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Where have all the .300 hitters gone?

Albert Almora Jr. is an underappreciated hitter.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago Cubs
Albert Almora Jr. hits an RBI double against the Tigers.
Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the day there was no final fan ballot spot for Albert Almora Jr. despite the best efforts of members of this site (and others) to launch a successful write-in campaign. I was prepared for this possibility, just like I was prepared for the write-in campaign to be unsuccessful. But I wasn’t prepared for it to not even register to most of the baseball powers that be that it is, in fact, a snub to not even discuss the fact that the guy with the highest batting average in the National League won’t be playing in Washington D.C. this summer. Beyond that, I was floored last week to see Fangraphs dedicate a column writing off a .323 batting average as having “less value” than it once did. So with all due respect to Blake Snell being the biggest All-Star snub (there are some structural reasons for that you can read about here) this piece will look at the increasing rarity of the .300 hitter and how scarcity can determine value.

Let’s start with the stats

As of this writing Almora is slashing .323/.362/.447. His batting average is the highest batting average among qualified players in the National League and is fifth highest in MLB. I’ve already covered his incredible glove in such snapshots as this one, so I’m not going to rehash that. Whether you think his catches look overly flashy because he’s not very fast (which Statcast certainly seems to think) or whether you think he has a plus glove isn’t the point of this particular post.

It is downright bizarre that one of the best hitters in the National League isn’t even in the conversation of All-Star snubs.

For example, here is MLB’s list of the biggest snubs, now, I love Kyle Schwarber as much as anyone but I find it ironic that there is a Cub outfielder on the list that isn’t Almora. And then, there is this from Ken Rosenthal:

I mean, a lot of those guys are great players, Max Muncy and Jesus Aguilar in particular are having career years. But really, what exactly does guy have to do to be recognized for having the highest batting average in the league?

Well, the Fangraphs piece from last week offers at least a partial explanation for why Almora isn’t on the radar:

But he won’t be the most valuable hitter in the league while doing so, or even close to it. And that split — between the best batting-average hitters in the league, and the best hitters in the league, period — turns out to be something that’s changed quite a bit over the course of baseball’s history, and certainly quite dramatically from the glory years of the batting title, which came during the early part of the 20th century.

Now, you all know I love Fangraphs and data, so this column is isn’t an attempt to dismantle sabermetrics as we know it. In fact, I encourage you to read the whole piece, there are a slew of interesting charts showing the correlation between any number of cool metrics and batting average. Metrics I love. Metrics I talk about here frequently. But there are a couple of problems with the premise of the “value of a hitter” as in the above piece, and it’s worth digging into because it’s a large part of the reason Almora isn’t getting enough credit for a great year with the bat.

First, the metrics we currently use to discuss great hitting privilege slugging because they are based on slugging, or, at least, they are calculated to reward the same things as slugging. What I mean by this is that the reason wRC+ and wOBA rock is that they take into account that a double is a more valuable hit than a single (in addition to a lot of other things, I’m simplifying so this post is under 2000 words). That is a good thing and gives us a better understanding of the type of contact a player is making and why a .280 guy who hits for a bit more power might be worth more than a .300 guy who only hits singles (I’m looking at you, 2015 Starlin Castro). I totally agree with the premise that Kris Bryant hitting .285 for more power (and yes, I know he’s been in the midst of a power outage, but that is a conversation for another day) is worth more than Almora hitting .323 with a lot of singles. What I disagree with is that the relative value of slugging is so much higher than the value of contact that what Almora is doing doesn’t even enter the conversation of “hey, maybe this kid is an All Star?” At the minimum it seems like it should register as worthy of conversation that he is not one.

Let’s talk about scarcity

The second part of this conversation that I think has been overlooked is an issue of scarcity. Like all good baseball nerds I read Moneyball back in the day and enjoyed it immensely. There is a lot of useful information in that book, but the take away I always come back to isn’t about whether paying attention to stats can give you an edge (it does) or whether on base percentage adds value (base runners are good) it’s the idea that by using knowledge correctly, and in innovative ways, you can identify undervalued commodities to build a great team. In other words, taking advantage of scarcity.

I don’t entirely disagree with Fangraphs when they describe the batting title and Almora’s season as follows:

So yeah, we maybe shouldn’t be paying as much attention to the batting title as we do. But then again, maybe we don’t. I haven’t seen that many folks all that worked up about the brewing Almora/Gennett race for the batting title. That’s because neither player is expected to end the year as the best player or even the best hitter in the league — and also because folks seem to have mostly internalized the information I’m presenting above already. Also because Shohei Ohtani has distracted them. So please, then, interpret this piece in the following way: if you knew this already, congratulations! You are very smart. If you didn’t know this already, congratulations! Now you do, and knowing things is good. And if you are Albert Almora Jr., congratulations! You are having a very nice season, even if you aren’t the best hitter in the league.

But I do think that having a .323 batting average in 2018 baseball is an undervalued commodity. In the world of the true three outcome hitter there are an onslaught of guys with high OBP and SLG, but it turns out there are relatively few guys who are hitting over .300.

To illustrate this I created the following chart which tracks all qualified .300 hitters for the last 30 years, and it turns out that hitting .300 is a rarity these days:

Qualified batters hitting over .300 1988-2018
Fangraphs compiled by Sara Sanchez

Additionally, there is a big difference between hitting barely .300 and hitting over .320. To illustrate that let’s look at some comps for Almora’s “very nice season” from a time when .300 hitters were more common.

In 1998 there were 49 qualified batters who hit over .300 (compared to 20 currently in 2018). I will admit that the league was probably overvaluing Scott Brosius and his .300 batting average, but the guy with the closest offensive stat line to what Almora is doing right now in 1998 wasn’t Scott Brosius. It was Derek Jeter at .324/.384/.481.

Look, baseball is cyclical. As you can see from the above chart teams value different approaches at different times. Given the current league obsession with launch angle and home runs coupled with the current panic over the fact that there will probably be more strikeouts than hits in 2018, it would seem like being one of the 20 players with a batting average over .300 would be celebrated. It would also seem like having the highest batting average among the 11 National League players who are hitting over .300 should be recognized as more of an accomplishment.

As much as I love advanced metrics, it turns out nothing increases value like scarcity, even if it’s not currently en vogue to say it. Suffice to say, I think Albert Almora Jr. is a pretty undervalued hitter for the Chicago Cubs.