but that’s another story entirely. It takes a lot of extra singles dropping and dingers flying to make up for a strikeout rate double what it would have been in the 1920s. The closest a player has come since 1941 was Tony Gwynn‘s .394 in the strike-shortened 2004 season. Surely it’s easier to maintain such a high batting average over 110 games than 162, but we will never know if Gwynn would have dragged it up to .400 over the season’s final 50 games as they were never played. Below you will see the 15 best single-season batting averages since 1941, with some key information. One thing you will notice is that they are not concentrated in the first half of the time period but in the second.
If you ask a casual baseball fan who they think is likely to lead the league in batting average, they would probably imagine that it would be a singles hitter who can use his legs to beat out a fair number of ground balls. Some of those on the list fit that profile, but most look more like Miguel Cabrera. BABIP is almost as difficult to get up to .400 as batting average, even for guys with a plus BABIP tool (like everyone on this list). Even if a player does manage a .400 BABIP, like Rod Carew did in 1977, to get a .400 batting average it’s necessary to have about 2/3 as many home runs as strikeouts. 8 of the 15 seasons on the list met that HR/K ratio test. Tony Gwynn (like Wade Boggs, who didn’t have a single season good enough to make the list) won batting title after batting title and made more than one run at .400 thanks to an extraordinary ability to not strike out and a plus BABIP tool. Miguel Cabrera isn’t Tony Gwynn – but that isn’t all bad. Cabrera strikes out, but he also has power and (apparently) one of the strongest BABIP tools in the major leagues – trailing Rod Carew and Ichiro Suzuki but besting everyone else on the list.
Certainly there are long odds for Cabrera or any other current major leaguer to make a run at .400, but with BABIPs on the rise the odds of a player hitting that milestone have been getting better and not worse. Cabrera in particular would need not only a good year from a power standpoint and some good luck to go with his good skill in hitting ’em where they ain’t but no take a big chunk out of his strikeout rate – even with last year’s career best 12.9% Ks, no plausible BABIP and homer numbers would get him to the lofty heights of .400. That said, Cabrera looks set to hit 3rd in front of Prince Fielder – a lineup spot far more favorable than he has ever seen before. If a number of strikeouts are attributable to swinging at bad pitches from hurlers unafraid to walk him, Cabrera isn’t going to see so many of those over the next few seasons – especially from hurlers with nasty right-on-right out pitches.