Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Do We Care About 20 Game Winners

Rob Neyer asked a valid question this morning on his Sweet Spot blog. The question was: Why are you obsessed with twenty wins? Neyer goes on to point out that twenty wins isn't appreciably different than nineteen wins. No, it isn't. But that's why we're baseball fans. In a numbers-driven game, we obsess about these milestones. We can't help ourselves.

It's hard to say when all these milestones became so ingrained into the immortal baseball fans' psyche. We just know what we want. 49 homers isn't really anything different from 50 in value. But we all want Bautista to get to 50, right? Sabathia was always a great pitcher, but he never won 20. Now he has. In our fan minds, we equate that with success.  We remember that Ron Guidry won 20 games four times. We don't remember how many times he won 17.

Thirty stolen bases and thirty homers isn't any different than 29 stolen bases and 31 homers. But we don't have a 29/31 club. We have a 30/30 club and a 40/40 club. We don't care if a guy is a "299 hitter," but we do care if he is a "300 hitter." We don't care if a guy hits 39 homers, but we do care if he hits 40. We don't care if a guy drives in 97 runs. But we do care if he drives in 100. We don't care if a guy gets two doubles, a homer and a single in a game. But we do care if he hits a single, a double, a triple and a homer.

Those of us that are semi-intelligent baseball fans (and that would be most of us) know and understand that these milestone markers are meaningless. We get it in a brain receiving kind of way. But we fans are an emotional group and these milestones resonate to us in ways that we just accept. It certainly matters that Bill Swift won twenty games as a guy from Maine. It wouldn't have mattered much if he won seventeen. His fans won't care if Derek Jeter gets 3245 hits. We care deeply that he gets to 3000. And we can solace ourselves in his bad year by at least knowing he scored over 100 runs. Jim Thome is no less a Hall of Fame guy if he finishes with 595 homers. But we all want him to get to 600. We are going to be disappointed if Bautista doesn't hit another homer this year. We are going to be disappointed if Ubaldo Jiminez doesn't get twenty wins.

It's funny how the new statistics have given us new emotional markers. The new ones include a .400 On Base Percentage and a 1.000 OPS. A .300 wOBA now matters. A FIP under 3.00 matters just as much to us now as an ERA under 3.00. Ten strikeouts per nine innings matters now just like 200 strikeouts in a season (will we ever see 300 in a season again?).

Yes, Mr. Neyer, we are guilty as charged. We still care about sub-four mile runs when most of the world doesn't even know what a mile is. And we will always care that a guy hits .300 and drives in 100 runs or wins 20 games. It's part of who we are as fans. We don't change our lives because of them. We don't rate players because of them, but they matter even if it is an obsession that doesn't make any sense.

Emotional Career Markers: 300 wins, 500 homers, 1000/1500/2000 RBIs, 1500 runs scored, 3000 hits, 1000 extra base hits, 400 stolen bases, 3000 strikeouts, and a new one: 600 saves.

Emotional Season Markers: 20 wins, 200 hits, 30/40/50 homers, 100 RBIs, 100 runs, 200/300 strikeouts, 50 stolen bases, 50 saves, 50 doubles, .300 batting average, .400 On Base Percentage, sub-.3.00 ERA, sub-2.00 ERA, .600 winning percentage, .500 slugging percentage.

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