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!