Recording Batting Stats: a Tricky Business

STATISTICS dominate baseball as they do no other sport. Everyone admires the .300 hitter. Fans know such bits of esoterica as the last person to hit .400 (Ted Williams, .406 in 1941) or the all-time batting leader (Ty Cobb, .367). Even those whose interests have turned elsewhere may recall how "As a kid, I knew all the batting averages."

But how are these figures arrived at?

Determining a batting average is a simple mathematical procedure: Divide the total number of hits by the number times a player came up to bat. For example: If a player came up four times and had one hit, his average would be .250.

It's obvious what constitutes a hit, but the definition of an at-bat is complicated. Any time a batter gets a hit, reaches base on an error, or is called out (with the exceptions noted below), he is charged with a time at bat. When he receives a base on balls (a walk) or is hit by a pitch, no at-bat is charged.

The exceptions involve sacrifices - both bunts and fly balls. Any time the batter squares around to bunt with the clear intention of advancing the runner - and succeeds - it is a sacrifice and no time at bat is recorded. Sometimes a batter will not square around but will wait until the last minute to lay down a surprise bunt - and then it is up to the official scorer to decide if it is registered as a time at bat).

The sacrifice fly rule is based on the theory that by trying to hit the ball in the air to score a runner, the batter is decreasing his own chance of getting a hit, and thus shouldn't be charged with a time at bat. This one has been in and out of the rule books, but seems a permanent fixture now.

The first formal requirement for winning a batting title stated that a player had to appear in at least 100 games. In the 1940s and 1950s this was amended to provide that he must have at least 400 at-bats.

But in 1954 an obvious injustice occurred. Ted Williams led the league at .345 but had only 386 official at-bats. The reason was not that he didn't play regularly, but that he led the league in walks - he had an incredible 136 bases on balls. Under the rules in force, the title went to runner-up Bobby Avila, who hit .341.

This led to another change in the qualifying requirements so as not to penalize a hitter if he was such a threat that he received an inordinate number of walks.

Under the new formula, a player must have at least 3.1 plate appearances (including walks, sacrifices, etc.) for every scheduled game - a requirement, by the way, under which Williams would have qualified with plenty to spare in 1954.

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