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September 21, 2012

Manufactured Runs

The Very Long Night of Melky Cabrera

by Colin Wyers

It would be an exaggeration, but not TOO great of one, to say that everything I’ve learned in life I’ve learned from the Christian Bible, The Book, Babylon 5 and the British sitcom Yes, Minister. In the last of those, cabinet minister Jim Hacker has to deal with the difficulty of balancing the demands of politics with the machinations of the civil servants supposedly serving him (and occasionally, with the notion of actually doing the right thing).

In one episode, the new leader of the fictional country of Buranda is visiting the UK in hopes of purchasing some oil rigs that the government is very keen to sell to them. Hacker has set up a visit between Buranda’s president and the queen as a way to deliver a state visit to some “marginal constituencies” (the equivalent of swing districts) immediately before an election. His brilliant plan seems to backfire, though, after the leader of Buranda gives them an advance copy of the speech he plans to make, where he urges the Scots and Irish to fight British oppression. A panicked Hacker sounds out his chief source of advice, Sir Humphrey Appleby:

Jim Hacker: "Humphrey, do you think it is a good idea to issue a statement?"

Sir Humphrey: "Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options: One, do nothing. Two, issue a statement deploring the speech. Three, lodge an official protest. Four, cut off aid. Five, break off diplomatic relations. And six, declare war."

Jim Hacker: "Which should be it?"

Sir Humphrey: "Well, if we do nothing we implicitly agree with the speech. Two, if we issue a statement we'll just look foolish. Three, if we lodge a protest it'll be ignored. Four, we can't cut off aid because we don't give them any. Five, if we break off diplomatic relations we can't negotiate the oil rig contracts. And six, if we declare war it might just look as though we were overreacting."

Major League Baseball faced a similar situation with Melky Cabrera, who until today looked like a near-lock to win the league’s batting title while serving a suspension for PED usage. League officials' only options made them look as though they were impotent or overreacting. They have decided to go with overreacting, amending the rules to deprive Cabrera of the batting title (ostensibly at Cabrera's request).

I feel like many of my compatriots have gone in for the same thing, though. While I question the point of this decision, upon reflection I feel like it is at worst a minor sin, not a major error.

Let’s review the mechanics of the decision. Cabrera had (and still has) a commanding lead in the batting title race, but doesn’t actually have enough plate appearances to qualify. Now, under the rules, a player in that situation can have hitless at-bats added to his performance up to the point where he would qualify. Melky, being one PA away from qualifying, would still be a substantial favorite under that rule. That is where MLB and the Player’s Association stepped in:

Rule 10.22(a) permits a player to be recognized as the official winner if extra hitless at-bats are added to his average and it remains higher than any qualifying player. (Cabrera’s average would fall from .3464 to .3456—still .346 when rounded up.)

Under terms of the agreement, Rule 10.22(a) will not apply to suspended players.

What this means is that Melky won’t be awarded any hitless at-bats in order to reach the batting title. The hits, at-bats, and plate appearances he currently has all still count, they just are not sufficient on their own to win the batting title.

(As an aside—the reason plate appearances matter for the batting title is that MLB changed the rule to avoid penalizing players for walking. This remains one of my favorite obscure rules pretty much ever.)

So let’s take a moment and talk about the integrity of the sport. There are many who, I’m sure, feel that the integrity of the sport is threatened by a presumed cheater like Melky, doubly so if he is recognized for his accomplishments during the period when cheating is believed to have taken place. There are others who feel that the integrity of the sport is threatened by changing the rules like this. There’s a third path, though, where we can determine that neither is especially threatening to the integrity of the sport. But first we have to define what integrity is.

One sense of integrity is competitive integrity. Now we can’t use something so objective as the rulebook to determine this—there are plenty of forms of cheating, such as stealing signs or using spitballs, that nobody views as serious threats to competitive integrity. Meanwhile, gambling has always been viewed as a threat to competitive integrity regardless of what the rules have said about it.

We can define competitive integrity through two attributes:

1)     That the games are decided by the actions of the players on the field, and

2)     That the players are making an effort to win the game.

Or to put it another way—that the game is decided through fair competition, and not due to efforts to obtain a predetermined outcome. In this case, we see nothing that seems to fit this definition of competitive integrity—the batting title itself is unrelated to wins and losses at all. (And as such, the existence of a recognition for individual accomplishment that in theory could conflict with the objective of winning as many games as possible could in fact be viewed as a greater threat to competitive integrity than anything Melky has done.) And whatever one thinks of steroids, players are taking them because they think they help them perform better—so, while cheating, it is the sort of cheating where (as is the case with emery boards or binoculars in the outfield scoreboard) the intention is to do so competitively. It’s a transgression that reinforces the fundamental aims of competitive integrity.

So what about the integrity of the awards, and baseball records? In this event, baseball’s records themselves are totally safe—the actual hits, plate appearances, and at-bats that Cabrera had are being fully counted. MLB isn’t denying that they happened. (This is in contrast to the appalling Soviet revisionism routinely engaged in by the NCAA in its efforts to safeguard college athletics from the unspeakable horrors of the Curt Flood decision.) His batting average (and so on and so forth) remain unaffected by this decision.

Instead what’s impacted is his qualification to be considered for the “title” (which is not quite an award, but also not quite not an award). MLB isn’t even refusing to consider plate appearances he’s accumulated for this purpose; instead, MLB will not be awarding him additional plate appearances that did not occur (hitless ones that count as at-bats, but still) for the purposes of qualifying for the batting title. Cabrera is still being considered for the title based on his actual accomplishment, he simply is falling short.

We can argue the merit of the batting title all day, but at base we’re talking about a tinkering with the arbitrary portion of the title, not the portions that bear upon the actual keeping of the records of baseball. (Again, the existence of the batting title—and official scorers who serve the home team, with discretion over the distinction between hits and errors—probably does more damage to the official record of baseball than what MLB has done today.) It is an exceedingly minor point affecting nothing of consequence.

This brings us to the most troubling part of the decision, the fact that it was done at midseason with an eye towards affecting the outcome of a ruling as it affects a single player. There’s no way to get around this—it’s pretty troubling. I wish MLB hadn’t done it. But even while disagreeing with it, there’s several reasons to think that it’s not really worth worrying over.

The first touches upon one of the unique features of baseball—that there is a huge portion of its official rules that have absolutely nothing to do with how the game is played or who wins or loses. This is how it’s possible for the official scorer to change his ruling weeks after the game is finished, without any actual impact on the outcome of the event. While these rules are a large part of the game’s culture or history, they have no bearing on the competitive integrity of the events themselves. (This, by the way, is what differentiates this ruling from the ruling many people wanted MLB to make to give Armando Galarraga a no-hitter; awarding Galarraga an out instead of a hit would have changed the actual ruling on the field in a way that in theory could have impacted the actual play of the game itself. In this case, MLB’s ruling is completely silent about what actually happened on the field.)

The second is that while the rule was changed after the start of the season, it was indeed changed before the awarding of the batting title. Now, that doesn’t address the problem with MLB mucking about with the qualification rules for something after many players have already qualified. But it does avoid the problem of trying to rescind an award someone has already won. Again, this sidesteps the biggest problems of NCAA-style “justice,” where things that have already occurred are ruled not to have happened at all. So this isn’t, in and of itself, a precursor to MLB going back and futzing with previous awards.

Which brings us to probably the biggest reason for concern (and thus reassurance) about this whole mess. Let’s be honest, the people who have the strongest objection to this change are probably the people who in any other circumstance wouldn’t care who won the batting title. (In fact, hardly anyone cares who won the batting title in most years.) I think most everyone (except for a few obnoxious people obsessed with steroids to the exclusion of sport) recognizes that this in and of itself is not a big deal. Instead, we worry about the precedent that this sets—there are all sorts of terrible things that could happen, if MLB were to continue on this path.

In essence, this is a slippery slope argument (what Sir Humphrey, if you still recall the beginning to this article, would call “the thin end of the wedge”). Everyone, I rejoice to tell you—in real life, most things are not slopes, and very few slopes are slippery. In this case, there’s no reason to think that MLB is acting in accordance with some overarching principle that must be taken to its logical conclusion. There are concerns with the alternate view, that MLB is simply doing whatever is expedient, but it may be reassuring to note that one reason that this is so expedient is because it is so inconsequential, and that MLB will not be so easily moved to meddle in matters of actual importance. It is very possible (and if you pay attention to history, in fact exceedingly likely) that this is a one-time intrusion that will likely be consigned to a footnote and forgotten before long.

Now, it would be better if we didn’t have this little tempest in a teapot (and probably better if we didn’t have this particular teapot, either, but that’s a discussion for another day). But nothing of lasting value has been affected here. MLB is not refusing to acknowledge truth, only to honor it. And in baseball, that rarity of sports, that truth does not simply belong to the sports bureaus and official pronouncements. MLB’s records belong to each and every one of us, to interpret however we see fit. If you don’t like where MLB draws the line for inclusion in the pool to honor players who have the most hits per at-bats, you can set up a spreadsheet or database or sortable report to draw that line wherever you want to. Or you can decide that hits per at-bats is a limited measure of hitting prowess and sort based on some other criteria instead. That is one of the great triumphs of sabermetrics—that baseball stats are not holy writ etched in stone, but a historical record open to correction and interpretation by absolutely anyone who wants to. To complain about things like the batting title at this late date doesn't add to what we've accomplished—it diminishes it.

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

Related Content:  Bud Selig,  Melky Cabrera,  Steroids,  Batting Title

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