I love a high batting average; a mark of .300 is very sexy.
But even I have to admit, a weighty average doesn’t necessarily mean a great season. Two hundred hits aren’t that impressive when they are mostly singles—a guy who dinks and donks his way to first base isn’t likely to drive too many runs home or, unless he’s fast, score many runs himself.
Let’s take a look at some high-average seasons that really weren’t that great, after all. To put this piece together, I looked up players who hit .300 or better with an OPS+ of less than 100; to keep the list a bit more manageable, I included only those that qualified for the batting title.
One of the most incredible years was that of Pinky Whitney in 1930. That season, he batted .342 with 207 hits and 117 RBI in 149 games for the Phillies. On paper, those are incredible numbers.
But looks are deceiving. Whitney had just 54 extra base hits, including 8 home runs, in that high-flying campaign in which the National League batted .303 as a whole. Drawing only 40 walks, he didn’t do much to improve his on-base percentage and, by connection, his OPS+.
In a double whammy, his OPS+ also suffered because the stat takes league averages into account and—despite his gaudy numbers—he did not stack up well against his contemporaries. 100 is considered average; his OPS+ was 98.
Consider this: In the modern game, his 207 knocks would have led the National League in six of the past eight seasons; in the AL, they would’ve led in 22 of the past 30 campaigns. They were good for ninth in the NL in 1930. And his batting mark didn’t lead the league, not by a long shot—it didn’t even make the top ten; it was 14th.*
In fact, none of the high-average, low-OPS+ players led the league in batting average during their mediocre campaigns and only one led in hits—Boston’s Doc Cramer, who had 200 in 1940.
Cramer, despite finishing with over 2,700 career knocks, was a notoriously empty hitter. Possessing little power, he hit just 37 home runs in 20 seasons, and cursed with minimal speed, he had just 62 stolen bases. He slugged only .375 for his career and walked no more than 51 times in a season.
Despite his shortcomings, he made five All-Star teams and batted .300 or better eight times. Not surprisingly, five of those campaigns qualify here, with 1938 among the worst. Hitting .301 with 198 hits in 148 games, he managed a paltry OPS+ of 80 that year.
Cramer was a rare breed, as few other players had 200 or more hits in their inglorious seasons, and six of the 12 times it happened were in the 1990s or after. Juan Pierre did it twice, in 2001 (202 H, .327 BA, 89 OPS+) and 2003 (204 H, .305 BA, 94 OPS+) and, most recently, Ender Inciarte (201 H, .304 BA, 98 OPS+) and Dee Strange-Gordon (201 H, .308 BA, 97 OPS+) managed the feat in 2017. Mark Grudzielanek (201 H, .306 BA, 93 OPS+ in 1996) and Michael Young (.306 BA, 204 H, 97 OPS+ in 2003) did it, as well.
There were multiple repeat offenders, spanning all of baseball history. Turn of the century Irish outfielder Patsy Donovan hit .300 or better, just to have a middling, sub-100 OPS+, three times. So did dead ball first baseman Stuffy McInnis, 1930s outfielder Ethan Allen, and second baseman Luis Castillo, who played as recently as 2010. Even a Hall of Famer, first baseman George Sisler, did it thrice, while Buddy Myer— a second baseman who has his Cooperstown supporters—did it too.
But which was the most futile of these ostensibly impressive .300 campaigns? You have to go back to 1894 for that. Playing for the Cleveland Spiders, first baseman Patsy Tebeau batted .302 with 158 hits in 125 games.
Hey, that’s not too bad! Well, actually …
That year, the National League was even more offensive than 1930, with a league batting average of .309, so Tebeau actually hit seven points lower than league average. If you neutralize his statistics to 2021, his average drops to .234.
His OPS+ was 75. To put that in context, Gorman Thomas, hit .215 in 1985 and had an OPS+ of 112.
Wonky, high BA/low OPS+ seasons are mostly vestiges of days long past. There were 142 instances from before 1950; since, just 47. Though in recent years, they’ve begun to make a comeback.
Just last year, in that shortened 60-game sprint, Rockies outfielder Raimel Tapia hit .321 with a 99 OPS+—and I bet he wishes he could have that season back, as his marks have dropped 33 and 11 points, respectively, this year.
Since 1990, it’s happened 36 times (in fact, it happened for the first time in 11 years in 1994) and 23 times since 2000. Names you thought were better than that populate the list, too: D.J. LeMahieu is on it (twice!), and so are Kenny Lofton, Wade Boggs, Ivan Rodriguez, Placido Polanco and Jacoby Ellsbury. Hey, at least Ellsbury led the league with 70 steals when he did it.
But there has to be balance between showy stats and actual production.
Unfortunately, however, these seasons were a lot like those fake Rolex’s you buy on the streets of New York. At first glance they look like the real deal, super flashy, pretty great … but then, you look a little closer and, well, it seems you got ripped off.