# Relative Batting Averages

This article was selected for inclusion in SABR 50 at 50: The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifty Most Essential Contributions to the Game.

Who has the highest single season batting average in major league history? The modem fan would probably say that Rogers Hornsby’s .424 in 1924 is the highest. Old timers would point out that Hugh Duffy hit .438 in 1894. But the correct answer is Ty Cobb with .385 in 1910.

How can .385 be higher than .438? The answer is when it is compared to the average of the entire league for the year in question. This is the only way performances from different seasons and leagues can be compared. Thus a hitter’s relative batting average, which is the true measure of his ability to hit safely, is computed as follows:

As a further refinement (since it is unfair to compare a player to himself) the player’s own hits and ABs can be subtracted from the league totals, thus giving an average relative to the remainder of the league.

As an example, compare Bill Terry’s National League leading .401 in 1930 to Carl Yastrzemski’s American League leading .301 in 1968. At first glance the 100-point difference would make it appear that Yastrzemski’s average should not be mentioned in the same breath as Terry’s. But look at the calculations of relative averages:

The relative averages are almost identical, meaning that had the two performances occurred in the same season, the batting averages would have been within a few points of each other. The big difference, of course, is that in 1930 the National League had a combined average of .303, the highest of any major league in this century (and two points higher than Yastrzemski’s 1968 average), whereas in 1968 the American League had a combined average of .230, the lowest for any major league ever. (A relative average of 1.30 indicates that a player’s batting average was 30% higher than the remainder of his league.)

The following two graphs show league averages since 1900. It can be seen that the 1 920s and 30s, following the introduction of the lively ball, were fat times for hitters. Both leagues reached their recent lows in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher.” Note that for the last three seasons the American League’s Designated Hitter rule has artificially raised the league’s average and thus lowered individual relative averages.

The table below shows the highest single season relative averages since 1900. The list is clearly dominated by Ty Cobb, who has 10 of the top 19 averages, including the highest of all: 1.594 in 1910. Interestingly, the second highest relative average is Nap Lajoie’s 1.592, also in 1910. That epic batting race, enlivened by the offer of a new car to the winner, resulted in a major scandal, the awarding of two automobiles, and incidentally the two highest relative averages of all time. Rogers Hornsby’s .424 produced the highest National League mark of 1.51, but this ranks only 14th on the list. (Duffy’s .438 reduces to a relative average of about 1 .42.) Note that five of this century’s .400 averages do not qualify for this list.

Single Season Relative Average Greater Than 1.45

 Lea. Rel. Rank Player Year League AB Hits Avg. Avg. Avg. 1 Ty Cobb 1910 Amer. 509 196 0.385 0.242 1.594 2 Nap Lajoie 1910 Amer. 591 227 0.384 0.241 1.592 3 Nap Lajoie 1904 Amer. 554 211 0.381 0.243 1.570 4 Tris Speaker 1916 Amer. 546 211 0.386 0.247 1.570 5 Ty Cobb 1912 Amer. 553 227 0.410 0.263 1.560 6 Ty Cobb 1909 Amer. 573 216 0.377 0.242 1.560 7 Ty Cobb 1917 Amer. 588 225 0.383 0.246 1.560 8 Ty Cobb 1911 Amer. 591 248 0.420 0.271 1.550 9 Nap Lajoie 1901 Amer. 543 229 0.422 0.275 1.530 10 Ty Cobb 1913 Amer. 428 167 0.390 0.254 1.530 11 Ted Williams 1941 Amer. 456 185 0.406 0.265 1.530 12 Ted Williams 1957 Amer. 420 163 0.388 0.254 1.530 13 Ty Cobb 1918 Amer. 421 161 0.382 0.252 1.520 14 Rogers Hornsby 1924 Nat. 536 227 0.424 0.281 1.510 15 Joe Jackson 1911 Amer. 571 233 0.408 0.271 1.510 16 Joe Jackson 1912 Amer. 572 226 0.395 0.263 1.500 17 Ty Cobb 1916 Amer. 542 201 0.371 0.247 1.500 18 Ty Cobb 1915 Amer. 563 208 0.369 0.247 1.500 19 Ty Cobb 1914 Amer. 345 127 0.368 0.246 1.490 20 Honus Wagner 1908 Nat. 568 201 0.354 0.237 1.490 21 Cy Seymour 1905 Nat. 581 219 0.377 0.253 1.490 22 George Sisler 1922 Amer. 586 246 0.420 0.283 1.490 23 Joe Jackson 1913 Amer. 528 197 0.373 0.254 1.470 24 Tris Speaker 1912 Amer. 580 222 0.383 0.263 1.450 25 Stan Musial 1948 Nat. 611 230 0.376 0.259 1.450 26 George Stone 1906 Amer. 581 208 0.358 0.247 1.450 27 Joe Torre 1971 Nat. 634 230 0.363 0.251 1.450 28 George Sisler 1920 Amer. 631 257 0.407 0.282 1.450 29 Honus Wagner 1907 Nat. 515 180 0.350 0.242 1.450

With the modem preoccupation with home runs, high relative averages (not to mention high absolute averages) have become rare. The only relative average over 1.45 in recent years is Joe Torre’s 1971 mark. For a look at other recent high marks, the next table shows the highest relative averages of the last 20 years. It is interesting to note that Rod Carew’s 1974 and 1975 marks would probably be well over 1.45 except for the Designated Hitter rule in the American League.

The final table shows the all-time leaders in career relative average. Not surprisingly, Ty Cobb tops the list with an average that is just a few hits short of 1 .40. Close behind Cobb is Shoeless Joe Jackson, though the closeness of their averages is deceptive. Jackson’s career was abruptly terminated while he was still a star performer, and therefore he did not have the usual declining years at the end of his career that would have lowered his average. During the years that Jackson averaged 1.38, Cobb was averaging a fantastic 1.50.

It can be seen that despite the preponderance of pre-1920 hitters in the single season leaders, the career list contains players from all periods since 1900, including four who are active. Rod Carew, who in 1975 moved past Ted Williams into third place, seems destined to be one of the all-time leaders in relative average. Whether all four active players will finish their careers among the leaders is an open question, but at least they show that hitting for high average is not altogether a lost art.

Highest Single Season Relative Averages During Last 20 Years (1956-1975)

 Lea. Rel. Rank Player Year League AB Hits Avg. Avg. Avg. 1 Ted Williams 1957 Amer. 420 163 .3S8 0.254 1.530 2 Joe Torre 1971 Nat. 634 230 0.363 0.251 1.450 3 Roberto Clemente 1967 Nat. 585 209 0.357 0.248 1.440 4 Mickey Mantle 1957 Amer. 474 173 0.365 0.254 1.440 5 Rico Carty 1970 Nat. 478 175 0.366 0.257 1.420 6 Norm Cash 1961 Amer. 535 193 0.361 0.255 1.420 7 Rod Carew 1974 Amer. 599 218 0.364 .257* 1.410 8 Harvey Kuenn 1959 Amer. 561 198 0.353 0.252 1.400 9 Rod Carew 1975 Amer. 535 192 0.359 .257* 1.400 10 Pete Rose 1969 Nat. 627 218 0.348 0.249 1.390 11 Carl Yastrzemski 1967 Amer. 579 189 0.326 0.235 1.390 12 Ralph Garr 1974 Nat. 606 214 0.353 0.254 1.390 13 Pete Rose 1968 Nat. 626 210 0.335 0.242 1.390 14 Roberto Clemente 1969 Nat. 507 175 0.345 0.250 1.380 15 Bill Madlock 1975 Nat. 514 182 0.354 0.256 1.380 16 Hank Aaron 1959 Nat. 629 223 0.355 0.259 1.370 17 Matty Alou 1968 Nat. 558 185 0.332 0.242 1.370 18 Tony Oliva 1971 Amer. 487 164 0.337 0.246 1.370 19 Roberto Clemente 1970 Nat. 412 145 0.352 0.257 1.370 20 Ralph Garr 1971 Nat. 639 219 0.343 0.251 1.370

*Designated Hitter rule in effect

Lifetime Relative Average Greater Than 1.20 (Over 4000 ABs)

 Lea. Rel. Rank Player Years AB Hits Avg. Avg. Avg. 1 Ty Cobb 1905-1928 11429 4191 0.367 0.263 1.390 2 Joe Jackson 1908-1920 4981 1774 0.356 0.258 1.380 3 Rod Carew 1967-1975* 4450 1458 0.328 0.247 1.330 4 Ted Williams 1939-1960 7706 2654 0.344 0.261 1.320 5 Nap Lajoie 1896-1916 9589 3251 0.339 0.258 1.310 6 Rogers Hornsby 1915-1937 8173 2930 0.358 0.275 1.300 7 Tris Speaker 1907-1928 10208 3515 0.344 0.266 1.290 8 Stan Musial 1941-1963 10972 3630 0.331 0.258 1.280 9 Honus Wagner 1897-1917 10427 3430 0.329 0.258 1.280 10 Eddie Collins 1906-1930 9949 3311 0.333 0.265 1.260 11 Rob.Clemente 1955-1972 9454 3000 0.317 0.254 1.250 12 Tony Oliva 1962-1975* 6178 1891 0.306 0.246 1.240 13 Pete Rose 1963-1975* 8221 2547 0.310 0.251 1.230 14 Harry Heilmann 1914-1932 7787 2660 0.342 0.278 1.230 15 Sam Crawford 1899-1917 9579 2964 0.309 0.252 1.230 16 George Sisler 1915-1930 8267 2812 0.340 0.278 1.230 17 Babe Ruth 1914-1935 8399 2873 0.342 0.279 1.230 18 Matty Alou 1960- 1974 5789 1777 0.307 0.252 1.220 19 Joe Medwick 1932-1948 7635 2471 0.324 0.266 1.210 20 Paul Waner 1926- 1944 9459 3152 0.333 0.275 1.210 21 Lou Gehrig 1923-1939 8001 2721 0.340 0.281 1.210 22 Bill Terry 1923-1936 6428 2193 0.341 0.282 1.210 23 Joe DiMaggio 1936-1951 6821 2214 0.325 0.269 1.210 24 Hank Aaron 1954-1975* 12093 3709 0.307 0.254 1.210 25 Jackie Robinson 1947- 1956 4877 1518 0.311 0.260 1.200

*Active player