On the morning of May 17, Daniel Murphy rose in New York City as a .400 hitter. The Washington Nationals second baseman was in town to play the Mets, his old team, and his first month-and-a-half in his new uniform could scarcely have gone better.
That night, Murphy went 1 for 3, and his batting average dropped to .397. Indeed, in his final 14 games of May, he sizzled, hitting .389 with four homers, knocking out at least two hits seven times. And yet, when June opened, he hadn’t again reached .400.
Now, as the Nationals approach the midway point of the season, Murphy still leads the National League in hitting at .358 entering Monday night’s game in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. But his experience over these past months emphasizes, again, what everyone in baseball knows intuitively: Hitting .400 over a 162-game season may be technically possible, but it sure doesn’t feels that way.
“It’s tough to get two hits a night in this league,” Murphy said last week.
Indeed, that’s what it takes – two hits in five at-bats over the entirety of six months. Since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, in what was then a 154-game season, hitters have whacked 60 homers in a season seven times and driven in at least 150 runs a dozen more. Pitchers have struck out 300 hitters no fewer than 30 times, and posted 14 seasons with better than a 1.75 ERA – an impressive, if not magical, number.
But even as batting average has been devalued as a statistic – replaced or enhanced by on-base-plus-slugging percentage and other more advanced metrics – .400 has remained both mystical and unattainable. Murphy’s early dalliance only serves to remind that this almost certainly will be the 75th consecutive season without a .400 hitter.
So it’s worth wondering: Will it ever happen again?
“Pitching today, you’re not seeing the same pitcher every time,” said Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who made two runs at .400 seasons. “You might see four or five pitchers during the game, younger guys who are fresh and throwing hard. You have to be mentally tough to understand what’s going on around you and how big it is, and just not think about it too much. Your job is to go out there every day and get base hits, but you have to do what you’re supposed to do – move the runner over, give yourself up if you need to.
“You have to get a few infield hits, which I could do. You have to bunt. You have to be able to take a walk. There’s so much that goes into this quest.”
The closest someone has come to finishing a season at .400 since Williams’s legendary 1941 campaign – in which he decided to play in both games of a doubleheader on the season’s final day, and went 6 for 8 – was San Diego’s Tony Gwynn in 1994. But that was a strike-shortened season, and Gwynn played in just 110 games, hitting .394. Kansas City’s George Brett reached .400 on Sept. 19, 1980, but didn’t have a multi-hit game over his next week, and finished at .390 in a season in which he played just 117 games, missing five weeks because of two stints on the disabled list.
Those two players are Hall of Famers, and they couldn’t do it. But their pursuits help illustrate an ingredient necessary to pull it off.
“First and foremost, you have to be that caliber of hitter,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
So start there. The players who have made at least a decent run at .400 are all accomplished hitters. Just two men since 1941 have been at or above .400 at the all-star break: Stan Musial (.403 in 1948) and Carew (.402 in 1983), two more Hall of Famers. But others flirted more heavily, even deeper into the summer, beyond just Brett and Gwynn: Toronto’s John Olerud, who was at .400 on Aug. 2, 1993; Colorado’s Larry Walker, who was as high as .411 on July 14, 1997; Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra, who got to .403 after the first game of a doubleheader on July 20, 2000 – but went 0 for 5 in the nightcap to fall below again, never to return.
None of those players are Hall of Famers, but they’re among the best hitters of their generations. Yet even accomplished hitters must master the mental aspect of each week, each series, each game, each at-bat. There are responsibilities to teammates, who know the individual accomplishment a player is seeking, but are more interested in a collective goal.
“At first, it was a distraction because I had to be certain that I was playing for the other 24 guys around me, and not just for myself,” Carew said. “If I had to bunt a guy over, or pull the ball on the ground to move him over, that’s what I did because that’s how I was taught to play the game. I couldn’t stop playing my game, or playing a team game, because of my average.”
Eventually, though, the pursuit becomes a story. Carew’s attempts were in 1977, when he was with Minnesota and hitting .401 on July 10, and 1983, when he was with the California Angels and hitting .406 on July 12. The first time, Carew said, the attention became overwhelming; writers frequently awaited him in the hotel lobby, and he could scarcely escape. By his second attempt, he had learned to check into hotels under an assumed name, and he brought along his camera so he could walk around whatever city the Angels were visiting, looking to distract himself with photography.
“It would be brought up every day,” said Garciaparra, now an analyst for SportsNet LA, working Dodgers games. “Obviously, now I understand with the media. You go in there, and they’re looking for a story. ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s he thinking?’ It was brought up to you because people want to talk about it.
“I got to the point where I was like, ‘We can talk about how I’m doing, but don’t talk about my number.’ I didn’t want to know.”
The media, in 2016 and beyond, could be suffocating. “Today’s media is what?” Rizzo asked. “Ten-fold of what Carew had?” But that’s just one element that might make this pursuit more difficult now than even when Williams pulled it off.
Pitching velocity, of course, has been on the rise for years, dating back a decade to when a system known as Pitchf/x was installed in ballparks to track speed and break of pitches. Relievers have not only been used earlier in games, but they throw harder. In 2008, the average major league reliever threw his fastball at 91.6 mph, according to Pitchf/x data. Last season, that was up to 93.2 mph, the seventh straight year velocity increased. Plus, managers frequently bring in a lefty to face a left-handed hitter, or vice versa.
“It’s a lot harder now too, because you don’t face a pitcher more than once or twice,” Garciaparra said. “A bullpen specialist comes in, and that factors into what you’re feeling and the adjustments you’re making. If I see a guy a third time, I know the approach I’m going to take and the adjustment I’m going to make. With a new guy, you’re starting over.”
Another fundamental change to the game is on defense. No longer do players man their positions regardless of who’s up. Pull-prone left-handers frequently will face three defenders on the right side of the infield. Outfield defense is more precise. Data is prevalent in nearly every front office, and defenses are tailoring themselves to particular hitters.
“Where sabermetrics is going,” Murphy said, “they seem to be standing where you want to hit it.”
The result: Hitting . 400 is the tallest of tasks.
“All of that stuff conspires against you,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “I don’t think that it can be done. You could give it a good run, probably in the high .300s somewhere. But it’d be hard to hit that magic number.”
The year Williams hit .406 happened to be the same year Joe DiMaggio managed hits in 56 straight games. That, of course, is one of baseball’s sacred numbers, and the digit most often cited as unable to be matched.
But more and more, Williams’s feat looks unattainable. Whether you value batting average or not, whether you have moved on to newer statistic or prefer the old back-of-the-baseball card numbers, this 75th straight season without a .400 hitter is another reminder of one of baseball’s truisms, brought to us by Garciaparra (lifetime average .313): “Hitting is hard.”