Hall of Famer Ted Williams once said that baseball is perhaps the only field where a person can be successful three out of ten times and be considered a good performer at their job. So what was he referencing by saying someone could fail that often but still be successful?
He was referencing a hitter’s batting average.
Batting average is a statistic that shows how successful a batter is at getting a hit by using a number to indicate the percentage of total at-bats that a batter successfully collects a hit. The statistic only measures how often they get a hit, and doesn’t distinguish between types of hits.
Batting average is one of the most recognizable statistics in baseball, as well as one of the oldest. It has also developed into a somewhat controversial statistic in the 20th century, as decades-old ways of measuring players have been upended, but we’ll get to that later.
How Do You Calculate Batting Average?
Batting average is a statistic that continually changes nearly every time a hitter comes up to the plate due to other factors. This makes batting average a so-called “rate stat.”
Batting average is calculated by dividing a player’s total hits by his total at-bats, which are the number of times coming up to bat, which excludes all bases on balls (walks), times hit-by-pitch, sacrifice bunts, and sacrifice flies. The resulting figure is usually rounded to three digits.
With all of the exclusions, it may sound a little confusing, and if you’re calculating batting average based just off scoresheets or box scores, it may be a little tricky. When the numbers are accumulated though, it’s much simpler.
For example, let’s look at the stats of Mike Trout in 2019. That season, Trout had 600 plate appearances, but only 470 at-bats. This is because he drew 110 walks, was hit by pitch 16 times and hit four sacrifice flies, so those 130 results are excluded.
In those 470 at-bats, Trout collected 137 hits, so you simply divide 137 by 470, which comes out to .2914893617021277, which is a little unwieldy, so it’s trimmed down to .291. Voila, you have Mike Trout’s batting average for 2019!
Looking at it another way, this number means that 29.1% of Mike Trout’s at-bats in 2019 ended with a hit.
With this formula, all batting averages fall between .000 (no hits for the season) and 1.000 (hits in every single at-bat), though most fall a lot close to the lower end.
What Is a Good Batting Average?
Most stats in baseball change league-to-league depending on the quality of pitching/hitting, ballpark dimensions, elevation, and other factors, and batting average is no different, leading to a somewhat wide gap in averages across professional baseball.
However, there are historical standards that persist on gauging batting averages.
Over time, a .300 batting average or higher has typically been regarded as a great batting average at most levels; a benchmark that has held in modern times. In Major League Baseball, a .250 batting average is around average, while hitting below .200 at any level is considered very poor.
Of course, how much offense a league has affects the perception of batting average. For example, in 2019, the Triple-A Mexican League posted a league-wide batting average of .303 and saw 11 full-time players (100+ games) hit .350 or higher.
On the other side, the Short-Season A New York-Penn League had a league-wide batting average of just .232 that year, with only five full-time players (50+ games) even reaching the .300 mark.
So, a .250 average would be awful in the Mexican League, but pretty good in the New York-Penn League.
In the majors, the American League hit .253 in 2019, with the National League right behind them at .251, meaning that a .300 average is certainly a notable accomplishment and a .250 average puts you right around average.
Sure enough, out of 136 qualifying batters (502+ plate appearances) in 2019, only 19 cleared the .300 marker, with Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox leading the way with a .335 batting average.
In modern-day professional baseball, batting averages over .350 are considered exceptional (except for very small sample sizes) and are considerably rare, with .400 averages over full seasons being virtually unheard of.
In the major leagues, the last season a batter posted a batting average over .350 was in 2010 by Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers, who hit .359.
To find the last .400 season, you have to go all the way back to Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941.
In the minor leagues, they play shorter schedules and may have more of a talent gap, but higher averages are still seen, with Erubiel Durazo batting .404 over 94 games at two levels in 1999. As recently as 2014, Jose Martinez hit .382 in 98 games at Triple-A.
When you leave the affiliated minor league ranks, some even higher averages can be seen. In 2010, Beau Torbert set the American Association mark by batting .394 in 95 games (out of 96).
In the Frontier League, Pichi Balet hit .405 in 78 games (out of an 84-game slate) as recently as 2002, then followed it up with a .378 mark in the American Association four years later.
In the Pecos League, which only plays a 64-game schedule, some truly astronomical averages have been seen. In each of the league’s first ten seasons, multiple regulars have hit over .400, with Johnny Bladel hitting a mind-boggling .518 in 2014, while playing 48 out of 59 games.
Bladel’s season came in the league with the shortest season, which batted .314 as a whole that year.
The whole point in pointing these out is to say that there is no firm answer to the question, “what is a good batting average?” since the answer ranges wildly from league to league. However, generally speaking, if a hitter is hitting .300, in most leagues he’s doing a good job.
On the other end, it doesn’t matter what league you’re in if you’re hitting below .200. If a hitter is batting near .200, he is often said to be hitting below the “Mendoza Line”, named for former MLB shortstop Mario Mendoza, who batted .215 for his career.
The exact number that constitutes the Mendoza Line isn’t quite clear, though it’s often cited as .200.
Given that the term’s origin is often stated as being one of Mendoza’s teammates on the 1979 Seattle Mariners, that seems plausible, considering that Mendoza finished the year batting a woeful .198, falling just shy of his own line.
To summarize: .300 is great (almost always), .200 is bad (always) and the break-even point (depending on the league) is somewhere in between. If you flip on a run-of-the-mill Major League game, the vast majority of players will fall in between the .200 and .300 marks.
How Important Is Batting Average?
The 21st century has been notable in baseball for the rise of sabermetrics, which essentially is using advanced numbers that aren’t readily available to quantify player performance in ways that were simply not possible for more than a century.
The role of batting average has been scrutinized as a result.
For more than a decade, many media outlets have recognized that batting average has naturally deficiencies, with on-base percentage, or OBP (and a lesser extent, on-base-plus-slugging, or OPS) being cited as a more all-encompassing statistic to a player’s offensive ability.
The chief complaint is that batting average does not take into account a hitter’s ability to reach base via a walk, or to a lesser extent, being hit by a pitch, which for some hitters, contributes a substantial amount to their offensive success.
If we use our Mike Trout example from 2019, we established that he hit .291, which is a solid number, but one that ranked 32nd in MLB.
However, we also mentioned he drew 110 walks, which was third in the majors (and was plunked 16 times), giving him 126 times where Trout wound up on base that batting average doesn’t cover—but on-base percentage does.
So, while Trout posted a good, if not a great average, his on-base percentage in 2019 was .438, a very good figure, and in fact, one that led MLB. If you want to go to further extremes, Rhys Hoskins of the Philadelphia Phillies hit a seemingly awful .226 in 2019, ranking 130th out of 136 qualified hitters.
However, he drew 116 walks (compared to 129 hits), giving him an OBP of a much more respectable .364.
More notably, we mentioned that Tim Anderson hit a major league-best .335 that season. However, in 123 games, he drew just 15 walks, giving him an on-base percentage of .357.
In other words, batting average alone suggests that Tim Anderson is miles ahead of Rhys Hoskins, but in reality, Rhys Hoskins reached base more often than Anderson, despite being out-hit by over 100 points.
Is this to say that batting average is completely useless? No, and that doesn’t mean that on-base percentage is perfect either. Notably, a player’s batting average is purely measuring how often a batter collects hits, and hits do more damage than walks.
A runner on second will never score on a walk, but more likely than not will score on a single.
In both cases, the batter winds up on first base, but in one case the runner is still on second base, while in the other case, he’s either on third or more likely, high-fiving teammates in the dugout because he just scored.
We can go back to our examples of Tim Anderson and Rhys Hoskins and compare their overall offensive value, using offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR).
As a disclaimer, some factors cannot be easily sorted out or explained here that go into the formula, so this explanation won’t be perfect, but we’ll sort it out the best we can.
In 2019, Anderson played in 123 games and Hoskins played in 160, which should put Anderson at a disadvantage because WAR is cumulative (by the way, here’s a full comparison for reference), with Hoskins having advantages in home runs, extra-base hits, a massive advantage in walks, and a slim lead in OBP.
Anderson, has the lead in hits and stolen bases, a huge lead in batting average, and a decent lead in slugging percentage, leading to an overall lead in OPS.
So while Hoskins played nearly a quarter more games and was on base at a higher rate, Anderson wound up dwarfing him in oWAR, by a margin of 4.7 to 1.8.
Again, I recognize this is not a perfect example, and more advanced factors are missing, but what we can figure out from this is that if a player already hits for a high average, it’s not as critical for him to draw lots of walks because hits (especially with any sort of power) are more helpful than walks.
Now, if you get a player who can hit for Tim Anderson’s average and draw the kind of walks Rhys Hoskins does, then you are talking about a generational superstar.
There have been 30 seasons since 1901 where a player has earned 10 or more oWAR (in other words, a truly remarkable season), and they share a lot of similarities.
Of those 30 seasons, the lowest batting average of that group was .317, while 26 of them hit over .350. Also, 21 of them drew 100 or more walks (and two of them who didn’t, still led the league in walks).
Hitting for power also helped tremendously (22 had 30 or more homers), but high batting average and high walks is usually an indicator for a genuinely great season.
What this goes to say is that batting average is not an end-all, be-all by any means, but if a player cannot hit for a respectable average, his ceiling will naturally be quite a bit lower, even if he does many other things well.
Additionally, winning the batting title is still considered an honor, enough so that as recently as 2016, DJ LeMahieu of the Colorado Rockies sat out four of the final five games of the season just to ensure that he took home the batting title (with a .348 mark).
Batting Average Records
- Highest batting average in a season (since 1901): .426, Napoleon Lajoie, 1901 Cleveland Indians. Lajoie also led the American League in its first season in home runs (14) and RBIs (125) winning the Triple Crown. His figure is also listed as .421 or .422 in some places, which would place him second all-time to Rogers Hornsby’s 1924 season.
- Nine highest single-season batting averages (since 1901): (1) Nap Lajoie: .426, 1901 Cleveland Indians, (2) Rogers Hornsby: .424, 1924 St. Louis Cardinals, (3) George Sisler: .420, 1922 St. Louis Browns, (4) Ty Cobb: .419, 1911 Detroit Tigers, (5) Ty Cobb: .409, 1912 Detroit Tigers, (6) Shoeless Joe Jackson: .408, 1911 Cleveland Indians, (7) George Sisler: .407, 1920 St. Louis Browns, (8) Ted Williams: .406, 1941 Boston Red Sox, (9) Rogers Hornsby: .403, 1925 St. Louis Cardinals
- The highest batting average for a career: .366, Ty Cobb, 1905-28. Cobb hit over .400 three times (1911, 1912, 1921), joining Rogers Hornsby (1922, 1924, 1925) as the only players to do so three times.
- Ten highest career batting averages (primarily since 1901): (1) Ty Cobb: .366, 1905-28, (2) Rogers Hornsby: .359, 1915-37, (3) Shoeless Joe Jackson: .356, 1908-20, (4) Lefty O’Doul: .349, 1919-20, 22-23, 28-34, (5) Tris Speaker: .345, 1907-28, (6) Ted Williams: .344, 1939-42, 46-60, (7) Babe Ruth: .342, 1914-35, (8) Harry Heilmann: .342, 1914, 16-30, 32, (9) Bill Terry: .341, 1923-36, (10) Lou Gehrig: .340, 1923-39
- Most batting titles (since 1901): 12, Ty Cobb. Cobb won nine straight American League batting titles from 1907-15, then three more from 1917-19. The National League record is held by Honus Wagner and Tony Gwynn, who each won eight batting crowns.
- Highest team batting average (since 1901): .319, 1930 New York Giants. Bill Terry hit .401, the last National League player to hit .400, but the team finished in third place, going 87-57. Five of the seven highest team batting averages occurred in 1930 when the National League as a whole hit .303.
- Lowest team batting average (since 1901): .211, 1910 Chicago White Sox. No regular hit higher than .248 and three hit below .200. The White Sox went 68-85 and finished in sixth place that season.
- Last team to bat .300 as a whole: 1950 Boston Red Sox. Seven of their nine regulars hit over .300, while the other two batted .294 and .295. The Red Sox finished third, going 94-60. 40 teams in MLB history have hit over .300, with the other 39 occurring from 1920-36.