Can Joe Mauer Hit .400?
Note: Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press evidently raised the same question last night, while we were slaving away at this. Frankly, we're annoyed, but trust us—our answer is better.
After missing the first month of the season, Joe Mauer won't have enough plate appearances to qualify for his third batting title until early August.
But Minnesota's star catcher should have his sights on a loftier goal:
The .400 club.
Twenty-eight hitters are on the list already. Just 13 of those played in the modern era, and of that group, only one—Shoeless Joe Jackson—isn't in the Hall of Fame.
Since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, we've seen seven 60-homer seasons, a dozen 150-RBI campaigns, and seven instances of a .500-plus on-base percentage. We've seen long-standing records in everything from walks to hits to long balls eclipsed.
But we haven't seen a repeat of the Splendid Splinter's performance.
That's where Mauer, currently sitting on .436, comes in.
On one hand, his relatively small sample size of 24 games means he has plenty of room to slip. After all, a handful of hitters have flirted with .400 into June and July, only to fall well short.
On the other, it's been quite some time since a young hitter with as much upside and pedigree as Mauer mounted a serious challenge.
Here's a look at three things that need to happen for Mauer to make a run at baseball's most elusive batting milestone.
1. He Needs to Keep His Number of At-Bats Down.
Joe Posnanski wrote a thorough piece for Sports Illustrated the other week in which he tabbed Mauer as the best bet to hit .400 (although he predicted that the wear and tear of catching would hold him back).
Posnanski's model centered on players with the ability to cut their strikeout rates down and put more balls into play for hits.
Low strikeout rates are certainly a common denominator among hitters who have hit .400 or come close—Williams, George Sisler, George Brett, and Tony Gwynn all struck out between three percent and 4.5 percent of the time in their best batting seasons—but another way to boost your odds is to discard a chunk of at-bats and shorten the race.
Thanks to a staggering 147 walks (one every for every four plate appearances), Williams recorded only 456 official at-bats in 1941. Because of a few injuries, Brett recorded just 449 when he hit .390 in 1980.
Mauer's patience, debut-delaying ailments, and days off as a catcher all will help in that department.
Based on his track record, he's on pace for about 488 at-bats. Hitting .400 will still require an impressive 195 hits, but that saves Mauer 25 hits from the 220 he'd need over 550 at-bats.
Of course, walks and days off won't diminish the need for Mauer to hit the cover off the ball. But they'll save him a handful of outs and lend his hot streaks a little more pop.
Even for a .430 hitter with a .508 OBP, a walk is less likely to produce an out than a swing.
2. He Needs to Keep Going Deep.
While a power surge seems counterproductive in a contract-driven pursuit, long balls and .400 chases historically have gone hand-in-hand.
When Williams did it, he whacked 37 homers in the process, the third-best total of his 17-year career. When Brett came close, he clocked 24, his own third-best total in 21 seasons.
When John Olerud carried a .400 average into August in 1993 (he finished at .363), he hit a career-high 24 moon shots. Even the light-slugging Gwynn posted two of his highest homer totals—12 and 17—in his .394 and .372 seasons, respectively.
While the connection likely has more to do with correlation than causation (e.g., a guy starts going long because he's hitting the ball on the screws in general, not the other way around), Mauer's 2009 fly ball numbers shed some light on his gaudy average.
Mauer's numbers on all types of balls in play are up this year, but his most dramatic jump in production has come with fly balls. Coming into this season, Mauer hit .277 on fly ball swings and left the park about 7.6 percent of the time.
This year, he's hitting .483 on flies and putting those balls in the seats at a robust 35 percent clip. Eleven of his 15 fly-ball hits have come on home runs.
That success almost certainly is unsustainable (consider that Ryan Howard hit .482 on fly balls during his MVP season, on the strength of a 36 percent fly ball home run rate), but even settling at the midpoint between his past and present fly ball numbers would yield 16 extra hits.
In a 500 at-bat season, that's about 32 points of batting average.
Mauer's "on pace" for 53 home runs, but—call us crazy—we're going to assume that he doesn't get there. Even jumping from the 12 he hit last year to 25 or 30, however, would keep that fly ball batting average up and provide a big boost in the .400 chase.
3. He Needs to Get Lucky
Everybody who puts up crooked numbers needs a little extra help in getting those balls to fall where they ain't.
Mauer's certainly been lucky so far. His batting average on balls in play (which is exactly what it sounds like, with home runs counting as balls out of play) is a lofty .407. In other words, he's hitting .407 on balls that the defense has a chance to convert to an out.
Statheads consider variations in BABIP to be in large part a matter of luck—sometimes the ball heads straight to a fielder, and sometimes it doesn't.
Pitchers are thought to have very little control over the stat, and pitchers with an extremely high or low BABIP are expected to regress toward the league average.
Hitters produce a reliable BABIP with more consistency and are generally expected to regress toward their own career mark.
Mauer's .407 BABIP should be considered lucky in that it's 67 points north of his career average. But that's no more luck than those before him have enjoyed in putting together breakout seasons.
When Brett hit .390, his BABIP was 61 points above his career mark. Gwynn hit .394 on the strength of a 48-point boost on balls in play. Chipper Jones rode a 63-point BABIP surge to a batting title last year, and Nomar Garciaparra relied on a 67-point uptick during his .372 campaign.
Even George Sisler and Rogers Hornsby—two of the greatest contact hitters of all time—relied on BABIP jumps of 76 and 57 points, respectively, in posting their best single-season averages.
Luck happens. There's no doubt that it's been on Mauer's side this season, but history says there's no reason why it can't stick around for the entire year.
A lot has to go right for Mauer—or anyone else, for that matter—to think about .400. It's a fragile pursuit, easily derailed by a cold spell or a little misfortune here and there.
Most candidates who spark early discussion on the subject look laughable by the year's end. Mauer has the tools to get the job done but will need every break he can get—and will face a crush of media attention if he soldiers on deep into the year.
Williams once griped, "I hope somebody hits .400 soon. Then people can start pestering that guy with questions about the last guy to hit .400."
Maybe Mauer can finally give the late great some company.
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