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One of baseball's great milestones is at risk of being devalued by a shortened season. And you can bet on it.
It's been almost 70 years since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Since then, no player has eclipsed the .400 mark over a full season, with Tony Gwynn (.394) coming closest in 1994. In a 60-game sprint, could someone finally join the elite club, albeit with an asterisk?
If you think someone can, there's real value to be had. Here are the odds on a player hitting .400, with a minimum of 186 plate appearances:
|Will a player hit .400 in 2020?||Odds|
"Yes" opened at +800, so bettors are already getting their hopes up. But is it even possible?
To lay +700 on a hitter reaching that mark this year, you'd hope one of two things is true: We can expect a .400 hitter in the first 60 games once every seven seasons, or this year is particularly ripe for a 60-game hot streak.
Let's tackle the second part first. Perhaps the delay will affect pitchers most; after all, arms will be rusty after such limited reps during the long layoff, and injuries are likely to impact pitchers to a greater degree early in the season. But hitters have gone months without live action, too, and soft tissue injuries loom large. It's risky to assume this season will be worth more than a few percentage points for hitters, if that.
Would that be enough? That brings us back to the first point - how often have hitters reached .400 through the first 60 games of a season? And how close have others gotten?
Since not every team plays its first 60 contests at the same time, it's difficult to determine who was hitting what at a universal "60-game mark." But we gave it a shot, anyway. Using Fangraphs' custom leaderboards, here's a list of the best hitters each season since 2002 once the first team reached 60 games:
Minimum 186 plate appearances
The obvious standout is Chipper Jones, who hit .409 through his first 55 games (others had already played 60). His line was even more impressive through his first 60 contests - he batted .419 with a stellar 1.6 BB/K rate on just 9.6% soft contact. Unsurprisingly, he won the batting title that year.
Even when you include Jones' 2008 season, the leading hitters through 60 games have averaged just .369 over the last 18 seasons. Daniel Murphy (.379) in 2016 and Derrek Lee (.378) in 2005 came closest, with both buoyed by a BABIP of at least .390.
This doesn't mean that nobody has hit .400 over a 60-game stretch - just not the first 60. Here's a list of the active players who have accomplished the feat at some point during a season.
Why does that distinction matter? It's simply harder to get hot early. Since 2001, the league's batting average has been lower over the first two months in every single season, often by two or three percentage points relative to the full campaign. With a sample size of roughly 15,000 at-bats, that's significant.
None of that is to say it's impossible for someone to hit .400 this year. Last year, Cody Bellinger hit .376 in 249 plate appearances at the 60-game mark. If he'd converted five more outs into hits, he'd have reached the mark. The margins are that thin.
Bellinger is a decent bet to do it this year, if anyone can. Of the 18 batting average leaders through 60 games, nine of them had a BB/K rate of at least 1.0. Bellinger was one of eight players to reach that mark through the first 60 games of last season - a list that also included Mookie Betts (the 2018 hitting leader through 60 games) and the ever-dangerous Mike Trout.
As Hall of Famer Ted Williams said in 1989, "For a player to hit .400, he will have to draw walks and not strike out too much."
There's enough offensive talent in the league for someone to reach the .400 mark this year, but the data is strongly against it. Only one player has done it over the past 18 years, and Jones' sky-high BABIP (.411) will be hard to replicate in 2019. At better odds, this would be intriguing, but you're better off passing on a .400 hitter in 2020.
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.