Numbers are strong motivators. Did your Johnny get a 1300 on the SAT? No? Just a 1290? Well in this hypothetical case, students are far more likely to retake the SAT if they finish below a “round number” then above one. Here is another example: The Association for Psychological Science found that runners were more likely to run another lap if they had run 19 laps than 20 laps. Also, cars are usually worth much more if the odometer is at 89,000 miles than at 90,000.
Is there a significant difference between a 1290 or 1300 on the SAT? Not at all. Yet people will go through a whole day of standardized testing just to reach their own self-determined goal, whether reaching that goal means anything or not. These arbitrary goals affect most of the decisions we make, whether it be retaking the SAT, running another lap on our morning jog, or buying that first used car.
However, let us focus on the odometer situation. Why is the car worth more at 89,000 miles than 90,000? This is because of the buyer’s fascination with “round numbers”. We can find this fascination also appear in baseball as well.
In baseball, round numbers dominate our relationship with statistics. Hall of Fame benchmarks usually include 300 wins, 500 home runs, 3000 strikeouts, and so on. Nevertheless, what about another elusive milestone, batting .300? The allure of batting .300 in a season is so strong that save for Prince Fielder in 2011, in the last 25 years, no player batting .299 in his final at-bat of the season has ever drawn a walk. Why does one point on someone’s batting average mean so much?
In baseball, there is a large financial incentive to hitting the .300 mark. Over 500 at-bats, the difference between .299 and .300 is comically small. A squib base hit, a bunt single on a slick field, or a judgment by the official scorer could cause one’s batting average to rise to .300. However, it is worth roughly two percent of a player’s salary. This ends up being about $130,000, just for one measly hit.
This means that even at the very top of the baseball organizations, general managers are swindled into paying extra for those players who inflated their average right to or slightly above the .300 mark. Even the most astute financiers of some of the most revenue-rich organizations in the United States manage to fall to the tricks of round numbers and batting average inflation.
For example, former Atlanta Braves third baseman Martin Prado was batting .302 going into final two games of last season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. If Prado were to go 0-5 (or worse) in the two game stretch, his average would dip below .300. What did manager Fredi Gonzalez do? Prado did not play in the penultimate game of the season. Moreover, on Game 162, Prado was replaced after going 0-1 with a sacrifice fly. Nobody really notices anything, and Prado finishes the season .301. Prado was traded in the off-season to the Diamondbacks as a part of the Justin Upton trade. Soon after the trade, Prado signed a 4 year, 40 million dollar contract with the Diamondbacks to avoid arbitration. The .301 season in 2012 might have saved Prado millions, whose agent could have said that Prado bounced back from his worst season (2011, .260 AVG, .302 OBP) and went back to hitting over .300 for the fifth time in his career.
As many of you may already know, Kenny Lofton was an amazing outfielder over the course of his career and was as efficient as a rookie in 1992 as he was in his final season with the Indians in 2007. You may also know that he is ineligible to be on the Hall of Fame ballot in the future because he did not meet the minimum 5% threshold for election. There are a number of great arguments for Kenny Lofton’s case for the Hall of Fame, at best summarized by Stephanie Liscio in her blog post about Lofton in January.
There are a number of theories on why Kenny Lofton only received 18 of the necessary 29 votes to be on the ballot again next year. There is shroud of steroid use all over the ballot, which Lofton vehemently denies ever using (he has never tested positive either). Cooperstown is also very exclusive when it comes to center fielders, which was discussed at length by Chris Jaffe here.
Many writers today will not look at his career batting WAR of 68.1, which is above the average batting Hall of Famer’s WAR. According to WAR, Lofton was 108 runs better than average on defense, which would place him among the 10 best defensive center fielders in history. Nevertheless, defense is hard to measure and many writers are ignorant to its effect on the game. It is hard to ignore Lofton’s defensive prowess when watching him rob B.J. Surhoff of this home run, one of the best defensive plays I have ever seen.
But one thing that Kenny Lofton did not do is bat .300. He hit .299 for his career (2428-8120). Lofton did not have on resume that he was a .300 hitter, and for some people .300 looks a lot damn better than .299. Had Kenny Lofton went 6-6 in additional plate appearances in his career, he would have a .2995 career batting average, good enough to be rounded up to .300. That single fact may have persuaded 11 of the 551 writers that did not vote for Lofton (roughly 2%) to put him on the ballot.
Now are the chances that Lofton would have received 75% of the vote at one point in his career very high? They are very slim in my eyes. Do I believe Lofton belongs in the Hall of Fame? Yes. Is his case strong? Not at all. Nevertheless, many factors out of Lofton’s control obstructed him from eventually making a better case for his Hall of Fame inclusion. We cannot know for certain, but it is plausible to say that getting those six extra hits could have changed the life of Kenny Lofton. If the most astute general managers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for one point on a batting average, it would be easy for 2% of HOF voters (mostly everyday sportswriters) to put Lofton on their ballot because of a .300 batting average.