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April 21, 2011

Overthinking It

When Is .300 Not .300?

by Ben Lindbergh

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A shiny batting average can forgive a lot of failings on the baseball field. As Crash Davis memorably observed in Bull Durham, one extra flare a week can mean the difference between .250 and .300, which in turn can mean the difference between the bushes and the bigs. However, even a .300 average isn't always conclusive proof of productivity. Dramatic swings in scoring throughout baseball history have made the rarity of a .300 average vary wildly: in 1930, batters tore up the league at a .296 clip, making .300 averages commonplace, while in 1968, they managed only a collective .237 mark, allowing Carl Yastrzemski to lead the AL with a measly .301.

Ted Williams once noted, “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Thanks to the cult of the .300 average, Williams was right about the reputation aspect, but he of all people should have known that the best hitters succeed far more often than that—Williams himself succeeded in not making an out nearly half the time, retiring with a .482 on-base percentage. In order to be productive, a batter can’t content himself with hitting for a high average; he must also hit for power and regularly reach base by other means.

This early in the season, the major leagues are littered with .300 hitters doing relatively little to help their teams at the plate. That kind of superficial success can lull a team into a false sense of security. Not only are those averages unlikely to remain inflated—only 23 qualifying batters ended last season above .300—but many of these players don’t provide the offensive value that their averages might suggest.

Reds shortstop Paul Janish was hitting .308 before last night’s game, but had walked only once and managed just one extra-base hit (a double), for a triple-slash line of .308/.315/.327. Manny Ramirez’s replacement on the Rays roster, Casey Kotchman, is hitting .350 but slugging only .400, unacceptably low even for a superb defensive first baseman (albeit better than he managed last season). Robert Andino’s .318 average for the Orioles is an exact match for his .318 slugging percentage, and two of a kind in triple-slash stats generally isn’t a winning hand. Ryan Theriot (.316 average, .355 slugging), Jamey Carroll (.300 average, .350 slugging), and Darwin Barney (.309/.350/.400) have offered their teams a steady supply of singles, but little else.

To evaluate the total contribution of players like these at the plate, we can turn to True Average (TAv), a statistic that incorporates the entirety of a player’s offensive contributions, including walks and hitting for power. (TAv is pegged to the same scale as batting average, with .260 representing an average performance.) For example, the patron saint of empty averages in recent years was Alex Sanchez, who posted a career .296 average yet lasted for parts of only five seasons in the majors. In 2004 with the Tigers, Sanchez hit .322 in 352 plate appearances, but walked in only two percent of his plate appearances and hit just two home runs, for a .245 TAv. The following spring, Sanchez was released, as the Tigers realized that a batting average that looked good on the back of a baseball card was no substitute for run production (or run prevention—Sanchez didn’t excel in the field, either).

Sanchez’s 2004 bunt-hit barrage was cut short by injuries in the second half of the year, but other underwhelming high-average hitters have seen their seasons through. Here are the five lowest totals in True Average for qualifying batters with .300-plus batting averages since 1950: 

Name

Year

Team

PA

BA

TAv

Deivi Cruz

2000

Tigers

615

.302

.248

Mike Caruso

1998

White Sox

555

.306

.250

Placido Polanco

2001

Cardinals

610

.307

.253

Larry Bowa

1975

Phillies

628

.305

.256

Hal Morris

1998

Royals

516

.309

.257

It’s fitting that a Kansas City representative appears in this list, since in recent years the Royals offense as a whole has been characterized by high batting averages and low productivity. Last year, the Royals finished second in the majors to the Rangers (who played in a much better hitter’s park) with a .274 team batting average, but they came in third-to-last in the league with a .126 Isolated Power (SLG minus AVG) and second-to-last with a 7.6 percent walk rate. As a result, they scored the fifth-fewest runs per game in the AL. Like Janish, Theriot, and Carroll, the first four names on this list were slap-happy middle infielders who offered little patience or power to accompany their averages. Cruz showed the most pop of the bunch, slugging .449, but walked only 13 times all season, finishing with a .318 OBP. Caruso would go on to play one more season with a .250 average before washing out of the league, confirming Crash's fears. The only corner man in the group, Morris was a moderately valuable player in his prime, though he never fit the profile of a classic first-base slugger. As he neared the end of his time in the majors, his already-unimpressive power evaporated, leaving him with little more than an ability to make contact. His .257 TAv in 1998 was below-average for the league, putting it well beyond the pale at the offensively demanding positions (first base, left field, and DH) at which he was stationed. Tony Womack ranks sixth with a .259 TAv in 2004; the following year, he would crater completely for the Yankees, who responded by calling up Robinson Cano.

What about those sub-.250 batters—are they really destined for the Durham Bulls? Here are the five sub-.250 seasons since 1950 that produced the highest TAvs: 

Name

Year

Team

PA

BA

TAv

Mickey Mantle

1967

Yankees

553

.246

.343

Mickey Mantle

1968

Yankees

547

.237

.337

Gene Tenace

1976

Athletics

508

.249

.330

Harmon Killebrew

1962

Twins

666

.243

.329

Gene Tenace

1978

Padres

515

.224

.328

Tenace was an underappreciated hitter whose productivity was obscured by a lack of contact and a cavernous park in Oakland. Killebrew led the AL with 142 strikeouts in 1962, but he also paced the Junior Circuit with 48 home runs while walking over a hundred times. A number of other Cooperstown-caliber players dot the top 20, as Mark McGwire’s 1990, Darrell Evans' 1985, Killebrew's 1959, Reggie Jackson's 1968, Mike Schmidt's 1975, Eddie Matthews' 1958, and Frank Robinson's 1974 narrowly missed the cut for the table above. Players skilled enough to maintain high averages have to supplement their singles with walks and extra-base hits, but those who make little contact need to truly excel in other areas to remain productive. Mickey Mantle was a high-average hitter in his prime, but not in his final two seasons, when advancing age coupled with a league-wide offensive downturn combined to send his batting average plummeting. Mantle famously lamented, “To think you're a .300 hitter and end up at .237 in your last season, then find yourself looking at a lifetime .298 average—it made me want to cry.” Mantle might have been pleased to learn that his final season rated a full hundred points higher by TAv, thanks to one of the highest walk rates of his career, leaving him with a career .351 mark.

In the broad strokes, .300 hitters tend to be worth playing, as do pitchers with eye-catching win-loss records. However, these imprecise measures often lead observers astray, so it’s best not to rely on arbitrary cut-offs when we have more comprehensive information available. Offense isn't everything, and a good glove man can be worth playing despite an unsightly average, but don’t assume that a high-average hitter is getting the job done with the stick simply because there’s a three immediately to the right of the decimal; it could be that a replacement with a more modest average would be putting more runs on the board.

Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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