Mystical pull of magical numbers
Benchmarks can be artificial or meaningless but people love them
No player in the last 25 years hitting .299 in his final at-bat had walked
Economists believe that artificial benchmarks are rooted in financial incentives
Last Wednesday night may have provided the most gripping and bizarre interval in baseball history. The Boston Red Sox couldn't close out the Baltimore Orioles ?and instead closed out one of the great collapses in modern memory. Shortly after that, the Rays then earned the wildest of wild cards, beating the Yankees (who writes this stuff, anyway?) on a 12th-inning walk-off home run. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves completed their convincing Red Sox impersonation, losing to the Phillies and gagging away their once-commanding lead, enabling the St. Louis Cardinals to sneak under the velvet rope and gain entry into the playoffs.
Yet the strangest occurrence of all last Wednesday may have happened during the Brewers-Pirates game in Milwaukee. The game itself was meaningless. The Brewers had long since clinched an appearance in the playoffs. The Pirates had long since assured themselves a record 19th straight losing season. But in the bottom of the seventh inning, Prince Fielder came to bat. Facing Brian Burress, a left-handed journeyman, Fielder walked. So what, you say?
Well, Fielder was batting .299.
In life, we have a thing about benchmarks. They may be fairly meaningless or artificial. But hitting them -- or sometimes avoiding them -- becomes exceedingly important. We see this in pricing all the time. Stories list items at $2,999.99 not $3,000.00; realtors list homes for $499,000 not $500,000; gas stations even sell gallons of fuel at $3.999, down to the nine-tenths of a cent. It's a negligible difference; but the psychic difference is huge. A student with a 3.00 grade-point-average is infinitely happier than the student with a 2.99. Researchers have shown that the students most likely to retake the SAT are the ones who score 990. Though the material difference is minimal, damn if they don't want to hit that 1,000 mark.
Baseball players are the same way. Batting .300 for a season is the ultimate benchmark. And players will stop at virtually nothing to get there. A pair of economists, Devin Pope at the University of Chicago and Uri Simonsohn at Wharton found that in the last quarter-century, no player batting .299 in his final at-bat of the season has ever drawn a walk. Again: In the last 25 years, no player batting .299 in his final at-bat of the season has ever drawn a walk. He would chase balls in the dirt and swing at pitches thrown furlongs outside the strike zone; anything to avoid those four balls, which, of course, would not move his average. And the strategy worked: those free-swinging .299 hitters batted almost .430 in their final plate appearance.
But then came the events of last Wednesday. Giving new zest to the phrase "Fielder's Choice," the Brewers first baseman took two pitches for balls. He swung and missed and the third. Then he took two more -- both of them errant 90 mph fastballs -- and trotted to first. He would never bat again in the 2011 regular season.
Here's what makes this even stranger: Economists believe that artificial benchmarks are often rooted in financial incentives. We have created a distinction in our minds. When we buy the $2,999.99 flat-screen we can tell our friends, "I paid less that three grand for it!" In baseball, there is a sizable financial incentive to hitting the .300 mark. Over 600 or so at-bats, the difference between .299 and .300 is comically small. A squib base hit, a bunt singles on a slick field, a charitable judgment by the official scorer. But it is worth roughly two percent of a player's salary. (We estimate it at $130,000, since players hitting .299 earn more than the $3.4 million median.)
Fielder -- as you've no doubt heard once or twice this season -- is a pending free agent. You'd think if there were one player who would like to arm himself with a .300 average for an upcoming wage negotiation, it would be this guy.
You could also argue, though, that Fielder is singularly lacking in economic incentives to hit .300. Here's an elite player, well-established, who's known more for his slugging than his average. He's hit 50 home runs in a season. In 2011, he clubbed 38, one off the National League lead. As a matter of ritual, he drives in 120 runs per season. He needs to bat .300 the way, say, Dwyane Wade needs to average 20 points a game in the NBA. It's a nice benchmark, sure. But it's not adding much to change a value that's already been established.
Besides, by becoming the first .299 hitter in a quarter-century to draw a walk in his last at-bat of the season, Fielder now can say he's established a different kind of milestone.