When the Best Hitter Isn’t the Best Hitter

Mookie Betts was the 2018 Batting Champion. (Via Keith Allison)

During the American League Championship Series, TBS announcer Brian Anderson called Mookie Betts the American League “batting champion.” Well, you certainly could make a good case in general terms. His 10.4 fWAR was best in either league, as were his wOBA and slugging average. In OBP, OPS, and WRC+, he was second only to Mike Trout in the AL. He tied for the league lead in runs.

But Anderson wasn’t referring to any of that. For more than a hundred years, a league’s batting champion has been he with the highest batting average. Betts led all of major league baseball at .346. That’s what the announcer was talking about. (Christian Yelich’s .326 was tops in the NL.)

Time was, that was sort of a big deal. I’ve always liked the story about the 1952 race for batting title in the National League: After some weeks of back and forth, Stan Musial had clinched the batting championship over Frankie Baumholtz of the Cubs. On the last day of the season, right fielder and former minor league pitcher Musial switched spots with Cardinals starter Harvey Haddix for one batter–Baumholtz. He reached base on an error. Musial went back to the outfield.

The ultimate illustration: In 1910, Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie were engaged in a fierce battle for the title, with the winner to get a new car from the Chalmers Motor Co. Then…it’s a great story. Take a break and read it. (But please come back.)

But this was a century before Moneyball gave credence to the old cry from the dugout, “Good eye, Charlie; a walk’s as good as a hit!” This was before sabermetrics made us value on-base percentage over batting average and gave us many more ways to value a hitter’s skills and accomplishments.

Since 2016, Major League Baseball has decreed that the guys with the highest batting averages are the “Rod Carew American League Batting Champion” and the “Tony Gwynn National League Batting Champion.” But quick: Who won those titles last year? Beats me.

All of which got me to wondering, as the Red Sox were pouring it on the Yankees, how many official batting champions, like Betts, merited that designation as measured by advanced statistics?

So I got busy on the ol’ computer and history’s leaderboards at FanGraphs.com.

On-base percentage tells us more than batting average. OPS adds power hitting, so that’s better yet. wOBA tries to measure the value of each hit, rather than treating all of them like they’re the same. wRC+ does all that plus factoring in park effects and the current run environment, aiming to tell us as much as possible about a player’s value to his team’s offense.

For example, Betts had the highest batting average this year. Trout’s wRC+ was better. So who was the best batter in the AL? (Yelich was the National League’s best by both calculations.)

Thus intrigued, I set out to determine how many of baseball’s “batting champions” were the best in their leagues by modern measures. Short answer: a decided minority. For every Stan Musial there were two or more DJ LeMahieus or Dee Gordons. Along the way, I rediscovered how a few great hitters utterly dominated their eras.

As my measure of which batting champions really were the best hitters in their league that year, I used wRC+, with wOBA as a backup. (Most years, the same player was best by both advanced stats.) Come along with me on this walk down the trail of hitting history.

American League

In 1901, Nap LaJoie was the modern AL’s first batting champion–by average, by wRC+, by wOBA, by home runs, by just about everything. He also was post-1901’s first Triple Crown winner (average, homers, RBIs). Winning the Triple Crown, you would think, ought to make you the best batter in the league that year by any measure. Using wRC+ confirms that’s so, in the case of every one of the 14 Triple Crown winners of the modern era–except the most recent, Miguel Cabrera in 2012. wRC+ says Trout had the better year. You pick.

In the first decade of the modern AL, every batting champ was also the wRC+ leader, assuming you accept Cobb as the guy in 1910. There’s also controversy over whether Cobb had enough at-bats to win the title over Eddie Collins in 1914. Nonetheless, in most of the years 1907 through 1919, Cobb was the best hitter in the league, by both traditional and sabermetric standards.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

For the next dozen seasons, though, only one man with the highest batting average also was tops in either wRC+ or wOBA. That was Babe Ruth, in 1924. While advanced stats demonstrate he was unquestionably the best hitter in the league for that whole period, he won the batting title just that once. But if you want to say Heinie Manush and Lew Fonseca were the batting champions in 1926 and 1929, respectively, you’re on solid ground, officially.

You need an exercise like this to renew your appreciation for the American League’s next dominant hitter. Ted Williams, with his famous .406, won his first batting title in 1941, when he also led in wRC+ and wOBA. And again in 1942. And 1947 and 1948, missing out in 1946 only by finishing second to Mickey Vernon for highest batting average. Williams won more batting titles in 1954, ’57 and ’58. He was tops by wRC+ or wOBA in a couple of other years. This was the best hitter in the league over 18 years–four of which he missed because of military service in two wars.

Overlapping Williams’ last few years was Mickey Mantle, who won just one batting title (in an era in which singles hitters Ferris Fain and Pete Runnels won two each), but by wRC+ was best in the league seven times.  Carl Yastrzemski won three batting titles (including one by hitting .301! in Year of the Pitcher, 1968) but had four seasons with the highest wRC+ and wOBA.

As we move into the next couple of decades, we see the flip side: a multi-time batting title leader cut down a notch by sabermetric figuring. Rod Carew was tops in batting average seven times, but only once (1977 when he hit .388) was he the leader in wRC+ and wOBA. Wade Boggs, the next perennial-for-awhile batting champ, was the wRC+ leader two of his five years of leading the league in average.

In the ‘90s, you would believe batting champ Frank Thomas had the top figures in advanced stats also. Edgar Martinez the same in his year. But John Olerud? Yep, him too.

Through the next decade, no batting title winner had saber-stats backing up his average. Joe Mauer broke that string in 2009; the only one since was Cabrera in 2013. And most recently: It’s the consensus that Trout is the best all-around player of his time. wRC+ holds that he’s also the been the best American League hitter the past four seasons, and five of the past eight.

But he’s never been a “batting champion.”

National League

Like its counterpart league, the NL’s history is highlighted by a few players who were unquestionably the best of their eras. Honus Wagner won his first modern-era batting championship in 1903, his last of seven in 1911, and was tops in wRC+ in six of those years. (1900, too, for the record.)

Then, after the batting title was passed from one non-dominant player to another through the ‘teens, came Rogers Hornsby. He won six batting titles  in a row from 1920 through 1925, each time also being the league’s best hitter as measured by wRC+ and wOBA, most years by wide margins. In 1922, he won the Triple Crown with marks in each category far better than any other player. His .424 in 1924 remains the best average in major league history.

Hornsby’s string of titles was interrupted for two years by Paul Waner (though Hornsby was best by modern stats in 19270, and picked up again in 1928. The next year, he was the best hitter in the league again–measured by ways other than batting average.

Waner, by the way, won four batting championships in the ‘20s and ‘30s but never scratched in the categories we’re looking at here; he was primarily a singles hitter who averaged six home runs a season over 19 years. The best overall hitter in those years never was a “batting champion.” By our wRC+ and wOBA yardsticks, the hitter you wanted in those years was Mel Ott.

In 1943, Musial became the 13th batting champion in 14 years, only Waner double-dipping during that period, though there were dominating (BA, wRC+, w/OBA) seasons by Chuck Klein, Arky Vaughan and Joe Medwick. Musial had one of those seasons too–and again in 1946 (after a year off because of the war)…and in 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1952. He won another batting title in 1957, the year he turned 37.

The 1950s saw the debuts of baseball immortals Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Over their long and storied careers, they topped the league in batting average just three times between them. Mays had the distinction only once (Richie Ashburn beating him on two occasions), while leading in wRC+ six times.

From 1960, and for the rest of the century, batting titles were won by the Hall of Fame-worthy (Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose*, Billy Williams, Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn–eight times), the consistent (Bill Madlock, four times), and guys bumping to career-high batting averages (Andres Galarraga, Matty Alou, Gary Sheffield, Keith Hernandez, Terry Pendleton). But over all that time, only four of those batting champs also were best in the league by wRC+.

Williams, Raines and Dave Parker were three of those. I’ll pause to give you time to come up with the fourth.

(It was Rico Carty.)

The 21st century has followed the same pattern. Yelich is the first batting champion since Buster Posey in 2012 to round out his feat when wRC+ is calculated, and Posey was the first since Derrek Lee in ’05. The player who has dominated the NL the most seasons so far in this century is Barry Bonds. He  had just two batting titles, but for 2000 through 2004 Bonds was the best hitter each year by sabermetric stats, usually by a mile.

Some years there’s a no-doubt-about-it master of the batted ball. Most years there isn’t. But there’s always an official batting average champion in each league–hits divided by at-bats. That’s tradition.

So here’s to Elmer Flick and his .308 in 1905. Here’s to Buddy Myer, who barely edged out Joe Vosmik in ’35. Let’s salute Snuffy Stirnweiss, whose .309 was best in 1945, while many ballplayers were wearing uniforms of a different sort.

Michael Young and Bill Mueller would be disappointed if you didn’t remember their batting titles; were they still around, I’m sure Sherry Magee and Larry Doyle would be too. Caps off to Dick Groat and Ralph Garr and Michael Cuddyer, champions all.

And no one, ever, can take his batting title away from Freddy Sanchez.

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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kick me in the GO NATSmember
5 years ago

Great! I loved this article!

5 years ago

Carl Yastrzemski won three AL batting titles, not one.

Dr. Doom
5 years ago

A couple of charts (one for each league) would’ve been really nice:
Official champion on the left, wRC+ in the middle, wOBA on the right. That would’ve made it easier to think about the data. Then adding some narrative to highlight the most interesting ones. I don’t mean to be overly critical; I’m just thinking about all the other races in there, and how nice it would be to look at them.

5 years ago

Or from Debs Garms.

5 years ago

In 2003, NL Batting Champion Albert Pujols was second only to ‘Roiding Barry Bonds in both wOBA and wRC+.

Hank G.member
5 years ago

You’re going to ding Mike Trout for not being the best hitter in the American League in 2011, when he only played in 40 games (135 PA) and still qualified as a rookie in 2012?

I would point out that Mike Trout was the best hitter in his league in five out his seven full seasons, and the two seasons he wasn’t the best, he was either second or tied for second. In 2014, his wRC+ was 167, and the leader’s (Victor Martinez) was 168.

Even with all the accolades that Mike Trout has received in his career, he is still under appreciated.