I’m not a big baseball fan, but since I recently moved (back) to St. Louis I was keeping track of all the craziness that happened last night. Beyond the four games with wild card implications, though, apparently something else ‘crazy’ happened. Jose Reyes of the Mets bunted to get a hit in his first at-bat then pulled himself from the game in an attempt to preserve his lead for the batting title. Apparently this was a big deal; the writer of that linked article said ‘it stinks’ and this blog called it ‘weak’. But why?
The Scorecasting book has a section that discusses a study that found many more .300 batters than .299 batters than you would expect. While some of the discussion makes it sound like an effort-based effect (batters on the cusp of .300 try harder and hit more effectively), it is more likely a selection effect. As Phil pointed out, batters already at .300 probably don’t play their last game while batters who get a hit to move over .300 get pulled out to preserve the accomplishment. Batters under .300 who don’t get a hit keep playing and swing away until they break the barrier or the game ends. So if you’re a .299 batter on the last day of the season and you happen to get an early hit to break .300, you’ll stop playing and thus appear to have a better average than the .299 hitter who happens to not get that early hit and has to keep playing to try to catch up.
So it would seem to me that this kind of thing is the norm: players hit a big benchmark and then get pulled. Since the Mets (as well as their opponent) weren’t in any of the wild-card deciding games, I don’t see the harm. But people thought that Reyes’ decision was a poor one. In fact, the ESPN article says that Derek Jeter would never have done such a thing. I assume this has something to do with Jeter’s aura and the article being on ESPN’s New York site. The comparison didn’t make any sense to me otherwise until I read the Yahoo article, which points out that if Jeter had gotten a hit in his first at-bat yesterday, he would have been rounded up to .300. But he didn’t, and he in fact went 0-3.
So I guess we can ask the question, would Jeter in fact have pulled himself (or been pulled by his coach) had he gotten the hit? Some people apparently have the strength of will, the sportsmanship, or the sheer testicular fortitude to keep playing and risk their benchmark. Ted Williams was mentioned in both articles for playing both games of a double-header even though he already had the round-up mark of .400 in the bag. Of course, Williams’ legendary status is in part because he was the last person to hit .400 and he couldn’t have known at the time that would be the case. It had been a while (10 years) since anyone else had hit .400, but it was common enough in the ’20s. But Jeter is obviously a great man as well. Right?
I looked at Jeter’s stats to see if there were any seasons where he might have been tempted to pull himself to preserve a mark or swing away to get a mark. I already mentioned that he went 0-3 yesterday with a chance to hit .300; the game was arguably meaningless for the Yankees and he could have sat like A-Rod or Rivera. So it looks like maybe he was going for a personal record there. Jeter’s stats page also suggests that we could look at 2002 and 2008 for close calls with .300 and 1999 and 2006 for batting titles. (some info also from baseball-reference.com)
In 1999 Jeter was second in batting average to Nomar Garciaparra but trailed him by at least 6 points, and hadn’t been close for a while. Jeter didn’t even play the last game of the season.
In 2002 Jeter was at .297 entering his last game. The Yankees had 103 wins and were playing the Orioles, who had 67. The Yankees were playing for the best record, to be fair; they were tied with Oakland. But Jeter only got one hit in his five at-bats and lowered his average a bit; he also struck out and didn’t walk.
In 2006 Jeter entered the last day behind Joe Mauer for the batting title. The Yankees were already assured of the best record in the AL; they ended a game up on the Twins even though the Twins won their last game and the Yankees lost. The Yankees game started first and Jeter got a hit, but it still left him behind Mauer. Despite the Yankees playing for nothing, Jeter continued for nearly the whole game; he had two strike-outs and no walks and only got pulled after going 0-4 after his initial hit. Starting an hour after the Yankees, Mauer went 2-4.
In 2008 Jeter was at .301 with five games to go. The Yankees were already eliminated from playoff contention and Jeter had been hit by a pitch, so he missed two games. Jeter came back for the third game. It was against Boston and by winning the Yankees could insure that the Red Sox would only get the wild card, not win the division. Jeter went 0-2 before being subbed out and didn’t play either of the final two games, finishing the season at .300.
Ignoring 1999, when Jeter didn’t have a real chance of getting the batting title at the end of the season, there are four cases where he had a big benchmark to aim for. In three cases he was behind, batting nearly .300 in 2002 and this year and going for the batting title in 2006. In each case the Yankees weren’t playing for much. In each case Jeter didn’t get enough hits to get the goal but played anyway until it was obvious he wouldn’t. In the fourth case he was ahead; in 2008 Jeter neared the end of the season batting just over .300. The Yankees weren’t playing for anything and Jeter was a little banged up, so sitting him seems innocent. But he did come back for one game in the middle of his missed games streak against Boston and played just enough until .300 was threatened, then he was pulled. Obviously this isn’t conclusive proof that Jeter wasn’t sent from baseball heaven to teach us all How The Game Should Be Played, but it does fit very well with the view that players aim for benchmarks and will either swing away to get there or sit out to protect it. If even the mighty Derek Jeter could succumb to this temptation, maybe we should give Jose Reyes the benefit of the doubt?