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12 candidates to hit .400 this season

@SlangsOnSports
June 26, 2020

The 2020 season will consist of 102 fewer games than usual, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities. While counting-stat records will be safe for the time being, certain rate-stat marks will be within reach. No player has hit .400 in a qualified season since Ted Williams hit

The 2020 season will consist of 102 fewer games than usual, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities. While counting-stat records will be safe for the time being, certain rate-stat marks will be within reach.

No player has hit .400 in a qualified season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. But there have been seven players since then to have at least a .400 average at the 60-game mark. (This doesn't include players who were under .400 at 60 games, but later got back to that point).

.400 BA through 60 team games, qualified hitters since 1942
Chipper Jones, 2008: .409
Tony Gwynn, 1997: .403
Larry Walker, 1997: .417
Paul O’Neill, 1994: .417
Rod Carew, 1983: .411
Hank Aaron, 1959: .402
Ted Williams, 1948: .412

No active player has done it, but there are four active players to hit .400 over any span of 60 team-games within a single season, as a qualified hitter. Those hitters are José Altuve, in both 2016 and ‘17, Joey Votto in ‘16, Andrew McCutchen in ‘12 and Albert Pujols in ‘03. Free agent Hanley Ramírez, who has yet to officially retire, also did so, in ‘09.

Could one of them bat .400 in this abbreviated 60-game schedule? Could another player achieve the feat? Doing so this year could not be considered on par with Williams’ 1941, but it would be a fun novelty.

Even so, the numbers say not to expect it. According to research by MLB.com senior data architect Tom Tango, the likelihood that any qualified player would hit .400 this season is 3%. But that’s still far higher than the chances in a regular, 162-game season, which are 0.0012%.

While the odds are stacked against it, it’s still intriguing to imagine a serious pursuit stretching late into September. Here’s a look at 12 candidates to hit .400 this season.

SUPERSTARS

José Altuve, Astros
Highest BA in qualified season: .346 (2017)
Projected 2020 BA per Steamer: .296
Highest BA in qualified 60-games-played stretch: .420 (2017)

Altuve has won three batting titles in his career, in 2014, ‘16 and ‘17. He’s hit above .300 in five of his eight qualified seasons, and one of the near misses was last season, when he hit .298. And Altuve has demonstrated he is capable of the sort of extended hot streak needed here. His .420 average over a span of 60 games in 2017 tied for the highest by any player on record in a 75-day span (since 1904).

Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
Highest BA in qualified season: .305 (2019)
Projected 2020 BA: .287
Highest 60-game BA: .370 (2019)

Bellinger stayed at or above the .400 mark longer than anyone last year, through 49 games. It was the longest bid for .400 since Jones made it 73 games in 2008.

Bellinger led all qualified hitters last season with a .323 expected batting average, which is based on quality of contact, plus strikeouts. Strikeouts -- or lack thereof -- played a key role in his 2019 success. Bellinger decreased his strikeout rate in 2019 to 16.4 percent from 23.9 percent in ‘18. That 7.5 percent point decrease was the largest in strikeout rate of any hitter who was qualified in both seasons. Plus, when Bellinger puts the ball in play, his excellent speed turns some groundouts into infield hits.

DJ LeMahieu, Yankees
Highest BA in qualified season: .348 (2016)
Projected 2020 BA: .285
Highest 60-game BA: .379 (2016)

LeMahieu posted his second-highest batting average in 2019, hitting .327 in his first year in the Bronx and quieting those who said his previous success had been purely due to calling Coors Field home. LeMahieu’s expected stats bore out his results, too. His .322 xBA was second among qualified hitters, behind only Bellinger’s -- and correlated very closely with his actual .327 average.

LeMahieu strikes out rarely, which will always help in this arena. His 13.7% strikeout rate was top-20 in the Majors, and only one other player in that top 20 had a higher batting average than him (Ketel Marte, .329, 13.7 percent strikeout rate). LeMahieu can also hit pretty much anything. Last year, he hit .319 or better in at-bats ending in fastballs, breaking balls and offspeed pitches.

Anthony Rendon, Angels
Highest BA in qualified season: .319 (2019)
Projected 2020 BA: .284
Highest 60-game BA: .370 (2019)

Rendon’s 2019 batting average was the highest of his career, but that doesn’t mean we should anticipate he’ll regress. Why? His xBA in 2019 was the exact same number, .319, and he was the only qualified hitter with a batting average equal to his xBA last year. It may seem like a statistical anomaly, but it shows that his batting average wasn’t artificially high as a result of luck. That .319 xBA was also third among qualified hitters, behind only Bellinger and LeMahieu.

Rendon has a great recipe for a high batting average. He doesn’t strike out much, sprays the ball all over the field, and makes a habit of swinging at the right pitches. Joining a lineup with both Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani should help Rendon continue to see good pitches.

Mike Trout, Angels
Highest BA in qualified season: .326 (2012)
Projected 2020 BA: .297
Highest 60-game BA: .385 (2013)

No list of players with the potential to achieve greatness is complete without Trout, and the .400 chase is no exception. Trout’s .291 average in 2019 was his second-lowest in a qualified season, but his xBA was .311, tied for fifth-best among qualified hitters. In other words, based on his quality of contact and strikeouts, he should’ve hit for an even higher average.

A related element that will help him in this quest: Trout doesn’t chase much. His 17.9 percent chase rate last season was the lowest of his career, and ranked fourth-lowest among 146 players to see at least 1,000 out-of-zone pitches in 2019. Don’t hit the bad pitches, make quality contact on the good ones, and you’ve got a great chance at hitting .400 over a sustained period of time.

Christian Yelich, Brewers
Highest BA in qualified season: .329 (2019)
Projected 2020 BA: .304
Highest 60-game BA: .365 (2018)

Yelich has won back-to-back National League batting titles, with a combined .327 average, so it’s easy to expect him to be in the running to reach .400 in 2020. His .313 xBA in 2019 was fourth-highest among qualified hitters, behind only Bellinger, LeMahieu and Rendon.

Yelich absolutely crushed fastballs (.347) and offspeed pitches (.380) in 2019, showing that pitchers have no good way to get him out. That makes him a serious candidate here.

SLEEPERS

Luis Arraez, Twins
Highest BA: .334 (2019 -- only MLB season, did not qualify)
Projected 2020 BA: .312
Highest 60-game BA: .340 (2019)

Arraez caught a lot of eyes in 2019 for his elite bat-to-ball skills. He had a 93.3% contact rate, the highest among 273 players with at least 300 plate appearances. Arraez also barely struck out -- doing so in just 7.9% of plate appearances, the lowest among that same sample of hitters. Making a ton of contact and barely ever striking out seems like a good way to hit for a high batting average, and indeed he did over 366 plate appearances. His .312 projected batting average for 2020 is the highest according to Steamer.

Howie Kendrick, Nationals
Highest BA: .344 (2019 -- did not qualify)
Projected 2020 BA: .308
Highest 60-game BA: .359 (2007)

Kendrick already inscribed his name into the history books with two dramatic homers in the Nationals’ 2019 World Series run. Imagine if he added “.400 hitter” to his resume just a year later, too? He’s been a part-time player recently, racking up just 370 regular-season plate appearances last year, but if he plays enough, he has the tools to do it. The addition of the designated hitter for at least 2020 in the National League should help on the playing-time front, as he’s the team’s primary projected DH. Kendrick had a .336 xBA in '19, highest among players with at least 250 plate appearances.

Alex Verdugo, Red Sox
Highest BA: .294 (2019 -- did not qualify)
Projected 2020 BA: .307
Highest 60-game BA: .305 (2019)

A .400 chase certainly might make Boston fans feel a bit better about the Mookie Betts trade. Verdugo is up there with some very elite hitters in terms of strikeout rate. With 377 plate appearances of 2019, he struck out just 13% of the time, 19th-lowest among 241 players with at least 350 plate appearances. More evidence of his elite contact skills lies in his 90th-percentile, 16% whiff rate last year. As already noted, making consistent contact and avoiding strikeouts are two keys to this quest, so he’s in good shape there.

ROCKIES

Nolan Arenado
Highest BA in qualified season: .315 (2019)
Projected 2020 BA: .296
Highest 60-game BA: .346 (2019)

Arenado is a superstar, of course, but is just listed here to be with teammates. It’s hard to have a list of candidates to hit .400 without a few players whose home games are at Coors Field, given that a Rockie has won the NL batting title 11 times in the franchise’s 27 seasons, including in six of the past 13. There’s nowhere better to start than the team’s perennial MVP candidate. Arenado is on the heels of his highest career batting average, in a 2019 season that also included his highest 60-game qualified batting average stretch of .346 from mid-April through late June. He’s never had a strikeout rate higher than 18.1% in a season, and has a career mark of 15.2%.

Daniel Murphy
Highest BA in qualified season: .347 (2016)
Projected 2020 BA: .288
Highest 60-game BA: .374 (2016)

Murphy is another good choice on the Rockies roster, especially because he’s likely to benefit from the DH addition like Kendrick. That should net him more at-bats, and likely some more consistency as well. He had a down year in 2019, but was among the top 4% of the league or better in xBA in each of the 2016-18 seasons -- and that was before he played his home games at Coors Field. He struck out a bit more in 2019, too, but has historically been a low-strikeout player, which helps immensely.

Yonathan Daza
Highest BA: .206 (2019 -- only MLB season, did not qualify)
Projected 2020 BA: .301
Highest 60-game BA: has not played 60 career MLB games

This is a huge wild card -- but bear with the process here. Daza is the Rockies’ 11th-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline and had a 44-game stint in the Majors in 2019. But his chances at .400, which are relatively high according to Tango’s research, rest on this tenet: A player who hits .400 may be one who plays just enough to reach the 186-PA minimum to qualify for the batting title this year. In 1980, George Brett hit .390 -- one of the closest qualified bids at .400 since Williams’ feat. He did so in a year where he amassed 515 plate appearances after being limited with an ankle injury. That’s plenty of PAs, but just 13 more than the necessary 502 in a 162-game season. Clearly, Daza is not Brett, but he does have a .318 career average in the Minors, including .364 in 89 Triple-A games last year.

Projections give Daza a high batting average this season, in a limited sample. If we extrapolate that sample to just barely making the qualified cutoff, he has fewer chances to lower that batting average, and therefore a decent chance to remain at a necessarily high level for the whole year.

Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.