This weekend, I did something that I haven’t done in a long, long time. I sorted the FanGraphs leaderboard by batting average. If you’re here, you already know that batting average is a bunk stat, a persistent vestige of a less civilized era like an appendix or the electoral college.
Every year, the players who lead their respective leagues in batting average are awarded the batting title despite the existence of so many other, better metrics. On base percentage credits batters for drawing walks, a repeatable, useful skill. Slugging doesn’t count a single the same as a double. wOBA credits batters according to how many runs they are expected to produce. DRC+, wRC+, and OPS+ measure a batter relative to the rest of the league and adjusts for park effects.
The best thing average is used for is calculating ISO, and in a normal season, we shouldn’t use it for much more than that.
2020 is not a normal season. No qualified hitter has hit over .400 in a full season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1951. Ordinarily, a qualified hitter needs 502 plate appearances to be eligible for the batting title and for it to be noteworthy of whether they .400 or not. In 2020, a batter needs only 186, and in such a small sample, anything could happen.
Craig Edwards at FanGraphs calculated that there was about a 5.3 percent chance of a batter hitting .400 this season. A quarter of the way through the season, there are two candidates to reach that milestone and sully it with the foul ichor of 2020.
One of those, as could be expected, is a Rockie. Since 1993, a Colorado hitter has led the National League in batting average 11 times. After going 2-for-3, Charlie Blackmon is hitting .458 and is leading the majors in batting average. If Blackmon ultimately hits .400 this year, it will be historic, but it will also be predictable and predictable things are a bit boring.
Blackmon is a former All-Star and batting champion who plays in the friendliest hitter’s park in the majors. If you didn’t predict Blackmon to be the one to hit .400 this year, you’re probably kicking yourself for not picking him. He’s a no-brainer, a slam dunk.
Then there’s the next name on the leaderboard, who is much more interesting. Donovan Solano, a 32-year-old backup second baseman with a career .300 wOBA, is right on Blackmon’s heels. Solano, who has never gotten enough at bats to qualify for the batting title in six major league seasons, is not only in the running for the crown, but he could be the one to desecrate the hallowed ground of .400.
Now, there’s a reason I wanted to write this article this week rather than next week. Solano probably won’t hit .400 this year, and he might not even hit .300. Right now, Shroedinger’s batting average is still alive. At the end of the season, Solano could be rubbing shoulders. Ty Cobb, George Sisler, and Ted Williams.
If that’s not silly, it’s sacrilege.
If you’re worried about the sanctity of the .400 club, don’t worry. It’s still a longshot for Solano to hit .400. With 43 games to go, I’m estimating that Solano will get 174 more at bats which would put him at 229 for the season. He would need 92 hits to hit .402, and with 25 hits under his belt already, that leaves him with 67 more hits to rack up. That means Solano would have to hit .385 the rest of the way. Of course, fewer at bats would mean the threshold would be lower.
No batter in history—not Donovan Solano, not Ted Williams—is a true talent .385 hitter. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. It’s possible for any competent hitter to hit that well over a month and a half stretch. They just need to stack all their hits at once.
Since coming back from a two-year stint in the minors, Solano is hitting .356/.382/.494 for a 136 wRC+. That’s still over a span of fewer than 300 plate appearances, but that’s impressive. Solano may be average dependent, and he might be getting some extreme BABIP luck, but this version of Solano wouldn’t have a problem hitting .300 in a season.
If Solano is a true talent .300 hitter, it’s not impossible for him to hit .400 this year which is better than could be said about most hitters. If he’s a .300 hitter, he has about a 0.7 percent chance of hitting .400. In 1,000 simulations, Solano finished with 67 hits or more just seven times.
What if Solano isn’t just a .300 hitter, though? What if Solano has mastered the art of the line drive? Donnie Barrels may not hit a ton of dingers, but he makes a lot of loud contact. If Solano were a .330 hitter, the odds aren’t great for him, but they’re better than the field to begin the year. Solano would have a 7.8 percent chance of hitting .400 if he were suddenly one of the best hitters in recent memory.
If Solano were suddenly one of the best hitters in the history of baseball, he’d still have less than a 1-in-3 shot to hit .400. Solano as a .360 true talent hitter would have a 27.9 percent chance to join Ted Williams.
Solano probably hasn’t evolved into a perennial MVP candidate or Hall of Famer, so the odds of him hitting .400 are probably closer to 0.7 percent, but that’s still outrageously high. Donovan Solano hitting .400 makes no sense, but it would be par for the course for 2020.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.