Wednesday, September 28, 2022

On This Day in 1941

Ted Williams finishes the season hitting .406 

Nobody else has done it since, so it has now been 81 years since anyone has accomplished the feat. That’s an average human lifespan, more or less. 

Pearl Harbor was still in the future, FDR was president, Benny Goodman and swing music in general ruled the hit record charts, and Joe Louis was heavyweight boxing champion.

In all of sports there are very, very few single season records that survive that long. It tells you a lot.

Only 3 hitters have approached the .400 mark since, most notably Tony Gwynn with .394 in 1994, George Brett with .390 in 1980, Rod Carew with .388 in 1977.

These days nobody is remotely a threat to hit .400 because launch angle and exit velocity have taken over the game and nearly ruined it.

Ted Williams somehow managed to hit for both power and average despite using a slight upper cut in his swing — not because it caused the ball to “launch” off the bat at some desired angle to maximize home runs (and strikeouts), but because that better matched the slightly downward path of the pitch, maximizing your chance of hitting the ball hard and on a line. He wrote a famous book about his philosophy of hitting, “The Science of Hitting”.

He was clearly one of the best hitters of all time — if not for serving in two major wars and missing 5 years of his baseball prime, he definitely would have threatened Babe Ruth’s all time HR record of 714.

So it’s been 81 years since Williams did it, and prior to that there were 5 players who hit .400 a total of 10 times from 1900-1925 — Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby both did it three times, George Sisler twice, and Napoleon Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson once. Here’s the full list of all-time season batting average records.

The first in the modern era was Lajoie in 1901 and the last was Hornsby in 1925. In between, Cobb (1911, 1912, 1922), Shoeless Joe (1911), Sisler (1920, 1922), and Hornsby (1922, 1924). Two .400 hitters in 1911 and three in 1922! 

I point all this out to highlight the clumping of these data points — eleven times total, once in 1901, once in 1941, nine times in the years 1911-25. That’s the whole history of .400 hitting in a nutshell.

Of this group of .400 hitters, Hornsby, Cobb, and Williams all had, as one might expect, long runs of extreme dominance.

Hornsby’s run from 1920-1925 was one of the most amazing batting displays in history — he hit .400 three times and led the NL, all six years, in all of these categories: BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, plus five times in TB and four times in Hits, 2B, and RBI. His stat line over those years is incredible: BA .397 and 1.133 OPS with season averages of 118 Runs, 115 RBI, 216 Hits, and 363 TB. Over a twelve year run from 1920-1931 he averaged .378 with 185 hits and 105 RBI and led the NL in:

  • OPS ten times
  • OBP nine times
  • SLG eight times
  • BA seven times
  • TB six times
  • Runs five times
  • Hits, 2B and RBI four times
  • BB three times

Williams had a similar six-year run from 1941-1949 (excluding the war years 43-45) where he hit .359 with a .505 OBP and 1.161 OPS and averaged 35 HR, 130 RBI, 150 BB, and 339 TB, and led the AL, all six years, in all of these categories: BB, OBP,  SLG, OPS, plus four times in BA, HR, Runs and TB and three times in RBI. He is the all-time career leader in OBP at .482 — almost a .500 OBP for an entire career! Over a 13 year run 1939-1958 (excluding war years and injury-shortened years) he led the AL in: 

  • OBP twelve times
  • OPS ten times
  • SLG nine times
  • BB eight times
  • BA, Runs and TB six times

Cobb’s dominant run was thirteen years from 1907-1919 where he averaged .377 and 197 hits per season, and led the AL in : 

  • BA twelve times 
  • OPS nine times 
  • Hits and SLG eight times
  • OBP seven times 
  • SB and TB six times 

All three players were absolute machines on offense, obviously.