Note: Information that came out after the original post reveals that your humble narrator’s judgment was hasty. See bottom of post for update.

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The Associated Press reports that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have reached an agreement that evades the possibility of drug-suspended Melky Cabrera being recognized as the National League batting champion:

Baseball rules state a player needs to average 3.1 plate appearances for each of his team’s games to become a batting, slugging or on-base percentage champion. But the last sentence of 10.22(a) says: “Notwithstanding the foregoing requirement of minimum appearances at the plate, any 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 shall be awarded the batting, slugging or on-base percentage championship, as the case may be.”

Under Friday’s deal, MLB and the union agreed that the sentence will not apply this year, leaving Cabrera one plate appearance short. [Emphasis added]

Let’s put aside for now the dubious wisdom of changing the rules in mid-season, specifically to prevent one specific embarrassing result. Instead, let’s consider the unintended consequences. There’s nothing in the story to suggest that this is anything but a blanket lifting of that one provision for this year. Sure, it’s hard to believe that all the lawyers involved in this decision could have ignored the question of “what about other guys?” — but don’t underestimate the power of tunnel vision. Anyway, if they had addressed that question, wouldn’t it be in the story?

So, as far as I can tell from this story, Joey Votto just got screwed out of the on-base percentage title.

Before this agreement, Votto had been recognized as the National League OBP leader under the very provision that has now been abrogated, which I’ll call the hitless-ABs provision. Votto has 201 times on base, and his qualifying threshold right now is 465 PAs, based on Cincinnati’s 150 games played. His adjusted OBP of .432 is well above the no. 2 man, Buster Posey (.410).

Had the hitless-ABs provision not been, uh, suspended, Votto very likely would have gone on to win the OBP title. But now, if this story has been accurately reported, Votto will be ineligible unless he racks up 76 more PAs in the regular season.

Even more delicious: There’s an outside chance that Votto’s batting average will wind up high enough to have won that title under the hitless-ABs provision. Right now, he has 116 hits in 339 ABs, and he’s 39 outs shy of qualifying, so he’s recognized at .307 for title purposes. If he were to close the year on a spree of, say, 27 hits in 47 ABs and 50 PAs, that would give him 143 hits, 386 ABs and 476 PAs. Charge him with 26 outs to reach 502 PAs, that would give him 412 ABs for these purposes — for a .347 average that’s one point higher than Melky.

MLB then would have to choose between:

  • (a) facing the crowning irony that their ad hoc rule had voided a result that, but for their meddling, would have been viewed as a godsend; or
  • (b) reaching a new agreement with the union at the last minute to reinstate the original rule — “Never mind!

And if you don’t think Votto has a 27-for-47 binge in him, then you don’t know Joey. From May 25 to June 8 this year, he hit 27 for 48.

So that’s what I’m rooting for. We’ve seen that the commissioner mainly reacts to embarrassment, so I’m hoping this decision will have an embarrassing set of unintended consequences that will discourage him from further diddling with the rules on the fly just to keep a drug cheat’s name out of the record books.

Of course, I could root for Melky’s drug test to be voided on a technicality, but I’m trying to keep this thing plausible.

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UPDATE:

Published accounts now say that the hitless-ABs provision won’t apply this year to a player who “served a drug suspension for violating the Joint Drug Program” — so Votto and others not under suspension will not be affected.

This is better than my original interpretation; it doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. But since the goal obviously is to keep PED cheats from winning batting titles, why focus on the particular narrow provision by which this particular PED cheat would have been eligible?

From what I’ve read, this temporary rule will be made permanent as soon as possible. If so, and if nothing else is done in this regard, then imagine this scenario next year:

Able and Baker, running neck-and-neck for the batting title and far ahead of the pack, are both suspended for PED use on the same day in late August and miss the rest of the year. Able leads by a few points and a couple of hits, but has just 501 PAs; Baker has 502 PAs. By this new rule, only Able would be ineligible, even though both are guilty of the same offense; and Baker would win the crown, even though Able is clearly more deserving.

I suppose that MLB is simply dealing with the immediate problem in the narrowest way possible. Maybe they’ll try for a broader solution in the offseason. Or maybe they’ll just keep coming up with new end runs as the need arises.

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