MLB: The Myth of the Disappearing .300-Hitter

As the Cardinals leadoff hitter, Skip Schumaker would hit .302 and .303 during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, respectively. Image Credit: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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Recently pondered on a Cardinals broadcast was how the game has changed — with contact being traded for power — and how the number of .300-hitters has likely changed with it. Dan McLaughin and Brad Thompson didn’t have the data handy, but laid out some parameters for researching the number of .300-hitters for this year, vs. 5 years ago, vs. 15 years ago and so on. They were curious. So was I.

So I embarked on a journey, looking up the amount of .300-hitters (with at least 400 AB’s) every 5th year going back to 1969. By doing that, I noticed a trend. So I expanded, charting out every season from 1945 through 2019, a 75-year span of Major League Baseball.

Note: This article has nothing to do with the Cardinals, specifically, other than me being a Cardinals fan and it being inspired by a conversation on a Cardinals broadcast. And I used a Cardinal for the image. It’s a rare, general baseball post for me.

The Data

Here are the raw numbers:

Trying to make sense of the numbers purely by reading this spreadsheet is obviously not ideal, which is why I have a visual representation of the data.

The blue line on the graph charts the changes in the number of .300-hitters each season from 1945 thru 2019.

The multi-colored lines represent the average number of .300-hitters over the span of five distinct periods that were consistent within each other, but differed greatly from other time spans. We’ll break down the graph in terms of those 5 periods.

1945-64: During this time, the number of .300-hitters per season was relatively consistent, with just a couple outliers. The average per season during this 20-year stretch was 20.58.

1965-68: The mid-60’s were an infamous low point for offense in baseball, culminating with the “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968. Over these 4 years, there was an average of just 12 .300-hitters per season.

1969-92: In 1969, the pitcher’s mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10. Along with that, the Pilots (future Brewers), Royals, Padres, and Expos were added as expansion franchises. Though 4 other teams had been added earlier in the decade, they were added 2 at a time — the Senators (Rangers) and Angels in 1961 and the Mets and Colt .45’s (Astros) in 1962. The 4 teams added for 1969 was the largest single-year expansion in baseball history, which meant it required the biggest strain on the MLB player pool.

The pitching was thinner due to expansion, and the pitching was less effective due to the mound lowering. Offense spiked in ’69 and ’70 (relative to ’68) and would see another big jump in ’77 when the Mariners and Blue Jays came into existence.

Overall, during this 24-year span, there was an average of 27.125 .300-hitters per year.

1993-09: This is where we get serious. This span includes 4 expansion franchises as well as the recognized “steroid era.” In 1993, with the additions of the Marlins and Rockies, the number of .300-hitters nearly doubled, jumping from 24 in ’92 to 45 in ’93. It continued on from there, with 6 seasons of 50+ between 1995 and 2001.

Over a 17-year period, baseball averaged a whopping 47.2 .300-hitters per season. More than 20, per year, than the average of the preceding 24-year period. In the year 2000, 63 players hit over .300. 29 players hit over .320. TWENTY-NINE OVER .320!!! That is insane.

Though I didn’t fully chart the seasons prior to World War II, I did check a few random sample seasons in the 1930’s, in which the total numbers of .300-hitters did climb into the 40’s and 50’s. This was a different era of baseball, clearly, and hitters were significantly better than pitchers. It stands out that during the 1993-2009 period, hitters were owning pitchers at a level that hadn’t been seen since the 20’s and 30’s.

In 2006, MLB pushed forward their new drug policy. In 2008, the Mitchell Report was published. Also in 2008, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, and Barry Bonds were all indicted in relation to PED’s. Clemens and Bonds were out of the game by this time. There wasn’t yet a drop off in .300-hitters in the following 2009 season.

However, in 2009 news broke regarding Alex Rodriguez’s past used of PED’s, former-MVP Miguel Tejada, faced criminal charges for misleading congress on the subject, and Manny Ramirez received a 50-game suspension for a failed PED test.

Uncoincidentally, in the season following all of these high profile stories and suspensions of current players, and after 2 years of PED-talk being at the forefront of baseball’s public image, the number of .300-hitters dropped from 43 in 2009, to just 29 in 2010.

2010-19: Post-drug policy, post-Mitchell report and PED fallout, the number of .300-hitters suddenly snapped back to the pre-1993 levels and remained there. From 2010 thru September 2nd, 2019, the average number of .300 hitters per year has been 26.3. That is less than 1 .300-hitter per year less than the ’69-’92 average of 27.125. It is significantly more .300-hitters than the ’45-’64 average. The current total of 23 .300-hitters in 2019 is squarely between the average of those 2 periods, and right in line with the overall 23.175 average from 1945-1992.

My Interpretation

Yes, way back in the days of Hornsby, Ruth, and Gehrig, there were 50+ .300-hitters per season. However, a person would need to be 100-years old to remember any baseball from the 1920’s, and 90-95 years old to recall baseball from the 1930’s. That is a very small part of the population. The baseball in the memory bank of the current fanbase is from WW2 through present day. So when we talk about how baseball “used to be,” we can cut it off there.

47 of the last 75 years have seen less than 30 .300-hitters, 12 have seen totals between 30-39, and 16 have had 40+ — all of which occurred in a span of 17 years.

My point here is that the same number of players — generally — are hitting .300 in the modern game as did in the 40’s, 50’s, 70’s, and ’80’s.

You may want to point to the 16 .300-hitters in 2018 as the start of a trend, but it’s not. There have been dips throughout baseball history, and they are usually (the 60’s being the exception) one-year aberrations. Two examples are the 24-17-29 totals from ’56-’58 and the 38-19-39 totals from ’77-’79. Are the ’17-’19 totals of 29-16-23 out of line with those prior instances? No, because 2018 was likely just another random low-end outlier.

My conclusion is that the Steroid Era completely warped our view of the .300 batting average. It became so much more common in the ’90’s and 00’s and that became the norm for all fans — especially for those experiencing that era of baseball during the “prime” of their 20’s and 30’s. It’s no surprise that those fans and media recognize a drop in the number of .300-hitters. They aren’t wrong, because the number has dropped relative to the 17-season Steroid Era, but it is an issue of perspective. That was a huge outlier in the last 75 years. The other 58 seasons all align, and that is the true norm. That is what the expectation should be.

Yes, homeruns are up.

Yes, strikeouts are up.

But the .300-hitter isn’t going extinct, it’s just returned to normal.

Thanks for reading.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals8667.562 -
Brewers8370.5423.0
Cubs8271.5364.0
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Pirates6588.42521.0

Last updated: 09/20/2019

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