It’s September first. There are about 20 games left in the MLB season. Tim Anderson is hitting .393 for a surprisingly competitive White Sox club, and DJ LeMahieu paces the division-leading Yankees at .390. For the first time in almost 30 years, baseball has a real race to .400...in fact it has two.
The catch of course, is that both players, two of the five or so best contact hitters in the game, have only played about 40 games at this point in the hypothetical. It’s 2020, an abbreviated season. Aside from the fact that nobody is going to hit .400 anyway, there’s still be a whole lot of consternation around what records look like in such a short season.
Another good example, and as Verducci says in that link, a more plausible one, is Bob Gibson’s ERA record of 1.12. Again, let’s visit our imaginary September 1, with Cole making another three or four starts and holding an ERA of 1.15. In both hypotheticals, the New York media would be overwhelmed. Every game would feature a running count on YES of the number of hits and ABs DJ would need to break .400. Every pregame show would show Jack Curry explaining how many innings Cole needs to work to have a shot at 1.12.
And y’know what? That’d be fun.
I know that’s a word that some people, and often MLB itself, doesn’t want attached to the game of baseball, but it would be! In the midst of a likely chaotic, unpredictable season, we’d see runs at records that have stood for decades. And as fans, we know they don’t mean as much in 2020, or at least, they mean something different.
If DJ LeMahieu finishes the season hitting .401, or Cole with a 1.10 ERA, we know it won’t mean as much as when Ted Williams hit .406 or Gibson’s 1968 campaign. Those two guys played 143 and 34 games respectively, and neither of our hypothetical Yankees will even manage half that. I won’t call these possible seasons illegitimate - “legitimate” is a made up, loaded concept - but they certainly won’t carry the same weight.
And that’s OK. They will still be all kinds of fun.
They’ll be fun because first of all, if a player is having a season THAT good, the team is probably winning a lot. When the guy at the top of the order is reaching base as often as our imaginary DJL is, and has bats like Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres behind him, the team is scoring boatloads of runs. If the ace of the staff has an ERA that low, the team isn’t allowing many runs. Both are recipes for success.
Second, it’s fun because it forces a numbers-obsessed sport to examine what it actually believes. Sabermetricians are often criticized for reducing the game to a series of 0s and 1s, and while there’s a kernel of truth in that, it’s often the most old-school of fans that cling to historical records - there aren’t a lot of teenagers who hold 4256 or 755 to be near-sacred. Do you actually care about the number, or do you care about the performances you saw, heard, and felt along the way to get to that number?
If DJ hits .401 or Cole pitches 1.10, we’re going to get some of those performances. There won’t be as many, and it certainly won’t be as hard as it was for the guys who have done it before. But it’s still going to be fun to see LeMahieu log three hits in a quarter of his games, or watch Cole notch enough shutout and one-run performances to get his ERA that low in the first place.
We’re about to experience something baseball hasn’t seen in a generation. Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint, except that now, it is a sprint. Lean into that, have fun with it. This season is going to have so many “asterisks” or separate contexts needed to explain it for posterity. You don’t need to add your own. Enjoy the wild, weird sample size aberrations that we’re inevitably going to get. We’ve been pining for baseball for months, this season really is better than nothing, so bring on the .400 hitter.