MINNEAPOLIS - There was a 10-year period in which Joe Mauer was one of the elite hitters in baseball. But even with a line-drive swing, the willingness to hit the ball the other way, a keen eye at the plate and a proven two-strike approach, Mauer never got close to batting .400 or better in a season.
Reaching .400 isn't easy. No one in the major leagues has done it since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941. Rod Carew hit .388 in 1977. George Brett hit .390 in 1980. Tony Gwynn was batting .394 when the players strike ended the 1994 season in mid-August. Those have been the best runs at the hallowed mark since World War II.
But, as players return to baseball stadiums around the country to train for a coronavirus-shortened season, there is chatter about the conditions being right for someone batting .400.
To do it over 162-game season seems more unreachable as baseball evolves. Launch angles, defensive shifting and power bullpens are a thing now. But how about over a 60-game season?
"There's a better chance of it happening," Mauer said. "It's still a very tough thing to do."
In 2009, Mauer roared out of the gate batting .407 over his first 46 games before dipping under .400 and finishing at a career-high .365 to win his third AL batting title. The next season, Texas' Josh Hamilton batted .359 - the last player to hit more than .350 in a season.
Mauer saw several forces at play during his final years as a player that leads him to believe that .400 is nearly unreachable. But pitching, in particular, makes it difficult.
"When I first got to the big leagues in 2004, I would face that starter for at least three at-bats, maybe the fourth," Mauer said. "And if I got a fifth at-bat I would face a reliever. So I would face two to three different pitchers a night.
"Well, my last year (2018), I would face a starter for my first two at-bats, then a lefty out of the bullpen, then a setup specialist, then your closer. So I was facing three to four pitchers a night. When you do that, it's tougher. When you see guys more frequently, I feel you have a better chance. But when you are throwing different guys out of the bullpen for one at-bat or coming out the bullpen you might not know them as well. I feel it goes against the hitter."
And those forces drive batting averages down over the course of a season. But a condensed schedule could create the right scenario for a player to rake for two months and make things interesting.
Justin Morneau, who batted .321 during his AL MVP season for the Twins in 2006, then won the 2014 NL batting title by hitting .319 with Colorado, agreed with Mauer while adding that expanded rosters - teams will start with 30 players before reducing the limit to 26 - will allow managers to match up with hitters even more. That's even with relievers, once they enter a game, now being required to face at least three batters or until the inning is over.
"You're probably going to face a different pitcher every at-bat," Morneau said, "which is incredibly difficult for players."
Chipper Jones batted .409 over Atlanta's first 60 games of the 2008 season, making him the last major leaguer to carry a .400-something average that late. One of Mauer's best streaks was when he batted .404 over a stretch of 60 Twins games in 2006.
If there are any current Twins who are equipped to make a run at such a lofty mark, the list starts and stops with second baseman Luis Arraez, who batted .334 as a rookie last year. It didn't take long for Arraez to show many of the traits needed to make a run at a big batting average. He showed excellent strike zone awareness, could foul off pitches until he got something to handle, drew walks and used the entire field. He struck out only 7.9% of the time, which would have led baseball if he had enough at-bats to qualify.
His one drawback is that he's not particularly speedy, potentially costing him an infield hit here and there. But the Twins are eager to see what Arraez, who also had a .399 on-base percentage last season, will do in his second season.
"I like him a lot," Mauer said. "He fights. He's a high contact hitter. He fouls off tough pitches and fouling pitches off wears pitchers down and gets you something good to handle later in the game. For me as a hitter, the more pitches I saw the stronger I got.
"When he gets two strikes, he does not have that fear of striking out. He knows he can put the bat on it."
Could this season, a season reduced to basically two months because of the coronavirus pandemic, produce a .400 watch? Will it be tainted because of the abbreviated schedule? Or should it be enjoyed because batting .400 over two months is worth the attention?
"It's definitely possible," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of the .400 mark being reached. "There will be a lot of ways to look at this season and dice it up. People will be quick to say in some ways that it's not a normal year. Of course it's not a normal year, we all know that. But what you will see are some pretty cool things and some things that will be very memorable. And this is a whole different challenge than we're normally used to.
"So if we want to make the argument that it's not a typical season and there should be a star next to this year, that's actually OK. That's fine. But whatever team comes out here and finds a way to deal with all this adversity, all the players that find a way to deal with the adversity, and still go out there and prepare and perform, that's a great thing to note as well."
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