Ted Williams famously said hitting is the toughest thing to do in sports. One of the first recorded accounts of the Williams Postulate dates to 1966, when Williams added, “And hitting the curve is the toughest element of hitting.” Teddy Ballgame made his observation while explaining why many kids stop playing baseball.
Hitting has only grown more difficult. Since the mound was lowered to its current height in 1969, the five lowest rates of hits per game are ’72, 2020, ’21, ’22 and ’23. This four-year stretch is to modern hitting what the Sahara is to deserts.
Hitting is harder because pitching—lots and lots of it—is so much better. Already this season, teams have used 655 pitchers, more than any full season in baseball history up to 2006. More than half of those pitchers (335) have touched at least 96 mph with their fastballs. And despite that ferocious velocity, fastballs are at an all-time low (47%). Why? We go back to Williams’s observation about the career killer: the curveball. Spin is in.
That context should help you appreciate the wonder that is Luis Arraez. Thirty-nine percent of the way into the season, the Marlins infielder is hitting .403. He is the first player to hit .400 into June since Chipper Jones in 2008, which is to say Arraez is a preposterous outlier who deserves our praise just for getting here.
The year 2008 has little resemblance to baseball today. Back then, six pitchers averaged 97 mph with their fastball. This year there are 51 pitchers who do so.
Average velocity then was 91.4 MPH. Today it is 93.8. It’s as if the pitching rubber were moved 18 inches closer to home. No wonder batting average is 17 points lower. Strikeouts are up 27%.
It is far too early to think seriously about whether Arraez can hit .400 over a full season. Nobody has done it since Williams in 1941. Jones finished at .364. Only one player in the past 40 full seasons has even hit .375: Larry Walker at .379 in ’99, when batting average was the highest since the game was integrated in ’47 (.271). And for that to happen Walker hit .461 in the hitting haven that is Coors Field in Denver.
The history of .400 since Williams is filled with flirtations that were bound to fail in more favorable hitting environments, including:
- Rod Carew made runs in 1977 (hitting .400 as late as July 10) and ’83 (July 13) but finished at .388 and .339.
- In 1980, George Brett was hitting .400 as late as Sept. 19, but went 4-for-27 and finished at .390.
- John Olerud was hitting .400 as late as Aug. 2, 1993, but finished at .363.
- Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994, but the strike that year cut his season to just 110 games.
Those seasons simply are not applicable to how baseball is played today. Arraez has seen 116 different pitchers in 58 games—a rate almost double or more than the others—and he almost never gets to see a starting pitcher for a fourth time:
|Player||Year||G||Pitchers||P/G||4th PA vs. SP|
In context, hitting .400 today is virtually impossible. Nobody has hit .380 since Gwynn in 1994, a 29-year gap that is the longest in baseball history with no one coming within 20 points of .400.
Even in the minors .400 is becoming out of reach. In 2019, I wrote about the last two men to hit .400 over more than 400 plate appearances with one minor league team: Aaron Pointer and Darryl Brinkley, whose amazing stories of perseverance are worth your time.
Why is it happening so infrequently? The late anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould famously explained that as talent level rises across the board there is less variation in performance. Ty Cobb could hit .420 in 1911, he said, because the average player then was far inferior to Cobb. In any era, the very best players bump against what Gould called “the right wall” of achievement—the outer limits of human capability—but as overall play improves their performance is not measured as high.
Arraez has lasted this long above .400 on a combination of hand-eye wizardry and plain luck. When the average MLB player swings at a pitch in the strike zone, he misses about one out of every five times, or 18%. When Arraez swings at anything in the zone, he misses one out of 19 times, or 5%.
The more Arraez makes contact, of course, the more chances he has to get a hit—even with poor contact. The average hit carries an exit velocity of 94.4 mph. Arraez’s hits average just 90.8. Somehow, despite not hitting the ball very hard, Arraez is hitting .417 on balls in play. That’s simply unsustainable, considering nobody since Rogers Hornsby in 1924 had such a high average on balls in play.
But Statcast and other metrics fail miserably at capturing the craftsmanship of Arraez with a bat in his hands. He holds the bat loosely at first, as if cradling a baby bird, waiting to apply grip pressure until the moment the pitcher starts to send the ball homeward. There is the slightest of a triggering pump of his hands to get to the loaded position and then a flick of those hands with little influence from his lower half. It is as if he is merely redirecting the baseball.
His swing is not loose and languid—as were the swings of Williams, Brett and Olerud—or a sword-like brandishing that Gwynn used. It is closest in style to the Carew flick, as if shooing away a pesky bug.
Watching Arraez is like watching a prime Carew, only in a much tougher hitting environment. His pursuit of .400 may be doomed to fail, but seeing anyone bump up against “the right wall” of human achievement even for this long is a rare, throwback treat that should be savored with every flick of his hands.