Wednesday June 11th, 2008

Chipper Jones single-handedly has made batting average cool again, as soothing to a baseball romantic as vinyl to an audiophile. Yes, we have better, more advanced delivery systems of baseball statistics and rock and roll, but if you're searching for some old-school soul, the chase for .400 is where it's at.

Don't hold your breath waiting for America to get all worked up about the chase for a 1.400 OPS. (Hate to break it to you, but you missed it, anyway. Barry Bonds cracked the 1.400 mark in 2004, and nobody cared.) But .400 has the history, the mythology and, yes, the veritable impossibility that makes us care.

And so we get a daily buzz about whether Jones can hit .400, even with 60 percent of the season still to be played. Why so early? It's fun to check the box scores, to recall the greatness of Ted Williams, who in 1941 was the last to hit .400, and to imagine what it might be like in this age of media saturation if Jones can take this quest to September. Already Jones has kept this up long enough to remind us of the two most powerful forces that make baseball culturally unique among sports: its ability to engage us on a daily basis, like a serial novel, and also to connect us to other generations through its statistics.

Enjoy it while it lasts. I have two words for you on his chance for hitting .400: Not happening. It's too hard to do, and now more than ever. Furthermore, Jones, at 36, is too far from his physical peak, and with a lifetime .310 average, too far from his established standard to keep this up.

It would be broadly captivating -- similar to the 1998 home run chase -- if Jones could carry this through the summer months. And if somehow he did pull this off it would rank as one of the most freakishly amazing seasons in the history of the game, like Hack Wilson's 191 RBIs, or Babe Ruth's 60 home runs, or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

I believe hitters today are better, stronger, smarter and more technically advanced than ever before. And yet they generally are no better at hitting for average than guys from a hundred years ago. In fact, hitting .400 is way more difficult now.

One reason for the demise of .400, the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould once smartly observed, is that hitting is so well evolved that there are fewer wild variables. It was easier for Ruth and Ty Cobb to stand out, for instance, in a crowd of fewer advanced hitters. The pattern of batting average outliers bears this out.

For instance, forget .400; just consider all hitters who have batted even .375 or better since 1901 (minimum 502 plate appearances). It's been done 66 times. Here's one thumbnail look at how they break down:

1901-1948 (48 seasons): 62 times

1949-2007 (59 seasons): 4 times

The only .375 seasons since 1949 belong to Williams (1957), Rod Carew (1977), George Brett (1980) and Larry Walker (1999). That's it. Four.

(Williams is one of only three hitters since 1901 to hit .375 when they were at least as old as Jones is now. The others were Zach Wheat at 36 in 1924 and Tris Speaker at 37 in 1925.)

Remember, too, that the game of the first half of the 20th century bears little resemblance to how it is played today, even if we like to cling to the quaint notion that baseball is timeless. (The appeal of the game is timeless; its intricacies are not.) Heck, even the game Brett played in 1980 is vastly different from what we see today.

Brett was hitting .287 as deep into the 1980 season as May 30, then erupted on a 31-game tear in which he hit a ridiculous .496, raising his average to .390. The chase was on. Brett was hitting .400 as late as Sept. 19. But his quest died over the next seven games. Brett went 4-for-27 that week and wound up at .390. Turn just four of those outs that week into hits and he would have hit .400.

But when you look at those seven games that killed the quest, you understand how much things have changed from Brett to Jones. In those seven games Brett never faced a relief pitcher. Think about that for a minute. A full week of games seeing only one pitcher per game.

Opposing starting pitchers threw every inning but two (63 of 65) against Brett's Royals in that seven-game stretch. Those starters were Matt Keough, Mike Norris, Floyd Bannister, Jim Beattie, Rick Honeycutt, Geoff Zahn and Jerry Koosman. Brett had to be concerned with only one pitcher per night. No closers and no left-handed specialists. Jones typically will face three or four different pitchers a night, facing constant adjustments in velocity, style, release points and such. Expansion and interleague play have added to the variety.

Here's one way to glimpse how much the game has changed: look at the number of different pitchers faced by Williams in 1957, Brett in 1980, Walker in 1999 and Jones last year (even while missing 28 games):

Jones has to process far more information and do so far more often and quickly than Brett. And the game is played even more differently than when Williams made his reputation.

The bottom line is that hitting .400 has not been attained in 67 years because it keeps getting harder, and it's not likely that a 36-year-old, .310 career hitter is going to be the one to buck the odds. Jones did post his career high batting average last season, which suggests his physical skills are sharper than most 36 year olds, but even then it was "only" .337. His batting average on balls in play this year is .428, including a stupefying .470 mark at home. That's Little League stuff that can't possibly hold up.

What Jones has done already is amazing, though perhaps no more amazing than Ichiro Suzuki hitting .429 over half a season -- though because it was the second half of 2004, it did not draw this kind of notice. Think of the hundreds upon hundreds of hitters who have played baseball since Williams hit .400. Only four of them were able to hit .400 past even mid-July: Brett, John Olerud (1993), Walker (1997) and Nomar Garciaparra (1999 and 2000). Brett was the only one who finished better than even .375. And now you want to believe that Jones, at 36, can keep this up for six months?

Hitting .400 is harder than ever, and as such has become more mythological than ever, such as winning the Triple Crown in baseball or horse racing or the Cubs winning the World Series. That Jones has caused a stir by making it even 40 percent of the way there -- and rightfully so -- tells you of its difficulty.

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