Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 25, 2000
BASEBALL: Todd Helton vs. .400
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
Now that Nomar Garciaparra’s bid to become the first .400 shortstop in 104 years has gone by the wayside, the media monster trains its sights on Todd Helton. Will he be the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams and the first National Leaguer to turn the trick since Bill Terry?
Let’s get to the key fact first: after Wednesday afternoon’s game, the Rockies have 19 home games left and 16 road games. That favors Helton, who is hitting .432 at home but .360 on the road. The tough schedule issues come in the last week. Will the lefthanded Helton, batting almost seventy points lower against lefties, sit out against Randy Johnson? Arizona comes to town for a four-game set before the season’s final series, and Johnson is likely to pitch, particularly if the D-Backs are still in the race. Following that, Colorado ends the season in Atlanta. Will Helton face Maddux, Glavine and Millwood? Will he face lefty-killer John Rocker (AKA the man who lost to Brent Mayne)? Or will he mostly see minor-league relievers as Bobby Cox pulls his starters after five innings, as has been his practice in past season-ending serieses (except in 1998, when the opponent was the Mets and they were fighting for a wild card)?
(As for the question of whether Helton is a real .400 hitter if he hits .3995, get over it. Helton’s a Coors-made .400 hitter if he hits .420. But one asterisk is more than enough. Nobody grew up talking about how Rogers Hornsby hit .4235 in 1924. Nobody gripes about rounding up .300 hitters, or even lifetime .300 hitters.)
We have witnessed a number of challenges at .400 since Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977; before Carew, only Ted Williams (in 1957) made things interesting in the post-war era. The most captivating, of course, was George Brett’s chase in the late summer of 1980. The closest, though, was Tony Gwynn in 1994. Along with Matt Williams and Ken Griffey chasing Roger Maris, the baseball world was robbed of Gwynn’s pursuit of one of his long-time idols, Teddy Ballgame, by the strike. One more reason to hate Jerry Reinsdorf and Don Fehr.
Helton is going about this the hard way: he came out of the gate quickly but hasn’t started a day at .400 since June 10. As hard as it is to hit .400, a hot start followed by a steady march around .390 is the toughest way to do it. A player who comes into the midpoint of the season hitting around .430, as Ty Cobb did in 1911 and 1912, can suffer a mini-slump here and there and still hang on. A player batting .360 or .370 in early August who gets incredibly hot will avoid the daily media pressure until the year is nearly over. Sammy Sosa had it easier in 1998 because he started slowly and was seen as a weaker threat to Maris than Griffey even after his June hot streak; it was late-July before he started receiving some serious media scrutiny. I would have given better odds to Nomar if he and Helton were both at the same point, because Nomar is in a pennant race (is too!) and thus unlikely to get consumed by the .400 issue. Helton is playing for nothing but numbers.
Helton’s path still risks going in the direction of Larry Walker or John Olerud: fading, fading, fading, until the record books no longer reveal that you even made a run. Helton has been pushing it with an August hot streak, like Brett and like Hornsby, who batted .509 in August of 1924. The difference: Brett’s hot weather tear pushed him just over .400, and he couldn’t hang on. Hornsby was already over .400 and just pulled away.
To make sense of Helton’s chances – as well as future runs – I looked back at the men who succeeded. There have been 27 .400 seasons in major league baseball history, counting players who qualified for the batting title in the majors (Terry Forster need not apply, nor Josh Gibson with his incredible .517 season in 1943). What I really wanted to know was not just what type of player hits .400, but what conditions do you need for a .400 season?
First, these were mostly great players. Five players (Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, Ed Delahanty, and Jesse Burkett) hit .400 more than once, accounting between them for 13 of the 27 seasons. 22 of the 23 .400 seasons since 1894 were by Hall of Famers, the lone exception being Joe Jackson. Of course, at least in Bill Terry’s case, the .400 season is most of the reason why he’s in Cooperstown. Oddly, none of the players to hit .400 in the game’s first 18 years – Ross Barnes, Fred Dunlap, Tip O’Neill (no, not that Tip O’Neil), and the original “Louisville Slugger,” Pete Browning, are enshrined in the Hall. That bodes well for superstars like Nomar, but not so well for Helton.
Second, ten of the 27 .400 seasons took place in a six-year period between 1894 and 1899, the golden age of high-average offense (it began when the mound was moved from 50 feet to 60’6” in 1893 and ended when the NL contracted from 12 teams to 8 in 1900 and both leagues started calling foul balls as strikes in 1902). The NL as a whole hit .309 in 1894, .296 in 1895, .290 in 1896, .292 in 1897, and .282 in 1899.
League batting average is the most important factor in determining whether a player can hit .400, because it’s far easier to surpass the average by a little than a lot. As has often been noted, Yaz out-hit the league by a larger percentage margin with his .301 batting title in 1968 than Bill Terry did when he hit .401 in 1930.
On average, the .400 hitters played in leagues with a batting average of
The National League is batting .268 this year, the AL .277. Proportional to the league, how many of these guys would have hit .400 compared to a league average of .268? Nine, and that includes Lajoie, Barnes and Dunlap. Here are the “translated” batting averages:
Dunlap, 1884: .451
Computed: ((avg)/(league avg))*(.268)
A much more select club, and one that leaves you with new respect for Ty Cobb. In 1912, Cobb hit .410 in the same league where Walter Johnson posted a 1.39 ERA and Smokey Joe Wood posted a 1.91 ERA and went 34-5.
Cobb also did this with less help. Every single .400 hitter has played on a team with an above-average team batting average, often far above average. The only team with a .400 hitter that was close to the league average was the 1912 Tigers, who hit .268. Fourteen of the twenty-seven played on teams that out-hit the league by twenty points or more; the 1876 White Stockings outhit the NL .337 to .265. That’s partly the result of having a .400 hitter, of course; the 1894 Phillies had three .400 hitting Hall of Famers starting in their outfield (Delahanty, Sam Thompson, and Billy Hamilton) and reserve outfielder Tuck Turner hit .416 in 339 at bats. The team hit .349.
What about the ballparks, an issue so near and dear to Helton’s heart? Well, we (or I, at least) don’t have access to home/road batting average data, although the high occurrence of high team batting averages suggests that some of these parks may have been good for batting average, specifically. What I do have is park factors for run scoring. The results are mixed. Thirteen players played in parks that inflated run scoring by at least 4%, and six played in parks that pumped up scoring by more than ten percent, a very high figure: Barnes (+45%), Hugh Duffy in 1894 (+26%), Sisler in 1920 (+26%), Cobb in 1911 (+21%), Browning (+12%), and Burkett in 1896 (+11%).
If you are wondering, scoring was up 6% at Fenway in 1941, and we have Ted Williams' home-road splits for that year: accordng to the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, he hit .428 at Fenway and .380 on the road -- not Helton, but a pretty big edge nonetheless. The same source reports Ty Cobb's home/road splits are nearly even: .418/.422 in 1911, .404/.418 in 1912, and .405/.397 in 1922. The Historical Abstract also reports that Rogers Hornsby, in 1922, batted .403 at home and .400 on the road, while George Sisler, in 1920, batted .473 at Sportsman's Park and just .341 away from it (Sisler got 150 hits at home that year).
No third baseman or catcher has ever hit .400; the record averages at those positions are .390 by Brett and .394 by the lefthanded-throwing catcher Jack Clements, a Phillies teammate of Delahanty, Hamilton and Thompson. Only one shortsop has done it (Jennings) and first basemen have done it three times (Sisler twice, and Terry). The rest are split between outfielders (17 times) and, oddly, second basemen (six times).
The average age of a .400 hitter is 27. Two of the four guys to bat .400 after age 30 were Cobb and Delahanty, both on their third .400 season. Cobb was the oldest, at 35; the other two were Thompson (34) and Terry (33). Three did it before age 25: Jackson (21), Williams (22), and Cobb (24 in 1911). Williams, of course, was in the military between ages 24 and 26; it is extremely likely he would have done it again. Helton and Nomar both turned 27 within the past month.
Some random issues:
** The patient Helton has been making exceptional contact, to the tune of 80 walks and 42 strikeouts, an unusually good ratio in today’s high-strikeout environment. While only two men have hit .400 while drawing 100 walks (Williams and Hamilton), most have shown at least decent patience and only one has struck out more than 40 times (Hornsby, with 50 K in 623 at bats in 1922). The .400 hitters averaged 59 walks apiece; while strikeout numbers aren’t uniformly available, the average total (reflecting the slap-hitting 1890s) was just 24.
** The lowest walk total: 19 by Jennings. He nonetheless managed an unbelievable accomplishment: while drawing just 19 walks, he posted an on base percentage of .472. He did it the hard way, batting .401 and being drilled by a major league record 51 pitches in 130 games.
** Helton is currently on track to bat 580 times. That’s important; only three .400 hitters have cleared 600 official at bats (Sisler in 1920, Hornsby in 1922, and Terry), while seventeen have batted 550 times or less. Keeping up the pace gets harder and harder the more you bat.
** More than 45% of Helton’s hits have been for extra bases. While most .400 hitters have been near or over 30%, that’s higher than anyone in the .400 club, edging out Rogers Hornsby’s 1925 season.
My prediction is probably the same as yours: Helton won’t make it. Coors will keep him close, and he’s a good (but not great) hitter, too. I expect a finish around the high .380s. But if he can close the deal against the likes of Schilling, the Big Unit, Maddux, and Glavine in the season’s final week, he will have earned some real respect.
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