Can Mike Trout hit .400?

June 28, 2012
 
Mike Trout is currently hitting .338 .344 .345. Barring a long slump, it is likely that he will end the season having posted one of the ten best batting averages for a twenty-year old hitter in baseball history.
 
Here’s the current list:
 
Rank
Name
Age 20 BA
Year
1
Alex Rodriguez
.358
1996
2
Ty Cobb
.350
1907
3
Al Kaline
.340
1955
4
Mel Ott
.328
1929
5
Jimmie Foxx
.328
1928
6
Ted Williams
.327
1939
7
John McGraw
.321
1893
8
Stuffy McInnis
.321
1911
9
Cecil Travis
.319
1934
10
Arky Vaughan
.318
1932
 
It’s an impressive group: seven Hall-of-Fame players, plus John McGraw (a Hall-of-Fame manager and an excellent hitter), Stuffy McInnis, and Cecil Travis.
 
Seeing this list got me thinking about the possibility of Mike Trout hitting .400. I don’t think he’ll hit .400 this year…but is there a chance he can hit .400 someday?
 
Going a bit further into the list above, we can lump the ten players whose company Trout will join into four camps:
 
-Those who never did any better in the batting average department.
-Those who posted better batting averages, but didn’t come close to hitting .400.
-Those who did come close to .400, and,
-Those who hit actually .400.
 
In the first camp we have A-Rod, Al Kaline, and Stuffy McInnis. Neither A-Rod nor Kaline ever improved on their Age-20 batting averages, though both players had better seasons later on. Stuffy McInnis did improve on his batting average, but only slightly…from .321 to .327 to .324 in consecutive years. I’ve lumped him with Kaline and A-Rod because he didn’t have a drastic improvement.
 
 Double-X, Double-T, and Cecil Travis did post better batting averages later on:
 
Name
Age 20 BA
Year
Best BA
Year
Mel Ott
.328
1929
.349
1930
Jimmie Foxx
.328
1928
.364
1932
Cecil Travis
.319
1934
.359
1941
 
Foxx and Travis won batting titles, but none of the three came particularly close to crossing the .400 line.
 
On the other hands, Arky Vaughan and John McGraw both came very close to hitting .400:
 
Name
Age 20 BA
Year
Best BA
Year
John McGraw
.321
1893
.391
1899
Arky Vaughan
.318
1932
.385
1935
 
Had McGraw collected four more hits, he would’ve been at .401 (160/399). Vaughan was eight hits shy (192/599). Oddly, both men were one at-bat short of a century mark in at-bats. Also: John McGraw has the third-best on-base percentage in baseball history.
 
Finally, Ty Cobb and Ted Williams each hit .400, once for Williams, thrice for Cobb:
 
Name
Age 20 BA
Year
Best BA
Year
Ty Cobb
.350
1907
.420
1911
Ted Williams
.327
1939
.406
1941
 
These seasons are widely regarded as fluky outliers. Neither player is of any particular historical significance.
 
Ten players is a small sample size to draw definitive conclusions from, but Trout is keeping good company. Six of the ten players listed won batting titles. Four of the ten came within striking distance of hitting .400. Two hit .400. It’s impressive company.
 
*          *          *
 
I’ll throw in the requisite comment that batting average is an overrated statistic.
 
 I’ll also throw in my entirely subjective belief that, WAR-be-damned, a player hitting .400 is the most significant single-season achievement that a player can accomplish. With the single-season homerun record a bit tarnished by the steroid era, hitting .400 is the default standard-bearer of awe-inspiring batting feats.
 
*          *          *
 
One of the reasons that Trout is an interesting candidate to be the first .400 hitter since Williams is Trout’s tremendous speed. This shows up in his stolen base totals, and his batting average on balls in play:
 
Year
Level
Games
SB
BABIP
2009
R
39
13
.423
2009
A
5
0
.444
2010
A
81
45
.420
2010
A+
50
11
.346
2011
R
25
3
.347
2011
AA
91
33
.390
2011
Majors
40
4
.247
2012
AAA
20
6
.476
2012
Majors
51
21
.394
 
 
BABIP is the percentage of balls put in play that wind up being hits…the average BABIP is right around .300, but it tends to fluctuate based on luck. Except for his 2011 call-up to the majors, Trout has posted reliably high BABIP’s (he has also averaged 55 steals per 162 professional games). This is almost certainly due to Trout’s incredible speed on the bases. It is reasonable to expect that Trout’s edge in getting to first really fast will help him maintain higher-than-average BABIP.  
 
As it’s been seventy-one years since Ted Williams went 6-for-9 in the final double-header of 1941, I wanted to compare Trout to some more modern players. So let’s have a look at the BABIP’s of the best recent challengers to .400:
 
Name
 Year
BA
BABIP
Gwynn
1994
.394
.389
Brett
1980
.390
.368
Carew
1977
.388
.408
Walker
1999
.379
.363
Nomar
2000
.372
.378
Helton
2000
.372
.357
Ichiro
2004
.372
.399
Gwynn
1997
.372
.363
 
Trout is currently posting a .394 BABIP, which is right in line with the other challengers. Trout is a bit behind Carew and Ichiro (two very fast players), but ahead of the rest.
 
Two other factors to consider are a player’s walk and strikeout rates. A high walk rate, within the context of hitting .400, means that a player is selective about what he’s swinging at:
 
Name
 Year
BA
BB%
Gwynn
1994
.394
10.1
Brett
1980
.390
11.3
Carew
1977
.388
9.9
Walker
1999
.379
11.1
Nomar
2000
.372
10.2
Helton
2000
.372
14.8
Ichiro
2004
.372
6.4
Gwynn
1997
.372
6.6
 
Mike Trout has walked in 9.0% of his plate appearances this year, which puts him within the range of the challengers.
 
Interestingly, the recent challengers to .400 are split on walk rates. Ichiro and (one version of) Tony Gwynn have fairly low walk rates (6.4 and 6.6%), while Todd Helton (14.8%) represents the other side of the spectrum. The rest of the challengers are right around 10-11%.
 
Onto strikeout rates…one would expect players making runs at .400 would need low strikeout rates, as a strikeout means that the ball is not put into play. This is certainly demonstrated by our crop of challengers:  
 
Name
 Year
BA
K%
Gwynn
1994
.394
4.0
Brett
1980
.390
4.3
Carew
1977
.388
7.9
Walker
1999
.379
10.1
Nomar
2000
.372
8.3
Helton
2000
.372
8.8
Ichiro
2004
.372
8.3
Gwynn
1997
.372
4.3
 
And this is where Trout gets into trouble…Trout’s strikeout rate is currently sitting at 18.5%, which is double the rates of all the challengers except Helton. It is highly unlikely that Mike Trout could hit .400 while striking out 18% of the time...he would need a BABIP close to .500 to pull it off. Even a strikeout rate of 15% would require a BABIP of about .470 for Trout to hit .400.
 
Using some quick and dirty math, I’d say that Trout would need to just about halve his strikeout rate to make a serious run at a .400 batting average.
 
Since I have the spreadsheet, I’ll throw Trout onto the list:
 
Name
 Year
BA
BABIP
BB%
K%
AGE
Gwynn
1994
.394
.389
10.1
4.0
34
Brett
1980
.390
.368
11.3
4.3
27
Carew
1977
.388
.408
9.9
7.9
31
Walker
1999
.379
.363
11.1
10.1
32
Nomar
2000
.372
.378
10.2
8.3
26
Helton
2000
.372
.357
14.8
8.8
26
Ichiro
2004
.372
.399
6.4
8.3
30
Gwynn
1997
.372
.363
6.6
4.3
37
Trout
2012
.335
.395
8.8
18.5
20
 
*          *          *
 
Someone asked Bill if Trout has a shot to win the AL MVP. Trout certainly has a case.
 
He currently leads the American league in batting average and stolen bases, and is in the top-ten in runs scored, on-base percentage, and OPS.
 
Checking out the advanced metrics, Trout ranks second in bWAR (behind Brett Lawrie) and second in fWAR (behind Robinson Cano). He’s climbing the charts on our Total Runs leaderboard (Trout ranks sixth among AL players, right between NL MVP candidates Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton).
 
Another point in Trout’s favor is that the Angels’ improvement coincided with his arrival to the major leagues. The Halos were just 8-14 when Trout was called up on April 28th. They were mired in last place, the only team under .500 in the division, and already nine games behind their expected rivals, the Texas Rangers.
 
Since Trout’s arrival, the Angels have gone 34-19, the best record in baseball over that stretch (the Yankees are second at 35-20). The Angels are still behind the Rangers, but they start today in good position to win one of the Wild Card spots, and could easily catch the Rangers.
 
MVP? He’d get my vote.
 
*          *          *
 
Of the eight players who havemade runs at a .400 batting average, the closest comparable to Trout is probably Nomar Garciaparra…both players are right-handed hitters with 30-HR potential. Both are athletic looking players at key defensive positions. Like Trout, Garciaparra started his career as a leadoff hitter…
 
But the player who gives me some hope that Trout will one day hit .400 isn’t Nomar Garciaparra. It’s Rod Carew.
 
Here are Carew’s rate stats, from his rookie year to his run at .400:
 
Year
BA
BABIP
BB%
K%
Age
1967
.292
.341
6.6
16.2
21
1968
.273
.312
5.3
14.4
22
1969
.332
.386
7.3
14.3
23
1970
.366
.407
5.4
13.7
24
1971
.307
.356
7.1
12.8
25
1972
.318
.369
7.3
10.2
26
1973
.350
.411
9.4
8.4
27
1974
.364
.433
10.7
7.1
28
1975
.359
.421
10.4
6.5
29
1976
.331
.395
9.8
7.6
30
1977
.388
.449
9.9
7.9
31
 
Check out the bolded column: over the course of eleven major league seasons, Carew managed to cut his strikeout rate in half. He did so while improving his walk rate, which lead to his spectacular 1977 season in Minnesota.
 
*          *          *
 
Sooner or later we’ll see another .400 hitter in the major leagues. I think it’ll come sooner rather than later, and I think that Mike Trout will be the guy to do it. I’ll give you an extra reason why.
 
Let me start by throwing a speculative question at you: what is most wrong with today’s version of the game of baseball?
 
I’m not asking about secondary stuff like the price of tickets or the unending string of pitching changes or the hours it takes Jonathan Papelbon to throw a baseball. I’m talking about the game itself…the moments of action.
 
I think most fans, if they thought about it long enough, would agree that the biggest problem with the game as it is played is the huge number of strikeouts, which is continuing to creep up steadily. I like a good strikeout as much as the next guy, but it’s getting a tad commonplace. Did you know what pitcher has the 8th best strikeout rate in baseball history? It’s Oliver Perez. He was an okay pitcher, but it’s silly that his strikeout rate ranks as the eighth-best strikeout pitcher in history.
 
Eric Bedard ranks 17th. Tom Gordon is 30th. Chad Billingsly is 34th.
 
Of the top-40 pitchers in strikeouts-per-nine innings pitched, thirty of them have pitched in the major leagues since I started writing for this site in 2008. That’s 75%. That’s crazy.
 
Eventually, Major League Baseball will step in and do something to reduce strikeouts.  
 
The objective will not be to increase offense….the goal will only beto reduce strikeouts across the league. This is somewhat tricky: it won’t work to return baseball to the ballooning homerun derby of last decade. It will not be enough to just take something away from pitchers (like lowering the pitching mound). There has to be a parallel effect on hitters, something along the line of increasing bat diameters and weights. Or altering the strike zone. Or enforcing the batter’s box.
 
I don’t know what the solution will be….but I think that major league baseball will decide that there are too many strikeouts, and they’ll figure out a way to increase contact while maintaining a reasonable balance between offense and defense.
                                 
A rule change that reduces the overall strikeout would help batting averages. And it would give Mike Trout a shot at hitting .400.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. He promises no more Mike Trout articles until at least September.
 
 

COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

BringBackTriandos
Strikeouts could be reduced if the league abolished the check swing strike. If the player checks his swing, a strike would be determined by where the ball was pitched. It seems that almost half the time the umpire is wrong on his check swing call.
1:14 PM Jul 5th
 
joedimino
I disagree with the statement that BABIP tends to fluctuate based on luck for hitters. Heck, even for pitchers there is plenty of fluctuation that isn't luck or defense based, although the true talent range (at the MLB level) is a lot narrower than it is for hitters.
10:26 AM Jul 4th
 
Marinerfan1986
OK. First time I found out how you calculate BABIP. Thanks
12:24 AM Jun 30th
 
DaveFleming
Albert Pujols has a higher [i]career[i] batting average (.326 currently) than BABIP.

So did Ted Williams (.328 career BABIP, .344 career BA). It's rare, but it happens.
7:53 PM Jun 29th
 
shinsplint
I believe sacrifice flies do count using BABIP, but not for catting average. Therefore the formula would be amended as the following:
``
HRs/(HRs+Ks-SF)>BABIP, BA>BABIP
1:12 PM Jun 29th
 
Robinsong
I should have said if HRs/(HRs+Ks)>BA, BABIP>BA
12:42 PM Jun 29th
 
Robinsong
Home runs do not count as a ball in play, so if HRs>Ks BABIP could be less than BA. This is the other way that Trout will improve his odds of hitting .400: his HR rate will increase.
12:39 PM Jun 29th
 
Marinerfan1986
On your list of players who had a high BA how come Gwynn, Brett, Walker, and Helton had a higher BA thaan BABIP? Intuativly that doesn't seem right.
10:20 AM Jun 29th
 
Marc Schneider
I would love to see someone hit .400 and I would love to see someone win 30 games. I realize that these are not significant from a sabermetric point of view, but, given the history of these standards, it would be awfully exciting to see. If you hit .400, that's meaningful regardless of anything else.


10:18 AM Jun 29th
 
TheComplication
Would not strikeout rates start going down when every batter in the league stops trying to hit a home run on every pitch? I realize home run totals have declined, but are players perhaps still trying to crush every pitch, even though this strategy is no longer as effective than it was a few years ago?

As you said in the article, a bigger bat would probably result in more contact; choking up on the bat would also help.

Yes, the game would be more exciting if the ball was in play more.
12:40 AM Jun 29th
 
 
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