Ted Williams was the last major leaguer to hit .400 when he batted .406 in 1941.
In the middle of Starlin Castroâ€™s hitting barrage Saturday night, it was hard not to think that the 21-year-old shortstop might be the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400.
It is a crazy thought. No one has come close in a full season since Williams, and with all respect to George Brett and Tony Gwynn, their best seasons were both cut short by at least 30 games (Gwynn by strike, Brett by injuries).
But Castroâ€™s approach at the plate â€“ shortening up with two strikes, staying compact â€“ and his uncanny ability to make contact with everything â€“ currently 91.6 percent of all his swings have hit the ball â€“ can easily lead one to believe for a moment that he is destined to break that mark.
If you put the bat on the ball, someone has to make a play on you. With Castroâ€™s speed factored in, he can use that pressure to his advantage and earn another five or six hits a year.
But when you look at the stats of those modern era players who have hit .400 or those that have come close, you can see that Castro is currently not the right player to best the mark, even with the absurd contact numbers in his favor.
Players who have come closest to hitting .400 have had a greater than 10 percent walk percentage and less than 8 percent strikeouts.
The thing that stands out about the most recent challengers to .400, other than their short seasons was a jump in their walk percentage in the seasons when they came closest.
Gwynn saw his walk rate hit 10.1 percent in 1994, and Brett was at 11.3. For most of the rest of their careers, these two hitters were both in the single digit percentages. (See chart for detailed stats on all players)
For Gwynn, his 1987 season is the only other time he eclipsed 10 percent, finishing at 12.1 percent for a season when he hit .370.
But walking more wasn’t enough. Both of these players also kept their strikeout rate down.
Brett struck out just 4.9 percent of the time and Gwynn was even better, at just 4.5 percent.
Both players were also in their primes and could still exhibit a little speed on the bases (one of the factors that Castro has on his side).
After the 1994 strike, Gwynn hit .368 in 1995 and .372 in 1997, but his walk rate was way down, along with his speed. Brett was never again close to hitting .350 let alone .400 after 1980.
Those seasons were glimpses of what it takes to make it through a whole season over .400. Something in a player’s approach changes enough to push them over the edge. They begin walking more, and striking out less. It is a perfect season of seeing the ball and making contact, combined with a peak in skills.
It makes it almost impossible to get close once, even more amazing to pass .400 and mind-blowing that anyone was ever able to do it multiple times.
Other players have come close with some remarkable seasons, but usually something kept them from breaking through.
Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977. His walk rate was just below what seems like the magical 10 percent mark, but his strikeout rate was nearly 9 percent. He also had an extremely â€śluckyâ€ť season, recording a .408 mark in BABIP, almost 50 points above his career average.
Carew could work a walk and for most of his career, was above 10 percent (interesting that in his best season, he missed).
But his strikeout numbers were perpetually high, above what seems like the threshold of 8 percent.
In 1975, Carew had a year with over 10 percent walks and less than 8 percent strikeouts (10.4%, 7.5%) but hit just .359. It was also one of the biggest power years in his career. Not that power hitters canâ€™t approach .400 (Brett was no slouch and Todd Helton is a more recent example) but it is more unlikely given their hitting style (fly balls vs. line drives).
The numbers aren’t easy to tease out, but seasons like Carew’s 1975, or Gwynn’s 1994, or Brett’s 1980 have to be rare. To put together an almost perfect season of strike zone management and not hit .400 seems like it is impossible.
Even more so when you look at how the players who achieved the mark also missed when the numbers moved against them.
But then there is Wade Boggs who has to be the king of the “missed seasons”.
Boggs breaks all the rules. He was a walk machine for his entire career; he repeatedly was under 8 percent strikeouts in a season.
But he was never close, probably due to his lack of speed (just 24 stolen bases in 18 seasons, including his prime years during the speedster 1980s when everyone was running).
You can say the same thing about Yogi Berra who almost never struck out and had three seasons over 10 percent walks. But catching has a way of ruining your ability to get down the line quickly.
A player needs that unique combination of plate discipline and speed, and almost every miss can be attributed to one or the other.
The two men who set the standard (Williams and Hornsby) meet all the marks or come close.
Hornsby hit .400 three times and nearly bested it twice more. Williams had his magical 1941 season.
In 1941, at the age of 22, Ted Williams was the best hitter in all of baseball (except according to the MVP voters who picked Joe DiMaggio over Williams, perhaps because of some really long hitting streak). He hit .406, struck out just 27 times and reached base on a free pass 147 more times.
His on base percentage was an astonishing .553, only bettered twice in history (both by Barry Bonds, when it made more sense to walk Bonds than let him swing for the fences).
His walk percentage that season was 24.3 percent (Williams had some ridiculous walk percentage numbers in his career. If there was ever a guy with an amazing sense of the strike zone and where a pitch was going, it was him), and his strikeout rate was at just 5.9 percent: the perfect storm.
To show how good Williams was, despite losing years off his career to military service twice, in 1957, at the age of 38, Williams again approached .400, hitting .388.
His walk numbers were still incredible, drawing a free pass 21.8 percent of the time. But age had started to catch up with Williams and he struck out in 10.2 percent of his chances (still only 43 times on the season, but enough to pull down his average by those 12 points).
Hornsby has similar numbers in his .400 seasons, and even managed to reach.401 without walking 10 percent of the time.
His two near missed came in 1928 and 1929 when he hit .387 and .380. His walk totals were good enough, but the strikeouts had crept above that 8 percent mark and his average suffered.
Which brings us back to Starlin Castro.
He has the speed (and might be one of a scant few on the Cubs roster with any) and he is showing an improvement in his ability to not strikeout (down from 15.3 percent in his rookie campaign).
But despite Castroâ€™s presence in the lead-off spot, he is not drawing walks at the rate he would need to potentially make a run at .400. Through Monday, he had walked just 4.1 percent of the time (3 in 74 plate appearances). Granted it is a small sample size (and projections have his strikeout numbers increasing dramatically) but that is not likely to work out for a .400 average over the course of the year.
As history has shown, a hitter can come close to the mark while still missing in what appear to be the required percentages. They can also hit them and miss (as Gwynn did in 1994, although there is no telling what he could have done over the last month of the season. He seemed almost destined that year).
What is clear is that Castro is off to a great start on the season and he is showing no signs of a sophomore slump as of yet. Maybe he needs a few more years to achieve the overall plate discipline it would take to reach .400. He is only 21, and his best years are ahead of him (a scary thought for opposing teams).
Either way, the Cubs can only benefit from the improvements that Castro has made in such a short time in the big leagues.
And they couldnâ€™t care less if he ever hits .400.