Episode 9: July 30, 2010
Why do we care if a batter hits .300 or a pitcher wins 20 games? How have these arbitrary milestones become so important to baseball fans? And, more importantly, how do they affect the players and the game itself? Is there a better way to quickly summarize a player’s accomplishments?
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
A few weeks ago Andruw Jones hit his 400th major league home run. Then he said, and this is a quote, "I'm just happy to get it over with."
"I'm just happy to get it over with," like he just passed a kidney stone. Andruw, you're a Major League Baseball player and you just hit your 400th home run. Enjoy it!
I'm Alex Reisner...
The full quote is: "Four hundred is great. It's a good milestone to get. A lot of people don't get there. But I'm just happy to get it over with and look forward to just going out there and having success and helping this team get to the playoffs."
Why was this home run so apparently unenjoyable? Jones started the season fast, hitting 9 home runs in the first month. Then he didn't hit his 10th until a month later (June 3), and his next came another month later (July 6). At that point he had 399 career so maybe he thought he'd have to wait another month, until mid-August, for the 400th, but it came 5 days later, on June 11th. So maybe that's why Jones was relieved to "get it over with."
Another reason he might have been glad to be past it is because of the media attention being a distraction to the team. Players often talk about this while they're approaching a milestone. But, if you're on the White Sox, the only MLB team with their own reality TV show, a once-great struggling outfielder stumbling towards 400 home runs is just not the biggest story on the team.
But of course there's another possible reason Jones was glad to get it over with: maybe milestones are stressful. Maybe personal stat maintenance is a real burdon on baseball players, especially when it comes to round numbers, the so-called "milestones" like a .300 average or 20 pitcher wins. Al Kaline and Andres Galarraga both ended up with 399 career home runs. They just couldn't get that last one to get them in the 400 home run club.
But what's the difference? Aren't Kaline and Galarraga pretty much as good as Duke Snider, who hit 407 homeruns? Or Darrell Evans who hit 414? If you think there shouldn't be such a distinction between 400 HR-hitters and sub 400-home run hitters, where do you draw the line? What about Dale Murphy with 398? Joe Carter with 396? Graig Nettles with 390? Where do you draw the line?
Maybe you don't draw a line. Maybe drawing the line is exactly the problem, because you always exclude someone who's close but not quite there. You can't lower it to include that one other guy, because there's always someone else. And you can't talk about the "397 HR Club" because people will think you're an idiot. And that's the bottom line, really. We think in terms of these milestones which are really just artifacts of our base-10 number system. We know it's not really reasonable, but it's so much a part of how we think about numbers in general, we just can't help it.
One of the most exclusive clubs in baseball is the 40-40 Club, which is also one of the most ridiculous. 40 HRs and 40 SBs in a season. What's so important about getting 40 of each? What does it prove? If it was the 35-40 Club Bobby Bonds and Eric Davis would have done it before Canseco. Are they significantly worse power/speed guys than Canseco? Maybe 40-40 isn't really the ideal combination. Isn't a home run more valuable to the team than a stolen base? Maybe it's more valuable to be 35-40. Or 30-40. It's kind of like a triple-double in basketball: double digits in points, rebounds, and assists, but 10 rebounds are worth so much more than 10 points in a game, it doesn't really make any sense. Maybe it would be more valuable to know who scored 15 points, got 10 assists and 8 rebounds...
Anyway, my point is, these milestones are totally arbitrary. They don't come from the sport, they're imposed on it without any good reason. Baseball wasn't designed so that being a .300 hitter was good. Baseball was invented, people played it...at some point we started keeping track of batting averages, and at some point later people started to realize that there weren't a lot of batters hitting over .300, so that became the mark to beat. There weren't a lot of batters hitting over .307 either, but we don't like numbers like .307 because they look stupid, so the round numbers win.
*Relative* milestones like leading the league in wins or batting average seem somewhat more meaningful because they are more organic--they grow out of the simple facts of the game and the season: there are two pitchers in a game, one gets the win one gets the loss; there are a lot of batters, each on gets hits sometimes and not other times... And you can compare all these counts among players. If a player gets more hits than any other player, that seems significant to me. Whether he had 199 or 200 hits doesn't seem so significant.
I think you all know this. I don't really think I'm telling you anything you don't already know. But what's amazing is how hard it is not to think like this. I think the reason is that there's so much information that we need a way to quickly put numbers in context when we hear them. So if a batter hits .300 we know he gets a lot of hits. If he hits 40 home runs we know he hits for power. If he steals 50 bases we know he's pretty fast. This is a lot easier than remembering that Jose Reyes stole 64 bases one year and he was pretty fast, and Prince Fielder never stole more than 7 and so-and-so who was pretty average stole 26... It's much easier to remember just one number.
And yes, Prince Fielder really did steal 7 bases in his rookie season.
But here's where it gets really weird: these benchmarks have become more than just convenient mental shortcuts--they affect the game itself because players want to get to certain numbers.
There are stories about players sitting out or playing games at end of season for the purpose of reaching a milestone, the most famous being Ted Williams' 1941 season in which he played the last game out of fear that his .400 average was really .399. This story can't be confirmed but it's certainly not the only one like it and while it may not be true there are others that certainly are. There's also the fact that Williams did NOT win the MVP award in 1941 despite hitting .406 and winning the triple crown. Joe DiMaggio won it because he had a 56-game hitting streak, which, while it's not exactly a milestone, is more a numeric feat than a baseball feat. By which I mean: Williams' had a higher batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and hit more home runs during DiMaggio's streak, so he probably contributed more to his team than DiMaggio did, even during that famous run.
There are also cases where pitchers have been given extra starts or even used in relief when going for their 20th win of the season. Bobo Newsom and Rip Sewell both got their 20th wins in relief in 1940, as did Jim Bunning in 1957, and Randy Johnson in 1997. And there have been other guys like John Smiley in 1990 who got their 18th or 19th win in relief, en route to a 20-win season.
Then there's Edwin Jackson a few weeks ago being left in a game way longer than he normally would have because he was on the verge of pitching a no-hitter. He was so wild that he walked 8 batters and would have given up a run if not for a great defensive play by Mark Reynolds, but no-hits is no-hits. It's not that much better than a one-hitter but a no-hitter is big news, and a one-hitter isn't. D'Backs manager A.J. Hinch let Jackson throw 149 pitches and I'm sure in some way was probably wishing Jackson would give up a hit so he could take him out of the game. As it turned out Hinch took some heat for his decision when Jackson's arm felt sore the following week. Of course he probably would have taken more heat if he had taken Jackson out of the game with a possible no-hitter in the works.
But to me the most shocking facts are these:
In baseball history there are more pitcher 20-win seasons than 19-win seasons!
In baseball history there are more batter-seasons with an average of .300-.303 than with .296-.299.
In other words, with milestones, more guys just make it than just miss it. A lot of people have tried to explain this phenomenon, but I've never read anything totally convincing. Can players really turn it up a notch when they want to hit a mark? Do opponents get nervous and play worse? Extra appearances for pitchers and fewer appearances for batters explain some, but not all of the discrepancies. I'll leave it up to you to speculate.
Finally there's this. Hitting 500 home runs has for a long time been considered an automatic entry into the Hall of Fame. Every eligible player with 500 home runs is in the Hall of Fame. Fred McGriff ended his career with 493 home runs, and 10 hits short of 2500. 2010 was Fred McGriff's first year on the ballot at he got 21.5% of the votes. In case you're not familiar with HOF voting: that's not very good. That's less than half as many votes as Barry Larkin, who was injured so often he only qualified for the league leaderboards in half the years he played. Fred McGriff didn't hit 500 home runs, but he hit exactly as many home runs as Lou Gehrig. Now that's an accomplishment. 500 might be the traditional milestone, but sometimes just comparing numbers with other players can tell you so much more.
Andruw Jones is only 33 years old and he has more home runs than Joe Carter, Dale Murphy, Al Kaline, and Andres Galarraga. To me, *that's* the real story. That's the substance. That's what tells you how good Andruw Jones is. And I think we all know that, somehow. But still we just can't ignore those numbers that end with zero.
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