Sure, the batting average has lost some of its luster over the years as new metrics took center stage amid a big data revolution in baseball. But it's still there, still useful, and if you ask a Major League hitter, he'll tell you that winning a batting average crown is a tremendous achievement.
Now that 2020 is in the books, with the Yankees' DJ LeMahieu winning his second career batting average title and Juan Soto winning his first, who will take home the crown in each league this year? We had five MLB.com writers take a shot at guessing who will lead each league in batting average when it's all said and done in '21 -- here are their picks:
DJ LeMahieu -- INF, Yankees
2019 BA: .327 / ’20 BA: .364
Over the past five seasons, no one has a higher batting average (minimum 2,500 plate appearances) than LeMahieu’s .320 (Jose Altuve is second, at .318). And lest you chalk that up to Coors Field, no one has a higher batting average since he left Colorado either -- LeMahieu hit .336 from 2019-20 with the Yanks (min. 1,000 plate appearances).
LeMahieu finished fourth in AL MVP voting in 2019 and third last season. His production at the plate is no fluke, and makes intuitive sense given he doesn’t have to deal with the difficult adjustment to breaking balls when coming down from altitude during road trips with the Rockies. LeMahieu has always been a spray hitter, particularly to the opposite field, and you couldn’t ask for a better ballpark for that type of hitter than Yankee Stadium … well, maybe Coors.
-- Manny Randhawa
Anthony Rendon -- 3B, Angels
2019 BA: .319 / ‘20 BA: .286
Last season marked the first time in four years that Rendon didn’t hit over .300, as a 4-for-39 (.103) start with his new club dragged down his final numbers. The 30-year-old closed out the year on a 50-for-150 (.333) run, however, finishing with a .286 average overall.
Rendon has a strong grasp of the strike zone, and when he swings at a pitch, he typically makes contact. Last season, the veteran had a 96th-percentile whiff rate and a 93rd-percentile strikeout rate, numbers that were in line with his past performance. But it’s not just his ability to put bat to ball that makes him such a threat. Rendon makes quality contact and can drive the ball to all fields, so shifting against him really isn’t a viable option. He also walks a ton (16.4% in 2020), which makes the challenge of hitting for a high average a bit easier. Add it all up, and Year 2 in SoCal is looking mighty bright for the 30-year-old.
-- Thomas Harrigan
Luis Arraez -- UTIL, Twins
2019 BA: .334 / ‘20 BA: .321
In stark contrast to teammates such as Nelson Cruz and Miguel Sanó, Arraez does not hit the ball with a ton of authority, ranking near the bottom of MLB over the past two seasons with a 24.8% hard-hit rate and 3.0% barrel rate. But there’s more than one path to big league success, and Arraez is exceptionally adept in a few other areas. Most notably, just about nobody in today’s whiff-heavy game is better at avoiding swings and misses or strikeouts. And while Arraez doesn’t hit a lot of rockets, he sprays the ball around the field and does so with ideal launch angle. Of the more than 200 hitters with at least 350 batted balls since 2019, Freddie Freeman ranks first in the rate of contact in the “sweet spot” of 8-32 degrees. Mike Trout is third. The guy in between them? Arraez (42.0%).
Put that all together, and Arraez is one of four players to hit at least .320 in both of the past two seasons (minimum 100 at-bats in each). Only LeMahieu has a higher total average in that span. There’s a reason why both ZiPS and Steamer project Arraez to lead the Majors in that category in 2021.
-- Andrew Simon
Alex Bregman -- 3B, Astros
2019 BA: .296 / ‘20 BA: .242
Bregman is going to have a monster bounceback year, and part of that will be blowing past the .300 mark for the first time to win his first career batting title. Basically every projection system sees Bregman returning to an MVP level in 2021, which makes perfect sense, because he's one of the most complete hitters in the game. He drives the ball in the air consistently. He makes tons of contact. He doesn't chase bad pitches. He rarely strikes out. All those qualities are going to come together and it's going to be a perfect storm for Bregman this season.
-- David Adler
Tim Anderson -- SS, White Sox
2019 BA: .335 / ‘20 BA: .322
Anderson led the Majors in batting average in 2019, becoming the first White Sox player to do that since Luke Appling in 1936. Those are the only two times a White Sox batter has led the Majors in average, but it feels like Anderson will do it again someday, and soon. His expected batting average, based on quality of contact, was almost the same from 2019 to 2020, and was 90th percentile or better in both years. That tells us that even if his contact wasn’t necessarily reflective of an average as high as .335, he wasn’t just getting lucky hits, either.
The White Sox shortstop is second among all qualified hitters in the last two seasons combined with a .331 batting average, trailing only DJ LeMahieu. Over the past two seasons, he’s also cut down on strikeouts compared to his first few years in the Majors, and continues to hit all pitch types well. Expect him to join Appling as White Sox with multiple batting titles, but find himself all alone among those in franchise history leading MLB twice. I thought about contact-hitting teammate Nick Madrigal here, too -- and it feels like his time is coming, soon.
-- Sarah Langs
Juan Soto -- RF, Nationals
2019 BA: .282 / ‘20 BA: .351
There’s a reason I took Soto with my first pick in the Top 25 Under 25 Draft. There are plenty of outstanding young players in the game right now, but there’s only one Juan Soto -- the player whose ZiPS comp for 2021 is literally Ted Williams. He’s the best hitter in baseball right now, so I was thrilled to get the chance to take him No. 1 here, to lead the Majors in hitting, too.
Soto was second in the Majors in batting average in 2020 behind LeMahieu, winning the NL batting title. Only three players in the Modern Era (since 1900) won a batting title at a younger age than Soto’s 21 years, 338 days on the last day of the season: 1996 Alex Rodriguez, 1955 Al Kaline and Ty Cobb, twice, in 1907-08. This is the echelon Soto is already in, so a second batting title -- and leading the Majors this time, too -- feels like it’ll happen very soon.
Soto wasn’t just second in average, he was also second in xBA among qualified hitters, at .332. Sure, that’s lower than .351, but that tells us that he was making stellar contact -- the type we can expect to see for years to come.
-- Sarah Langs
Corey Seager -- SS, Dodgers
2019 BA: .272 / ‘20 BA: .307
You could see Seager's big year in 2020 coming from a mile away ... and 2021 is going to be even bigger. The Dodgers shortstop sprays hard contact all over the field. Last year, 22% of his swings produced a hard-hit ball (exit velocity of 95 mph or higher), which was second in the Majors to Fernando Tatis Jr. A high rate of hard contact per swing means a hitter is combining quality of contact and quantity of contact -- hitting the ball hard, and hitting the ball a lot. It's the best of both worlds. That's why Seager's expected batting average for 2020 was .326, even higher than his actual batting average (.307) and third-best among qualified hitters behind Freddie Freeman and Juan Soto. Seager's going to keep raking in 2021.
-- David Adler
Freddie Freeman -- 1B, Braves
2019 BA: .295 / ‘20 BA: .341
It’s a little surprising that Freeman hasn’t already won an NL batting title, right? He finished third in both 2013 (.319) and ‘18 (.309), then second during his MVP-winning ‘20 campaign, behind only Soto. A .295 career hitter, Freeman has reached at least that mark in five straight seasons. That admirable consistency makes him a comfortable pick here. Freeman is a near-lock to at least be in the mix.
There’s really nothing Freeman does not do well at the plate. He’s greatly improved his contact rate and strikeout rate over the past several seasons, to the point where he ranked in the 91st percentile in lowest K-rate in the shortened 2020 season. He makes hard contact frequently, and nobody is better at driving the ball in the launch angle “sweet spot” -- Freeman is among the MLB leaders in that category on an annual basis. Along with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna, Freeman should continue making pitchers sweat in 2021.
-- Andrew Simon
Mookie Betts -- RF, Dodgers
2019 BA: .295 / ‘20 BA: .292
There’s nothing on a baseball field that Betts doesn’t do at a high level, and that includes hitting for average. The superstar outfielder won a batting title for the Red Sox with a .346 mark in 2018, the year he was the AL MVP, and his lifetime average is slightly north of .300.
Betts rarely swings and misses, especially on pitches in the strike zone. His 93.3% contact rate on in-zone swings ranked third in the Majors last season, and his overall 86.2% contact rate was sixth highest. Betts also has proven to be one of the game’s best at consistently producing quality contact, with a 24.6% hard-hit + sweet-spot rate over the past three seasons -- tied for the fourth-highest figure in the Majors during that span.
With Betts firmly in his prime at age 28, would anyone really be surprised if he hit .330? Or .340? Or even .350? I think he’s shown that pretty much anything is possible at this point.
-- Thomas Harrigan
Jeff McNeil -- 2B, Mets
2019 BA: .318 / ‘20 BA: .311
Since 2018, when McNeil made his MLB debut, no National League hitter with a minimum of 900 at-bats owns a higher batting average than his .319. While he’s not necessarily the first guy you think of when predicting batting average champs, he’s been consistent -- he hit .329 in 63 games in 2018, .318 in 133 games in ’19, and .311 in 52 games last year.
With another season on his resume and the excitement of a bolstered lineup with the addition of Francisco Lindor, McNeil may be in for more than just consistency in 2021 -- perhaps even a career-high batting average, which would place him in the thick of the NL batting title race.
-- Manny Randhawa