Batting average is not the gold-standard yardstick it once was, even to those who have led their league
Ralph Garr says that winning the 1974 National League batting title meant so much to him it “changed his life.” Keith Hernandez beams while discussing his 1979 NL title, especially when he recounts how, at just 25 years old, he squashed the enormous pressure he felt while trying to hold off a late charge by none other than Pete Rose.
Ty Cobb won 12 career batting titles and once was considered baseball’s best player. For years, epic races — such as the one in 1984 in which Don Mattingly lashed four hits on the final day of the season to pass Dave Winfield, his Yankee teammate — captivated fans.
But the batting title doesn’t hold the same mystique it once did, thanks to analytics and the lure of the almighty home run. The statistical revolution has helped change our minds on the best ways to measure offense — hint: batting average is not it — so there’s less gleam on that batting crown. It’s a relic of another age; part accomplishment, sure, but part curio, too.
“For most of our careers, batting average was representative of a massive impact on the offensive side, just like the home run total,” says Yankees GM Brian Cashman. “Home runs are very impactful, but the mathematical side of baseball has informed us it’s a game of not making outs, so batting average is not representative of a truly prolific offensive profile.”
And while baseball luminaries such as Ted Williams and Stan Musial used to talk about craving the batting title, at least one star who has won one recently admits he doesn’t view the feat in the same way.
“Personally, I don’t set out to do that every year,” says DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees, who batted .348 with the Rockies in 2016 to win the MLB title and finished second in the American League at .327 in 2019, eight points behind Tim Anderson of the White Sox.
“It’s a cool accomplishment,” LeMahieu adds, “but it’s not on my radar.”
Easy to calculate — how many baseball-mad kids have improved their math by learning to figure that 200 hits in 600 at-bats equals .333? — batting average and its perceived importance soared during the Dead Ball Era when there were fewer runs and fewer extra-base hits, says John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball.
Hitters such as Cobb, Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie, among others, became stars in large part because of their high averages. A batting average of .300 was such a gold standard that Cap Anson wanted “Here Lies a .300 Hitter” on his tombstone, Thorn says, although Anson’s Chicago grave actually reads: “He Played the Game.”
Views have evolved over time, but baseball is “slow to change,” Thorn says. “Fans are slow to change. Sportswriters are slow to change.”
Players, too. In 1949, Ted Williams had a monster season and was named American League MVP. He led the circuit in doubles, homers, RBIs, runs, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. Some of those stats weren’t as highly regarded back then, but today they help illustrate how good Williams was that year.
But Williams was also crestfallen that he hadn’t won the batting title, losing a race so close it had to go out to four digits before George Kell pushed ahead by a sliver — .0002 points.
“Deep in my heart, winning the batting championship means a lot because it is something you do yourself — not something that is handed to you,” Williams is quoted as saying in an Associated Press story that November. He added: “But I certainly am very happy to be chosen most valuable.”
While hitters such as Williams viewed the title as a goal, there were doubts about batting average’s credibility even when it was a vital statistic. In his 1925 book, Batting, author F.C. Lane interviewed stars of the day, some of whom noted how average failed to reward sluggers or hitters with a knack for working a walk.
In 1954, a famous 10-page article titled, “Goodby (sic) to Some Old Baseball Ideas” appeared in Life Magazine under Branch Rickey’s byline. Rickey suggested new, deeper ways to look at performance, beyond batting average.
Still, the batting title is part of baseball lore. Even as its meaning has shifted from superstardom to something less, the batting crown still tugs at baseball’s psyche, whether via the sepia-toned prism of history or by giving a player such as LeMahieu an affirmation of sorts.
“To me, I felt like I had overcome a lot of doubters, so to win that felt really good, more for that than anything else,” LeMahieu says. “It was meaningful.”
In 2016, MLB honored Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew, two masters of the batting title, by naming the two leagues’ respective batting championships for them. The NL winner is now known as the “Tony Gwynn National League Batting Champion” and the AL winner is the “Rod Carew American League Batting Champion.”
Gwynn won eight NL crowns, tied with Honus Wagner for the most in league history, and Carew captured seven AL titles. Winners get trophies depicting Gwynn and Carew in their signature batting stances.
Gwynn, says his former manager Jack McKeon, loved the chase for the batting title. “He just wanted to be the best,” McKeon says. “Those days, the batting title was the key.”
Garr, who batted .353 for Atlanta in ’74, cherishes his crown and the opportunities it’s brought. According to his SABR biography, Garr more than doubled his $55,000 salary the year after outhitting Al Oliver by 32 points.
And Garr has a permanent place in the record books. “If you want to have the autographs of all the batting title winners, you can’t if you don’t get Ralph Garr,” he quips. “It’s part of history, and you can’t take that away. That’s a good thing.”
As Hernandez puts it, “Who wouldn’t want to be batting champ?”
Even Cashman admits that he paid attention to the race in 2019 because his player, LeMahieu, was trying to be the first in the modern era to win the batting title in both leagues.
“I can’t say I don’t care because I certainly was rooting hard for DJ,” Cashman says. “I thought it would be cool if he won one in the AL.”
LeMahieu, who finished fourth in the AL MVP voting, was lauded in his first year as a Yankee in part because he wasn’t homer-obsessed, though he did hit a career-high 26 home runs. The Yanks have heard criticism in recent Octobers because they were perceived to be big-fly-or-bust.
“To me, batting average is still a great indication of production, and LeMahieu’s production is all because of batting average and his ability to put the ball in play and not have a home run-or-nothing approach,” says Paul O’Neill, the 1994 AL batting champ who watched LeMahieu all season while broadcasting for the YES Network.
“I almost hope that he’s the resurgence of that kind of hitter.”
To Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine, those types of hitters could be more difficult to handle than even the brawniest slugger.
“Home runs are so sexy that it’s almost like we’ve lost track of the guy who hits .320 or .330 and leads the league,” Glavine says. “There was such an appreciation for guys like [Wade] Boggs, Gwynn, in my era. Huge respect. They were a pain in the neck to pitch to. The home run hitters usually had a hole, something you could exploit. It didn’t mean they wouldn’t get you, but you had somewhere to go to get them out. But you knew Gwynn wasn’t going to get himself out. You had to make a pitch. I’d rather face a lineup full of home run hitters than a lineup full of Tony Gwynns.”
For whatever it’s worth, a strong showing in MLB rankings in both batting average and fewest strikeouts is something four out of the last five World Series champions have in common. Only the 2016 Cubs were not in the top five of average and among the best in not striking out. Both the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox led the majors in batting average; those Astros struck out the fewest times, too.
Perhaps being adept at both helps come playoff time. “You can’t flip a switch when you get to the postseason if you don’t do it all year,” Glavine says.
Beyond the science and math of what it takes to win, Thorn wonders about how entertainment value factors into today’s game. The most fun of any of the Three True Outcomes is the home run, obviously. With strikeouts and walks, “You’re watching nothing happen,” Thorn says.
“The idea of watching players in motion [after the ball is put in play] is aesthetically more pleasing than standing around,” he adds. “Fans come to watch the theatrical experience.”
Still, Thorn says that while the batting title has meant so much to some players, it probably won’t have a resurgence as a baseball status symbol, unless, perhaps, someone makes a run at .400, a mark that hasn’t been achieved since Williams hit .406 in 1941.
It’s more likely to go the way of two other longtime measurement staples, Thorn says. “I think it’s got the same future as the 20-game winner and the 300-game winner,” he says. “They will increasingly be seen as irrelevant. It’s like having a needlecraft sampler in your kitchen that says, ‘Home, Sweet Home.’
“It’s a memento of a time past. We’re smarter than that now.”
— Written by Anthony McCarron for Athlon's 2020 MLB Preview.
(Top photo courtesy of @Yankees)