Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Consistent .400 Hitters

ESPN.com has a new video from Steve Phillips regarding the following:

"Will Ichiro or any other player in today's game ever be consistent enough to put together a .400 season? Time will tell."

This is probably about as intelligent a statement as we can expect from the man who brought Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar to the Mets, but I digress. Breaking this down:

- If there's one thing the last 65 years have taught us, it's that a .400 season is an anomaly, something that can only happen through a great confluence of skill and fortune. In other words, it is the exact opposite of a "consistent" performance.

Here are some of the recent runs at .400, along with the player's batting averages before and after that year:

Tony Gwynn:

1992: .317
1993: .358
1994: .394
1995: .368

Gwynn was about as consistent a hitter as I can remember, but his 1994 seems well out of line with his other numbers. Note that he played only 110 games in '94, increasing the inherent variance in his batting average. (Think about how often you see a player hit .400 for one month vs. how often it happens over a full season.)

It's possible the strike cost him a .400 season, but far more likely that his average was going to fall in the final two months.

George Brett:

1978: .294
1979: .329
1980: .390
1981: .314

Yeah, that's consistency if I've ever seen it.

Like Gwynn, Brett benefited from playing a short season, appearing in only 117 games. That, plus a good deal of luck, is the real reason he batted .390, not consistency.

Rod Carew:

1976: .331
1977: .388
1978: .333

Carew was a very similar player to Tony Gwynn, a guy who was good for a .330 batting average nearly every year during his prime. He still was nowhere near a .400 hitter.

I could go back further, but the point is clear. Recent baseball history has seen a few guys who have demonstrated the ability to consistently hit .360 for a few years (Boggs, Gwynn, Larry Walker in Coors). No one has shown the consistent ability to challenge .400, and with good reason. Even when Bill Terry or Ted Williams or Joe Jackson hit .400, it was a year well out of line with career averages, the equivalent of Adrian Beltre's 2004 or Norm Cash's 1961. As A-Rod showed us this April, when a superstar has a "fluke" good run, he looks superhuman. If and when someone hits .400 over a full year, it will be a very good hitter who had a career year.

- On the "Time will tell" comment: This is probably satisfactory for Steve Phillips, who a few weeks ago was talking about how A-Rod would rewrite the record books this year. Those of us who aren't results-oriented know that someone hitting .400 doesn't prove anything about how it's done, just like winning the lottery doesn't demonstrate your ability to pick numbers better than anyone else.

Barry Bonds had a great chance to hit .400 at some point in his 2001-2004 run. Drawing a huge number of walks every year and sitting out 20 games kept his at-bat total under 400, increasing the variance involved. Lots of home runs and few strikeouts gave him a huge head start. He didn't get there, partially because he had lost his speed and the "Bonds shift" was cutting into his batting average on balls in play. Does his failure tell us anything about what kind of player he was?

Maybe it tells Steve Phillips something, but not me.

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