.300 Ain't What It Used To Be
Editor’s note: We’re resending this out because a photo of Tony Gwynn’s son ran in the original version of this piece.
OK, we all know that batting average isn’t the best analytical tool when it comes to determining a player’s value. Our pal Tom Tango will tell you that purely in terms of value, batting average is actually meaningless. It adds nothing whatsoever. He will say that if you know a player’s on-base percentage and slugging percentage, then batting average might give you a sense of the player’s STYLE but it will not offer anything new about the player’s WORTH.
Not everyone agrees with Tom, of course, but I tend to trust his analytical chops.
So for the sake of this essay, let’s assume he’s right. Let’s assume that on-base percentage and slugging percentage tell you what you need to know in terms of a batter’s contribution to scoring runs and batting average, in and of itself, only matters in terms of style points. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll once again show you his Don Mattingly vs. Darryl Strawberry comparison.
Here are their age 21-29 seasons:
The compelling number at the time — and to this day — was Mattingly’s batting average. He had 54-point edge over Strawberry in batting average, and thus Donnie Baseball was widely regarded as one of the best, perhaps even the best, hitter in baseball, while Straw was generally viewed as a disappointment.
But by pure value, Strawberry was — as their on-base and slugging percentages suggest — at least the equal of Mattingly. This is fairly easily explained: Mattingly’s 300 or so extra singles are certainly worth quite a lot more than Strawberry’s 300 or so extra walks. But Strawberry makes up the difference (and then some) because his 111 extra home runs easily trump Mattingly’s 79 extra doubles.
But now let’s talk about style points for a minute because those matter. A lot.
Baseball is at its best, in my view, when there is a balance between Mattingly and Strawberry, between high-average gap hitters and low-average sluggers, when you have different sorts of hitters contributing in different ways. It may be true that a .236/.350/.500 hitter is every bit as valuable as a .310/.350/.500 hitter, but that doesn’t make them the same. Baseball needs variety. Life needs variety.
I miss the .300 hitters.
I was thinking about this as I looked over the 2023 ZIPS and Steamer projects. Zips has only three players across baseball projected to hit .300. They are: