Batting Average Is for Suckers

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I was contemplating Kyle Schwarber recently, as one does, and was amused by the notion that a player could post a batting average in the .170s and still be a valuable hitter overall. We’ve known that batting average isn’t everything since… well, I was going to say the nascent moments of the sabermetric revolution in the late 20th century, but it’s been way longer than that.

There’s a thread in popular history that casts the latter-day Brooklyn Dodgers as a team of romantic literary figures. Between the righteousness of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, the tragic brevity of the careers of Pete Reiser and later Roy Campanella, and the juxtaposition with the shiny, all-conquering Yankees, there’s a sense that the Dodgers succeeded through some combination of moral rectitude and poetic necessity.

In truth, they won because they drew an absolute crapload of walks. In 1947, Reese and Eddie Stanky both drew over 100 walks, and the Dodgers drew 30% more walks than the NL average. The 2002 A’s beat the AL average by 16%, so the team that made walking cool looks like a bunch of hackers next to the 1947 Dodgers.

If Branch Rickey knew the limitations of batting average, what took the rest of us so long?

Well, knowing and believing are different things. Batting average is so baked into our cultural understanding of the sport, even people who couldn’t tell Elly De La Cruz from Ellie Goulding know what “batting .300” means. If you want to have a good time, start dropping “we’re posting a 140 wRC+” into business meetings and watch how people react.

Now hang on, I can hear you thinking, aren’t you the same guy who’s been all over Luis Arraez this year? There’s no player in baseball who derives a greater percentage of his value from batting average alone; why are so you impressed with his chase for .400 if batting average is meaningless?

The answer is twofold. First: Get off my back, I contain multitudes. Second: One of the beautiful things about baseball, or any sport, is the emergence of varied and seemingly contradictory paths to success. Arraez can slug .500 by batting .400, and Schwarber can slug .500 by batting .200 — isn’t that incredible?

As of this writing, there are eight qualified hitters in baseball with a batting average of .200 or lower. Three of them — Schwarber, Max Muncy, and Patrick Wisdom — have a wRC+ over 100. Now, it’s obviously early in the season still. (And you can tell it’s early because Arraez is still nestled up under the belly of .400 like a remora under a shark.) All of these hitters will probably improve their batting averages as things even out. Schwarber’s BABIP is .167, which is lower than Mark McGwire’s was in 2001. That year, McGwire’s knees were so shot, and he was so unable to run, that somebody wrote to Baseball Weekly asking if the Cardinals should carry Esix Snead down the stretch purely to pinch run for McGwire if he walked or singled.

Schwarber and Muncy in particular are exemplars of an archetype that’s been around for a while: the extreme three-true-outcomes slugger. They can get away with a low batting average because their hits usually go for extra bases, and they walk enough to post a respectable OBP.

At the tail end of the last century, serious people would put on tube socks and polo shirts, sit down in a home office festooned with old Bill James Annuals, and log into the internet on a dial-up modem that screamed like a motorcycle engine being skinned alive, just to type “Rob Deer” or “Steve Balboni” into message boards. No setup necessary, the batting line itself was punchline enough.

But in the past few years, we’ve at least seen proof of concept that a player can post a sub-.200 batting average and still be an above-average hitter overall:

AVG < .200, wRC+ > 100
Year Name Team BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
2023 Kyle Schwarber PHI 17.2% 28.3% .259 .167 .171 .323 .430 .329 105 -0.1
2023 Max Muncy LAD 15.5% 27.9% .282 .180 .191 .323 .474 .340 115 1.2
2023 Patrick Wisdom CHC 10.7% 38.3% .275 .247 .198 .288 .473 .326 104 0.5
2022 Max Muncy LAD 15.9% 25.0% .188 .227 .196 .329 .384 .318 106 2.4
2021 Joey Gallo TEX/NYY 18.0% 34.6% .259 .246 .199 .351 .458 .348 122 4.2
2020 Matt Olson OAK 13.9% 31.4% .229 .227 .195 .310 .424 .316 104 0.6
2010 Carlos Pena TBR 14.9% 27.1% .211 .222 .196 .325 .407 .325 105 1.0
Since 1901, qualified hitters only, 2023 stats current through 6/11

It had never been done until Pena broke the seal in 2010. Since then, the only hitters to do it in a 162-game season have been Joey Gallo in 2021 and Muncy last year. And Gallo wasn’t just average, he was legitimately very good overall.

But until very recently, the dark side of the Mendoza Line was not a place ballplayers were allowed to go. The batting average leaderboards would get to .200 and then go blank, apart from the admonition: “HERE BE DRAGONS.” Whether because of legitimate concerns about the ability to sustain above-average offensive performance with an extremely low batting average, or a mere cosmetic aversion to a batting average that starts with .1, players didn’t stay in the lineup long enough to see if it’s possible to sustain the kind of season Schwarber and Muncy are having.

In 2005, Nick Swisher posted the lowest average of any qualified hitter regardless of wRC+: .236. In 2022, 24 qualified hitters had a worse batting average. From 1946 to 2009, just five players (yes, including Rob Deer in 1991) qualified for the batting title with an average below .200.

Strikeouts and home runs went up through the 2010s, and the reputation of batting average as a holistic offensive metric went the other way. So players who walked a lot and hit a lot of home runs got the chance to play through a bad season with a pitcher’s batting average: Pena twice, Chris Davis twice, Dan Uggla and Mark Reynolds once each.

Qualifying for the batting title is a high bar to clear, but even limited playing time was a nonstarter for hitters like this until recently. In order to post a batting average of .200 or less with a wRC+ of 100 or more these days, a hitter needs to do two things: Hit for power and get on base through other means. This year, Schwarber, Muncy, and Wisdom all have an OBP at least 40% higher than their average, and an ISO equal to or greater than their average. Here’s how many players fitting those parameters have gotten 150 plate appearances in each season of the AL/NL era:

What we’re seeing now is proof that such a season is possible, though obviously no one goes up to the plate aiming to hit .190 for the year. Still, the reflexive aversion to low batting average is slowly eroding, and Schwarber, Muncy, and their fellow travelers prove the truth that’s been self-evident for generation: Batting average is for suckers.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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hscermember
10 months ago

“First: Get off my back, I contain multitudes.” Well ok then, let me get right off of that thing!

john0lerude
10 months ago
Reply to  hscer

Batting under .200 while still being an above average hitter is super easy, barely an inconvenience