Bryan Goldberg, my cousin, asked me which MLB right-handed (RH) hitter—who started his big-league career from 1946 on—had the highest career batting average (AVG)? My correct answer was Kirby Puckett’s .3181 AVG, for the 1984-1995 Minnesota Twins. Puckett has the 53rd highest MLB AVG all-time. Thus, 20 RH hitters and 32 left-handed (LH) hitters, with at least 1,000 MLB games—hit better than .3181. (Four digits are used in most of this analysis.) Only two of the Top 10 all-time MLB AVG leaders batted right-handed: #2 Rogers Hornsby (.3585) and #5 Ed Delahanty (.3458). LH-hitting Ty Cobb (.3662) was #1 and LH Babe Ruth (.3421) was #10, per https://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/batting_avg_career.shtml
Who are the other nine (9) MLB RH-hitters on a Top 10 list of highest careers AVG, with post-1945 career start. From #2 through #10, we have: Vladimir Guerrero Sr. at .3176; Roberto Clemente’s .3173; Miguel Cabrera’s .3146; José Altuve’s .3145; Nomar Garciaparra’s .3127; Manny Ramírez’s .3122; Edgar Martínez’s .3115; Jackie Robinson’s .3113; and Derek Jeter’s .3095. Jeter was 109th overall on the MLB all-time AVG list through 2019. Of the top 109 hitters for AVG, 61 or 56.0 percent batted LH; 46 or 42.2 percent, hit RH; and two (1.8 percent) were switch-hitters. Part I will focus on the Top Five RH hitters for AVG, post-1945 start.
Kirby Puckett #1
Puckett’s Minnesota career slash line was .3181/.360/.477, with a .837 OPS. His SABR bio by Stew Thornley is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/abfa93df. He earned two World Series rings in 1987 and 1991. Puckett was a 10x AL All-Star; 6x Silver SLG winner; and 6x Gold Glove (GG) winner. He led the AL in hits 4x (1987-89 and 1992). His .339 AVG in 1989 and 112 RBIs in 1994—a strike season—led the AL. The 2x TB champ had a league-best 27 grounded into double plays (GIDP) in 1991. Thornley’s SABR bio mentioned how helpful Twins coach Tony Oliva was with Puckett, in 1986, as well as the confidence Twins skipper Ray Miller deposited in Puckett. Shortly after the 1986 All-Star Game (where Puckett started for the first time), Miller called Puckett into his office and said, “You’re my number 3 [line-up] hitter.” Puckett asked: “Isn’t that the spot for the team’s best hitter?” Miller responded: “You’re my best hitter.”
Puckett’s build reminded some fans, including myself, of Jimmy Wynn, the “Toy Cannon.” Back in 1967, Orlando Cepeda introduced me to Wynn at a baseball-related event at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. My only meeting with Puckett was a brief “hello, how are you” from each of us, when our paths crossed pre-March 1993 Florida spring training game. The 5’8” Puckett—inducted in Cooperstown in 2001—was stocky, and looked like someone who lifted weights. He was a team leader who excelled in the clutch. In his two World Series, Puckett’s 14 games revealed 52 AB, nine runs, 16 hits, one double, two triples, two HR, seven RBIs, two SB-to-one CS, and a .308/.393/.519 slash line and .913 OPS. And Puckett’s .356 AVG in 1956 was the highest AL AVG by a RH hitter since Joe DiMaggio’s .357 AVG in 1941!
Vladimir Guerrero Sr. #2
The 2018 Cooperstown inductee made his MLB debut for Montreal, managed by Felipe Alou, September 19, 1996. Guerrero starred for 1996 Class AA Harrisburg Senators, Eastern League champs. Pat Kelly, Harrisburg’s skipper, stated Guerrero “was a natural hitter, with a tremendous raw talent.” Coincidentally, José Vidro from Puerto Rico was Guerrero’s teammate with Harrisburg and Montreal. Guerrero, a native of Nizao Baní, Dominican Republic, who does not communicate in English, gave his Cooperstown Hall of Fame induction speech in Spanish. He was a fifth-grade dropout and uncomfortable with the media, per his SABR bio by Cosme Vivanco, at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/dfacd030.
His first MLB 30-30 season was in 2001, with 34 HR and 37 SB for Montreal. In 2002, he smashed 39 HR and stole 40 bases! He led the NL with 23 IBB in 2000 and 24 GIDP in 2001. Frank Robinson managed Guerrero in 2002 and 2003, when Montreal played 22 games per season at Puerto Rico’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Guerrero helped the Expos contend for the 2003 wild card, before he signed a free agent deal with the 2004 Anaheim Angels. And Guerrero was 2004 AL MVP after his .337/.391/.598 slash line, with 39 HR, 126 RBIS, 366 TB, and 5.6 wins above replacement (WAR). Guerrero enjoyed playing for Angels manager Mike Scioscia, 2004-09. (Scioscia caught for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Republic, 1979-80 and 1980-81, and appreciated the fans’ enthusiasm and baseball talent on that island.)
A 9x All-Star (four: Montreal, four: Angels, and one: Texas), Guerrero was an 8x Silver SLG winner: Expos (3); Angels (4); Rangers (1). He led the NL with 206 hits in 2002; scored 100+ runs 6x; had 10 seasons of 100+ RBIs. In all, he played 15 full seasons plus nine games in 1996. He is one of two MLB players [Garry Templeton is the other] whose IBB were one-third of his total walks. Guerrero’s 250 IBB out of 737 BB, equaled 33.9 percent. He was a 5x IBB leader, four with the Angels; once—Montreal). His MLB slash line was .3176/.379/.553, with .931 OPS.
Roberto Clemente #3
Much has been written of Roberto Clemente’s positive qualities. His 1973 induction in Cooperstown is well documented plus MVP recognition in the 1971 World Series, 1966 NL MVP, 12 GG, and .3226 AVG, rounded to .323, in 14 All-Star Games (10-for-31). He used the basket catch, as did Willie Mays, his 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers teammate. Clemente’s 14 World Series games in 1960 and 1971 produced 58 AB, four runs, 21 hits, two doubles, one triple, two HR, seven RBIs, and a .362/.383/.534 slash line, and .918 OPS, nearly identical to Puckett’s .913 World Series OPS. Clemente—from Carolina, Puerto Rico—played for Santurce, Caguas, and San Juan. This league, since 2012, is the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League. Clemente’s lifetime AVG in Puerto Rico was .324 (.3239), with 621 hits in 1,917 AB. He posted a .327 AVG (16 hits/49 AB) in two Caribbean Series events with Santurce, February 1955, and Caguas, February 1958. His 29 TB in the Caribbean Series resulted in a .592 SLG.
The 2x World Series champ and 4x NL batting champion led the NL in hits (1964 and 1967), triples (12) in 1969, and, GIDP twice: 21 in 1960, and 24 in 1963. Clemente and Guerrero were free swingers who put the ball in play frequently. (RH hitters have a higher proportion of GIDP, versus LH hitters.) Clemente’s 18 Pittsburgh seasons reflected 2,433 games, 9,454 AB, 1,416 runs, 3,000 hits, 440 doubles, 166 triples, 240 HR, 1,305 RBIs, 83 SB, 46 CS, 621 walks, 1,230 strikeouts, 4,492 TB—14 fewer than Guerrero—275 GIDP (two less than Guerrero), 35 HBP, 36 SH, 66 SF, and 167 IBB. Twenty-seven of these IBB came in 1968, when Clemente led the NL. His SABR bio (Stewart Thornley) is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/8b153bc4.
Clemente’s 3,000th hit on September 30, 1972, came against LHP Jon Matlack of the Mets, who also pitched for the 1971-72 San Juan Senators, a team managed by Bill Virdon. Matlack (7-2, 3.12 ERA with San Juan) noted: “Puerto Rico was an important piece of the puzzle that helped me become the pitcher I ended up being.” He was aware of Clemente’s connection to San Juan; Clemente managed the 1970-71 Senators and attended some 1971-72 contests. Ken Brett, 8-3, 3.00 ERA for Clemente’s 1970-71 Senators, relayed this to me when we conversed in 1993:
“He [Clemente] was a wonderful man and a great player, but as far as running a game, he didn’t do a great job. He had a very short temper at times about the way we played, because let’s face it, he took it very seriously. It was his team and he was going to get the credit or blame for how the team played.” Ken Brett witnessed Clemente’s final regular season hit in Puerto Rico, a single off Juan Veintidós, of the Mayagüez Indios, per fine research by Jorge Colón Delgado. I met Clemente at a 1966 baseball clinic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, shared by San Juan and Santurce. He was serious and focused, yet pleasant and insightful communicating with attendees.
Miguel Cabrera #4 and José Altuve #5
Venezuela produced the fourth-and-fifth best career RH hitters for AVG, post-1945 MLB start, and pre-2020 MLB season—Miguel Cabrera, .3146, and José Altuve, .3145, both active with Detroit and Houston, respectively. Miguel Dupouy, a Venezuelan blogger and baseball historian, has written extensively about current and past baseball stars from his country, for example: http://beisbolinmortal.blogspot.com/2015/11/miguel-cabrera-jose-altuve-y-carlos.html. Dupouy noted that Cabrera won his sixth Silver SLG prize on November 12, 2015, as a first baseman, four with Detroit. Cabrera led the AL with a .338 AVG and .440 OBP in 2015. Altuve, a second baseman, also won a 2015 Silver SLG prize. Venezuela, perhaps, is best known for shortstops, e.g., Luis Aparicio, Omar Vizquel, David Concepción, and others. The 2015 AL All-Star team had Altuve at second and Alcides Escobar at short, per http://purasbolaseneldeporte.blogspot.com/2018/05/la-combinacion-short-segunda-de.html.
Miguel Cabrera, age 36, is from Maracay. His 17-year MLB career includes 720 games with the Florida Marlins (2003-07) and 1,680 with Detroit, 2008-2019. The 2x AL MVP (2012-13) is also a 2x AL leader in doubles; 2x HR leader (2008 and 2012), 2x RBIs king—2010 and 2012; 3x batting champ (2011, 2013, 2015); 4x OBP king (2011-11, 2013, 2015); 2x SLG winner (2012-13); 2x OPS leader (2012-13); and 2x TB winner (2008 and 2012). Cabrera also led the AL in GIDP in 2012 with 28, and in 2016 with 26, and 11 SF in 2014. His 2,815 hits are in 2,400 games, and include 577 doubles, 17 triples, and 477 HR. Cabrera’s 1,694 RBIs reflect about 100 RBIs, on average, per season. His slash line is .3146/.392/.543, with a .935 OPS.
Cabrera, the 2012 AL Triple Crown Winner, .330 AVG, 44 HR, and 139 RBIs, is a 7x Silver SLG winner and 11x All-Star. He won a 2003 World Series ring as a rookie with the Marlins, under Jack McKeon; and played in the 2012 World Series for Detroit, managed by Jim Leyland. He led the Marlins to a seven-game NLCS win over the Chicago Cubs, with a .333/.394/.633 slash line and 1.027 OPS. He hit great, for Detroit, in the 2011 ALCS versus Texas, with three HR and seven RBIs in six games; a .400/.556/1.05 slash line and 1.606 OPS.
Cabrera’s nine (9) winter league seasons with the Aragua Tigers comprised 1999-2000 to 2007-08, with four Venezuelan League titles. Cabrera went from a 2003 World Series title versus the New York Yankees to his first one with 2003-04 Aragua. He got key hits in the league finals,
after playing 15 regular season games–.327 AVG, .577 SLG, four HR (52 AB). His nine-year Venezuelan regular season stats include 170 games, 594 AB, 89 runs, 181 hits, 34 doubles, three triples, 20 HR, 93 RBIs, two SB, .305 AVG, and .473 SLG. In 125 post-season games, he had 452 AB; scored 92; produced 157 hits, including 33 doubles/29 HR; drove in 108. His .347 AVG and .613 SLG, in post-season play, were outstanding. Please see http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/mostrar.php?ID=cabrmig001.
José Altuve, age 29, is just five feet, six, but was MLB’s best second baseman of the past decade. In nine seasons, 2011-19, he was a 6x All-Star, the 2017 AL MVP, and a 5x Silver SLG champ, 2015-19. He led the AL in hits four straight years (2014-17); in SB twice, 2014-15; won a 2015 GG; and is a 3x AL batting title holder. In 10 post-season series with Houston, he has played 50 games, with a .290/.345/.527 slash line and .872 OPS. His 13 HR and 29 post-season RBIs are impressive, including the walk-off HR he hit off Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees, to send the Astros to the 2019 World Series. He earned a 2017 World Series ring when Houston bested the Los Angeles Dodgers. Altuve’s regular season career stats include a .3145/.364/.463 slash line and .827 OPS. He can hit HR—31 in 2019, in 500 AB, and steal bases: 56 in 2014 and 38 in 2015. His MLB career shows 128 HR and 254 SB.
Altuve benefited from winter ball with the Magallanes Navigators, 2010-11 through 2012-13. In 2010-11, he batted .284 and stole five bases, in 42 games. The next winter, he played 60 contests, going 82-for-242, a .339 AVG, two HR and 35 RBIs, plus 10 SB. And in 2012-13, he posted a .336 AVG, 48-for-143, with one HR and 27 RBIs, in 35 games. In three Venezuelan League seasons, he played in 137 games, with 540 AB, 64 runs, 174 hits, 38 doubles, four triples, three HR, 76 RBIs, 23 SB, 6 CS, 37 BB, 70 strikeouts, .322/.368/.424 slash line.
With thanks to former players’ Ken Brett (deceased) and Jon Matlack; manager Pat Kelly; Jorge Colón Delgado, “The Authority,” official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League; and, Miguel Dupouy, for his blogs and expertise on baseball players from Venezuela.