When .360 just isn’t good enough

Something unusual is happening this year in the American League. No, I don’t mean Aaron Hill‘s 31 home runs, although that is unusual. I’m talking about the batting title race.

As of this writing, Minnesota’s Joe Mauer leads the league with a .369 batting average. Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners is right behind him, batting .362. One of these men will not win a batting title.

This raises the question… how often does a guy hit .360 and not win a batting title? The answer is, not very often.

Not extinct, but maybe a little on the endangered side

The last time this happened in the AL was in 1957, when Mickey Mantle‘s .365 placed him a distant second behind Ted Williams‘ .388. In the Senior Circuit, it’s happened more recently—1997, to be precise, when Mike Piazza (.362) and Larry Walker (.366) trailed Tony Gwynn (.372).

Since 1901, a player has batted .360 or better and not led his league in average 68 times. The first to do it was Washington’s Ed Delahanty, who hit .376 in 1902, finishing just behind Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie (.378). Another Clevelander, Charlie Hickman, hit .361 that year.

Over in the National League, Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner was the first hitter to achieve the feat in the 20th century. He hit .363 in 1905, second to Cincinnati’s Cy Seymour (.377).

The hardest luck loser was Joe Jackson, who hit .408 in 1911 and was runner up to Ty Cobb, who hit .420. Better luck next year? Not quite: Jackson hit .395; Cobb hit .409. (If it’s any consolation, Cobb hit .401 in 1922 and finished a distant second to George Sisler, who hit .420.)

Hitting .360 and not winning a batting title became a fairly common occurrence in the ’20s and ’30s. The AL reached a high water mark of five runners-up hitting .360 in 1925, while the NL featured an astounding eight (one-third of all occurrences in the NL since 1901) such batters in 1930.

Number of qualified players that hit .360 or better in a season and didn’t win a batting title, by decade
AL NL Tot
1900s 2 1 3
1910s 10 - 10
1920s 25 10 35
1930s 6 10 16
1940s - - -
1950s 1 - 1
1960s - - -
1970s - - -
1980s - - -
1990s - 3 3
2000s - - -
Total 44 24 68

It’s happened nearly twice as often in the AL as in the NL, although it almost never occurs nowadays. In 1939, Jimmie Foxx (.360) finished second to Joe DiMaggio (.381) to close out that decade. In the 70 years since, four batters have hit .360 and failed to lead their league in hitting: Mantle, Piazza, Walker, and Jeff Bagwell (.368 in 1994).

Oh, you think .360 is bad?

I wanted to take a closer look at our esteemed list of players, but 68 occurrences is a lot. So I raised the bar a little, and came up with a smaller list of 15—that’s the number of times a player hit .380 or better and didn’t win a batting title:

Granted, this hasn’t happened in nearly 80 years, but check out Jackson and Speaker. How lousy would it be to hit .380 three times in your career and be looking up at someone else each time? Jackson hit .393 over the three-year period 1911-1913 and never led his league in batting.

Fun stuff, but so what? Does anyone care that Herman hit .393 in 1930 and finished eight points behind Bill Terry in the batting race? Sure, I do, because I find this stuff fascinating, but if you remember watching Herman or Terry play, raise your hand.

Thought so.

Hey, you in the flannel

You may have seen Mantle and Williams in ’57. If so, that’s awesome and I envy you. But what about players and seasons that are still relatively fresh in our minds? Let’s take a quick trip back to the decade that brought us grunge, Pulp Fiction, a diluted talent pool, and the miracle of Coors Field.

Jeff Bagwell, 1994

Bagwell’s ’94 was like… well, it stacked up nicely with the best Mantle had to offer, and it exceeded anything Albert Pujols has done so far. It was a great season. The only thing that stopped Bagwell that year was the players’ strike.

Bagwell’s monster season also coincided with Gwynn’s run at .400. Gwynn hit .394/.454/.568. So although Bagwell earned the NL MVP with his .368/.451/.750 line, he did not win the batting title.

Mike Piazza, 1997

Piazza hit .362 in ’97, with 40 home runs. He spent most of his time squatting behind the plate and playing in a pitchers’ park. Among full-time catchers, only Brooklyn’s Babe Phelps (.367 in 1936) and Mauer (so far) have hit for a higher batting average. Piazza knocked more homers than Phelps and Mauer combined.

Piazza’s ’97 campaign was, in a word, ridiculous. He hit .362/.431/.638 with a 185 OPS+. Piazza certainly enjoyed Coors Field—he hit .552 in 29 at-bats there—but he also hit .355 at home. Unfortunately, Gwynn hit .372/.409/.547 that year.

Larry Walker, 1997

Walker, like Piazza, fell victim to Gwynn’s final great season. Although Walker didn’t win the batting title, he did get a nice consolation prize: NL MVP. He also led the league in batting three of the next four years.

Did Walker benefit from playing half his games at Coors Field? Sure, he hit .384 there in ’97. Still, he hit .346 on the road, which is pretty darned good by most standards.

Speaking of three-year stretches, Walker had a slick run from 1997 to 1999: .369/.451/.689. This lies beyond the scope of our current discussion, but a compelling case could be advanced for Walker’s eventual induction into the Hall of Fame (and not just on the “He’s better than Jim Rice” ticket that many can claim).

That’s some fancy hitting there

At this point, you may have noticed something: Guys who hit .360 in a season but don’t win the batting title are great hitters. This would seem self-evident, but just to be safe, here is the list of players who meet our criteria that are not in the Hall of Fame:

Players that hit .360 or better in a season, didn’t win a batting title, and aren’t in Cooperstown
Player G BA OPS+ Comments
Jeff Bagwell 2150 .297 149
Bob Fothergill 1106 .325 115
Babe Herman 1552 .324 140
Charlie Hickman 1081 .295 132
Joe Jackson 1332 .356 170 Black Sox scandal ended his career at age 30
Lefty O’Doul 970 .349 143 Career didn’t really start until age 31
Mike Piazza 1912 .308 142
Riggs Stephenson 1310 .336 130
Larry Walker 1988 .313 140
George Watkins 894 .288 106 Didn’t reach the big leagues until age 30
Al Wingo 493 .308 114

It’s a short list filled with guys who mashed (well, except Watkins, who came along at the right time—he hit .373 as a rookie, which placed him sixth in the NL because the entire league hit .303 in 1930). Bagwell, Jackson, Piazza, and Walker are not eligible for induction, although Piazza will be in Cooperstown before long, and Bagwell and Walker deserve consideration.

Getting back to our original question, it isn’t unheard of for a player to hit .360 and fail to lead his league in batting average. However, it is rare and the vast majority of such instances occurred prior to 1940.

If both Mauer and Suzuki finish at .360 or higher, whichever one doesn’t win the batting title will be the first to meet our criteria in 12 years. He will be the first AL player to meet it in 52 years.

How meaningful is this? After all, .360 is an arbitrary number. Well, from where I sit, if something happens in baseball that hasn’t in half a century, that qualifies as noteworthy. And the leap from “noteworthy” to “meaningful” is a small one.

There are other fun aspects of the race between Mauer and Suzuki as well. Chris Jaffe recently touched on Suzuki’s accomplishments. As for Mauer, he’s dangerously close to breaking Phelps’ 1936 record for batting average by a catcher.

Whatever ends up happening, one thing is certain. Unlike in 1911, at least the player who finishes second won’t have to “settle” for hitting .408.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference

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Comments

  1. Matt said...

    It wasn’t the strike that stopped Bagwell in ‘94.  He broke his hand right before the strike and would not have played anyway.  He lucked out.

  2. Geoff Young said...

    Thanks, Matt, I had forgotten about Bagwell’s injury. (“Lucked out” is an interesting way to describe a broken hand.)

  3. Matthew Namee said...

    I think by “lucked out,” Matt was referring to the strike, not the broken hand. If the strike hadn’t happened, Bagwell would not have won the MVP.

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