Let’s bust some dreams right at the top. Luis Arraez is not going to bat .400. He’s not even there now, and will cross into the second half of the season today at .396, which is still incredible. Very few players even get halfway through the season anywhere near the beyond-mythical mark, and Arraez has done so. In a time where the focus is on power and we have devalued batting average, and rightly so, there is still something charming about a player returning the conversation to it and how monstrously difficult it is to get a hit as often as he does.
Beyond the difficulty of hitting .400 in any sense, there’s also the factor that Arraez has been outrunning his percentages all season. It is something of a specialty of his, but not to this degree. Arraez has a .410 BABIP, which is second in all of baseball. Arraez has always run pretty hot when it comes to BABIP, with a career .349 mark. But keeping this season’s average some 60 points above his career rate would be miraculous.
Normally, when we see players run a high BABIP significantly over the league average that hovers around .300 most of the time for multiple seasons, it’s because they either hit the ball so goddamn hard no one can get to it or they’re pretty fast and can turn more grounders into singles simply because they can’t be thrown out. Arraez is neither. He has nine career stolen bases in five seasons. His sprint speed is in the 27th percentile, according to StatCast.
And his contact would struggle to break wind. His average exit velocity is merely 88.5 MPH, which puts him in the 34th percentile. His barrel rate is 2.2 percent, or six total on the season, which means he really leans into a pitch twice a month.
What Arraez does is almost never miss the ball when he swings, with contact rates of 93 percent on swings on pitches outside of the zone and 95 percent on pitches in the zone. He almost never strikes out, but doesn’t walk much either, and you’d think with the sheer amount of balls he’s getting in play it would up the outs he makes because almost none of them are hard. But judging by his spray chart, he’s become an expert at simply lining the ball three feet over the head of either the second baseman or shortstop. Arraez is hitting .788 on line drives, when the rest of the league hits .704. It’s probably this disparity that will kill any hope of a .400 campaign.
Is .400 still .400?
The funny thing about statistical benchmarks in baseball is that they’ve mostly stayed the same throughout the game’s history. Which is probably one of its charms, and certainly baseball fans have gotten all the mileage of being able, or claiming to be able, to compare players across eras when the impression is that 40 homers still means the same thing.
But does it? We no longer consider 1,000 yards rushing, or even 3,000 yards passing, in the NFL to be of nearly as much consequence as we once did (though as a Bears fan, the latter mark remains Valhalla). 50 goals in hockey has been everything in the past 40 years, from pretty good to utterly unreachable in the clutch-n-grab era to back to being top-tier now, but not mythic. NBA stats haven’t wavered quite as much, though with six players averaging over 30 per game this past season was the most in NBA history. Certainly scoring in the NBA has wavered greatly from the 80s through to today.
And yet baseball’s benchmarks kind of remain the same. We still see a .300 average as All-Star level, but only 11 players managed it last season. 20 years ago, 35 players did (including names like Randall Simon and Junior Spivey, which…awesome). 30 years ago, 23 players hit .300 or better. Certainly, the game’s focus on getting on base more than hitting to do so has changed the way hitters approach their craft. But it’s also unquestionably much harder to hit the ball now, considering what pitchers are throwing. A .300 average now is the aristocracy now.
Figuring out what would be today’s equivalent to a .400 average in 1941, the last time anyone did it, probably involves more math than I’ve ever seen or had the chance to fail out of back in the day. Put it this way, the league’s batting average in 1941 was .261. In 1980, when George Brett hit .390, it was .265. It’s .248 this season. The strikeout percentage of the league in 1941 was 9.8. It was 12.5 in 1980. It’s 22.7 this season. While some of that is more emphasis on walks and power and less of a worry about strikeouts, it’s also due to the devilish things pitchers make the ball do on the way to the plate, defenses being better positioned even with the shift ban, and better athletes in the field than the various lost meat packers that were populating the field in 1941. Arraez is doing his work in an era far more specifically designed to make it far harder to get the bat to the ball.
If we, very crudely admittedly, look at Ted Williams’s and George Brett’s averages being some 125-140 points better than the league was doing, then were Arraez to manage even a .372-.388 season it would be pretty much the same level of accomplishment. But obviously, .372 doesn’t roll off the tongue the way .400 does, or the way 50 homers does.
We have adjusted how pitchers are measured statistically. 20 wins is not even on the board anymore. Sub-4.00 ERAs are considered passable where once they were at best back of the rotation material. And yet hitters…not so much. We just look at different stats, with OBP taking over from AVG.
However he does it, Arraez is most likely going to do something historical this season. It just likely won’t have a nice even benchmark for us to appreciate.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.