Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teddy Ballgame and the Elusive .400

I once sat in the center field bleachers at Fenway Park in Boston with a foreign co-worker and tried to explain the rules of baseball to him. Since he was from India and familiar with cricket, it was a lot easier than if he had never seen a ball game, but it was still very difficult. Baseball is an odd game, not much like most team sports where the offense has the ball and drive it down a field of grass or ice, into a goal or over a line for a given amount of time.  Baseball is not timed, has no goal but a plate and the ball doesn't score but the player does. It is much complicated than it seems and yet, most Americans know how to play even if they have never even tried themselves.

Baseball is a game of failures. In Major League baseball, a good hitter will fail 70% of the time, hitting only three times while coming up to bat ten times. Getting three hits (H's) in ten at bats (AB's) is called a 300 hitter because their average is .300 (H/AB).  The best hitter of all time failed 60% of the time aka a 400 hitter.  Of course, I am talking about Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.  He is the last hitter to hit .400 and he did so 70 years ago.  Only a few players since then have come close.  The two most recently were Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins (1977 hit .388) and George Brett of the Kansas City Royals (1980 hit .390).

Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 and what I have always found amazing about this is that he did not win the MVP award (Most Valuable Player).  That award went to Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees winning with 291 votes to Williams's 254.  1941 was a great year for hitters because this is also the year that DiMaggio had his famous record setting 56 game hitting streak.  If I had to pick one of these players, I would pick the player who hit .406 for an entire year over the player who had at least one hit per game 56 times in a row.  But since I wasn't even born in 1941, it is a moot point.  For those 56 games, DiMaggio hit .408.  Impressive, but for the same time period Williams hit .417.  Is it more impressive to spread them out over consistent games?  I don't think so.  Williams had a 21 hitting streak in May that year where he hit .536 ... that is amazing.  With hitting like that baseball is more of a game of success than failure, but Williams in an oddity.

Why did DiMaggio get the MVP?  For one, he was a much better fielder than Williams.  With poor defense, Williams would have been a great Designated Hitter but that rule wasn't added until 1973.   When Red Sox fans compare Williams with Carl Yastrzemski (Yazz) who replaced him, there is no comparison.  Williams was a better hitter but Yazz was the complete player, like DiMaggio.  Also, Williams was not as likable as DiMaggio.  Williams didn't like the fans and didn't handle the media well. Since it was the media voting for MVP that alone could explain it. Williams was very stubborn guy. Because he always hit to right field, opposing teams would often shift to the right sometimes leaving a huge gap in left field.  Even though he had the ability to hit into left, he refused to do so.  This didn't go over well with the fans.  Can you imagine his average if he had?

Batting average is supposed to measure a player's ability to hit. Because of this, when a player reaches base by way of a walk (BB), it doesn't affect his batting average. So the AB of the Batting Average stat doesn't include walks. As of 1953, AB doesn't include sacrifice flies either. A sacrifice fly is when the batter gets an out by hitting a fly ball into the outfield but moves one of his teammates along on the base path (from first to second or third to home etc.) Because this is good thing, the idea was that the batter's average shouldn't be penalized nor rewarded. So batting average formula could be seen as  AVG = H / ( AB-BB-SF).  But the AB stat on its own excludes walks and sacrifices.

I bring up the rule of 1953 because if it had applied to Ted Williams, his average in 1941 would have been somewhere around.411.  So if anyone ever comes close to hitting .400 in the future, keep it in mind, until they hit at least .411, their names shouldn't be put beside Ted Williams'.  I would love to have seen what he would have done in 1942.  But unfortunately, he didn't play in 1942.  Just a few months after he was came in second in MVP voting, Japan attached Pearl Harbor.  He didn't return to baseball until 1946.  This is where the true sacrifice took place.

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