Gwynn, Brett among those who were several hits short of history
By Matt Kelly
When asked about his famous .406 average during the 1941 season, Hall of Famer Ted Williams candidly admitted, "If I had known hitting .400 was going to be such a big deal, I would have done it again."
In a sport where simply getting a hit three out of 10 times is considered elite, the notion of a player hitting .400 over the course of a season may sound like a privilege afforded only to the true immortals. But to fans of a certain age in 1941, seeing a .400-plus average on a player's ledger was within the realm of possibility, if not exactly commonplace. Seven different players had surpassed .400 a total of 12 times between 1900 and Williams's 1941 campaign.
What has pushed the .400-mark to mythical status, though, is the absence of a .400 hitter in the 75 years since.
The distant proximity of .400 seems true again this season, as Jose Altuve entered play Monday with a Major League-best .365 average. Assuming Altuve records 641 at-bats (his average from 2013-15) in 2016, he would need to hit .516 over the rest of the season to join Williams in the record books.
That's a bleak outlook to place on what has been an incredible season thus far by the Astros second baseman. But a different look suggests Altuve's path to .400 may not be as impossible as it seems.
Altuve has averaged nine hits per calendar week up to this point. If the Astros star were to maintain that rate over the final six weeks of the season, he would finish with roughly 231 hits. That's an incredible single-season total that only Ichiro Suzuki (three times) and Darin Erstad have reached in the past 20 years, but it would still leave Altuve a full 40 points shy of .400 if projected over his three-year average of 641 at-bats.
Still daunting, right? But let's break the goal up into smaller pieces. The target number of hits Altuve needs to eclipse .400 is 257. To get there, he would need to average 13 hits per week over the remaining six weeks of the season. That's just four more hits than his weekly average so far. Is it highly unlikely he'll be able to up his production by that much over the stretch run? Yes. But, is it impossible? Perhaps not.
The Major League season is long and filled with plenty of hitting streaks and slumps. But a look back suggests that the players who came closest to .400 over the last three-quarters of a century were even closer to history than you think. With the obvious privileges of time and hindsight on our side, let's take a look back at just how close some former batting champions have been to joining the Splendid Splinter in the rarefied air of .400:
1. Tony Gwynn, 1994: .394
Knowing how Gwynn would have performed over the remainder of 1994 if the season wasn't shortened by a strike is impossible. But no one else "finished" a season as close to .400 as Gwynn, either, as Mr. Padre ended up just three hits shy of the magical mark.
Total hits shy of .400: 3 Average hits per week: 8.7 Extra hits needed per week: 0.1
2. George Brett, 1980: .390
The Hall of Fame third baseman flirted with history later than any other player on this list, waking up on the morning of Sept. 21, 1980 with an even .400 average before fading over his final 13 games. Looking back, Brett could have used even the slimmest boost to his opening pace, as his average did not even top .300 until May 31.
Total hits shy of .400: 5 Average hits per week: 6.7 Extra hits needed per week: 0.2
T3. Ted Williams, 1957: .388
At the age of 38, Williams found out first-hand how hard it is to record a .400 average. The aging Red Sox star saw his average fall below .400 for the final time on June 6, and his .295 average in June remarkably was his lowest of any month that season. Still, Williams -- like Brett -- finished just five hits shy of making history once again.
Total hits shy of .400: 5 Average hits per week: 6.5 Extra hits needed per week: 0.2
T3. Rod Carew, 1977: .388
In perhaps the finest of his seven batting title seasons, Carew hit a remarkable .441 over his final 31 games of the year to finish just shy of history. Carew was hitting .400 as late as July 10, but a .304 average overall that month -- which would be perfectly acceptable for almost any other player -- was the biggest culprit in the Panamanian star coming up short.
Total hits shy of .400: 7 Average hits per week: 9.2 Extra hits needed per week: 0.3
4. Larry Walker, 1999: .379
Though his average in the thin home air at Coors Field (.461) was a full 175 points higher than his clip on the road (.286), a .418 charge over the final two months of the season put Walker within range nonetheless. The Rockies slugger was also very consistent, as his .326 mark in July was actually his lowest of any month of the season.
Total hits shy of .400: 9 Average hits per week: 6.9 Extra hits needed per week: 0.4
5. Stan Musial, 1948: .376
Missing the National League Triple Crown by just one home run, Musial hit much better on the road (.415) than he did in his home games (.334) at cavernous Sportsman's Park. "Stan the Man" hovered above .400 into mid-July, but he saw his pace drop from a .403 average in the first half to a more-human .351 after the break.
Total hits shy of .400: 14 Average hits per week: 9.6 Extra hits needed per week: 10.2
Of course, one would be hard-pressed to find any Major League player whose intended goal going into a season would be to hit .400. As it is, getting a hit off big league pitching is difficult enough. But these numbers show that for the very best in the game, one or two more base knocks per week could make all the difference in whether they join Williams in the history books at season's end.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.