June 28, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Miami Marlins second baseman Luis Arraez heads into tonight’s game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park with a .399 batting average this season.
Sure, it’s only June 28, but the 26-year-old infielder, who won an American League batting title with the Minnesota Twins last season, is generating some buzz about his flirtation with .400.
That hype has been intensified with Arraez playing the Red Sox at Fenway, where Ted Williams excelled to hit .406 in 1941 and become the last player to bat .400 in a single season.
Like Williams, Arraez is not particularly fast (one stolen base this season), but unlike Williams, Arraez has little power (just three home runs). On the plus side, Arraez hits the ball to all fields and rarely strikes out (just 16 times this season). And playing his home games in Miami may help him avoid an intense media spotlight until later in the season.
But it’s only June 28.
And just how possible is it for someone to hit .400 in a season in an era when so much information is available about them to other teams?
We thought Rance Mulliniks would be a good person to ask about the challenges of hitting .400.
After all, the longtime big league third baseman was not only an excellent hitter – batting over .300 in three of his 11 seasons with the Blue Jays – but he was always a strong student of hitting and he was teammates with George Brett, who hit .390 with the Kansas City Royals in 1980, and John Olerud, who flirted with .400 until the end of August with the Blue Jays in 1993.
“It’s obviously an extremely difficult thing to do,” said Mulliniks of hitting .400.
He says Brett and Olerud were similar left-handed batters who hit the ball everywhere on the field.
“George Brett was much the same type of hitter as John. You had to defend the entire field,” said Mulliniks. “And that’s much more difficult to do than when you just have to defend half of it.
“For me, the two big differences between George and John are, overall, George had a little more power in terms of home runs and especially to his opposite field. I think George had just as good a power to his opposite field as he did to his pull side . . . George wasn’t quite as patient a hitter as John. He was more aggressive, in particular early in the count. Therefore, his on-base percentage was not as good as John’s . . . and George ran better. George stole 201 bases in the big leagues.”
Mulliniks was just 24 when he served as a backup infielder for the Royals in 1980. But by the time, Olerud reached the big leagues in 1989, Mulliniks was a grizzled 33-year-old veteran who had a locker beside the young first baseman in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse.
“It was obvious that John was a very good line drive hitter,” said Mulliniks, who was teammates with Olerud from 1989 to 1992. “He hit the ball all over the field from foul line to foul line.”
In a Baseball Digest interview, Olerud identified Mulliniks as one of the biggest influences on him as a hitter.
“On occasion I would mention something to John that he might benefit from,” said Mulliniks. “It wasn’t something that was ongoing. John was so sound at the plate with his mechanics and his approach and plate discipline.”
One of things Mulliniks can recall telling a young Olerud to do was to swing the bat more often.
“John was very, very disciplined at the plate and often times, at least when I played with John . . . he would take too many good fastballs that were good pitches to hit. And I’m sure that goes back to his training in his youth,” recalled Mulliniks. “But I encouraged him to be more aggressive at times.”
Mulliniks knew right away that Olerud was going to be a great major league hitter.
“Would I have predicted John to hit .300-plus on a number of occasions throughout his career? The answer to that would be yes, because you could see the progression,” said Mulliniks. “You could see he was starting to mature as a hitter. But the fact that he hit .363 [in 1993] surprised me a little bit. The reason I say that is obviously John was not someone who was fleet a foot and so he wasn’t going to get infield hits. Everything was going to have to be clean. But if he’d have hit .330 or somewhere along those lines, it wouldn’t have surprised me. But you could see that he was getting just a little bit better all of the time . . . So, 1993 just turned out to be a breakout season for him.”
Olerud was hitting .400 on August 2, 1993 and .391 on August 27, before tailing off in the season’s final month to finish with (as stated by Mulliniks) a .363 batting average – which made him the first and still only Blue Jay to win an American League batting title.
“John probably started to wear down a little bit [near the end of the year],” said Mulliniks, “because you do, you get tired later in the year, especially in August when you play in a lot of hot weather. And with everything that’s involved, he probably started to tire just a little bit and that makes a difference for you as a hitter.”
Mulliniks retired after the 1992 season, but he can also recall Tony Gwynn hitting .394 for the San Diego Padres in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign.
“It would’ve been interesting to see where Tony would’ve finished up that year. He would’ve had as good a chance as anybody in the last two generations,” said Mulliniks.
So, does Mulliniks think anyone will ever hit .400 in a major league season again?
“I would say the odds are greatly against it and I would say that if it does happen again, it’s going to take the kind of hitter that we’ve talked about, one who is foul line to foul line, someone who possesses outstanding speed, can really run, rarely strikes out and also someone who if they’re struggling a little can bunt for a base hit,” said Mulliniks. “So, when you combine those things together, it would take a perfect storm.”