Why don’t MLB players hit .400 anymore?

Another Unpopular Essay on Sports History.

Question: Why can’t Major League Baseball players hit .400 anymore?

The simplest possible answer: Because Major League baseball players never hit .400 – not in any un-asteriskable sense, anyway.

“What?” those protesting may cry. “Since formation of the National League in 1876, 30 players have hit .400 or better a combined 41 times! We all know that Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941! And Artie Wilson hit .435 for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948! That counts!”

1941 was the last American League season before the careers of a significant fraction of major leaguers – including Ted Williams – had their careers interrupted for military service in World War II.

1948 was the first full season of the Negro American and Negro National Leagues post-color barrier. Not only would these leagues start ’48 without Jackie Robinson, but also Dan Bankhead, Willard Brown, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Hank Thompson and Satchel Paige.

Sure, two major leagues of 12 teams aren’t destroyed by the absence of seven star players – even if five of them are eventually Hall of Famers – but Jackie Robinson’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers was opened the floodgates of talent, which gave the AL and NL a potential strength they’d never had before.

When Williams hit .406 in 1941, the 16 teams of the American and National Leagues were drawing from a population of less than 60 million individuals. By the time of Williams’s retirement in 1960, every team included at least one black player on the roster (even Teddy Ballgame’s own Boston Red Sox!), the Negro Leagues had folded, and the 16 teams of the MLB could draw from a potential talent pool of about 90 million. Apparently, all you really need to increase your team’s talent by 50% is some social equality…

Some have suggested that, because of the color line, any statistic in Major League Baseball before Jackie Robinson’s debut should get an asterisk. Though Major League Baseball since 2020 has officially counted stats from the NNL and NAL in the record books, statistics are spotty and thus already asterisk-ridden.

For example, Artie Wilson’s gaudy .435 in 1948 was achieved on just 130 known plate appearances – well short of the 275 the modern standard to qualify for the league batting title would require.

And after the asterisk apocalypse ravages the MLB record books, we’re left with two conclusions: First, that hitting .400 against top-level major-league pitching has simply never happened. Concomitantly, the feat seems ever less likely to be pulled off, after three consecutive seasons in which the cumulative league batting average has been .245 or lower.  

Second, Tony Gwynn’s .394 in 1994 should probably be acknowledged as one the finest individual batting seasons in Major League Baseball history. Though it won’t be, because … ah, don’t even get me started on the 1994 season…

Finally, here’s the really interesting question: Why, at the highest levels of baseball, is .400 the unattainable batting average…?

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