How Will 2020—and the Chase for .400—Be Remembered?

Back in July we wondered how legitimate any statistic would be in a 60-game season. That discussion is even more loaded now.
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The questions started to surface weeks before the start of the season: What if someone hits .400? Would it stand? Would it be asterisked? The conversation used the same vernacular as any other baseball debate about which numbers are valuable and which are not. But there was subtext that hinted toward a thornier matter, more existential, the question pulsing under this entire season: Does any of this matter?

Three weeks after Opening Day, the conversation feels a little more material. The Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon has hit .472 over 18 games—a sample size that typically would not mean much at all but here represents almost a third of the year. That still leaves plenty of baseball to play, of course, and it’s still doubtful that he maintains this. (The projection systems’ take: FanGraphs’ ZiPS expects Blackmon to hit .337 the rest of the way, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, .309, either of which would cause him to fall below the milestone mark.) But the fact that there’s a foundation for this at all—that there’s a player hitting like this a third of the way into the season—makes the discussion relevant: What would it mean to hit .400 in 2020?

It’s not about this season itself so much as it is about how we will remember it. If the question is limited to this moment—what it means right now to watch Blackmon chase .400—it means simply that there is no getting around the fact that this is baseball in a pandemic. The context for that does not have to be assessed, or properly situated, because it’s all around us all the time. It’s the baseball that we watch because it’s the baseball that we have. But in five years? Ten? Beyond that? Ted Williams hit .406 once in 1941, and every year since has been etched into collective baseball consciousness as The Last .400 Hitter. It is the act of remembrance that does the work. And so the question here is not what it would mean for us to watch Blackmon hit .400 in 2020. It’s how we would remember it in 2030 or 2050 or 2100.

Charlie Blackmon looks off to the side

The basis for the initial version of this discussion, back in July, was straightforward: How legitimate is any statistic from a 60-game season? After a few weeks of play, however, it's clear that there’s more to it. The question has to account for not just the length of the season but the irregularity. And the latter feels even more relevant than the former—jagged scheduling, scrambled rosters, and an ever-changing standard of competitive integrity make it difficult to compare players within this season as well as to compare players across history. The basis for the discussion feels more loaded now: How legitimate is any statistic from a 60-game season with uneven schedules, extreme roster turnover, and generally spotty conditions of all sorts?

Blackmon himself has not had to deal much with these factors specifically. (The NL and AL West are the only divisions not to have been affected by an outbreak of the coronavirus.) But it feels risky to try to extricate him from the season around him—to determine that some of this year’s numbers can be seen as valid, some cannot, others are left to fall somewhere in between. The 2020 season is what it is. The question is just what that means.

The most obvious suggestion might be to mark the numbers explicitly—an asterisk, or a similar note, to let any records from the season stand with a nod to the fact that the circumstances were different. But that quickly becomes fraught.

“Asterisks are a dangerous and stupid mechanism, alerting one to wrinkle one’s nose but otherwise to consult the histories... and thus pointless,” John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, writes in an email.

Which makes sense: It will be obvious that 2020 was different. (In MLB, and in just about every other matter, too.) Even for a hypothetical future baseball fan who doesn’t know any of the context—which, at the risk of potentially overestimating our current moment, seems highly unlikely!—the fact that the season is so short will be a sort of asterisk in and of itself. It will be functionally impossible to overlook the fact that this season was different: If Blackmon hits .400 with 225 plate appearances, “225 plate appearances” will serve as a bigger flag than any formal asterisk could.

That leaves people to put the number in context for themselves. That might be tricky—there is, after all, a lot of context to consider here. But it’s also not unusual. It’s part of grasping Williams’s .406 from 1941, which came in a league that was not yet integrated. It’s part of interpreting, say, the leaderboard for ERA: You might determine that the three best seasons were unequivocally from Dutch Leonard, Mordecai Brown, and Bob Gibson, or you might understand that Leonard and Brown pitched in an era named for its dead ball, and Gibson was part of a pitching year so incredible that the league quite literally changed the playing field to avoid a repeat.

“A neophyte might be amazed by stats in 1894 or 1908 or 1930 or 1945 or 1968, but a student of the game will come to understand that all records must be viewed in the context of their creation,” writes Thorn. “Likewise for this exceedingly strange Plague Year.”

To hit .400 in an exceedingly strange Plague Year, after all, is still to hit .400.