Sunday, September 23, 2012

Melky Cabrera: Math is Dead


Earlier this season the San Franciso Giants' Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games after failing a test for an illegal performance enhancing drug (PED), specifically for artificially inflated testosterone levels. The suspension meant he would miss the rest of the 2012 regular season, along with the next five games, either in the playoffs or at the start of next season. Cabrera was having a great season. Most notably, he was carrying a .346 batting average, good for second in the National League at the time. There was clearly a good chance that Andrew McCutchen's, who was ahead of Cabrera, would fall off and Cabrera would finish with the highest average in the league, a distinction which has long been considered the "batting title," making its holder the "batting champion."

This possibility bothered some people, the idea that someone who'd used an illegal PED winning such a significant crown. There temporary excitement in some corners when it was pointed out that Cabrera had 501 plate appearances for the season, while it takes 502 to qualify for the batting title (and all other rate stats, such as on-base percentage). But it was quickly pointed out that baseball has what is known as the "Tony Gwynn rule," officially rule 10.22(a), which states that a player who is short of 502 can have extra plate appearances added to their total, which will drop their batting average, but potentially still leave it higher than anyone else's average. The rule was created in 1996 when Tony Gwynn (obviously) led the league but was four PA short of qualifying. It was pointed out that if he'd batted four times and gone hitless, his average still would have been the highest, and so he was considered the batting champion for the season. The Tony Gwynn rule would leave Cabrera with a very high average.

Sure enough, McCutchen has fallen off a bit, and in the last week or so it has become clear that Cabrera's average will be the highest in baseball. Some screamed for Cabrera to be disqualified from the race, unable to win the award.

The thing is, the batting title isn't an award. It isn't something voted upon by baseball writers, or managers, or other players. The batting title is simply a fairly basic mathematical equation. You take a player's number of hits, divide it by their number of at bats, and you get a new number, a decimal somewhere between 0 and 1. Players certainly COULD be declared ineligible from winning awards such as the MVP or Cy Young, but this isn't like that, this is just math. Beyond the official scorers who decide whether certain plays are hits or errors, there is nothing subjective about it. It's a fourth grade arithmetic problem and the player with the highest answer "wins." You can't declare math ineligible.

Or so I thought.

On Friday, commissioner Bud Selig did just that. Selig announced that rule 10.22(a) would not apply for players who've been suspended. The official story goes that this only happened because Cabrera requested it, saying "I personally have no wish to win an award that would widely be seen as tainted, and I believe that it would be far better for the remaining contenders to compete for that distinction."

It's possible Cabrera really does feel that way, but it's also possible he felt pressured by MLB, who was looking for a way to disqualify him from the distinction of "champion" for a season in which he was suspended. I wouldn't have any objection to suspended players being ineligible for subjective awards, but this is a different thing. This is an announcement that MLB can ignore numbers it doesn't like, can defy math.

There are thousands unhappy with Barry Bonds holding both the single-season and all time home run records. The thing is, he DID hit 73 home runs in 2001 and he DID hit 762 home runs during his career, and both of those figures ARE higher than any others in history. Someone is free to explain why they think those home runs are tainted, but the answer to "who hit the most?" is Barry Bonds. If someone asks, "who had the highest batting average in 2012?" The answer is Melky Cabrera.

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There is an outside chance that this decision could have a pretty ironic side effect: If Cabrera's average doesn't count, McCutchen is again the N.L. leader, with an average of .336 and Buster Posey takes over 2nd at .333. Ryan Braun would be in 4th, at .315. Ryan Braun was suspended for a PED during the off-season, only to have the suspension thrown out when his appeal was upheld. His suspension never should have been announced before the appeal process was concluded, because it isn't fair to tarnish a man's name if he didn't do anything wrong and many people don't need anything more than rumor to think less of someone.

Sure enough, Braun has been viewed by many as a cheater, despite the suspension being overturned. Many have said his 2011NL MVP Award is tainted. He's been basically every bit as good this season,so if you think his 2011 numbers were due to an illegal substance, you must either believe they're still in his system a year later, or he's been incredibly brazen and is still using. Anyway, Braun leads the National League in home runs and is just one RBI off the lead.

Imagine Braun, McCutchen, and Posey each get another 40 AB this season. If Braun were to finish strong, say he goes 20 for 40 the rest of the way, his average would be .327 at season's end. If McCutchen and Posey both slump, if McCutchen goes just 7 for 40 and Posey goes 9 for 40, they'd both finish at .325. Braun would win the batting title, and if he drives in just two more runs than Chase Headley over that time, he'd win the Triple Crown, a MUCH more significant baseball achievement than the batting title.

I can't wait to see the lengths those who'd burn Cabrera at the stake are willing to go to explain away a potential Ryan Braun Triple Crown, should it come to that.


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