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December 15, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

The .400 Club

by Jim Baker

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The .400 Club

Baseball's three most-famous "clubs" are the 300-Victory, 3,000-Hit and 500-Homer. If pressed, I'm sure that we could all name a good percentage of the members of those esteemed bodies because we are good citizens and it is our duty to know such things. Because they are counting stats subject to the vagaries of time and space, though, are they really the most prestigious clubs to which a ballplayer can belong? In light of the power explosion of recent times, is membership in the 500-Homer Club the laurel it once was? Should it represent a golden key to the front door to the shrine at Cooperstown? That the question is even on anyone's lips illustrates that we need to call attention to other clubs.

While a "150 WARP3" Club or a ".333 EqA Club" would be ideal, we've got to be realistic here and understand that those would not speak to the masses - at least until advanced metrics are being taught in our nation's public schools as I have so tirelessly advocated they should be.

Instead, I thought we'd play around with "The 400 Club" or rather "The .400 Club" -- as in those players with a career .400 On Base Percentage. While OBP still remains exotic to some members of the mainstream media, it's understood by more and more fans that if you have to yank out one stat to put next to a player's name that would best describe his ability to help a team win, this would be it. Those who eclipse the 40% mark for their careers comprise a much larger club than the Homer and Victory clubs, so it is not quite as elite as its more celebrated counterparts. It consists of 58 to 60 men depending on how you do your rounding on George Selkirk and Luke Appling. (To see the entire Club roster, see here.) In the meantime, we'll discuss some selected portions of the Club.

The Top 10 .400 Club Members

.4817: Ted Williams
.4740: Babe Ruth
.4657: John McGraw
.4552: Sliding Billy Hamilton
.4474: Lou Gehrig
.4429: Barry Bonds
.4349: Bill Joyce
.4337: Rogers Hornsby
.4330: Ty Cobb
.4330: Todd Helton

People love to talk about unbreakable records and yet Ted Williams' career OBP feat never comes up in those discussions. Consider how few players have come anywhere near it since Williams retired 46 years ago. Aside from active players, only Edgar Martinez (.417) and Wade Boggs (.418) were even on the same page as Teddy Ballgame among those whose careers began after his ended. Bonds, the closest latter-day ballplayer to Williams, had an OBP of .411 through 2000. It was the .575 burst between 2001 and 2004 that brought him as close as he is, so he was never a threat.

It's helped Williams' status that offense was walking off a plank just as his career ended. As with all baseball accounting, players from certain eras have an advantage over others, so the .400 Club is by no means perfect in this regard. Consider, for instance that its members played only 1,989 games between the years 1961 and 1980. In fact, no player who spent the majority of their career in that time frame is in the Club. Only four of its members touched that period: Mickey Mantle for 1,002 games, Joe Cunningham for 516, Stan Musial for 382 and Rickey Henderson for 89. Looking at the top 100 OBP figures of all time (which extends down to about .390), the number of 1961-80 games played jumps to 7,474. This is thanks mostly to the additions of Rod Carew (.393) and Joe Morgan (.392), but it still leaves the era under-represented.

Speaking of unassailable pinnacles, will we ever see a one-two punch the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig again? That the second- and fifth-most adept players in history at getting on base often batted consecutively is one of the most serendipitous occurrences in baseball fate. Their combined OBP for the years they were together was .456. (Ruth's career average peaked before Gehrig became a regular in 1925.) Here's something that would be fun to know: Ruth and Gehrig played in over 1,300 games together. In how many of those games did they combine to do nothing? How many total times in the same game did both their lines read 3 0 0 0, 4 0 0 0 or 5 0 0 0 with no walks?

It's interesting to speculate how different John McGraw's legacy would be if he hadn't effectively pulled the plug on his playing career at the age of 28. Before easing himself out of the lineups he was putting together as manager, he was an on-base machine who took every advantage of the rules of the day (foul balls other than bunts were not counted as strikes until 1901 in the National League and 1903 in the American). McGraw was a Hall of Fame-caliber player who didn't play quite enough to qualify on the strength of his playing career alone.

That leaves Bill Joyce as the sole non-Hall of Famer in the all-time Top 10. His OBP was helped by two factors: the era in which he played and the length of his career. Joyce played his first big league game at 24 and was done at 32. That means there was no decline or run-up period to drag his average down. In between he missed a season (1893) to a contract dispute and only played in about 80 percent of his team's games the rest of the time. That made for a grand total of just 904 career games. He could be a formidable opponent, though. For whatever it was worth in the 1890s, he was one of the premier home run hitters of the era.

The Top 10 Active .400 Club Members

.443: Barry Bonds
.430: Todd Helton
.424: Frank Thomas
.419: Albert Pujols
.416: Lance Berkman
.413: Jason Giambi
.412: Bobby Abreu
.411: Manny Ramirez
.409: Jim Thome
.408: Brian Giles
.402: Chipper Jones

Current Yankees Giambi and Abreu constitute a latter-day version of the Ruth-Gehrig on-base juggernaut, albeit a heavily discounted one. If Gary Sheffield can manage a .418 OBP in the next two years in Detroit, he'll nudge his way into the .400 Club. He's only done that once in the last five seasons, though. On the other hand, Chipper Jones is close enough to the edge and young enough that a decline phase could carry him off the list eventually.

Five .400 Club members with the least reliance on batting average

64.1%: Max Bishop
65.4%: Eddie Stanky
67.5%: Barry Bonds
67.6%: Bill Joyce
67.6%: Roy Cullenbine

The percentage shows how much of their OBP was accounted for by batting average. There are just seven middle infielders in the .400 Club and two of them are Bishop and Stanky. The others are Eddie Collins, Cupid Childs, Jackie Robinson, Charlie Gehringer and Arky Vaughn, the only shortstop. (Mickey Cochrane is the only catcher.) Stanky never had more than 158 hits in a season but was a mid-century descendant of the McGraw style of anything for a win and the Bill Joyce style of letting one's fists do the negotiating. Stanky won two OBP titles while Bishop, trapped in a league with Ruth and Gehrig and who often hit below the league batting average, never finished higher than third. Half of Cullenbine's plate appearances came during the four years of World War II when he was in his prime. He had WARP3s of at least 7.0 in two years after the war, though and set the Tigers record for most walks in a season (137) his last year in the bigs, 1947.

Five .400 Club members with the greatest reliance on batting average

84.8%: Pete Browning
84.6%: Ty Cobb
84.5%: Lefty O'Doul
84.2%: Joe Jackson
84.1%: Ed Delahanty

They don't make 'em like this anymore. Actually, they haven't made 'em like this in a while. The highest percentage for a .400 Club member who played after World War II is 79.4% by Stan Musial, and that ranks 16th. The highest among recent or current players is Albert Pujols, who is just behind Musial. Actually, all five of these players had decent enough walk rates (approximately one for every 10 at bats), it's just that their batting averages were so high.

Highest career batting averages without making the .400 Club

.342: Davey Orr (.366 OBP)
.341: Willie Keeler (.388 OBP)
.341: Bill Terry (.393 OBP)
.340: George Sisler (.379 OBP)
.338: Tony Gwynn (.388 OBP)

Conspicuous by their absence from the .400 Club

Joe DiMaggio (just missed at .398), Honus Wagner (.391), Pete Rose (way off at .375) and Robin Yount (lowest OBP by a member of the 3,000 Hit Club: .342).

Least-known members of the .400 Club

We've already discussed Bill Joyce. Ferris Fain (number 15) isn't especially well-known, although he did win two batting titles. His career was very short, however. Jake Stenzel (number 48 at .409) also had a short career, one that paralleled Joyce's in era and duration. In an era when getting on base wasn't all that hard, Stenzel's highest WARP3 was just 7.6 and he only cracked 5.0 two other times. Denny Lyons was a third baseman who was one of the better players in the American Association. He continued to play well in the National League after its demise - at least for a couple of years. He, too, was done early.

Joe Harris (number 48 at .404) was another relative short-timer, spending all or parts of 10 seasons with five clubs. He broke in with the Yankees by walking in three of his first four plate appearances but was only a regular on occasion. He only qualified for the batting title three times in his career but did have a crowning moment in the 1925 World Series with Washington when he posted a .500 OBP in seven games. Joe Cunningham (number 51 at .403) was the 1959 National League on base champ, but that was just one of the three seasons in which he played enough to qualify for the batting title. He made the All-Star team that year and got some MVP votes (as he did in 1962). He didn't have home run power and was a career 16-for-43 in steals, so getting on base was his main deal. Lu Blue (number 53 at .402) was a first baseman in a league that included Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, another .400 Club member (number 11 at .428), so it's no wonder his name doesn't resonate 75 years down the road. What is more, his career OBP was actually higher than his career slugging average (.401). He did know how to work a walk, though, finishing second in the league four times, three of them behind Babe Ruth.

So, we will now see one of those children's baseball books called "Players of the .400 Club?" Not bloody likely. Consider the idea out there, publishing industry. Such a book would get Generation YY (or whatever they're going to end up being called) off on the right foot of understanding what works best in baseball.

Related Content:  The Who,  .400 OBP,  OBP,  Jim Joyce

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