Who Are the Top Candidates to Hit .400 in MLB's Shortened 2020 Season?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 13, 2020

Who Are the Top Candidates to Hit .400 in MLB's Shortened 2020 Season?

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    If ever there were an opportunity for someone to snap Major League Baseball's 79-year drought of .400 hitters, it's this year's shortened season.

    To be sure, anyone who hits .400 in 2020 won't be granted the same kind of reverence as Ted Williams, whose .406 average from 1941 is the last of its kind. And rightfully so, as there's a big difference between hitting .400 in a 60-game season and doing it in a normal 162-game season.

    Nevertheless, any .400 average that happens this year would technically be official. It's also exciting to think that it could happen, particularly if a hitter maintains the same qualities that boosted Teddy Ballgame back in '41: lots of walks and contact that's both plentiful and loud.

    So which hitters are most capable of pulling it off? Let's tip our hats to some honorable mentions and then we'll count down our top 10 candidates.

Honorable Mentions

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    Tim Anderson
    Tim AndersonCharles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox

    Tim Anderson led the majors with a .335 average last season, and he even had a 48-game stretch in which he hit .377. Trouble is, there will be a big barrier between him and the .400 mark if he can't improve on his league-worst walk-to-strikeout ratio from last year.

         

    Luis Arraez, Minnesota Twins

    He didn't accumulate enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, yet Luis Arraez hit an impressive .334 in 92 games last season. But while it's good that he walked (36) more than he struck out (29), he also showed a lack of home run power by going deep only four times.

            

    Michael Brantley, Houston Astros

    Michael Brantley is one of the best pure contact hitters in baseball, and his swing is mainly geared toward producing line drives. Yet he doesn't take that many walks, and he's only a 20-homer candidate in a normal year.

        

    Alex Bregman, Houston Astros

    In addition to blasting a career-high 41 home runs in 2019, Alex Bregman also had, by far, the league's best walk-to-strikeout ratio. He's yet to hit even .300 in a season, however, which has to do with how his emphasis on pulled fly balls is better for hitting home runs than for hitting for average.

         

    David Fletcher, Los Angeles Angels

    David Fletcher had the highest contact rate of any qualified hitter last year. Otherwise, he's basically Luis Arraez.

        

    Jeff McNeil, New York Mets

    Jeff McNeil hit .329 as a rookie in 2018 and only sunk to .318 as a sophomore in 2019. But he only has so much power and his strikeout rate went up last year, so there's likely a ceiling on how high his average can go.

         

    Juan Soto, Washington Nationals

    Juan Soto is "only" a .287 hitter in two seasons, so it seems wise to wait on him to hit even .300 before marking him down as a potential .400 hitter. Still, that he can accumulate a .403 OBP and .937 OPS before even turning 21 scarcely seems possible.

10. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Given just how much can be gained from Coors Field's huge outfield and thin-aired atmosphere, it makes sense to consider at least one Colorado Rockies player for this list.

    To this end, Nolan Arenado is our guy.

    He's primarily known for hitting dingers and winning Gold Gloves at third base, but he's coming off a year in which he hit a career-high .315. And getting there actually required him to cool down, as he was hitting over .340 as late as June 5.

    Altogether, the 29-year-old hit 41 home runs while striking out in only 14.1 percent of his plate appearances and maintaining a solid 9.4 walk percentage. And contrary to the garden-variety Rockies hitter, Arenado is generally an above-average hitter on the road.

    Still, he's only going to pursue .400 if he blows away his .265 career average in road games. He's also in the same boat as Alex Bregman, in that his fondness for pulled fly balls ultimately isn't conducive to a high batting average.

9. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Though nobody's hit .400 in a full season since Ted Williams, Joey Votto is the last to do it in a single half.

    The YouTube channel Foolish Baseball produced a video that detailed how Votto hit .408 in the second half of 2016. Notably, he walked 15 more times than he struck out and hit 15 home runs with a .418 batting average on balls in play.

    None of this should surprise anyone who's familiar with Votto's hitting style. He has an all-time great eye for the strike zone. And when he's at his best, he's making frequent contact and driving the ball to all fields.

    Unfortunately, Votto is 36 years old now, and he simply hasn't been at his best over the last two seasons. To wit, he hit only .261 last year with an even worse expected batting average—a Statcast metric that incorporates the quality of a hitter's batted balls—of .256.

    We're not ruling out Votto turning back the clock, but we'd feel better about his chances of hitting .400 if the year was 2017 and not 2020.

8. Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Jose Altuve has the credentials of a guy who could make a run at the .400 mark.

    He's a .315 career hitter in nine seasons, and he's won three batting titles, including one by way of a .346 average as recently as 2017.

    Like Votto, however, the 30-year-old Altuve hasn't been at his best over the last two seasons. He didn't even crack the .300 threshold in 2019, in which his walk-to-strikeout ratio took a drastic turn for the worse and both his exit velocity and hard-hit rates registered at well below average.

    In Altuve's defense, however, he looked a lot more like his usual self in the latter half of last season. He even had a 60-game run between July 6 and September 13 in which he hit .344 with 18 home runs.

    If Altuve can pick up from there, his 2020 season might turn into an abbreviated version of his MVP-winning 2017 campaign. Ideally, he would repeat his peak stretch from '17 in which he hit a staggering .420 in a 60-game sample.

7. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    If anyone's going to hit .400 this year, why not the best hitter in baseball?

    Mike Trout has earned that distinction by leading the majors in OPS+ in each of the last four seasons. And on the batting average front, the 28-year-old does two things that could point him in the direction of .400.

    The first is that he draws a lot of free passes, as his 19.0 walk percentage since 2017 is easily the highest among qualified hitters. More walks mean fewer at-bats, which allows for a smaller likelihood of a hitter's average suffering from bad luck.

    Apropos of that last point, the other thing Trout does well is crush the ball when he puts it in play. In 2019, for example, his 66 "barrels" (i.e., batted balls with an ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity) tied for the second-most in MLB behind only 48-homer slugger Jorge Soler.

    However, there are good reasons that Trout hasn't hit over .320 since 2013. One is that he's still striking out in roughly 20 percent of his plate appearances. The other is that he hits a lot more fly balls—which had basically the same batting average as ground balls in 2019—than he used to.

6. Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Angels

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    If not Mike Trout, then how about his newest teammate?

    Though there were other reasons that the Los Angeles Angels were comfortable signing Anthony Rendon to a $245 million contract, it didn't hurt that he hit a career-high .319 last season. What's more, his expected batting average was...[drum roll]...also .319.

    That's reflective of how Rendon, 30, has turned himself into one of the toughest outs in the majors. He walked more than he struck out in 2017, and he nearly did it again last year in finishing with 80 walks to only 86 strikeouts.

    To boot, Rendon has also been improving his contact quality. The 81 extra-base hits he had last year ultimately sprang from new personal bests for launch angle and hard-hit rate.

    Like Trout, however, any pursuit that Rendon makes at the .400 threshold won't be helped by how his batted ball profile is more reliant on fly balls than it used to be. This is especially true given that he only homered on 15.9 percent of his fly balls in 2019. That was half the rate of the overall league leader.

5. Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Mookie Betts hit .346 en route to winning the American League MVP in 2018, but his average then dropped 51 points to .295 last season.

    Per his expected batting average, however, a lot of that was bad luck:

    • 2018: .314
    • 2019: .311

    It's to Betts' credit that he slightly improved his walk-to-strikeout ratio from 2018 to 2019, the latter of which saw him post 97 walks to 101 strikeouts. He also maintained well-above-average marks for exit velocity (91.0 mph) and hard-hit rate (46.6 percent).

    Though Betts, 27, has averaged 29 home runs over the last four seasons, he's resisted falling into a trap of trying to hit home runs. He remained primarily a fly-ball hitter in 2019, but he pulled only 34 of his fly balls to left field.

    There is a catch to that, though, and it's that Betts' power is overwhelmingly focused to his pull side. Barring any changes with that, his batting average could be deflated by too many doomed fly balls.

4. DJ LeMahieu, New York Yankees

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    When DJ LeMahieu hit .348 for the Rockies in 2016, one only needed to mutter "Coors" to downplay his accomplishment.

    It's not so easy to do that with the .327 average he posted for the New York Yankees in 2019.

    This was LeMahieu's chance to shine away from Coors Field, and he did so by hitting .338 at home and .318 on the road. It helped that he struck out in only 13.7 percent of his plate appearances, but his average was more so boosted by how he hit the ball.

    LeMahieu, 32, largely remained committed to his usual batted ball profile last season. He prefers line drives and ground balls, and he can get away with that because he sprays them around and because he makes frequent hard contact. Hence how he had the second-highest expected average in the majors last year.

    But even after shattering his previous career high by hitting 26 home runs last season, LeMahieu still isn't a standout slugger. That plus his generally low walk rates (e.g., 7.0 percent in 2019) could hinder any push he makes for a .400 average in 2020.

3. Ketel Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Surprised at Ketel Marte's inclusion here? Don't be.

    He's coming off a 2019 campaign in which he hit .329 overall, and he got there largely by going supernova after June 14. All told, he hit .380 in his final 75 games.

    Because he's a switch-hitter, Marte always has the platoon advantage when he's at the plate. It's also to his credit that he can hit equally well from both sides of the plate. In 2019, he hit .327 from the left side and .333 from the right side.

    The 26-year-old also evolved into a tough out in a more traditional sense as last season moved along. In those last 75 games, he racked up 32 walks to only 37 strikeouts. And while he hit 15 home runs, he didn't have to lean into a fly-ball approach to do so. Only 31.7 percent of his batted balls were fly balls.

    The caveat with Marte is that his contact isn't especially loud, as his hard-hit rate was only in the 55th percentile last year. But apart from that, he could indeed mount a run at .400 if he's able to pick up from where he left off in 2019.

2. Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Ever since the 2018 All-Star break, trying to get Christian Yelich out has largely been an exercise in futility.

    Though Mike Trout has him beat with a .446 OBP since the '18 break, Yelich otherwise leads all hitters with a .705 slugging percentage and, crucially, a .342 average.

    A key ingredient in those latter two numbers is that Yelich, 28, generally doesn't miss when he gets the ball airborne. His fly balls have been averaging 96.5 mph in exit velocity and going over the fence a league-high (by far) 37.1 percent of the time.

    It's no surprise that Yelich has become more of a fly-ball hitter in the process, yet he hasn't completely abandoned ground balls and line drives. Similar to LeMahieu, he gets away with that because he spreads them around and because he hits 'em hard. To be exact, the grounders and liners he's hit since the '18 break have averaged a robust 92.9 mph.

    Now, if only Yelich offered a more balanced walk-to-strikeout ratio. It's not something he's necessarily bad at, but he'll need to do better than last year's 0.68 mark if he wants a real shot at .400.

1. Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Sam Gangwer/Associated Press

    Cody Bellinger as a .400 hitter? We saw it early in 2019, when he started out so hot that his average was still over .400 after 47 games.

    Though Bellinger, 25, cooled off and finished with a .305 average, his league-best .323 expected average suggests that he deserved better. And considering the details, it's not that hard to believe.

    For one thing, Bellinger sharpened his approach and ended up striking out only 13 more times than he walked last season. For another, he hit his batted balls at an average of 90.7 mph and to the tune of a 45.5 percent hard-hit rate.

    Like Yelich, Bellinger also had a batted ball profile that favored efficiency over volume regarding fly balls. The 42.4 percent fly-ball rate that he had in 2019 was tame by modern standards, but his 94.5 mph average on the flies that he hit helped them go over the fence at a 24.6 percent clip.

    If the question is whether anyone will hit .400 this season, our answer is probably not. But if anyone can do it, our pick is Bellinger.

            

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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