The last time a Phillie won the batting title, it took nothing short of a miracle.
During the final five days of the 1958 season, Richie Ashburn leapt from a .338 average to .350 by going 16 for 27 (.593) with 14 singles to overtake Willie Mays for the batting crown. Ashburn won it even though Mays went 24 for 43 (.558) in his final 10 games and batted .434 in September.
But it wasn’t just Mays who Ashburn was chasing. Going into the final week of the 1958 season Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks — all Hall of Famers in the prime of their careers — were in the hunt for the batting title. Musial went 9 for 17 in the final five games, but raised his average just three percentage points.
If the Phillies are going to have their first batting champion since Ashburn’s big finish in 1958, things could play out similarly. Ben Revere, batting .314, is two percentage points ahead of Colorado’s Justin Morneau and four points ahead of Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison.
Both players have a strong pedigree, with Morneau, the 2006 American League MVP, seemingly the favorite to win his first title.
However, like Ashburn up against a who’s who of the greatest hitters in baseball history, Revere has a few things working in his favor.
One aspect is that Revere is a hitter. He isn’t a slugger or even a player who hits balls into the gaps. Like Wee Willie Keeler and Pete Rose, Revere has an uncanny ability to hit the ball where they ain’t. A quick glance at Revere’s spray chart is a series of dots just beyond the infield dirt.
Revere doesn’t just hit ground balls with eyes — he hits grounders with all five senses. Anything off his bat with a hang time of more than one second typically finds a glove for an easy out.
With an at-bat/strikeout ratio at a league-best 12.7 and nearly twice as many grounders hit than fly balls, Revere makes things happen.
Ashburn was the same way. During his surge over the final week, Ashburn struck out just once in the final seven games and whiffed swinging just 19 times in 725 plate appearances. In 1958, Ashburn struck out just once in every 12.8 at-bats, though unlike Revere, hit more line drives and extra-base hits.
In 1958, Ashburn slugged .441 with a league-leading 13 triples. Revere has just 19 extra-base hits and hit his first big-league homer in May.
The biggest difference, however, was Ashburn’s eye. In 1958 he walked 97 times to lead the league. Combined with his league-leading 215 hits, Ashburn put together an amazing .440 on-base percentage. Unfathomably, Ashburn led the league in walks four times and averaged 89 walks per 162 games despite the fact that he hit just 29 homers in 15 major-league seasons. Like Revere, Ashburn was barely a threat to hit one to the warning track and there was no excuse for pitchers to feel afraid to pump fastballs up there against him.
Another similarity is Revere, like Ashburn was, is playing for a team going nowhere. The '58 Phillies won 69 games and finished last in the eight-team National League, 23 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Braves. Manager Mayo Smith was fired 84 games into the season and replaced by Eddie Sawyer as the last vestiges of the pennant-winning Whiz Kids team were headed away from Philadelphia.
The average age of the '58 Phils was 29.1 and the farm system was essentially bare. Only 23-year-old Dallas Green was knocking on the door at Triple A, where he anchored the rotation for top affiliate Miami with 51-year-old Satchel Paige. Meanwhile, mainstays like Chris Short and Art Mahaffey were in the low levels of the farm system, two years away from landing in Philly for good.
Revere’s Phillies are also in last place with 64 wins on a team with an average age of 31.3. Like fellow centerfielder Ashburn all those years ago, Revere has no one behind him looking to take his job. That means he will be atop the lineup with plenty of chances to squeak those grounders past the infielders for singles.
Indeed, the 2014 National League batting title might be Revere’s to win ... or lose.
As for why no Phillie has won a batting title in 56 years, that’s a true mystery.