Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Controversial Batting Titles (Concluded)

In 1950, the National League finally caught up with the junior circuit, adopting a 2.6 at-bat per game requirement for the batting title (which was equivalent to 400 at-bats). This rule persisted until 1957, when a 3.1 plate appearance per-game rule was installed. That rule has remained in place to the present day. Currently, if the player with the highest average in the league fails to meet the minimum plate appearance requirement (502), the difference is made up by adding hitless at-bats to his totals. If the player still leads the league with a recalculated average, he is declared the winner. This happened to Bill Madlock in 1981 and Tony Gwynn in 1996. While the present regulations have discouraged part-timers from copping cheap batting crowns, controversy has continued to rear its ugly head.

In 1976, George Brett trailed teammate Hal McRae by a slender margin entering the last day of the season (.33073 to .33078). McRae and Brett both started the game 2-for-3. In the ninth inning, Brett hit a fly to left field which might have been catchable had Twins outfielder Steve Brye kept digging for it. Instead, Brye stopped short and allowed the ball to drop roughly ten feet in front of him. It bounced over his head for an inside-the-park homer. McRae then grounded out. Irritated with this turn of events, he insinuated that Twins manager Gene Mauch was a racist who had told his players to lay up so Brett could claim the batting title. Brett may have fueled the fire when he offered the following quote after the game: "I think maybe the Twins made me a present of the batting championship and if they did, I feel just as bad about it as Hal does." Mauch denied McRae's claim, stating that he would "never do anything to harm the integrity of baseball."

In 2011, another prickly situation arose when Jose Reyes became the first Mets player to win a bating title. After leading off with a bunt single in the last game of the season, it appeared as if he held a secure lead over Ryan Braun of the Brewers. In the interest of maintaining that lead, Reyes allowed himself to be removed from the game. This drew a chorus of boos from the Citi Field crowd and some harsh reviews from certain press members, who referred to his actions as "classless" and "selfish." Reyes remained humbled by the honor nevertheless, commenting: "It means so much to my family and my country, the Dominican Republic."

Controversy marred the National League batting race in 2012 as well, when Giants slugger Melky Cabrera tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Before being slapped with a fifty-game suspension, Cabrera had been MVP of the All-Star Game. He remained the top contender for the batting crown at season's end with a .346 average in 501 plate appearances. Had the hitless at-bat rule been applied, he still would have captured the honor over teammate Buster Posey. But rather than invoke controversy, Cabrera did the right thing, voluntarily removing himself from contention. "I personally have no wish to win an award that would widely be seen as tainted," he said in an official statement made through his agent. You have to give him his props for that at least.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the batting races in 2013.

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