Thursday, August 28, 2014
NL batting race not for the ages
By David Schoenfield
So, these are the National League leaders in batting average entering Thursday:
1. Justin Morneau, Rockies -- .317
2. Ben Revere, Phillies -- .310
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates -- .307
4. Josh Harrison, Pirates -- .304
5. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers -- .304
Five other players -- Matt Adams, Daniel Murphy, Yasiel Puig, Paul Goldschmidt and Denard Span are also at .300 or above, although Goldschmidt will eventually fall off the qualifying leaderboards due to his season-ending injury (as Troy Tulowitzki already has).
Let's be honest here: This isn't exactly Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker dueling it out.
Morneau is a nice story, signing with the Rockies and having a nice season after struggling for years to perform at his usual All-Star level after suffering a concussion in 2010. Of course, hitting .317 or winning a batting title playing for the Rockies is hardly a unique achievement and Morneau hasn't hit .300 in a full season since 2008. Michael Cuddyer, another ex-Twin, won the NL batting title last season for the Rockies at age 34 -- after having never hit .300 before. Six different Rockies have won a total of eight batting titles. To be fair, Morneau isn't just riding Coors Field -- he's hitting .325 on the road and .310 at home.
In Revere's case, it's not so much that it's surprising that he's hitting .300 -- he hit .305 last year and .294 the year before -- it's that he's the perfect example of why batting average is overrated in the first place. He has no power (just one home run and 17 extra-base hits in 480 at-bats) and has just 11 walks. So while's second in the NL in average, he's just 41st in on-base percentage and 63rd in slugging percentage. Players like Revere are kind of what led to the whole creation of sabermetrics in the first place: There's more to creating runs than just getting singles.
Now, players of Revere's ilk have won batting titles before. Ichiro Suzuki won two titles, although compared to Revere he looks like Babe Ruth, and he hit .350 and .372 the years he won. Tony Gwynn had some years where he didn't hit for much power; in 1988, he won a title with a .313 average and just 34 extra-base hits (that's the lowest average to win a title since the mound was lowered in 1969). He also won the next year, hitting .336 with four home runs. Rod Carew won the AL batting title in 1972, hitting .318 with no home runs and just 27 extra-base hits. Matty Alou won the NL batting title in 1966 (.342) while hitting two home runs.
Still, Revere would easily be the "worst" batter to win a batting title. Here are the players with the lowest OPS (on-base plus slugging) to win a batting title:
Ben Revere, 2014: .696
Rod Carew, 1972: .749
Zach Wheat, 1918: .755
Dick Groat, 1960: .766
Tony Gwynn, 1988: .787
Matty Alou, 1966: .793
Pete Runnels, 1960: .795
Willie Wilson, 1982: .796
Those numbers don't adjust for the offensive environment of the season. OPS+ adjusts for that as well as home park. The worst five in this category, via Baseball-Reference.com:
Groat, 1960: 110
Runnels, 1960: 114
Billy Goodman, 1950: 117
Wilson, 1982: 118
Freddy Sanchez, 2006: 119
Revere's OPS+ is 96 -- below league average.
Under this method, Groat qualifies as the worst hitter to win a batting title. He hit .325/.371/.394 that year with two home runs and 32 extra-base hits. The average wasn't a complete fluke as he hit .300 three other times in his career. To show how times have changed, however, Groat also won the NL MVP Award as the Pirates won the pennant. Yes, he played shortstop and was regarded as the team leader (and wasn't a terrible choice with a 6.2 WAR that ranked seventh among NL position players), but the batting title most certainly helped.
Groat winning wasn't as strange as Goodman riding his .354 mark for the Red Sox to second place in the 1950 MVP vote. He was kind of the Josh Harrison of his day, playing all over for Boston, although he played in just 110 games and barely qualified for the title. Phil Rizzuto won the MVP but Goodman (four home runs, 68 RBIs) finished ahead of Yogi Berra, who only hit .322 with 28 home runs and 124 RBIs for the pennant-winning Yankees.
Anyway, if you like to follow the batting races, this year's NL race could certainly end up being one to forget. Although on the bright side it gives Phillies fans something to cheer for (although didn't they want to run Revere out of town last summer?).