The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 23, 2012

Thoma column: The inconvenient truth of Melky Cabrera

By Edward Thoma
Free Press Staff Writer

— Such is the power of the commissioner of baseball that his very wish wipes out objective fact.

Or so Bud Selig imagines. Facts are stubborn things, however, and they have a tendency to override wishful thinking.

Melky Cabrera had 159 hits in 459 official at-bats, a .346 batting average, through the games of Aug. 14. Then he was suspended for the rest of the season for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Cabrera is still hitting .346. And nobody in either league is hitting for a better average.

Yes, he is one plate appearance shy of qualifying: The rules say a hitter must average 3.1 plate appearances per team game to qualify for percentage titles. But the rules — specifically Rule 10.22 (a) — also call for empty at-bats to be added if the player would win the title with them added.

Rule 10.22 (a) has been used once — 1996, when Tony Gwynn was four plate appearances shy of qualifying. Adding four empty at-bats still left him five points ahead of Ellis Burks, and Gwynn was the winner.

Add an 0-for-1 to Cabrera’s line this year, and he’s still hitting .346. He’s still leading the National League in batting average — and unless Andrew McCutchen of Pittsburgh (hitting .339 entering the weekend) gets really hot in these final games, Cabrera will be the legitimate winner of the title.

A lot of people are unhappy about that, however. Cabrera’s a cheater. And with the connivance of the players union, Selig declared on Friday that Rule 10.22(a) won’t apply to the Melk Man.

This is silly stuff, not least of all because all the fuss is over a stat (batting average) that savvy followers of the sport now recognize as relatively trivial. Traditionally important, yes, but overrated.

Still: The highest batting average is not a subjective award, such as selection to the All-Star Game or being named Most Valuable Player. This is objective truth: Base hits divided by official at-bats.

Cabrera’s batting average figures to be the best in the National League this year. That it pleases nobody  doesn’t change the fact.

History lesson

This sort of thing — the overriding of objective fact in search of a subjective truth in determining the batting title — also, oddly enough, has happened before.

1910: Ty Cobb and Napoleon Lajoie were dueling it out for the title, which carried that year the added incentive of a Chalmers automobile.

Cobb was widely hated around the league, Lajoie — a legitimately great player now largely forgotten — respected if not beloved.

Cobb sat out the last two games to protect his average. Lajoie played a doubleheader on the final day of the season against the St. Louis Browns, who had their third baseman play him back on the outfield grass. Lajoie bunted for eight hits in the two games.

American League president Ban Johnson, recognizing that the Browns had tried to cheat Cobb out of the title and under public pressure to disallow Lajoie’s gift hits, instead basically made up two hits for Cobb and declared him the champ. Chalmers awarded cars to both men.

1942: Ernie Lombardi hit .330 for the Boston Braves, 12 points higher than Enos Slaughter of St. Louis, but did so in only 309 official at-bats — by today’s standards, 130 plate appearances short of qualifying.

Even with the aid of Rule 10.22(a), Lombardi falls far short. But Ford Frick, the president of the National League, declared him the winner anyway, using the old 100-games-played standard (Lombardi had 105) rather than at-bats to rule him eligible.

In Lombardi’s case, there was legitimate disagreement over the standard. The American League used at-bats (400); Frick was a holdout for games played.

In Cabrera’s case, Selig (he’s not alone in this process, but it wouldn’t happen without him) is making up rules as he goes along.

 

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.