Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Zen Dayley: Mauer could be another Ted Williams, but .400? No ... no

In the box marked It's Not For Nothing, please note that Joe Mauer had his first 0-for-5 all season on Tuesday, dropping his average down to .395.

Mauer is a wicked player, but the idea of him hitting .400, really? One should stay on the stathead side with respect to the Sports Illustrated cover story about Mauer being the literary device in Tom Verducci's argument that, post-Steroid Era baseball's "most iconic, captivating pursuits are of hitting streaks and a .400 batting average." The snark has already been covered off Tommy Craggs ("Tom Verducci has found his latest anti-drug mascot: Joe Mauer").

The Mauer meme was probably started by Joe Posnanski. Poz wrote a column a month ago where he noted most of the highest batting averages recorded in recent times where by players who almost never struck out, like 4% of the time. Using that 4% strikeout rate, he figured that Manny Ramírez might have hit .416 one season and that Canadian Larry Walker might have hit .400 a couple times for the Colorado Rockies (and .398 in another season).

This is not an attack on two writers who have put out/will put out a book this year every baseball fan will likely want to read (Verducci's The Yankee Years and Poz's The Machine, which is about the 1975 Reds). The problem is that one guy is ignoring math and the other was ignoring intent.

The question about whether we will ever see another .400 hitter was answered by the late, great Stephen Jay Gould. Chris Lynch at A Large Regular dug out a great quote from Full House:
  1. Complex systems improve when the best performers play by the same rules over an extended period of time. As systems improve, they equilibriate and variation decreases.
  2. As play improves and bell curves march toward the right wall, variation must shrink at the right tail. (Emphasis mine.)
Like Lynch says, "The disappearance of the .400 hitter is seen as basically a measure of an overall improvement in play."

League batting averages, give or take a few percentage points, have been relatively stable over time. In 1941, when Ted Williams hit .406, the entire American League hit .266. You know what the league average was in 1977, when Rod Carew hit .388? The exact same, .266.

Three years later, when George Brett took his run at Williams and wound up at .390, the AL hit a collective .269. Last season, it hit .268, with the highest average in the league being Mauer's .328.

You can pretty much go back to any season from the wayback era when the .400 hitter was commonplace (when black athletes were barred from playing and scouting and player development was next to nonexistent) and find similar support of Gould's theory that the best players don't lap the field by as much because there are more good players.

Take 1911, when Ty Cobb hit .420 and Shoeless Joe Jackson was runner-up at .408. Twenty-one players (i.e., those who batted enough to qualify for the batting title) hit at least .300 that season, almost three per team in an eight-team league. In the first post-Dead Ball season, 1920, when George Sisler hit .407, there were 26 .300 hitters in the AL. There were similar totals throughout the heavy-hitting '20s, the last decade where .400 hitters appeared with any regularity.

By '41, though, when Williams turned the trick, 15 players hit .300 in the AL, less than two per team (the eight-team NL had only 11). Fast-forward ahead to 2008 and only 17 everyday players in the 14-team AL hit .300, just one per team on average.

Those are only randomly gathered examples, but you should see the trend. The more competitive the game gets, the less likely you are

There also (sorry, Poz) does not seem to be any correlation between batting averages and strikeout rates. His aforementioned column certainly did stimulate thought, but it ignored intent. Players do not intend to strike out. Even a world-renowned space cadet such as Manny Ramírez does not say, "Okay, this will be one of my 100 strikeouts for the year, it's just a cost of doing business." He is trying to make solid contact and sometimes he misses because the pitcher he is facing is better than him that day.

Pitchers generally go for strikeouts more than their decades-ago brethren, who were often expected to pace themselves to last the full nine innings and did not have to worry the threat of Dr. Longball. Besides, as I'm sure someone much smarter long ago pointed out, there is no relationship between strikeout rates and overall batting averages.

Last season, when the entire AL hit .268, Jack Cust led the league with 197 strikeouts. Sixty years earlier, when only one player in the AL (Pat Seerey, remember him?) struck out 100 times, the entire league hit .266. The year after that, the entire league hit .263 without a single player joining that dubious Century Club.

This is not meant to be ad hominem. Verducci and Posnanski both write like a dream. Baseball fans are blessed to have them writing about the diamond game. They and their editors are smart to understanding it's all in how you package a story. Any baseball fan would be stirred if Joe Mauer was hitting .410 deep into August, even those who know batting average is a bunko stat. What Verducci says about Mauer is good writin', Dickie:
"Here is where Mauer comes in. With home runs having gone the way of junk bonds, derivatives and no-document mortgages, the most iconic, captivating pursuits are of hitting streaks and a .400 batting average, in part because of their daily drama and the stirring of the ghosts that come with them. Not since the Reds' Pete Rose hit in 44 straight games in 1978 has a hitter come within 15 games of Joe DiMaggio's single-season record of 56 straight. Not since the Rockies' Larry Walker and the Padres' Tony Gwynn, in 1997, has anyone hit .400 even as modestly deep into a season as June 22 — until Mauer."
A counter-point might be, who said Mauer has to hit .400 for the average casual sports fan to be regarded as an awesome ballplayer? FanGraphs has him down to finish this season with rate stats of .354/.433/.579 and he plays catcher, the most demanding fielding position. That hardly needs any high gloss.

Tom Verducci has found his latest anti-drug mascot: Joe Mauer (Tommy Craggs, Deadspin)
Joe Mauer Will Serenely, Politely Crush You (Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated)

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