Whatever Happened to the .300 Hitting Team?

Ted Williams only tallied 416 plate appearances for the 1950 Red Sox. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Ted Williams only tallied 416 plate appearances for the 1950 Red Sox. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Are you ready for a real stumper, folks? When was the last time a major league team batted at least .300 in a season?

Was it some altitude-enhanced squad from Colorado during the Blake Street Bombers era? Or maybe one of those high-octane Indians lineups from the late 1990s? What about the speedy Cardinals from the ’80s, known for slashing base hits on the rock-hard fake turf at Busch Stadium? And let’s not forget the Big Red Machine of the ’70s, with Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, George Foster, and Ken Griffey Sr. Surely that team must have hit .300 a couple of years?

The truth is we have to go back much further than that to find the answer. It has not happened since the Boston Red Sox hit .302 in 1950. That is an incredibly long time.

Since 1901, which historians have (somewhat arbitrarily) designated as the beginning of “modern” baseball, a team has hit .300 in a season 40 times. That Sox club in 1950 was nothing if not balanced: Only Vern Stephens and Bobby Doerr, at .295 and .294, respectively, failed to reach .300. The irony is that they did it without much help from 31-year-old Ted Williams. Entering the season with a .353 career mark, the Splendid Splinter injured his elbow in the All-Star Game and started only 16 games in the second half. He finished at “only” .317. As for the Sox, all their hitting could not overcome truly ugly pitching. They won only 90 games and had to settle for third place, four games behind the New York Yankees.

Indeed, the 1950 Red Sox were something of an outlier. Before them, you have to go back to 1936 to find a team that hit .300. Three teams did it that season: Cleveland (.304), the defending world champion Detroit Tigers, and the eventual world champion Yankees, who both came in at .300. That means that of the 40 teams that have hit .300, all but one of them did it before 1937. American League teams get a slight edge here, accomplishing it 23 times to the senior circuit’s 17. The team with the most .300-hitting seasons is the Tigers, who turned the trick on six occasions. The only three franchises never to achieve it are the Braves, White Sox, and Reds.

Surprisingly, no Deadball Era club ever hit .300. It was not until 1920 that two teams succeeded in first shattering the ceiling. Cleveland, with Tris Speaker roaming the outfield, hit a collective .303 and won the World Series. The St. Louis Browns hit .308, led by George Sisler’s .407 mark. It would be logical to assume .300-hitting teams historically have gotten big bumps from the presence of a .400 hitter in the lineup. This, however, was rarely the case. Of those 40 teams, only six featured a .400 batter. By necessity, balance was the byword.

The age of Babe Ruth saw not merely an increase in home runs, but in batting average, as well. From 1920 to 1930, at least one team hit .300 every year, with the exception of 1926. In 1925, the Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates became the first .300-hitting teams to face off in a World Series. The Yankees and Pirates did it again two years later, the last time it has happened.

The hitting orgy that was 1930 saw no fewer than nine major league clubs bat at least .300. The New York Giants set a modern major league record by hitting an incredible .319. The entire National League batted .303, while the junior circuit, apparently made up of a bunch of scrubs, could only manage a .288 mark. The Philadelphia Phillies were second in the NL with a .315 average but were undone by possibly the worst pitching staff in the history of the game. Surrendering 1,199 runs and posting a 6.71 team earned run average, the Phils lost 102 games and finished dead last.

It was definitely a freakish year, the likes of which have never been seen before or since. A partial explanation may have been a suspected rabbit ball introduced by the owners, who were banking on high-scoring games to reverse dwindling Depression Era attendance. By season’s end, most fans had seen enough of the carnage. A correction in the ball resulted in an 18-point drop in major-league batting average in 1931.

But what about the dark ages before so-called “modern” baseball? The National League in the 1890s was a circus of sluggers and high-scoring games. Several teams hit well over .300 in a season. Perhaps no club hit at such a dizzying clip as the 1894 Philadelphia Phillies, at a whopping .350 (the league average was .309). That is the highest team mark ever, if you include nineteenth-century baseball. All three of Philadelphia’s outfielders (Ed Delahanty, Sam Thompson, and Billy Hamilton) are in the Hall of Fame, and all three hit over .400 that year. The Phils also had a reserve outfielder, Tuck Turner, who chimed in at .418 in 348 at-bats. All it got the team was a fourth-place finish (out of 12 teams), as the mound corps was awful.

I would like to believe some time in the future a team is going to hit .300 over the course of a season, if only because it would be cool to witness. The way the game is now, however, I am not going to hold out much hope. There simply are too many relief specialists throwing 100 miles per hour and too many strikeout-prone sluggers sacrificing batting average for power. Heck, no team has hit even as high as .290 since the 2007 Yankees. But then again, I never thought the day would come when middle-inning setup men were prized commodities capable of scoring fat contracts.

Nevertheless, trends develop, strategies change, and hitting and pitching philosophies evolve. Who knows what the future holds?

Hitting .300 is not the magical number it was decades ago. I get it. We have newer and better ways to quantify value and productivity at the plate. Still, hitting .300 as a team deserves to count for something. It has not happened in over 65 years, and we may never see it again.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Scott Ferkovich edited Tigers by the Tale: Great Games at Michigan & Trumbull, published by the Society for American Baseball Research. He is the author of Motor City Champs: Mickey Cochrane and the 1934-35 Detroit Tigers, coming in 2017 from McFarland. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Ferkovich.
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87 Cards
5 years ago

“When was the last time a major league team batted at least .300 in a season?” My first inclination was a team in the DH-era; obviously that rule-change was not a factor on in that accomplishment.

That 1950 Red Sox team had an up-and-down run. They still hold the MLB record for runs-scored at home in a season (625 at Fenway/402 elsewhere). Three times they scored twenty-plus runs (tied an MLB record) including 20-run and 29-run counts on consecutive days in Boston against the St. Louis Browns. The only played 41 games at night with a .296 average and hit .318 under the sun.

They changed managers at game 59 (Joe McCarthy to Steve O’Neill). This wasn’t a team that Ted Williams carried. He broke his left (throwing) arm in the All-Star game and only logged 416 ABs. A Red Sox player led the AL in hitting but it was not Teddy Ballgame or Dom Dimaggion or rookie sensation Walt Dropo (.322 but a league leading 144 RBIs); it was Billy Goodman at .354 who played all infield positions and LF after Williams went down.

All this offense and they finished 3rd in the AL; behind Detroit and five-games behind the Yankees.

Marc Schneider
5 years ago
Reply to  87 Cards

Yes, but winning “only” 90 games would probably get them in the playoffs today.

Paul Moehringer
5 years ago

A lot of different factors are involved in why this is, but along with Scott I would say the rise of the power pitcher along with increased defensive shifts are why your batting averages have plummeted over the last few seasons.

The problem with a team hitting trying to hit .300 today, isn’t that you can’t find .300 hitters, its that there’s too many guys hitting in the low .200’s who because of their power can still be justified in the lineup. You can have three guys on your team hitting .330+, but if you have two others that are batting in the .220’s, it pretty much cancels those .330 hitters out when it comes to team batting average and those players are way more frequent in today’s game than .300 hitters are.

Will we ever see a team batting .300 again? Tough to say, but for the foreseeable future, I would say its about as likely to happen as a 30-game winner is.

Stats have always been as much of a product of the era as they are of the players or teams and the way the game is being played right now, .270 is about as high as a team can realistically expect to hit. Teams may go above that the same way pitchers have won 21 and 22 games in recent years, but nobody is skyrocketing into .290’s territory, let alone .300 territory.

The only team I could see with even a remote chance of realistically doing it would be the Colorado Rockies. As much is made about how good power hitters do there, the Rockies have also produced 10 batting champions and got Mark Reynolds to turn into a .280 hitter. If they had say the Red Sox offense from last year, they may have done it, but with everyone else, I think the environmental factors are just too much to overcome.

Stats are as much of a product of the era as they are of the teams and players who generated them and that’s no different here.

Paul G.
5 years ago

Getting a team to 300 could certainly be done. You could definitely come up with a group of players from last year that would have a team well over 300 as a group. (Or at least I think so. 300 hitters seem a bit clustered around second base in 2016.) The problem is that these 300 hitters tend to be among the best players in baseball, so it would be quite expensive. The point of the game is to win games and you can do that without any 300 hitters so there is no real motivation to do this.

Part of the problem is cheap 300 hitters are going to be hard to find. Slap hitting corner outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitters who can bat 300 in their sleep but produce OPS+ of 100 are going to find it difficult to stick. For that matter, key defensive players like Doc Cramer who were valued for batting 300 every year despite low walk totals and little power are today considered to be weak hitters that no one is excited about putting in the starting line-up.

Related, I should point out that the 1930 Phillies team of the 315 batting average was not really a good offensive team. The team played in the Baker Bowl which was a good hitters park. It was not Coors Field good, but very good nonetheless. Klein and O’Doul were excellent hitters, but the team OPS+ was only 93 (league was 94). They had three regulars who batted in the 280 range that had OPS+ in the 70s or worse. Monk Sherlock, who got 300+ PAs primarily at first base, batted 324 with an OPS+ of 83. Someone like Monk would not make the roster of any team these days, at least not long-term.

Joe Pancake
5 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

“Someone like Monk would not make the roster of any team these days, at least not long-term.”

Unless the team owner really liked guys with the same name as fictional detectives, in which Monk Sherlock would make the roster for sure.

Joe Pancake
5 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Also, interestingly (kinda), Monk had a brother Vince Sherlock, who has the highest batting average in MLB history among players with at least 20 plate appearances.

Paul G.
5 years ago

The 1893-1894 jump in batting averages is not that surprisingly. 1893 was the year the pitcher was moved from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches. Giving the batter more reaction time was necessarily going to make it easier to hit.

dang
5 years ago

Sans pitchers, 2000 Rockies hit .304.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really count. Pitchers don’t hit in the AL, and while they also don’t hit in the NL, they do occasionally take temporary breaks from sitting in the dugout to stand at the plate while non-threateningly holding a bat. That dragged their team average down to .294.

Chris P
5 years ago

Not quite the same as overall team batting average but the Angels had an entire lineup batting over .300 on 9/18/09. First time that had happened since the Tigers accomplished the feat in 1934

Adam C
5 years ago

There mid 1990’s Cleveland Indians hit as high as .294 one season I believe.

Rainy Day Women 12x35
5 years ago

No one mentions the wholesale culture change in today’s game. Players used to care a great deal about striking out. They were even embarrassed by it. There were many seasons when walks exceeded K’s. Now even .220 hitting scrubs swing from the heels with 2 strikes. Every season, the all-time strikeout record is broken by MLB. With this culture in place, of course hitting .300 is becoming rarer. Besides, scoring is way up. Hitting .250/25/90 is better (and pays more) than .300/14/75.

Eric R
5 years ago

I grabbed, by decade:
* the team AVG standard deviations
* league-wide AVG
* From those computed how many SD above average .300 represents

1870s .035 .269 0.9
1880s .022 .251 2.2
1890s .025 .275 1.0
1900s .018 .253 2.6
1910s .014 .256 3.1
1920s .014 .285 1.1
1930s .013 .279 1.6
1940s .011 .260 3.6
1950s .011 .259 3.7
1960s .013 .249 3.9
1970s .013 .256 3.4
1980s .011 .259 3.7
1990s .012 .265 2.9
2000s .010 .265 3.5
2010s .011 .254 4.2

Using those SDs and the number of team-seasons total, we should have expected roughly:
DECADE EXP [ACT]
1870s 14 [12]
1880s 2 [1]
1890s 22 [20]
1900s 0 [0]
1910s 0 [0]
1920s 22 [26]
1930s 9 [13]
1940-2016, 1 [1]

So, math does pretty good. Seems like the lack of such seasons is a combination of the lower league average overall AND much less variability from team to team.

Marc Schneider
5 years ago

Well, one question is, why does it matter? Most people concede today that BA is not a particularly important stat. As someone said, there were lots of cheap .300 hitters in those days that didn’t really add much to the team.

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5 years ago

Under Armour shares jumped 10% last Thursday after the company posted first quarter earnings that weren’t quite as bad as Wall Street expected.

Kieran
5 years ago

Has there been a team that has started nine .300 hitters in a regular season game? My brother insists it is so, but I doubt it. Perhaps early in a season, but any ideas?