Albert Almora Jr., Theo Epstein’s first draft pick as Grand Poobah of the Cubs organization, is having himself a nice little season this year at the age of 24. His on-base percentage of .370 is 32 points up on last year’s career high. His .462 slugging percentage is also a career high, though buttressed not so much by increased home-run power as by an increase in the rate at which he hits doubles (one in every 14 plate appearances this year compared to 1-in-18 last year). His 1.8 WAR, of course, is already at a career high, and he plays stellar defense in center field. Oh, and if the season ended today, his .329 average would put him neck-and-neck with Scooter Gennett for the NL’s batting title.
“Batting title”: that’s the funny term we give the hitter who finishes the season with at least 502 plate appearances and the highest batting average in the league. It sounds really good! A reasonable person might conclude, in fact, that someone who wins the batting title is necessarily one of the best batters in the league. But, of course, they’re not — at least not all of the time. Last year, for example, one of the very best hitters in the National League was Giancarlo Stanton, and he “hit” — see how the language works against our understanding? — just .281. Aaron Judge was among the very best in the Junior Circuit, and he hit .284. And this year, the Year of our Lord Mike Trout 8 and of the Common Era 2018, Albert Almora Jr. is currently ranked 52nd in wRC+ among qualified hitters, and he’s in strong contention for the batting title. He just might win it.
But he won’t be the most valuable hitter in the league while doing so, or even close to it. And that split — between the best batting-average hitters in the league, and the best hitters in the league, period — turns out to be something that’s changed quite a bit over the course of baseball’s history, and certainly quite dramatically from the glory years of the batting title, which came during the early part of the 20th century. Examine with me, for a moment, the following graph, which presents the mean wRC+ of the top five hitters by batting average each year since 1901, and running through 2017:
You’ll note, I hope, that in the early part of the century now passed, baseball’s top hitters by average were much better, at least as measured by wRC+, than the top hitters by average in the present day, and even better, for the most part, than the hitters from the period 1960-1980. When Ty Cobb was winning batting title after batting title in the 1900s and 1910s, he was also one of the best hitters in the league, period. Same goes for Rogers Hornsby a decade later. But when, for example, folks like Bill Madlock (1975) and Ralph Garr (1974) and Rod Carew (1972) were winning batting titles in the 1970s, they were ranked eighth, 12th, and 21st, respectively, on their league’s wRC+ leaderboards. The trend is even more pronounced when you examine a Spearman correlation (provided courtesy of FanGraphs’ incomparable Sean Dolinar) between ranked batter finishes in batting average and ranked batter finishes in wRC+ (excluding 1981 and 1994, which were strike years, and only including hitters with at least 502 plate appearances):
It’s helpful, in this case, to look at the Spearman correlation (even if you shouldn’t take it too far in this context) because it measures the difference between rankings in a whole data set rather than looking at just the mean of the top five (which is what the first graph showed you). If everyone’s rank in the wRC+ tables were the same as their rank in batting average, the figure would be 1.0. If there were no relationship, the figure would be 0. What this is telling you, then, is that, in the early part of the 20th century, the top hitters by wRC+ looked a lot like the top hitters by batting average. Now, however, they don’t as much. In other words, up until a little bit before the onset of the Second World War, when the home run still wasn’t an especially widespread innovation and pretty much everyone except Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Jimmie Foxx was trying to hit a ground ball up the middle, it made sense to call the league leader in average the “batting champion.” Most of the time, they were. Since about 1937, however, that hasn’t made all that much sense. And the trend is still continuing, as the wise among you will note from the far right half of the graph above.
So what’s taken it’s place? Well, here’s two charts I think might be interesting to you. Their titles tell you what they are, and they are subject to the same limitations of the chart above, in that they only present batter seasons with more than 502 PAs, and they exclude 1981 and 1994. Here’s the first one:
And here’s the second one:
If you’ve been paying attention to baseball for, well, your entire life (unless you’re very old, in which case hello), this isn’t really telling you anything you don’t know. You’ve understood for a while, I think, that the batting title doesn’t mean what it once did, and it’s still a little bit odd that we give it as much attention as we do. More useful, perhaps, would be examining the OBP and SLG leaderboards for clues as to the league’s top hitters — and, more useful still, if you’re trying to understand who the best hitters in the game are, would be rolling all those statistics into one single measure of offensive performance that you might be able to use to compare hitters across years and eras. Something like, for example (he says, gesturing wildly), weighted runs-created plus.
So yeah, we maybe shouldn’t be paying as much attention to the batting title as we do. But then again, maybe we don’t. I haven’t seen that many folks all that worked up about the brewing Almora/Gennett race for the batting title. That’s because neither player is expected to end the year as the best player or even the best hitter in the league — and also because folks seem to have mostly internalized the information I’m presenting above already. Also because Shohei Ohtani has distracted them. So please, then, interpret this piece in the following way: if you knew this already, congratulations! You are very smart. If you didn’t know this already, congratulations! Now you do, and knowing things is good. And if you are Albert Almora Jr., congratulations! You are having a very nice season, even if you aren’t the best hitter in the league.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.