Nobody has breached .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 during the 1941 season. The closest anyone has come since was in 1994 when Tony Gwynn hit .394. In this millennium, though, nobody has hit higher than .372 (Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Helton did it in 2000, and Ichiro did it in 2004).
On the surface, the difference between hitting .300 and .400 is simply one additional hit every 10 at-bats. Sounds easy, right? Well, it isn’t. Through the end of May, the mean batting average for the big leagues sits at just .252. Today, hitting .300 makes you an all-star. Hitting .400—or anywhere close to it—is about as inconceivable as Jamie Lannister growing back his right hand. And yet here we are, nearly a third of the way through the season, and the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy is sitting at .397.
Murphy has never been a slouch at the plate. He boasts a career .294 average and he ended his seven-year stint with the Mets with the second most doubles in team history. This year has been unprecedented territory for the 31-year-old, though, as you can see in the graphic above (courtesy of Fangraphs). Usually, a disparity like this is a sign of an anomaly, and we’ll undoubtedly see that spike come down before year’s end.
What could be responsible for this sudden upswing in production? One of the first metrics analysts check when this happens is BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). An inflated BABIP—compared to the player’s typical line—usually indicates that he’s getting lucky—e.g. bloop hits, defensive misalignments, etc. Sure enough, Murphy’s career BABIP is .320 and this year he’s sitting at a whopping .414. That said, as MLB.com reports, Murphy is also in the Top 15 in line drive percentage and in the top 25 in hard-hit percentage. He’s earning most of those hits. In the past calendar year, he has been one of the best hitters in baseball, and that didn’t happen by accident.
Baseball is a game of subtle gradations. That’s what makes Sabermetrics possible. Every single thing a player does can be aggregated and analyzed, and defenses and pitchers use those statistics to make sure hitters can’t get anywhere close to .400. Hitters, though, have access to the same stats, and they can use them to make adjustments, too.
Murphy’s batting stance has experienced a pretty major overhaul of late. Check out the 2013 swing from above and compare it to the swing below, which took place in early May. Compared to three years ago, Murphy is more crouched, he crowds the plate more, he has a more pronounced foot tap, and his bat placement is farther behind his head, allowing him to coil his body and really get his hips into his swing—which has led to more power. According to Statcast™, Murphy’s launch angle has increased this year by 7.6 degrees, giving his balls more flight. He’s already hit nine home runs this year, which is more than half of his career high of 14.
And besides all that, it’s safe to say Murphy is riding a serious wave of confidence after his 2015 postseason heroics helped win the Mets a World Series bid and then ink him a lucrative three-year, $37.5 million contract with the Washington Nationals.
Dusty Baker is helping to make sure that wave of confidence is sustained, at-bat by at-bat. “It’s up to me to try to keep him strong and in the right frame of mind to go out there and play,” he told MLB.com. “Right now he’s not thinking about hitting .400, he’s not thinking about anything other than the simplest form each at-bat, each inning at a time. You start worrying about stuff way out there, that inhibits what you got to do today.”
Will Murphy end the year with a .400 average? No. Stretches like this come and go. But he could win himself a batting title—the next highest average is the Brewers’ Ryan Braun at .352—and that’s nothing to take lightly. Murphy is playing out of his mind right now, and it’ll be fun to watch while it lasts.
What do you think Murphy’s average will be at the end of the season? Let us know in the comments.