Last night, Adrian Beltré recorded his 3,000th hit, filling in one of the final corners on the tapestry of his Hall of Fame career. Albert Pujols continues to crawl up the home run leaderboards like a spectacularly wealthy revenant that has been separated from its legs. These are the types of milestone chases we were raised with, and the numbers are familiar to most long-time baseball fans. 3,000. 755. 61. .400. 56. They are records and numbers that can be discussed and debated between generations, and baseball's ability to compare milestones a century ago to today's achievements is one of its greatest features. With a dearth of challenges to these sacred landmarks on the horizon, however, I suggest another number for old and new-school fans alike to delight in year-in and year out: .423. Babe Ruth's Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) in his legendary 1923 season.
Ben Gamel and Chris Taylor have each had spectacular seasons thus far. Both were traded by the organizations that drafted them in 2016 after years of minor league success. For Gamel, his pathway was blocked by a glut of outfield talent in the Yankees system. Taylor had had glimmers of success in the majors with Seattle, but was outshone by Ketel Marte in 2015. With a seeming stagnation of his development, he was flipped to the Dodgers for another then-disappointing former high draft pick, LHP Zach Lee. After quiet 2016s, both Gamel and Taylor made offseason improvements that are leaving egg on the faces of their former employers.
Gamel’s story is familiar to Mariners fans at this point. He played well in Spring Training after making a slight adjustment to his stance but was deservedly beaten out for a roster spot by Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger. Haniger’s oblique injury and Leonys Martín’s ineffectiveness made space for Gamel to play every day, and he has seized the opportunity. Taylor has been even more impressive. Primarily a shortstop, Taylor is blocked by Corey Seager, but his scalding hot bat has forced him into the lineup. He has spent time at 2B, 3B, all over the outfield, and as a pinch-hitter. Their numbers, especially considering their humbling recent history, beggar belief.
|Ben Gamel (2017)||354||0.322||0.832||128||0.421|
|Chris Taylor (2017)||341||0.312||0.908||141||0.418|
|Babe Ruth (1923)||699||0.393||1.309||231||0.423|
Both Gamel and Taylor have legitimately performed exceptionally, but they have also dodged regression like Skywalkers down the hall from Stormtroopers. By their respective BABIP, they have been good, yes, but also supremely lucky. Gamel's BABIP of .421 leads the Mariners, the American League, and MLB. Prior to his 0-6 (and 0-4 on balls in play) showing last night, Taylor had surpassed Ruth’s .426, but he’s slipped to a paltry .418. League-average BABIP has been right around .300 every year since before Ruth came into the league, so while many comparisons fall apart under a historical lens, the chase of Ruth's record is neither marred by changes in the game nor unattainable for modern players. Every few years or so a player rides a blazing first half to an incredible BABIP. Andrew McCutchen, Chris Johnson, Austin Jackson, David Wright, and Jose Hernandez have all made it past the halfway mark with BABIPs approaching or surpassing Ruth’s record. Each has cooled in the second half.
BABIP is often used as a barometer for luck, and that is a significant indication of what it is. This was a triple yesterday for Gamel, after all.
And this single from Taylor, while hard hit, landed due to what might be called lackluster athleticism from the left fielder.
Any little leaguer can tell you that the chances of getting a hit varies based on the type of contact made, and both Gamel and Taylor have been putting the best possible balls in play. Taylor is 2nd in the MLB in line drive rate, with a LD% of 27.0%. Gamel is up there as well, tied for 20th with a 23.8% rate. Line drives result in an expected batting average of somewhere between .670 and .700, so players hitting more of them should be expected to see better results. Similarly, that same snot-nosed 11-year-old little leaguer would inform you that infield pop-ups are a bad bet to result in hits, and both Gamel's 6.2% and Taylor's 4.5% are well below league-average. Both players have still been lucky, to be sure, but their contact is among the best in the league, and as two above-average runners they are able to make the most of that strong contact.
We do not have batted ball numbers for The Babe, but it's safe to assume they were impressive. If Gamel and Taylor can continue lacing line drives, they may yet challenge this 96-year-old record. Of course, nobody has yet, and two players who were seen as superfluous by their former teams just a year ago don't seem like the types to dethrone the Sultan of Swat, do they? Most likely they will fade, as no player with a minimum of 600 PAs has achieved a BABIP over .400 since Rod Carew had a .408 BABIP in 1977. Even surpassing that would be an incredible feat for either player, and one worth marveling at in the final couple months of the season. Beating the Babe may be a long shot, but that's the beauty of baseball: there's always time.