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Why Melky Cabrera's disqualification for the batting title doesn't mean Armando Galarraga should have a perfect game, and a bunch of other stuff.
You've heard of the Halo Effect, right? Well, we need a corollary. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Ezra Klein pointed out that a great number of politicians would probably favor Obamacare's "individual mandate" ... if only Obama and his allies weren't for it. Seeing as how, you know, the individual mandate was originally a darling of conservatives everywhere.
I don't know what to call this corollary, but it would explain a lot of the reactions that people have to just about anything associated with Allan H. "Bud" Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. It seems that no matter Selig does, somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the cognoscenti will be against it ... if only because Selig is for it.
I thought about this last week when Melky Cabrera was ruled ineligible to win a batting title. The greatest thing about Twitter is that you get, immediately and unadulterated, the knee-jerk opinions of just about everyone you care to follow. When the Cabrera news broke, those reactions broke down almost perfectly like this:
Baseball Writers, BBWAA Division - Good call. Melky doesn't deserve batting title.
Baseball Writers, non-BBWAA Division - This is terrible, and Bud Selig's an idiot.
Disclosure: I've been in the former division for a few years, though of course I've tended to disagree with my fellow members about many issues great and small. Steroids and the Hall of Fame, to name just one.
We'll call that former division the Supporters; the latter division, the Detractors.
The Supporters, of course, don't like to see drug cheats rewarded with anything. Not after 1990, anyway. You may surmise the Supporters weren't real thrilled with Ryan Braun last winter. You know they're not going to put Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens in the Hall of Fame anytime soon. And it seems their tender sensibilities would have been damaged if Melky Cabrera had been awarded a batting title at the end of this season.
Meanwhile, the Detractors don't believe that cheating should come into the conversation, at all. Not when it comes to the Hall of Fame, not when it comes to public opinion, not when it comes to anything. Also, they tend to believe that anything that Bud Selig does must be wrong. Or proves Bud Selig's a big idiot. One of the immediate reactions to the news went like this:
If Selig's going to take away a batting title, why not give Armando Galarraga a perfect game?
Let me see if I can explain why these two things are not the same.
Yes, theoretically Major League Baseball could have reversed the blown call at first base that cost Galarraga his perfect game. Theoretically, MLB could even have crafted a decision that might never have been relevant again. Either a one-time ruling, or a new rule saying (and I'm just spitballing here) that the Commissioner's Office might consider any appeal of the potential last out in a no-hit bid. And that might never come up again.
But once the Commissioner wields that power once, there would be immense pressure on him to wield it again. Is a no-hitter less important than a game between two teams fighting for first place in late September? Less important than a World Series game? Once the Commissioner lets that genie out of the bottle, it would be really hard to stuff him back in there.
Now, maybe you think the genie belongs outside the bottle. Maybe you think Commissioner Selig has been ridiculously slow to embrace video review. Maybe you're right. But making a new rule or changing the procedures in the immediate aftermath of Galarraga's Imperfect Game, when the emotions were running so high ... That's just not a good way to make decisions.
This thing with Melky Cabrera is completely different. He was suspended almost six weeks ago. A lot of people have had a lot of time to think about this. If you believe the stories, Cabrera got to thinking that he didn't want to win the batting title. Not like this. The Commissioner and his people got to thinking about it. The people who run the Players Association got to thinking about it. After nearly six weeks, all those people somehow got together and concluded that Melky Cabrera shouldn't win a batting title.
I'm willing to give all those people the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Ah, but the Detractors have another argument ...
Nobody should have the power to change what happened on the field.
I get it. I really do. I think it's ridiculous when the NCAA "vacates" wins, even the occasional national championship. As if the thing didn't actually happen. But I suppose that's easier than actually doing something to stop football and basketball programs from cheating.
Nobody is taking any hits away from Melky Cabrera, though. In the books, he will still bat .346 this season. His batting averages and hits are facts on the ground, and neither Major League Baseball nor anyone else should be in the business of trying to disappear them from the record.
A batting average, contrary to popular-among-the-Detractors opinion, is not the same as a batting title.
A batting average is a combination of facts as we know them: hits divided by at-bats, and these days we're pretty sure about both of those. A batting title, on the other hand, is just another malleable construct.
You don't believe that? You believe that the batting title is exactly as factual as a hit? That of course the batting titlist is simply the fellow whose hits divided by at-bats are higher than anyone else's hits divided by at-bats?
John Paciorek. In 1963, 18-year-old John Paciorek batted a thousand. No batting title, though, because he finished the season with all of five plate appearances. Paciorek played in one game, the Houston Colt .45s last game of that season, and went 3 for 3 with two walks.
Paciorek didn't qualify for the batting title because, many years earlier, the Lords of Baseball had decreed that three at-bats or five plate appearances wasn't enough. Today, we think a hitter needs 502 plate appearances (well, almost; but we'll get to that in a minute) if he's going to win a batting title. But it wasn't always thus. For some decades, the requirement would change every so often. In 1942, you just needed to play 100 games. In 1954, you needed 2.6 at-bats for each game your team played; that one cost Ted Williams a batting title, and three years later the rule was changed to what it remains today: to qualify, you need 3.1 plate appearances for every game your team plays. In a standard 162-game season, of course, that works out to 502 plate appearances.
Ah, but there's that loophole. Some years later, a codicil was added. If you fell short of 502 but you could still lead your league in batting average with the addition of enough hitless at-bats to reach 502, you win the title. You don't get the higher batting average, but you do get the batting title.
Which does prove, I think, that the connection between batting average and the batting title was severed a while back, and I don't believe I've ever heard anyone complain about it. The batting title is an award, subject to the whims of those who make the rules for such things.
Leaving Melky Cabrera aside for the moment (if you can), please consider this question ... If you were designing your own batting title, from the ground up and knowing everything that came before 2012, would you want a player winning your batting title because he was suspended for cheating?
That's what happened here. If Cabrera wouldn't have cheated, he would have kept playing and the chances are pretty good that his average would have fallen from .346. Probably would have fallen below .336 (Andrew McCutchen, right now) and Buster Posey (.333) too. Of course we can't know what he would have done, if he'd not been suspended. But most reasonable analysis will suggest that .346 was, ahem, a bit beyond his usual ability.
Again, I will pose a simple question ... Is giving an award to a player who has been hit with a huge suspension a good idea?
Not that this worked out perfectly. This seems to be a one-time exception to Rule 10.22(a). If this happens again, the whole thing will have to be revisited. But really, what are the chances of that? This time, everything had to come together perfectly: Cabrera's batting average, the date of his suspension, the failure of other National Leaguers to keep pace with a guy who could only watch ... It's not likely to happen again, ever. Yes, one might be able to devise a rule that would cover this situation ... say, if you're suspended at any point in a season for 50 games and you fall short of 502 plate appearances, you're simply not eligible for a batting title. But that would apparently require a sign-off from the Players Association, and I get the impression the union wasn't willing to give away the rights of future players. Better to establish this precedent, and let the next guy decide for himself.
Nope. It's not perfect. It's modestly elegant, but also a little messy. Sometimes on your way to a logical and desired outcome, you have to find a different path. Just ask Chief Justice John Roberts.