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What is the new .300? How to read a 21st century baseball card

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Being a .300 hitter was once so important, Cap Anson wanted it inscribed on his tombstone. But now, with stats like WAR, WPA and OPS, what should today’s hitters aim for? We have the answer. 

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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. But, in his estimation, one line would be enough. That’s how powerful “batted .300” has been in baseball.

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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.

And 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. And 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.”

But, 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, 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.”

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