We don’t spend a lot of time talking about batting average at FanGraphs. While getting on base with a hit is still important in today’s game, getting on base via a walk is nearly as good as a single. Hitting doubles, triples, and homers is also very important and looking at batting average doesn’t factor in any of that production. It’s missing out on a lot of important results and thus, isn’t as useful as it was once thought to be when determining how good a hitter is at the plate. To some, this might be a slight, impugning players with great batting averages like Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn, two of the only three batters in the last 50 years with career batting averages over .320 (Rod Carew is the other). But it’s important to note that just because Boggs and Gwynn had high batting averages, doesn’t mean that they would be less valuable in today’s game.
Boggs and Gwynn both had career wRC+ marks of 132, with Boggs’ 88 WAR ranking sixth among all position players since 1969 and Gwynn’s 65 WAR making him a Hall of Famer as well. That combined the two players have fewer home runs than Ryan Zimmerman is of little concern to their overall value. The two were great hitters, though with ISO’s closer to .100 than .200, they might be referred to as singles hitters today. That’s a little unfair, and even a little inaccurate, as both rank in the top-20 of doubles-plus-triples over the last 50 years. I wondered what Gwynn and Boggs might do if placed in today’s game. The game has changed in the last few decades, with smaller parks and shrinking strike zones to go along with significant increases in average pitch velocity and many more offspeed and breaking pitches as well. Taking Boggs and Gwynn from the 80s and plopping them into today’s game wouldn’t be a fair test, but we can take a look at how they adapted to changes in their era to see how they may have adapted today.
Before I decided to write about Boggs and Gwynn specifically, I looked at a broad swath of good “singles” hitters to see how they adapted to the juiced ball in 1987. I looked for players with at least 1,000 plate appearances from 1983-1986, with a wRC+ of at least 105 and an ISO+ of 95 or lower. I then removed any players with an ISO greater than 105 in 1986 (Kirby Puckett power surge) and a wRC+ lower than a 100 in that year, and further limited it to players with at least 400 plate appearances in both 1986 and ’87. Here’s how those hitters did from 1983-1986:
Singles Hitters from 1983-1986
In 1987, the ball was juiced and homers went up by 17%, while the league-wide ISO moved up 15 points and slugging moved up 20 points, roughly equivalent to the jump in 2019 compared to 2016-2018. The table below shows how the group of singles hitters fared in 1987:
Singles Hitters with Juiced 1987 Ball
|AVG w/o Boggs/Gwynn||571||11||.131||83||112|
Looking at the overall average, it looks like the group generated more power and had better production than in their previous few seasons. Removing Gwynn and Boggs from the group shows that the rest of the players’ power production stayed roughly the same relative to the rest of the league, while they put together seasons mostly in line with the rest of their careers. The big exception in the non-Boggs/Gwynn group is fellow Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who didn’t have the same track record as a hitter prior to 1987, but used that season as a springboard to the Hall of Fame.
Boggs is the big changer here. His 24 homers were nearly as many as he hit in the prior four seasons combined. Gwynn’s power went up a bit from the previous four years and his extra base hits went up from 1986, though a drop in home runs meant a stable ISO from the season before. While Boggs was more powerful, Gwynn was more patient; his 12.1% walk rate represented a 64% improvement over the previous season. It’s possible that patient approach caused Gwynn to generally hit the ball a lot harder, with his .383 BABIP more than 50 points higher than his 1986 figure.
We often think about a juiced ball helping all hitters a little bit so that, compared to their peers, it’s harder to stand out, but in 1987, it was two singles hitters who led their respective leagues in WAR with the greatest hitting season of their careers. It’s possible that’s random, but the next year, Boggs went back down to five homers. He was still a great hitter, but he would never again have an above-average ISO. Outside of 1987, only in the strike-shortened 1994 season would Tony Gwynn have an above-average walk rate combined with anything close to an average ISO. That strike-shortened season was the only other season Gwynn even posted a walk rate above 9%, but it didn’t stop him from posting the same 132 wRC+ in his 30s that he put up in his 20s.
I attempted to run the same study for modern players, looking at hitters from 2015 through 2018 who met the same criteria as the players above; only five met the criteria (Buster Posey, Lorenzo Cain, Robbie Grossman, Whit Merrifield, and Yuli Gurriel), but even Posey and Cain were more Scioscia and Doran than Boggs and Gwynn.
All of which is to say that if you are looking for a modern-day Gwynn or Boggs, and you are looking for a singles hitter, you are likely looking in the wrong place. A modern-day Wade Boggs won’t be found in some low-ISO, ultra-high batting average player; that doesn’t exist in today’s game. Boggs’ game would be closer to Christian Yelich or Alex Bregman’s. And Tony Gwynn might be more of a cross between Mookie Betts and Michael Brantley, or a more patient version of Jeff McNeil. Gwynn and Boggs’ batting lines might be out of place in today’s game, but it would be foolish to think their skills would not translate, or that they wouldn’t adapt to the conditions today’s players are presented with. They changed their game in 1987 and there’s little reason to think they wouldn’t adapt today. They are all-time greats for a reason.