Historic Average on Balls in Play is Lifting Arráez in Chase for .400

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Let’s get something out of the way: Luis Arráez is not going to hit .400 this season. Let’s get that established immediately.

Not because he’s not a good hitter. Arráez definitely is. But, hitting .400 is extremely difficult, and nearly impossible. In today’s game of 100 mile-per-hour sliders and efficient defensive alignments, it is impossible.

But that’s not why Arráez isn’t going to be the first batter to hit .400 since 1941. The reason he won’t do it is the unusual success he’s having on balls in play. As of July 1, Arráez was hitting over .400 on balls he puts in play. That type of production is nearly unprecedented. Since 1901, only 50 batters have hit as high as .390 for a full season on ball in play (BABIP). Hitting .400 BABIP is even more rare, and hard to maintain.

Highest BABIP, Since 1969

Rod Carew1977MIN.408
Yoán Moncada2019CHW.406
José Hernández2002MIL.404
Manny Ramírez2000CLE.403
Tim Anderson2019CHW.399
Ichiro Suzuki2004SEA.399
Andrés Galarraga1999COL.399
Austin Jackson2010DET.396
Wade Boggs1985BOS.396
Derek Jeter1999NYY.396

There are several iconic names in the chart above, many of them batting champions. Carew, Boggs, and Jeter are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But there are also some unusual names, like Moncada, Hernández, and Austin Jackson(!)

Sometimes a batter gets a high batting average on balls in play because he’s a brilliant hitter. But sometimes, well he’s just lucky. Jackson only hit .293 the year he batted .396 BABIP. And Hernández hit .288, because he struck out 188 times.

When you put the Ball in Play too Much

Arráez is the opposite of Jackson: he puts the ball in play TOO much. At the rate Arráez is going, he will strike out fewer than 40 times. Since he’s usually a leadoff hitter, he’s going to get at least four, and usually five plate appearances per game. That’s a lot of chances to make an out. A batter needs to average two hits for every five at-bats. Arráez could go 1-for-3 and see his average go down. And he may have two more trips to the plate.

There’s a reason the last few players to bat .400 or challenge it were able to do so: they walked a lot. In 1941, Ted Williams, baseball’s last .400 batter, walked 147 times. Arráez is in his fifth big league season and has not yet walked 165 times.

In 1980, when George Brett lifted his average over .400 in September (the last MLB batter to do so), he walked 11 times per 100 PA. In 2023, Arráez is walking seven times per 100 PA.

The league cannot use the overshift against Arráez, which is probably why his BABIP has soared in 2023. But. they can shift, and they will. Also, Arráez will face what Williams and even Brett did not: relief pitchers who throw hard every pitch and have movement on every ball they deliver. Relief pitching is better than it’s ever been. That’s why run scoring and batting averages overall are down in recent years. Arráez is a great hitter, but the law of averages is bound to catch up with him over the course of a 162-game, six-month season.

We’re rooting for Luis Arráez to become baseball’s first .400 hitter since before World War II. But it’s a longshot.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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