Lopsided Batting Titles

Let’s get it out of the way: batting average is not one of the five most important offensive stats. It’s not one of the ten most important. It might be in the top 20. But regardless, we all grew up knowing “.300 hitter=good,” and we still talk about the batting average leader as the “batting champion.” So even though it’s not “important,” batting average can still be fun and interesting. So I’ve been looking into some batting races to see if there’s anything “there” for me to post about. I’ve come up with a few that might be worth discussing.

But as is my wont, I feel a need to learn as much as possible about a topic before I’m ready to write about it. In this case, that meant analyzing batting races. So one of the questions that was burning in my mind was the counterpoint to which batting races were interesting: which batting races were the most lopsided in history?

Now, you can come up with a pretty interesting list by doing that. Unsurprisingly, the most lopsided in history is the AL in 1901, when Nap Lajoie, one of the 3-or-so best players in baseball, jumped ship to what was, essentially, a minor league, and won the batting title by nearly 90 points (.086). I think we all know that such a race was not really what we might consider lopsided, for a couple reasons. One, the level of competition was not that good, because it was the early days of baseball. Two, in the Deadball Era, there weren’t that many extra-base hits, so batting average often was actually the best way to judge between hitters. Three, while Lajoie may have won the American League batting title by a lot, how did he fare relative to the senior circuit? Well, Jesse Burkett batted .376, so the gap was still large, but not that large.

So I decided to limit my inquiry to those batting titles won by 30 points (.030) or more, in which the hitter led both leagues by that margin or more. Here are the least-close batting races of the Liveball Era:

#1 – 1977: Rod Carew (.388) over Dave Parker (.338)

Carew batted 122 points better than his league.
Carew led the majors in AVG, OBP, and OPS, but was only 6th in SLG. However, it was the only full season of his career in which he slugged even .500, and he managed .570! Parker, though, managed more extra-base hits (73-68). Not a huge surprise there.

#2 – 1941: Ted Williams (.406) over Cecil Travis (.359)

Williams batted 140 points better than his league.
NL leader (in just about everything) was Pete Reiser, but Williams, as we all know, lapped the field. DiMaggio finished third, hitting .357. I have nowhere else to talk about this, but we need to mention Williams’ 1954 season. He led the AL in OBP and SLG, but not batting average. This is because, while his batting average was higher than the batting champ (.345; Bobby Avila batted .341), the batting champ was (then) based on 400 AB (2.6 per team game). Williams was walked so many times in 1954 that he was not eligible for the batting title (and adding hitless at-bats, still the policy, didn’t do it for him). He had 133 hits in 386 at-bats… and walked 136 times! Do you know how many times a player has had a 400-PA season with a .300+ average and more walks than hits? Six, by three players: Barry Bonds (4x; 2001-2004), Mickey Mantle (1962), and Ted Williams (1954).

#3 – 1924: Rogers Hornsby (.424) over Babe Ruth (.378)

Hornsby batted 141 points better than his league. Lajoie in 1901 was higher, relative to his league (in the 20th century or later, anyway) at 149 points. Ty Cobb in 1911 was higher (146 points better), as was his 1912 (144). I believe this season ranks fourth, with Williams’ ’41 ranking fifth. If someone has a good way of checking this automatically (or if it’s in one of Richard’s spectacular books) I would love to hear it.
Maybe the two best hitters in history finished 1-2 in the majors in hitting in ’24. This was Ruth’s only batting title. For Hornsby, lopsided batting titles were already a well-worn trail. He had already won NL titles by 47 (1922) and 45 (1921) points… but both times, the AL had someone with a similar or even better average. In ’24, though, he finally cracked open a wide margin over the junior circuit champ. While Hornsby won the batting title, Ruth actually led in OBP and SLG (and therefore OPS); however, don’t go giving Ruth too much credit; Baseball-Reference says that, by OPS plus, it was Hornsby who was the Majors’ best hitter (222 to 220). Both players won the triple-slash-triple-crown in their respective leagues this season.

#4 – 1980: George Brett (.390) over Cecil Cooper (.352)

Brett batted 121 points better than his league.
NL leader was Bill Buckner at .324, which is nearly as large as the gap between Brett and Cooper – so not really in the same ballpark. In fact, seven AL players batted better than Buckner (say that three times fast!) in 1980; that may not be a record, but I’m not going to research it. The only larger gap in history between the AL and NL champ in batting average came in 1911, when Ty Cobb topped Honus Wagner by 86 points.
On another note, Did you know that Cecil Cooper finished 5th in the AL MVP vote 3 times in four seasons (1980, 1982, and 1983)? He’s largely a forgotten player outside of Brewers fans these days, but there’s an argument that he was one of the very best players in the league for a short while (admittedly, it’s not a very good argument). Cooper led the league in TB and RBI in 1980.
Brett, kind of famously, didn’t actually play very much in 1980. He played in only 117 games, and barely qualified for the batting title (515 PAs). Unfortunately for Cooper, you could’ve added 48 hitless ABs to Brett, and he still would’ve won the batting title. Even though there was a big gap in playing time, the gap in production was absolutely massive

#5 – 1970: Rico Carty (.366) over Alex Johnson (.329)

Carty batted 108 points better than his league, tied for lowest on this list.
This is the only “HUH?!?!” season on here. First of all, unless you A.) lived through this era, or B.) are a serious student of the game, you might have no idea who either player is. The runners-up in both leagues (Joe Torre and Carl Yastrzemski, respectively) are much more famous than the champs. Carty and Johnson would later be teammates (briefly) for the 1974 Texas Rangers. Carty was no stranger to high batting averages, having posted a .342 the year before, and .330 and .326 earlier in his career. What he was a stranger to was playing a full season. Excluding a cup of coffee, he played 14 seasons, but less than 118 per year. Only three times in his career did he top the 136 games he played in ’70. This season is still the 20th-best batting average in a qualifying season since integration. The only Brave to ever have a higher batting average was Rogers Hornsby (.387 in 1928).

#6 – 1935: Arky Vaughan (.385) over Joe Medwick (.353)

Vaughan batted 108 points better than his league, tied for lowest on this list.
Buddy Meyer was the AL batting champ (.349).
Vaughan won the triple-slash-triple-crown in ’35. Vaughan and Medwick had the same player age; both were in their age-23 seasons in 1936. They are, to this day, the only two players in Major League history with 29 2B, 10 3B, and 9 HR four times by their age-24 season (Musial, DiMaggio, Foxx, and Goslin each had three such seasons by age-24). Both retired following the 1948 season. Both men would die young – Vaughan at 40, Medwick at 63. Both broke in at age-20.
I suspect most baseball fans would consider Medwick the greater player of the two. He won a Triple Crown, after all, in 1937. Baseball-Reference rates that season as worth 8.5 WAR, Medwick’s best. Vaughan, on the other hand, had two seasons worth 9+ WAR (1935 and 1938), plus another 8-WAR season (1936). In fact, the only season in which they were both active Major Leaguers and Medwick had more WAR was his Triple Crown year or 1937.
Yet, these two players, so similar in so many ways, had different trajectories in their Hall of Fame prospects. Both were eventually elected. But Medwick lived to see himself elected by the BBWAA in 1968 with 84% of the vote; That same voting season, Vaughan received his highest total ever: 29%. He fell off the ballot following that vote, which had been his final year of eligibility. Vaughan was finally elected posthumously in 1985.

Some other fast facts:
-Ty Cobb won four major league batting titles by 30 points or more… including in consecutive seasons (’17 and ’18) over guys named George. He also won ML batting titles by 29 and 24 points. All of those were over other AL players, weirdly. There was also a season (1907) in which Cobb led the AL by 28 points, but led NL champ Honus Wagner by less than 1 point. Ty Cobb was a very good hitter.
-Honus Wagner’s 1909 is really weird. Either he won a lopsided batting race (by 27 over Billy Herman in the NL) or lost a lopsided one, by 38 points to Ty Cobb.
– You’ll notice that the most recent season on the above list was 1980. Since then, the most lopsided batting race was 1994, in which Tony Gwynn topped league-mate Jeff Bagwell by 26 points, batting .394. Bagwell actually posted one of the best averages of the 90s, batting .368. That just goes to show how incredible a .394 average really is.
-And in the first decade of the 21st century, the most lopsided race was Barry Bonds’ 21-point batting championship from 2002, in which he batted .370 to Manny Ramirez’s .349.
-And in the millenium so far, the most lopsided race was, unsurprisingly, 2010, in which Josh Hamilton batted .359, topping Rockie Carlos Gonzalez by 23 points. Hamilton is the last player to hit .350, and it’s VERY hard to win a batting title by this much without getting above .350. The only two other races even worthy of note in terms of their lopsidedness are Jose Altuve’s win in 2017 and Mookie Betts’ in 2018, winning batting titles by 15 and 16 points, respectively; but they also very close to .350, each having hit .346. (Closest to Hamilton were DJ LeMahieu at .348 and Daniel Murphy at .347, both in the NL in 2016.) Barring major changes in the game, it’s very hard to imagine anything outpacing Hamilton’s win for a very long time (although a shortened season this year might have the right mojo to do it).

As I said at the top, I will (hopefully) someday be writing a post about close batting races, but we can certainly start talking about them here, if you’d like. So anyone who wants to talk about batting title races, I’d love to talk about them with you!

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Voomo
Voomo
4 months ago

This got me looking at Piazza, who batted .308 for his career. But cherry-picking to his BA and physical peak, he is the greatest BA hitting Catcher: Highest Batting Average by Catchers through Age 32: .325 … Mike Piazza .321 … Mickey Cochrane .320 … Bill Dickey .315 … Spud Davis .315 … Ernie Lombardi .313 … Joe Mauer .306 … Ivan Rod .304 … Johnny Bassler .304 … Earl Smith .303 … Manny Sanguillen .303 … Victor Martinez .302 … Gerald Posey .301 … Buck Ewing .301 … Jason Kendall Special mention to Deacon White, who batted .343 (in… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
4 months ago
Reply to  Voomo

1 Mike Piazza 155
2 Buck Ewing 139
3 Gene Tenace 136
4 Bill Dickey 131
5 Roger Bresnahan 131
6 Joe Mauer 129
7 Johnny Bench 129
8 Mickey Cochrane 129
10 Yogi Berra 128
11 Roy Campanella 128
12 Ernie Lombardi 128
13 Wally Schang 127
14 Mike Napoli 126
15 Carlton Fisk 126

Through age 32 among catchers with 3,000+ plate appearances, Piazza’s OPS+ superiority is even more impressive

Voomo
Voomo
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

32 is a pretty good cutoff for Catchers’ peaks. Who kept it going? Highest OPS+ for Catchers, ages 33+ (minimum 35% of games at Catcher, 1000 PA) 145 … Mike Grady 131 … Gabby Hartnett 121 … Ernie Lombardi 120 … Jorge Posada 117 … Mike Piazza 116 … Bubbles Hargrave 116 … Yogi 116 … Smokey 112 … Kurt Suzuki 111 … Bill Dickey 111 … Walker Cooper 111 … Roy Campanella 109 … Carlton Fisk ____________________ Fisk had 5500 PA after age 32. And almost all of them as a Catcher. PA leaders age 33+ for Catchers 5500… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 months ago
Reply to  Voomo

Fisk moves up to a 119 OPS+ in over 2000 PA aged 40 and older, the top OPS+ mark among twelve players at any position with 1500 PA aged 40+. Only eight other catchers have even 200 PA in an age 40 or older season, led by Bob Boone’s 97 OPS+ in 997 PA, both marks tops among those following Fisk.

Doug
Doug
4 months ago

Just to flesh out Ty Cobb’s lopsided titles, they look like this.
1909: Cobb .377, Eddie Collins .347
1915: Cobb .369, Eddie Collins .332 (Benny Kauff hit .342 in the FL)
1917: Cobb .383, George Sisler .353
1918: Cobb .382, George Burns .353
1919: Cobb .384, Bobby Veach .355

Cobb also bested Shoeless Joe by 10+ points in three straight seasons (1910-12). For the eleven seasons from 1909 to 1919, he was ML batting champ (excl. FL) nine times, and finished second the other two.

Paul E
Paul E
4 months ago
Reply to  Doug

for the three seasons he was 2nd in BA, 1911-1913, Jackson batted .393 with a 192 OPS+. He didn’t lead the AL in either category for the three seasons and never equaled his 193, 191, and 192 OPS+ again.

Doug
Doug
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Cobb’s OPS+ for those three seasons was an even 200, and 198 for the five seasons 1909-13. He led the majors in OPS+ for 7 straight years (1909 -15) and 9 out of 10 (1909-18), and added two two AL OPS+ crowns (1907-08) to front-end that run, plus a final one (his 12th) in 1925 at age 38.

Should also mention that Cobb won the AL triple crown in 1909 (his only year leading in HR), though I suspect the designation had yet to be coined.

Paul E
Paul E
4 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Supposedly, Babe Ruth admired Jackson and tried to emulate his style of hitting as Ruth’s days with Boston in the AL would have coincided with Jackson’s days in Cleveland and Chicago….. Don’t know why Mack/PHA gave up on Jackson?

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Jackson’s SABR bio is worth consulting. Apparently, the A’s, notoriously full of college players, teased Jackson mercilessly for his illiteracy. That caused Mack to believe Jackson couldn’t succeed in Philly (a “big city” that scared Jackson, anyway), sho her traded him to Cleveland.

Tom Ra
Tom Ra
4 months ago

1980 had everything these tto times don’t. I hope Dr. Doom does A look back at 1980. There was the Brett .400 chase that had him batting .39950 on September 19. Besides hitting .390, he drove in 118 in 117 games. LA was 3 down, with 3 to play. They swept Houston to force a game #163. Then, LaSorda started Dave Goltz over Fernando Valenzuela. KC finally broke through to beat NYY in the ALCS after losing the ALCS to NYY in 1976-77-78. Philly won its first championship- the last of the classic 8 NL teams to do so. Steve… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

In Lasorda’s defense, Valenzuela was (supposedly) a 19 year-old in 1980 with less than 3 weeks in the bigs and who had yet to start a game. He would have been a most unusual choice to start game 163. He did get in the game, though, holding the Astros scoreless in two innings of work, just as he had done in two of the three prior games.

howard
howard
4 months ago
Reply to  Doug

And Dave Goltz’s ERA was below 3.00 in both August & September that year.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
4 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

A great suggestion, Tom! I won’t steal all your tidbits here, but I might use a couple. I think I’ll get to work on that sometime soon…

Doug
Editor
4 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Some other factoids. – Only 11 players struck out 100 times though, in a preview of coming attractions, 92 of 125 qualified batters struck out more than they walked – Ron LeFlore and Omar Moreno became the first players since Tom Brown of the 1891 Boston Reds to strike out 90 times and steal 90 bases (Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman would quickly follow suit, but nobody else has done so since) – Minnie Minoso played his final game, extending his own record as the oldest player with a season of more than one game (coincidentally in time, 51 year-old… Read more »

oneblankspace
oneblankspace
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

LeFlore and Rodney Scott set a record for most stolen bases by two teammates

TTD
TTD
4 months ago

Dr. Doom, Regarding players who batted the most points over the league: your list is almost correct. You missed Nap Lajoie, who slips into 5th place with his .383 in 1910, which is +.140 over the league. (That was the infamous controversy over whether he or Cobb won the batting title.) Cobb was awarded the title, with a slightly lower .382, which places him seventh at +.139, after Ted Williams on your list. At the other end of the spectrum, I believe John Gochnaur batted the most points under the league average by a qualifying player, at -.090 in 1902.… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
4 months ago
Reply to  TTD

He didn’t qualify (496 PAs), but Adam Dunn batted .159 in a league that batted .258. If you add a 6/6, he’s “only” 86 points below league.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
4 months ago
Reply to  TTD

I also found that Gochnauer has the most points below average (for 1901-2019).

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
4 months ago

Batting champs whose next season BA declined the most: Norm Cash went from .361 in 1961 to .243 in 1962, a 117 point drop. George Sisler went from .420 in 1922 to .305 in 1924, a 115 point drop. He missed the 1923 season due to ear and sinus ailments which greatly altered his career. Julio Franco went from .341 in 1991 to .234 in 1992, a 107 point drop. Chipper Jones went from .364 in 2008 to .264 in 1999, a 100 point drop. Willie McGee went from .353 in 1985 to .256 in 1986, a 97 point drop.… Read more »

Mike L
Mike L
4 months ago

Read my mind, Richard.

Doug
Doug
4 months ago

Tip O’Neill went from .435 to .335 in 1888, a 100 point drop, but he successfully defended his AA batting title.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
4 months ago

I’m assuming that the inverse list – batting champs whose average INCREASED the most from the previous season – is mostly these same guys.

Doug
Editor
4 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Andres Galarraga increased his BA 127 points (.243 to .370) to claim the 1993 NL crown. Other big rises: 126 points, Harry Walker 1947, .237 to .363 117, Pete Browning 1890*, .256 to .373 (Players’ League) 107, Tip O’Neill 1887, .328 to .435 100, King Kelly 1896, .288 to .388 99, King Kelly 1894, .255 to .354 97, Carl Furillo 1953, .247 to .344 97, Benny Kauff 1914**, .273 to .370 (Federal League) 97, George Gore 1880, .263 to .360 91, Josh Hamilton 2010, .268 to .359 89, Nap Lajoie 1901, .337 to .426 87, Tommy Tucker 1889, .287 to… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 months ago

The White Sox’ Tim Anderson last year set a new post-1901 record for fewest walks by a batting champion with only 15, one fewer than Zack Wheat in 1918 (in a short season of only 436 PA). Anderson’s 498 AB in 518 PA (96.1%) was his second qualified season above 96%; one more will tie him with Gary Templeton for the most since 1901. The highest ratios of AB to qualified PA belong to Virgil Stallcup (1949, 97.6%) in the NL, and Ivan Rodriguez (2007, 97.5%) in the AL.

trackback
2 months ago

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