If Melky wins, keep batting 'title' in perspective
Cabrera might edge McCutchen, but being hitting champion isn't what it used to be
The National League batting title race has become something out of a superhero movie. We have become a nation united -- even in the midst of a divisive presidential race -- in support of the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen, our dreadlocked crusader.For one, McCutchen plays for the Pirates, a feel-good story unto themselves, trending as they are toward their first winning season in two decades. But adding to the intrigue is the fact that McCutchen is battling Melky Cabrera, who is eligible for the batting title, even as he sits through a 50-game suspension for testosterone use. And so you've got your good guy and your bad guy, to put it plainly. It makes for one of the more interesting batting-title races in memory. The battle lines were drawn last week, when Cabrera's suspension was announced. McCutchen has only served to dial up the drama in the time since. Cutch is 6-for-his-last-29, dropping his season average 10 points. With a .349 mark, he is clinging to a slight edge on Cabrera's .346 average. For those who don't understand why Cabrera, with 501 plate appearances, is eligible for the batting title despite falling one plate appearance shy of the standard qualification, look to the deepest recesses of the rule book. Scoring Rule 10.22(a) stipulates that "if there is a player with fewer than the required number of plate appearances whose average would be the highest, if he were charged with the required number of plate appearances or official at-bats, then that player shall be awarded the batting championship or slugging championship."
This rule was invoked in 1996, when Tony Gwynn had 498 plate appearances but won the batting title when his .353 average stood the test. It has also preserved less-heralded tallies such as Barry Bonds' 2006 and '07 OBP leads and Ryan Braun's 2007 lead in slugging.So if we add an 0-for-1 to bring Cabrera to the required 502 plate appearances, he rings in with a .3456 average, which rounds up to .346. Joey Votto is also in the hunt with a .342 average, but his extended injury absence could leave him short. Buster Posey is third among current qualifiers with a .327 mark, but, if we use four at-bats per game strictly as a guesstimate, he would have to hit better than .400 down the stretch to overtake Cabrera. Not impossible, but certainly challenging. So we root for Cutch to get out of his slight slump, lest baseball be left with an awkward title winner. But before any of us gets too worked up in a crusade against Cabrera, here's where I must inject a little bit of (admittedly semantics-based) perspective to the matter. There are multiple definitions of "title." It can be the name of a book or poem, it can be a heading or caption (such as the "title" of this article), it can be a description and it can refer to a championship in sports. Naturally, when we say "batting title," we tend to think of it as a championship. And when we think of a championship, we think of a physical representation of that championship -- say, a trophy. But while the batting title is, indeed, an individual championship, it probably falls more in line with the descriptive definition. For when you win a batting title, you get a note about it in next year's media guide bio, you see your batting average in boldface on your online stats pages and you can tell friends and associates for the rest of your life, "Hey, did you know I won a batting title?" There is no physical representation of this so-called championship. No trophy. No plaque. No parade. Furthermore, the prestige of a batting title, in today's increasingly sophisticated statistical society, has been watered down. Most of us realize that batting average is not necessarily the firmest or fairest barometer. Personally, I think leading the league in on-base plus slugging percentage is more illustrative of output than a batting average is, but the "OPS title" gets about as much attention as the "triples title" or the "intentional walks title." It doesn't exist in that mental framework. The batting title does exist, and its place in history is secure. Many of us know, off the top of our heads, that Ty Cobb was credited with 12 of them. In the present tense, though, I don't think there's nearly as much emphasis on batting titles as there once was. Can you name the last five batting champs in the AL and NL without consulting Wikipedia? I can't. (And now that I'm looking at the full list, I see that Bill Mueller won the AL batting title in 2003. You could have given me a dozen guesses on that, and there's no way I would have landed on Bill Mueller.) Anyway, the batting title is merely a title, not a title. It's importance, or lack thereof, is ultimately up to the beholder. With regard to Cabrera, the league can't undo what's been done. There was no rule in place prior to 2012 that precluded players suspended for performance-enhancing drug use from finishing first in any statistical category, and none can be put in place after the fact. You want Cabrera's numbers removed from the record books? Not going to happen. Look to the 1910 race for a frame of reference. Seventy-one years after the fact, Cobb was discovered to have been credited with two extra hits that season, when he just barely edged Cleveland's Nap Lajoie for the batting title. But even with the correct numbers in hand, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did not retroactively take the title away. Lajoie's own involvement in that race was shady, as St. Louis Browns manager Jack O'Connor famously allowed Lajoie, a former teammate, to bunt his way to six hits on the season's final day. Point is, baseball history is littered with such instances. Pete Rose has admitted to betting on games he played in, a direct violation of league rules, but his hits record -- a far more significant achievement than a batting title -- stands. Cabrera's average also stands, and count me among the many rooting for McCutchen to top it, because, frankly, he's a much more likeable figure right now. But don't lose sight of the semantics. Cabrera would be winning a title, not an award. Whether or not he wins it, his .346 average will forever be on his stats page, and it will be up to each individual to understand that it was undoubtedly impacted by the performance-enhancing substance he knowingly put in his body, much like Bartolo Colon's 3.43 ERA, which also stands. Perception and perspective count. Whether or not Cabrera finishes with the NL's highest batting average, I'm guessing that the "title" we're most likely to associate with him is that of drug cheat. There is no prestige in that.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.