Image credit: © Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
This article was originally published on June 30, 2023.
It’s both very easy and very difficult to adjust for era, depending on how hard you want to do it. The ledger doesn’t even really need to balance all the time. People forgive their ancestors for, say, the casual racism of their times, while simultaneously crediting others for developing convictions before it became easy to do so. It’s much harder to adjust ourselves for era, while stuck in the middle of it, accepting that we’re all products, or even victims, of our own environment. We don’t know which things we believe, or work towards, will hold up past us, other than the basic uninteresting stuff like volunteering at food banks and loving our children. Everything else is relative, like it or not.
To fight that sense of relativity the world is full of milestones to help us mark progress, but sometimes those markers do more harm than good when the world beneath them starts shrinking. Three hundred wins long served as a benchmark for Hall of Fame pitchers, and yet it’s become almost unreachable in the modern game, likely denting the resumes of some very good pitchers in the future. Meanwhile, the .400 mark has become so unassailable that it’s less objective than backdrop; even to hover near it for a while is worthy of attention, like a half-built Tower of Babel.
This is what we have with Luis Arraez, who isn’t the best current hitter in baseball or even, thanks to the work of Shohei Ohtani, the most special. But he’s very close to both, and his dance with greatness, even at the midpoint of the marathon, has drawn the sport’s attention. Arraez won’t hit .400. He’ll probably stumble into a month where the hits don’t fall in, and he “only” hits one in every three, ending the dream. But that’s fine. It’s the wrong dream, anyway.
To understand what Arraez is accomplishing, we have to throw away that number, round as it may be. Because he’s accomplishing something at a time when it’s uniquely hard to do it, and the standard baseball card statistics don’t and can’t reflect that. They can tell us what’s happened, but they can’t tell us how special it is. For that, we need to turn to the index stat. For those unfamiliar: Index stats take a statistic and divide it by the league average, then multiply by 100 for aesthetic purposes. 100 is average; higher is better, lower is worse. This way you can compare players across different offensive environments, without having to caveat.
Here’s a list of the five-highest indexed batting average seasons since the turn of the 20th century (min. 300 PAs):
The Negro Leagues, the deadball era, and Luis Arraez. The highest value for a batting title-qualified hitter from the postwar era belongs to 1957 Ted Williams, with 148. And if you want to restrict our search to Sam Miller’s modern era of 1988 forward, you’re looking at 1988 Wade Boggs, with 141. To put all this in perspective: assuming Arraez stays healthy and accrues the same number of plate appearances in the second half, and the league average is constant, it would take a .369 batting average for Arraez to finish the season with a 149 BA+. Since he’s already banked half a year at .399, that means he would only need to hit .339 the rest of the way to post the best batting average compared to his peers in modern history.
The greatness is already there. It’s our job to figure out how to appreciate it.
Arraez isn’t alone, of course, in his uniqueness. Another of Sam’s proverbs was that any time you perform a leaderboard search based on a rate, the top or bottom will almost always be someone who barely meets the playing time cutoff. And since we’re comparing half a current season with full seasons elsewhere, you’d expect a bunch of 2023 stat lines that haven’t had time to regress from fluky starts. Kyle Schwarber, for example, has hit a sixth of his fly balls straight up in the infield, leading to a .185 batting average that indexes as the fifth-worst since 1988. And BABIP is always going to lean toward small-sample flukes, since it’s relatively difficult for hitters to control. The leaderboards there:
Conforto probably shouldn’t even count, given the pandemic. But regardless: None of these names are particularly going to surprise anyone, except maybe those who remember Hernandez, a slugging middle infielder with a lot of swing-and-miss in his game but not a ton of fly balls. If anything, this leaderboard says more about the era itself than the players in it, and how the league has de-emphasized a certain restraint in approach.
On the pitching side, there are surprisingly few 2023 cameos atop (or on bottom of) the indexed leaderboards.
* (higher is worse in this one case, since it’s a minus stat and not a plus. sorry.)
Gray’s giving up home runs at barely more than a third of his career rate, and the peripherals surrounding that number (flyball rate, exit velocity) don’t really signal a massive breakthrough. The homer rate, and he, will assuredly regress in the second half. Kirby is walking batters at half the rate he did last year, but his career is younger, so there’s less of a track record for him to regress to. So maybe, maybe there’s something there. Jordan Lyles… well, we knew what this would look like all along. Strider is a monster, but one that lives in a land of monsters. He’s the opposite of Arraez, in a very real sense: the best at something that everyone is suddenly very good at.
If there’s anything to take away from this index leaderboard review, it’s not the names themselves. It’s how few of them there are. The magical half-season of Arraez has obfuscated the fact that, outside of him, 2023 has offered us a surprising dearth of unsustainable breakouts. As the league continues through its second phase of All-Star voting, ignoring the rookies and barely-eligible sophomores, only four first-time candidates are making their case: Yandy Díaz, Randy Arozarena, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Orlando Arcia. And that isn’t because the voters have suddenly been swayed by brand recognition; with the exception of eternally underappreciated Thairo Estrada and the Tim Salmonesque ASG snub that is Will Smith, the chalk is just the obvious choice this year.
But even among the old familiars, we’re not getting as many of those weird, unsustainable career years that we’re used to seeing. Sure, there’s Arraez, and Ohtani’s unique brand of unmeasurability, and Ronald Acuña Jr. upping his usual athleticism by 15%. But compared to other years, when indexed, the league feels a little… balanced, if you want to use the positive word. Flat, if you don’t.
It’s possible, perhaps even probable, that the lack of variance this season is itself a form of variance, a flat distribution that is itself the edge of a collected distribution of distributions. But it’s also a reminder of the current state of baseball, one where a quarter century without expansion, combined with a talent pool drawing from an increasingly international influence, has led to a steadily rising floor. To paraphrase: We need another Montreal team, thin out their ranks a little.
There are those who get concerned with the watering down of talent whenever expansion hits, and it’s understandable. Imagine there being two more Athletics rotations. But much like the sudden jolt and rapid acceptance of the pitch clock this spring, expansion would be less of a decay of the sport’s talent and more of a sudden steering back on course. Besides, the introduction of more mediocre ballplayers provides a very important element to baseball’s ecosystem: They make the stars look even more like stars.
It comes down to that jolt. It was initially surprising that MLB changed the pitch clock so abruptly, when the possibility existed to shave off a second or two a year, veer back on course. Of course, it became clear through the league’s own promotion that the jolt was intentional, and marketable. Expansion is the opposite problem: the league has slowly, almost noticeably grown more talented and more competitive over time, and suddenly two teams wearing teal and gold, losing 100 games, will be hard to ignore. But it isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. People are terrible at noticing incremental change; they need jolts, to force them to reappraise baselines. The old shortcuts and milestones no longer apply, and thought is required to create new ones.
It isn’t a perfect process. If (when) Arraez does finish with a .375 average, the old narratives will be ready to be pulled out of storage: It’s just too hard for modern players, they’re trying to do too much, even the best can’t quite muster the fundamentals. Clichés can survive in any era. You can’t just call into a sports radio show and explain why a 150 BA+ is actually legendary. That’s a problem, but it’s not Luis Arraez’s problem. It’s the problem with legends.
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