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Mudville: May 30, 2024 10:48 am PDT

The .300 Dinosaur

BY KEVIN KERNAN

They wanted mediocrity. They got mediocrity. No shock really, since so many mediocre people are involved in baseball now.

Check out the standings. Don’t be fooled by the shiny objects of “Sell’’ or “Buy’’ being shouted from the rooftops. For the most part your team is a .500 team or worse.

When you keep reshuffling the deck of general managers, assistant GMs, and Nerds who follow the same Nerd game plan and are pretty much clueless about how the game is played, this is what you get. A mediocre product. Even if they have super players like the Angels have in Shohei Ohtani, you have a host of teams going nowhere, trying to convince you they are going somewhere:

MLB Mediocrity, Catch It.

The truth is everyone is in the watered down wild card race because no one is winning the race.

The examples are everywhere. But let’s focus on one key element in Batting Average, a statistic that has pretty much been determined to be worthless by the Nerds; even though it remains, in my book, the most important number for a hitter.

There are currently only nine batters, count ‘em – nine – hitting .300 or higher. That’s it. In the not so distant past there were years in which six times that number were batting over .300.

Now there are 30 teams with endless rosters and only nine players at or higher than the magic number of .300. Pretty pathetic. AMBS had some time to kill for Baseball or Bust so I went to the MLB stats page and looked and counted up, year by year, since 1968, the number of hitters who finished .300 or better.

Why 1968?

That was the year of pitcher domination.

In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, only six batters finished with a .300 or better average, led by Pete Rose’s mark of .335. The next year they lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches and shrunk the strike zone.

After Rose, there was Matty Alou at .332, Felipe Alou at .317, Alex Johnson at .312, Curt Flood at .301, and Carl Yastrzemski, the only American League hitter to hit .300 at .301.

In my friend Peter Kerasotis’ tremendous book Alou, Felipe explained how difficult a task it became to hit .300 in that pitcher dominant era.

“I rebounded in 1968, leading Major League Baseball in plate appearances (718) and at-bats (662) and tying Pete Rose for the lead in hits (210). I also batted .317, an MLB third-best behind Rose and – who else? – my brother Matty. Batting over .300 that season was no small feat, given that the NL average dropped to .243 and only six hitters in all of baseball batted better than .300. After that 1968 season, which was known as the Year of the Pitcher, the mound was lowered from fifteen inches to ten inches and the size of the strike zone reduced.’’

That year Hank Aaron managed a .287 average and Willie Mays was at .289.

MLB is down to nine .300 hitters at the moment, the only single figure number since the Super Six of 1968.

The game was changed in 1969 to make life easier for the hitter, and that’s basically been going on for the last 54 years; everything is pretty much geared to the hitter’s advantage, if the hitter knows how to take advantage and is allowed to take advantage.

And here we are all those years later and only nine hitters are batting .300 or higher going into Wednesday’s games. Those nine are Bryson Stott at .300, Josh Naylor at .305, Kyle Tucker at .305, Bo Bichette at .316, Yandy Diaz at .318, Masataka Yoshida at .320, Freddie Freeman at .328, Ronald Acuna at .328, and the magical Luis Arraez at .376. Interesting that the best hitter in baseball was traded by the Twins, who are struggling to win the mediocre AL Central and lead baseball with 1,074 strikeouts.

What happened? Where have all the hitters gone? A .300 hitter is now a dinosaur.

For one, the Nerds heavily introduced Launch Angle as the way to hit. Some organizations have gone so far as to have their hitters in the on-deck circle in the minors taking loopy practice swings against the netting. The scout who sent me the video of it recently said he was embarrassed for the young hitters.

It’s only getting worse if you check out some minor league batting averages along with the major league team averages.

Below is the complete list from 1968 till now of the number of hitters who hit .300 or better each season – and how startling a change it has been over the last 55 years.

The nine hitters this year marks the lowest total since 1968, despite all the benefits given to the hitters of this age, including smaller ballparks, lively baseballs, harder bats, improved lighting, and official scorers who have forgotten what constitutes an error; I could go on and on. If the swing isn’t geared toward making solid contact, none of that really matters.

Here is the year and the number of hitters in that year batting .300 or better in each of those seasons.

1968: 6

1969: 18

1970: 27

1971: 20

1972: 18

1973: 16

1974: 22

1975: 30

1976: 24

1977: 33

1978: 16

1979: 29

1980: 33

1981: 32

1982: 23

1983: 26

1984: 25

1985: 18

1986: 23

1987: 27

1988: 22

1989: 18

1990: 22

1991: 25

1992: 23

1993: 36

1994: 47, a strike year where 948 games were cancelled.

1995: 44

1996: 47

1997: 35

1998: 49

1999: 55

2000: 53

2001: 46

2002: 35

2003: 40

2004: 36

2005: 33

2006: 37

2007: 40

2008: 34

2009: 42

2010: 23

2011: 25

2012: 26

2013: 24

2014: 17

2015: 20

2016: 25

2017: 25

2018: 15

2019: 17

2020: 23 in a shortened, made for TV season

2021: 14

2022: 11

2023: 9

I typed out the entire list just to see how noticeable the change has been. It’s one thing to explain in paragraph form but to list the years and see the stark numbers is something entirely different. In 1999, 55 hitters batted .300 or higher; the next year, 2000, the number was 53. But that was in the teeth of the Steroid Era and hitters had the advantage – although pitchers were juicing too.

There were some interesting notes through the years, like 2002 when 35 hitters batted .300 or better, led by Barry Bonds at .370 – and No. 35 on the list was Alex Rodriguez at .300. Both are on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame now because of steroids.

Former MLB’er Jeff Frye, who has the unique ability to get a discussion going, posted a phenomenal video of Rodriguez explaining why hitters no longer hit for average because of the Launch Angle approach compared to what was his approach.

That riled up the Twitterverse (as did a video of a home run celebration by Manny Ramirez’s kid).

As for A-Rod, love him or hate him, the man made some strong points about hitting that were backed up by other former major league hitters, including Gregg Jefferies, who posted a wonderful picture of Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400, getting on top of a fastball. Jefferies noted: “I show my players this pic of Ted all the time. Look how on plane he is with this high pitch.’’

With the bat high up over his back shoulder in his right hand for the ESPN Kay-Rod Cast, Rodriguez began his Ted Talk: “You see this barrel, they taught us to never have that barrel go down … what they’re doing now is they want these bats to go (down), which creates a long swing, which goes this way (loop). I actually used to go opposite, Michael. If a guy was throwing really hard, I would try to swing at an imaginary ball that was on top (of the baseball); you’re teaching these guys to go under … that’s why these guys strike out 200 times a year.’’

He could have added: “That’s why there are only nine .300 hitters in baseball at the moment.” In talking about the advantages of his approach, A-Rod listed five benefits, including higher batting average – adding this comment: “Which people for some reason do not value batting average and then you actually have more home runs and more steaks … meaning more RBIs. I never understand that you are better with lower batting average and less RBIs.’’

Michael Kay interjected: “And that’s the gospel now, so go figure.’’

A-Rod, speaking directly to his old team the Yankees and others, concluded, “And that’s why teams don’t win.’’

In 1996, when he was still with Seattle, Alex Rodriguez led the list of 47 players who batted .300 with a .358 mark.

I can’t tell you how many times I have had such an in-depth hitting conversation like this with Rodriguez through the years. The Launch Angle Nerd approach drives him crazy and on occasion we still email one another about the cliff baseball is heading over with this “hitting’’ approach.

Artificial means have been concocted by Rob Manfred and his minions to try to improve offense. It’s not working and all you have to do is watch any game, especially an extra innings fake runner game, to see how poorly the game is played.

The Yankees recently dumped hitting coach Dillon Lawson because of his approach and hired Sean Casey, who was on the 1999 list of one of 55 hitters who batted .300 or better. Casey batted .332 that season. Perhaps Casey can get rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe to cut down his massive over-swing uppercut that has produced a .210 average and 109 strikeouts in 338 at-bats. Bunt for a hit too, kid, once in a while. It worked for Phil Rizzuto and Bobby Richardson.

Just a quick note, when eight-time NL batting champ Tony Gwynn led MLB in batting in 1987 with a .370 average, and I was there, he produced 218 hits and struck out only 35 times. Ten years later Gwynn batted .372 with 220 hits and 28 Ks. And, of course, there was 1994 when the strike happened and Gwynn was hitting .394. He might have hit .400 like Ted Williams, and those conversations between Tony and Ted were gold.

But the Nerds see it a different way and as a result, MLB is down to nine .300 hitters at the moment, the only single figure number since the Super Six of 1968.

Where does MLB go from here?

The first thing is to once again value batting average and value the .300 hitter. Stop listening to the Nerds and the gurus who are ruining your swing. Start making contact. Not everyone can be Luis Arraez, but take what the defense gives you – and of course, it’s all about the payday; baseball needs to financially reward the .300 hitter.

The strikeout needs to be called out more often as well, especially when there is the opportunity to move up a runner. Going into Wednesday’s games there were 40 players with 100 strikeouts; that is 31 more players who have hit the century mark for strikeouts than players hitting .300.

Stop re-inventing the wheel. Batting average is important. Strikeouts suck. Stop pretending they don’t mean anything. Teach contact at the minor league level. Don’t have them uppercut all the time, especially in the on-deck circle. There are plenty of other hitting horror stories in the minor leagues I have come across that I will address at another time.

It is not a coincidence that the first place Texas Rangers lead all of baseball with a .273 average with Bruce Bochy at the helm. I’ve known Bochy since his playing days and he wants his teams to put the ball in play. That’s how his Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. The NL East-leading Braves are second in the majors with a .267 mark. The two teams are also first and second in on-base percentage with the Rangers leading the way at .342 and the Braves at .336.

Any owner that wants to help his team get better must immediately insist on a better team batting average. The Yankees are next to last with a .230 mark. The only team that is worse is not really a Major League team in the A’s, at .221. Only 16 teams are hitting over .250. In 1999 every team, all 30, batted higher than .250 and 12 teams batted higher than what the MLB-leading Rangers are hitting now.

Since that time the Nerds have taken charge of every aspect of the game.

Batting average is just one vital aspect of the game they have ruined.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

Comments
  • Tarheeleducator

    Not one mention of the velocity these hitters are facing? Average fastball velocity (and really all pitch’s velocity) has been climbing steadily every year since we could reliably track it. Don’t you think that makes a difference? Ted Williams can get on top of that high fastball when it was 88-91, but he may be the only one who could get on top of that pitch at 95-100.

    July 27, 2023
  • Mike

    Great article Kevin. Batting averages matter. How much more evidence is needed? Launch angle my butt.

    August 4, 2023
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