With the Minnesota Twins in town this last weekend, much of the talk about the visitors was about Chairman Joe Mauer hitting a ridiculous .410 average. Mauer's average got me thinking about what it would take to hit .400. Here's what I got:
No batter has a true talent level of a .400 hitter, which requires that a batter get lucky to get there. Because it is easier to get lucky over the short-term, a .400 average is more likely to occur if a player has fewer at bats. A player can get fewer at bats due to manager trickery like batting a great hitter in the 8-hole, but what manager is going to do that? In the player's control, however, is the number of walks he takes and how frequently he takes them.
In 1941, Ted Williams walked 147 times in 606 PA's, having a .243 BB/PA average. Almost a quarter of the time that the Splendid Splinter came up to bat, he got a base on balls. That's ridiculous. The only player I'm aware of who has ever reached a level higher than Teddy in this category is Barry Bonds, who has .376 BB/PA in 2004 and .324 in 2002. Babe Ruth equaled Ted Williams' 1941 output once, and that was in 1923.
Williams also led the league in HR's in 1941, hitting 37, 6.1% of the time he came to the plate. Bonds did better on several occasions, but Williams did beat out Ruth's 1923, where he hit a homer 5.9% of the time he came up. Home runs are quite obviously always hits, so it would make sense for a high-average hitter to have a not-insignificant number of HR's.
By the same token, the high-average batter will also limit strikeouts, since they are never hits. Williams struck out 4.5% of his PA's, better than Bonds in his higher average/OBP seasons ('96, '02, and '04, where he K'd 11.3%, 7.7%, and 6.6%, respectively), and also struck out less than half the time as babe Ruth (13.3% in '23).
But what about some of the other players who have chased .400? How do they compare? In 1995, Edgar Martinez struck out at a comparatively fast rate, 13.6%, but he also walked more than anyone not named Bonds, Ruth, or Williams, checking in at .182 BB/PA. In Tony Gwynn's 1994, where he hit .394 before the strike, he had a BB/PA of .101, HR% of 2.5%, and K'd only 4.0% of the time. When George Brett hit .390 in 1980, He had .113, 4.7% and 4.3%.
So does Mauer have a chance?
I checked out BB-ref this morning and pulled up his stats. He's walking better than Gwynn or Brett, up at .154 BB/PA, and he's striking out like Bonds did in '96 (11.4%), but his HR numbers are ridiculous. Right now, Joe Mauer is hitting homers 8.1% of the time that he steps in. That's better than Bonds' 2002 by 0.6%, and Bonds' '04 by .8%. Nobody on my high-average list not named Bonds (including Williams, Ruth, DiMaggio, Brett, Edgar, Gwynn, Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Ichiro, and Wade Boggs) was even within 20% of what Joe Mauer is doing right now.
On the other hand, Mauer is probably positively influenced by playing in the Metrodome, where turf will help baseballs skid through the infield for hits more than they would outdoors. I don't think it'll make the difference for him, since he's played there his whole career and never batted above .350, but if you're looking for reasons why he might do it, I think that's your big one.