The legend goes that Cap Anson, asked what he'd like his tombstone to say, replied, " I guess one line will be enough: 'Here lies a man that batted .300.'"
There are three reasons we care, for our purposes today, about Anson's response. The first is the throat-clearing opener: "one line will be enough." Anson had one of the game's most extraordinary and complicated major league baseball careers. He was baseball's first superstar, rapped 3,435 hits, won five pennants and almost 1,300 games as a manager, and played a prominent and despicable role in preserving segregation in the sport. A book could probably be written about any one of his 27 seasons. In his estimation, one line would be enough. That's how powerful "batted .300" has been in baseball.
The second is that, according to the official record, Anson batted .334. That is considerably higher than .300! In fact, to be extra obvious about it, it's as different from .300 as .266 is. Just a few more than 200 players have ever hit .300 over a career; barely 20 have hit .334. Anson, though, chose the lower number as his life's greatest achievement. That's how powerful the round number is.
Third is the timing. As we're going to get into in a minute, it's very important to know when "batted .300" became a thing. Was it when Joe Garagiola said that Stan Musial could have hit .300 with a fountain pen? Or when Gene Mauch pulled Johnny Callison from the lineup late in the season so Callison could "go through the winter thinking of himself as a .300 hitter"? When Ted Williams used it as the pretext for his statement that hitting a baseball is the hardest challenge in sport? Thanks to Anson -- possibly apocryphal Anson -- we can place it much earlier.
The reason we care about these three things is that "batted .300" is old and tiring. Batting average has been replaced in most analysis; WAR, a stat that tries to accomplish everything -- "one line will be enough" -- is ascendant, along with any number of other advanced stats. For a player like Mike Trout -- who hit .299 after grounding out in his final at-bat of the 2015 season -- stardom depends, at least in part, on the public awareness of, acceptance of, idolization of certain statistical benchmarks. "Batted .300" is going away, but nothing has taken its place. What are the new equivalents?
What we mean by batted .300
Batting .300 says something different in every era. In 1968, batting .300 (.301, to be exact) was enough to lead the AL in hitting, while in 1930 there were 76 different .300 hitters as the National League hit .303 as a circuit. Nobody means "batted .300" to mean someone "was league average." Nor do they mean it as "best hitter alive."
Thanks to Anson, we can place the rough era during which .300 became a notable milestone. "At some point in the 1880s," says John Thorn, MLB's official historian, ".300 came to be seen as a good barometer of batting skill, as no National League club had batted .300 between 1877 and 1892.* The .300 mark survived as a watermark for good hitting even after the 1894 campaign, when NL hitters averaged .309."
According to premodern stats kept at Baseball-Reference.com, there were 429 hitters who batted .300 or better between 1871 and 1890, an era during which the league's batting average was .260. That's out of almost 2,000 qualifying hitters, so .300 represented 22 percent of full-time batters.
"My biggest regret was letting my lifetime average drop below .300," Mickey Mantle once said. He added, "it made me want to cry."
Remarkably, .300 remains almost exactly the same standard -- statistically -- today. Over the past 20 years, 23 percent of qualifying hitters have batted .300. Over the past 40 years, 22 percent have. The league has batted .262 in that time.
So we have a threshold that captures the top 22 percent, a standard that matches pretty well with the other "round numbers" of offense: About 19 percent of regulars have hit 30 home runs over the past two decades, and over 20 percent have driven in 100 runs. Last year: 25 percent reached 30 homers, 15 percent reached 100 RBIs and 17 percent batted .300.
There's one more bit of evidence that "top 20 percent" is significant. You might have read before that hitters seem to "target" .300, with roughly twice as many players batting .300 on the nose than .299 on the nose. This phenomenon is due mostly to players coming out of games on the last day of the season when there's a .300 to protect and staying in games (and swinging away) when they're sitting on .299. It might, to some degree, be due to extra focus and motivation, as hitters in the final game of the season seem to hit (a little bit) better when .300 is on the line than when, say, .295 or .305 are on the line. But regardless of why this phenomenon exists, is the fact that it does.
We can look from era to era to see whether hitters "target" .300 more aggressively when .300 is in the top-20 percent range. For instance, in the 1920s, when the league's batting average was .285, and nearly half of all batters topped .300, there is no evidence of targeting. Breaking the past 116 years into rough offensive "eras," we can see that targeting was nonexistent when .300 got too common. It wasn't just the roundness of the number, but the relative exclusivity of it.
So, then: We're looking for modern stats that equate to, roughly, the top 20 or 22 percent of major league regulars.
What means what we mean but does it better?
Nobody would say that any stat, including WAR, can really include everything a player does. But the framework is designed to include everything measurable, and to adapt to each new area of the game that becomes measurable. To the extent that one line would be enough, WAR aspires to be that one line.
#Angels Mike Trout averaged 9.69 WAR per 162 games played for his career. Only one player in history is better: Babe Ruth at 10.56 WAR/162.
— Ryan M. Spaeder (@theaceofspaeder) November 17, 2016
There are, over the past two decades, 697 players who have hit .300 while batting enough to qualify for the batting title. The 697th best WAR over the past 20 years is 4.6 -- Jason Giambi's 2005 season, when he led the AL in OBP and finished 18th in MVP voting. Put a pin in that number for a second.
A this-much-WAR-means-you're-good standard, unlike the same one for batting average, should be especially resilient from year to year, era to era, because the components of WAR are themselves adjusted for the offensive environment of the era. In other words, .300 meant a lot more in 1968 than it did in 1930, but batting runs -- the offensive portion of WAR -- are park and era adjusted for each year. Watch:
Bill Terry, 1930: .401 batting average, 1.071 OPS, 60 batting runs
Carl Yastrzemski, 1968: .301 batting average, .922 OPS, 56 batting runs
So, if we were to settle on 4.6 WAR as our equivalent to batting .300, it should be era-proof in a way that batting average wasn't, and the same percentage of hitters should reach it. Let's see.
Alas, steadiness is thwarted by the shorter seasons of yesteryear -- it's harder to build up counting stats in a 140- or 154-game season -- but we see a pretty steady rate, especially in the 162-game era, at or around 22 percent. So that's good.
Other more advanced stats' 22 percent thresholds:
.375 on-base percentage (Paul Konerko, 2005)
.876 OPS (Grady Sizemore, 2008)
129 OPS-plus (Scott Rolen, 2002)
23.3 WAR runs batting (Moises Alou, 1997)
2.61 win probability added (Nomar Garciaparra, 1997)
So there we go: A .300/30/100 season in the modern age can be easily identified by these new, dope numbers: a 4.6 WAR season with an .876 OPS and 2.61 WPA. The ol' 4.6/.876/2.61 line. Such a cool line. Put it on my headstone: Here Lies A Man Who Went 4.6/.876/2.61.
This is a problem.
But why doing it better does it worse
Economists call it the left-digit effect, for the disproportionate emphasis we put on the leftmost digit (the 1 in $1.99) instead of the rightmost digits (.99). Or they call it the round-number bias. It distorts our impression of numbers and makes us do silly things. SAT test takers who score 990, 1090, 1190, etc. are more likely to retake the test than those whose score is a round number (1000, 1100, 1200), for instance. Hitters batting .300 are more likely to take the last game of the season off than hitters batting .299. Our numbers, in this way, are social constructs -- or, at least, the significance we attach to them is, dependent on the number of fingers humans have and the base 10 counting system we use.
At least some of the reason that .300/30/100 took on such significance had nothing to do with whether they represented 22 or 20 or 18 percent of the population, but everything to do with how pretty they are. Our new thresholds are not pretty.
"So there we go: A .300/30/100 season in the modern age can be easily identified by these new, dope numbers: a 4.6 WAR season with an .876 OPS and 2.61 WPA. The ol' 4.6/.876/2.61 line. Such a cool line. Put it on my headstone: Here Lies A Man Who Went 4.6/.876/2.61."
We can make them prettier: 5 is no 10, but it sure beats 4.6, and .900 is no 1.000, but has a pleasantness to it nevertheless. (A .300/.400/.500 slash line has always struck us as one of baseball nature's prettiest productions, but it's too rare -- less than 2 percent of qualified hitters -- to replace .300.) Here Lies A Man Who Had 5 WAR would cover 18 percent of hitters in a given year. That's a higher standard than the founders appear to have intended with their tombstones, but maybe that's appropriate: There are also many more teams, larger rosters, more roster churn -- a much larger denominator now.
"My biggest regret was letting my lifetime average drop below .300," Mickey Mantle once said. He added, "it made me want to cry." With the 5-WAR standard, Mantle wouldn't have needed to worry. A nice, extended peak of, say, a dozen 5-WAR seasons would put a player on the cusp of the Hall of Fame. (Mantle averaged 6 WAR over the span of 18, including his decline years.)
On a seasonal basis, it passes the sniff test: Twenty-six players had 5.0 WAR or more last year, including George Springer, on the nose; David Ortiz, 5.1; DJ LeMahieu, 5.2; and Christian Yelich, 5.3. Those seem like seasons worth preserving.
Are they worth preserving much more than those of Miguel Cabrera, Starling Marte and Justin Turner at 4.9 apiece? Not really. Perhaps it'd be nice to take batting average's slide toward irrelevance as an opportunity to kill the round-number bias in our sports narratives and insist that every fan embrace all the complex ambiguity contained in twos and sevens and eights and get rid of the idea that one line will ever be enough.
It's unlikely we'd succeed. "Batted .300" didn't take off because a bureaucrat declared it so, but because our simpleton human brains had a deep longing to make complex things simpler, boring things more dramatic and numbers into narratives. As long as nature is still making our brains the same way, we're all going to keep seeking a round number to tell us something special happened. All hail the 5-WAR player.
*Thorn follows up: "Nerdily, I point out that my statement about BAs 1877-92 does not include 1887's counting of walks as hits." As long as we're being specific: We used Baseball-Reference.com's model of WAR throughout this piece.