The batting title races in both leagues have been intriguing so far, for entirely different reasons. Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, through Friday, was hitting .402 and his White Sox counterpart Alexei Ramirez was leading the American League with a .342 batting average. But can either keep it up, and who has a better chance of making history?
Is it more likely that Tulowitzki, who is one of the best all-around players in baseball when healthy, breaks the .400 barrier while playing half his games in Coors Field, or that Ramirez keeps hitting well enough to lead his league despite a career batting average of just .280?
Of course, it's important to note that neither are probable, and not just because neither has ever been a great contact hitter throughout their careers. It's that both players' batting average on ball in play -- a decent measure of how lucky or unlucky players are as their BABIP gets farther from the league norm of .290-.300 in either direction -- have been out of this world. And not necessarily in a good way.
Tulowitzki has hit an insane .394 BABIP, which will almost assuredly come down to at least the .334 he hit last year -- his line drive rate has increased this season, hence the relatively high BABIP. Fangraphs predicts it to finish somewhere in the .320-.340 range. But it's Alexei who has been getting the luckiest so far, despite having a significantly lower BABIP of .364. While still remarkable, it's also less a function of things like increased line drives rates, and is therefore seen as significantly less likely to stay anywhere near where it is right now. In fact, one projection has it dropping as much as 74 points by the end of the season.
And all of that comes even before looking at the history they'll have to overcome.
Before Ted Williams last achieved the feat in 1941, 28 separate times a player has hit .400 in a single season. While there have been a number of players who have come close in the ensuing eight decades, none has reached the brass ring. Even Tony Gwynn -- the most recent and most notable -- was still short before unforeseen circumstances stopped his pursuit dead in its tracks. The Hall of Fame Padre was hitting .394 and just three hits shy of the mythical .400 when the 1994 strike cancelled the rest of the season.
There are a few things in Tulo's favor, however. While Gwynn was a significantly better contact hitter than Tulowitzki is, he never played in a stadium which helped its hitters nearly as much as Coors Field has this season, with a park factor of 117, or 17% above average offensively.
It also wouldn't be Coors' first flirtation with a historical season, either. Larry Walker and Todd Helton both led the league while batting over .370 as members of the Rockies, in 1999 and 2000. So has Andres Galarraga, who did so in 1993. And while they were all very talented, borderline Hall of Fame players, they were likely never as hot as the often-injured Tulowitzki is now. The potential MVP candidate's hot zones were described by Jonah Keri of Grantland as "a nuclear blast," and Tulowitzki is hitting balls from every part of the strikezone into pretty much every part of the park.
However, based on his career stats -- Tulo is a .295 career hitter -- publications like the Washington Post have projected his chances of finishing the season .400 as 1 in 889,710. While that's obviously not something you'd bet on, is it more or less likely than Alexei Ramirez making it all the way through the season as the best hitter in the American League?
Beyond the Boxscore
Since 1941, there have been two hitters who have had lower career batting averages than Ramirez's .280 who have won the AL batting title. The first, Snuff Stirnweiss, was a bit of an outlier. Stirnweiss led the AL in 1945 as a member of the New York Yankees. This was during the last year that saw most prominent players fighting in World War II, and his .309 average is the second lowest to lead the league behind Carl Yastremski's .301 average in 1968 in that time frame.
The other was Norm Cash, who led the AL as a member of the Detroit Tigers with a .361 batting average in 1961. This was a full 90 points better than his career average, his only season hitting .300 and only one of five seasons where he managed to hit above .270 at all.
And unlike Tulowitzki, there have been players close to Alexei who have won the title, like Fred Lynn and the aforementioned Yaz. In fact, while it's a different league, as recently as last year, the batting champion in the National League had a career average below that of Alexei and managed to hit .331 to win the title.
That player? Michael Cuddyer of, you guessed it, the Colorado Rockies. And what were the chances of that?