With most teams nearing the one third mark on the season, randomness appears to have selected its champions in chasing the .400 batting average milestone. Going into today’s games, Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies is batting .500, Donovan Solano of the Giants is batting .458, and DJ Lemahieu of the Yankees is batting .400. With no other qualified hitters batting .360 or higher, this appears to be the field. What are their chances?
Charlie Blackmon batted .315 from 2016 to 2019 with an expected batting average (xBA) of .293 over that time frame. He’s a proven .300 hitter who receives the benefit of half his games played at Coors field. At an elevated altitude, balls fly further in Colorado providing a boost of about .035 to xBA on batted balls in Coors field. While he has hit a promising .397 xBA thus far in the season, it is not a mark unreached by Blackmon before.
Looking at his rolling xBA of 75 plate appearances (he is at 74 plate appearances in 2020), he has hit higher marks in August 2016, 2017, and 2019. Charlie simply rakes in August. Then again, he had a valley around that time in 2018. He may hit slightly better toward the end of seasons, but this season’s uptick should be no reason to think his skill level has changed. The expectation should be that he will hit .315-.320 for the rest of the season.
Donovan Solano is a confusing, somewhat ambiguous presence on this list. After tearing up AAA, the Giants called him up in May 2019. In over 200 at bats, he hit .330 with a .321 xBA. He has built on that success in 2020 with a .341 xBA and the second highest batting average in baseball. While his statcast metrics are promising, the sample size is just too small it is difficult to believe he is anything above a true .300 hitter. So of the three contenders, he serves as the biggest wildcard, but also the most prone to pitchers figuring him out.
DJ Lemahieu does not have the benefit of currently being over the watermark of .400, but he is certainly in contention. Like Blackmon, Lemahieu is a proven .300 hitter with a .316 batting average from 2016 to 2019 and a .314 xBA in those years. Also like Blackmon, Lemahieu spent most of that period in Colorado, but proved last year he can hit away from the mile high city. Yankees stadium may not provide the same boost as Coors, but the hitting ability of Lemahieu keeps him in the running. With a good amount of luck, he just might have a shot at keeping his batting average at .400.
Given the histories of Blackmon and Lemahieu, I think it is fair to say they are .315 hitters in a neutral state. The idea of hitters being on a hot streak has been disproven before*, but I’m willing to be generous and give both a .010 batting average bump considering they seem to be healthy. With Solano, I’m again willing to be generous and assume he’s naturally a .300 hitter despite the small sample size and being housed in a slightly unfavorable ballpark.
With these assumptions in mind, I did an estimation of the chances of Blackmon, Solano, and Lemahieu individually. Solano and Lemahieu both came out around two percent – not promising. However, Blackmon’s estimate came out at a whopping 14.16% likelihood. Even bringing his skill level estimate down to a .315 batting average yielded a 8.72% chance of batting .400. It is still quite unlikely, but the chase is on.
The absurdity of Charlie Blackmon’s current position needs to be further emphasized. When I first wrote about the chances of a hitter finishing with a .400 batting average this season, I estimated the chances to be barely over 4%. One of the key assumptions to that calculation was that the league batting average skill level would not change. Not only did it change, but thus far in the season, the major leagues as a whole has the lowest batting average in MLB history: .235. Despite adding the designated hitter to the national league, batting averages have plummeted.
Off the original 4% estimate, the MLB needed to see its batting average leader to be a roughly 96th percentile result outcome. 18 games into the season, a 96th percentile batting average leader would have been hitting .477. Charlie Blackmon’s .500 batting average this deep into the season only had a 0.82% chance of happening, meaning it was a 99th percentile occurrence without assuming league skill change.
Hitting for a high average in 2020 has gotten more difficult, but Charlie Blackmon does not care. While many of the game’s best have struggled hitting their weight, Blackmon has been defying the odds. Even in a 60 game season, managing to hit .400 in midst of the largest batting average drought in MLB history will be a historic feat.
*see chapter two of The Book by Tom Tango, Mitchel Litchman, and Andrew Dolphin
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