Cody Bellinger has been the best hitter in baseball this year, and it’s not particularly close.
He leads the majors in WAR – both by the FanGraphs (4.1) and Baseball-Reference (4.7) calculations – and he’s crushing home runs on a regular basis (he has 17) while driving in runs (47 RBIs) and scoring them (NL-best 43) at a frenetic pace. In his first two seasons, Bellinger struck out a total of 297 times and walked only 133 times; in 2019, the lefty with the sweet swing and improved plate discipline has 29 walks and 29 strikeouts.
Oh, and he’s spent most of the season with an average over the fabled .400 mark, though it fell to .394 with an 0-for-4 performance Wednesday night. It’s only May 23, of course, and any realistic talk of Bellinger – who hit .263 his first two seasons – finishing the season with an average north of .400 is kind of silly.
But that number – .400 – holds a special place in baseball lore, and any time a player gives us a reason to start thinking about the possibility of thinking it might actually be possible, well, that’s a good thing. And it gets us to thinking about the other times we’ve thought about the possibility.
Bellinger is through 48 games this year, so we’re going to look at where six other players who chased the mark were through 48 games, then where they were at 100 games and where they finished the seasons. Here are those six seasons.
Shoeless Joe, .408 in 1911
Ted Williams, .406 in 1941
Rod Carew, .388 in 1977
George Brett, .390 in 1980
Tony Gwynn, .394 in 1994
Todd Helton, .372 in 2000
The reason for the first five choices is pretty obvious. The Shoeless fella and The Kid both finished over the fabled .400 mark, and the other three have the highest averages since Williams – an unparalleled batsman, Teddy Ballgame hit .388 in his Age 38 season! – retired after the 1960 season.
So why Helton? Others have finished with similar averages in the past few decades, and heck, he wasn’t even the only guy to hit .372 that year! Nomar Garciaparra’s .372 average led the AL. But Helton made a legit run at .400. In a 25-game stretch starting Aug. 4, Helton batted .505 in 112 PAs to increase his season average to .397 a couple of days before September started, so he makes the group.
Let’s jump in.
Through 48 games
Bellinger: .394, 203 PA, 17 homers, 44 RBI, 1.243 OPS
Jackson: .390, 210 PA, 3 homers, 9 RBI, 1.035 OPS
Williams: .425, 204 PA, 12 homers, 42 RBI, 1.248 OPS
Carew: .376, 221 PA, 4 homers, 29 RBI, 1.007 OPS
Brett: .348, 202 PA, 8 homers, 43 RBI, 1.040 OPS
Gwynn: .391, 201 PA, 6 homers, 22 RBI, 1.044 OPS
Helton: .421, 211 PA, 17 homers, 51 RBI, 1.336 OPS
Thoughts: We included the home run/RBI totals just to give you and idea of how Bellinger stacks up in that regard with some of the others who have chased .400. Only Helton, as you see, equals what Bellinger has done so far in those categories. Williams and Helton had the best starts, average-wise. After the first month of the season, Williams spent only a couple of weeks in July under .400, never below an end-of-the-day .393 mark.
The one that really stands out here? George Brett. That .348 average is good, but far from historic. He had injury issues in 1980; he missed nine of the team’s first 54 games, then spent a month on the disabled list with an ankle injury. In his first 50 games after returning, though, Brett batted an incredible .463, with more intentional walks (seven) than strikeouts (five). That, folks, is how you make a run at .400.
Through 100 games
Jackson: .399, 436 PA, 6 homers, 27 RBI, 1.056 OPS
Williams: .410, 417 PA, 23 homers, 83 RBI, 1.249 OPS
Carew: .385, 451 PA, 10 homers, 67 RBI, 1.047 OPS
Brett: .399, 443 PA, 19 homers, 100 RBI, 1.138 OPS
Gwynn: .385, 432 PA, 11 homers, 61 RBI, 1.005 OPS
Helton: .374, 436 PA, 24 homers, 86 RBI, 1.152 OPS
Thoughts: Jackson’s average had dropped to .375 entering July, but a couple of multi-hit games bumped it up to .386 as Cleveland – known as the Naps back then, after Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie – entered a series with the Senators. Jackson used that series to start a 28-game hitting streak during which he hit .450. In 12 of the last 13 games of the streak, Jackson had at least two hits. After one 0-for-4 night, Jackson went 20-for-33 (.606) in his next eight games to pump his season average up to .415.
Carew went streaking during this stretch, too. He had back-to-back 12 game hitting streaks – sandwiched around an 0-for-3 game in Kansas City on June 18 – that lifted his season average up to .411. Carew hit .412 in that first dozen-game stretch and during the second stretch – nine of the 12 games were multi-hit efforts – he batted .587.
Gwynn was his consistent excellent self all season, without any huge surges in either direction. Check out his month-by-month batting averages: .395 in March/April; .392 in May; .387 in June; .370 in July; and .475 in August. The August average, of course, came in 10 games because the infamous strike – you remember the one that canceled the 1994 World Series? – ended any hopes Gwynn had of reaching .400.
Through end of season
Jackson: .408, 641 PA, 7 homers, 83 RBI, 1.058 OPS
Williams: .406, 606 PA, 37 homers, 120 RBI, 1.287 OPS
Carew: .388, 694 PA, 14 homers, 100 RBI, 1.019 OPS
Brett: .390, 515 PA, 24 homers, 118 RBI, 1.118 OPS
Gwynn: .394, 475 PA, 12 homers, 64 RBI, 1.022 OPS
Helton: .372, 697 PA, 42 homers, 157 RBI, 1.162 OPS
Thoughts: Jackson finished the season on a 17-game hitting streak, batting .462 in that stretch to bump his average from .402 to .408. Williams, of course, famously played in a final-day double-header instead of sitting on his .3996 average – which would have counted as .400 – and went 6 for 8 in the two games to finish at .406.
Carew finished strong, too. His average had “dropped” to .375 after an 0-for-4 on Sept. 2, but he batted .457 in his final 24 games to finish at .388. Brett was at .400 as late as Sept. 19, but batted “only” .304 in his last 13 games to finish at .390. That’s brutal, to bat over .300 and still see your average drop 10 points.
Gwynn’s chances were robbed by the strike, as mentioned. Helton started his September with a bang – he homered in his third at-bat of the month – but he hit “only” .274 (with a .983 OPS, though) in September, and his overall average dropped from .395 to .372.
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