|Why the .400 hitter is gone forever|
Written by Bjoern Hartig (Contact & Archive) on May 25, 2009
The inimitable Joe Posnanski talks about Jack Cust and the .400 hitter and as usual, he is delivering a combination of entertainment and insight:
Last year, Jack Cust came up 598 times.
He struck out 197 times: That's about 1/3 of the time. He walked 111 times. That's about one out of every five times. Total: Jack Cust walked or struck out more than 50 percent of the time he came to the plate last year.
Best I can tell, only two players in baseball history who have qualified for the batting title have done the Jack Cust dance -- that is, walk 100 times, strike out 100 times and not make contact half of the time they came to the plate. The first, of course, Jack Cust in 2008.
I'm not a big Cust fan, but that mostly has something to do with the fact that he plays for the A's while I'm rooting for the Angels, but nevertheless, I find him (like Adam Dunn) highly fascinating. For me, he is a little piece of softball in the big leagues. Walk, hit it out or die trying.
In any way, Joe most elegantly leads over to his other topic, the .400 hitter and why he most likely is a thing of the past:
The ball just got put in play a lot more in the olden days. This may be one quick reason to explain why batters hit for so much higher average in years past. Take the National League in 1930 -- you know, the whole league hit .303 that season. That was the year Bill Terry hit .401, the year Hack Wilson drove in 191 runs, the year 23 out of the 44 batters who qualified for the batting title hit .320 or better.
Well, that year the whole league only struck out about 8 percent of the time.
To give you an idea, last year in the National League batters hit .260 and struck out 18 percent of the time.
How much of a difference is that? Well, if batters had struck out at the 1930 strikeout rate, there would have been 10,000 more balls hit in play. Yikes. TEN THOUSAND more balls in play. We know that, generally speaking, about 30 percent of balls in play turn into hits but to prove the point, let's take it down a notch and say that only 25 percent of those balls hit in play would have been hits.
If you make that adjustment, the league would have hit .288 last year instead of .260. Chipper Jones only struck out 11 percent of the time last year ... but if you drop that down to 8 percent and make the adjustments, he would have hit .376. Matt Holliday would have put 50 more balls in play and might have hit closer to .350. And so on.
And thinking about that led me to wonder ... everyone talks about why no one will ever hit .400 again. And I've heard many, many reasons: Night games, travel, the slider, the split-fingered fastball, improved fielding, the intense media pressure, on and on and on and on.
BUT ... could it just come down to the fact that batters strike out a whole lot more than they did in the .400-hitting days? I do realize that all of the above reasons would contribute to more strikeouts, but I am still wondering here: Is that what it comes down to?
There have been nine .400 seasons since 1920 (when strikeouts are counted on Baseball-Reference). As you might imagine, none of the batters struck out even 8 percent of the time the year they hit .400. Rogers Hornsby hit .401 in 1922 and struck out 7 percent of the time. That was the most. George Sisler hit .407 and .420 in 1920 and '22, respectively ... and he struck out 19 times the first year, 14 times the second. Basically, the guy struck out 3 percent of the time.
"Night games, travel, the slider, the split-fingered fastball, improved fielding, the intense media pressure", how did people come up with those explanation before they thought of the strike out? It is so obvious (but most things are in hindsight).
However, since we probably won't see a low-strike out, high average guy who is able to challenge .400 any time soon, maybe we should pay more attention to the BABIP (batting average on ball in play)? Crown a Batted Ball Champion next to the batting champion and see if someone can challenge the big four oh oh if we waive the Ks.