Batting average significance went out with Twister, transistor radios and Peter Edward Rose. In terms of defining good hitters, batting average doesn’t. And yet, with a week left in the season, Scooter Gennett is on the cusp of winning a batting title. He’d be the first Red to do it since Rose won his third and last title in 1973.
In an era of souped-up baseball numbers, all claiming to define and refine success, where does winning a batting title rank?
Those of a certain age might recall being 12 and sitting around an elementary school lunchroom, eating from Batman lunch boxes and talking about Pete’s chances to lead the NL in batting average. What do those kids talk about now? Joey Votto’s on-base percentage, maybe. Or, you know, maybe not.
Maybe they don’t talk about baseball at all. If you know a bunch of 12-year-olds hanging out getting heated over Wins Above Replacement, let me know.
“Batting average was never the single best statistic to capture a player’s overall value,” says Jacob Pomrenke. He’s director of editorial content for the Society for American Baseball Research, SABR, the foremost authority on all things metrics. “Great players have won batting titles, sure. But the list also includes the Freddy Sanchezes and Michael Cuddyers of the world. Nobody would ever argue they were the best hitters in the league.
“Scooter Gennett would probably say he’s not the best hitter on his own team.”
Yes, he would.
If a week from now Gennett has edged out Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich for the batting title – he trailed Yelich .320 to .316 heading into Saturday – what will that tell us, beyond the obvious, about Gennett’s ability as a hitter? Will it be a big deal?
“It does provide a little insight, but other metrics provide more,” Pomrenke said. He’s 36. I asked him who won the batting titles in each league last year. “(Jose) Altuve in the AL,” he said. “The NL, I’d have to look up.”
None of this is to diminish Gennett’s year. His average has been above .300 since May 10. He has 23 home runs and an outside chance to drive in 100. Yet these are your father’s stats. Gennett isn’t in the top 10 in baseball in any new-age category: WAR, Weighted Runs Created or On Base Percentage Plus Slugging.
If this were 1973, we’d be debating if Pete Rose were the best hitter in the game. Now, we’d debate if he were the best hitter on his own team. Or even in the top three. Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez all had better hitting seasons than Rose that year, by today’s analysis.
This isn’t new, it’s just new to Cincinnati because it has been 45 seasons since a Red had the best batting average in the league. And it’s an example of the disconnect between those who love baseball (older fans, mostly) and those who don’t.
Numbers are the game’s lifeblood. Older fans didn’t grow up debating the greatness of batting champions or ERA leaders. It was assumed. If your guy won 20 games, he was great. Period. The numbers were basic and easily understood. To kids who put baseball cards in their bicycle spokes, they were the coins of the realm.
The conversation has become far more sophisticated, owing to the folks at SABR and elsewhere. Is the talk as prevalent? Baseball frets over losing generations of younger fans. If they’re not on the playground (or the barstool) discussing who’s great, who’s not, who’s better and why, is that hurting the game?
Lee Panas is a Senior Statistical Programmer at the Schneider Institute for Health Policy at Brandeis University. In 2010, he wrote a book titled “Beyond Batting Average,” which he described Saturday as “a sabermetric primer.”
Panas said baseball’s larger issue has little to do with numbers talk. “We still talk about home runs,” Panas said. “The biggest problem is there isn’t enough action on the field anymore. It’s all the pitcher and the batter now.”
Said Pomrenke: “There are more people with a comprehensive knowledge” of statistics and what they mean. “The numbers are different, but we’re still arguing baseball. That’s always going to connect fans. We’re all watching the same game (but) interpreting it a little differently.”
Let’s leave the last word to a sabermetrician who’s also old school. Rich Gibson is the chairman of the local SABR chapter. He doesn’t care about the numbers or any debate surrounding the reduced significance of a batting title. “I look for things in a season to enjoy,” says Gibson, 53. “I enjoy watching Scooter play.
“Stats are fascinating, especially WAR, but I don’t know how many people know what WAR stands for.” Metrics “take away a little bit of the special-ness” of Gennett’s quest, he said. “But I’ll still be excited if (Gennett) wins it.”
And it was Blackmon. Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies. Hit .331 last year. Won the batting title.