I have to say how little the subject matter of this post matters to me. As I’ve said before, batting average doesn’t super matter; we all know this. 1983 is before I was born. I have no emotional attachment or interest in any of the subjects of this post. And this took a tremendous amount of research.
But… all of that goes to show you that a good baseball story, is a good baseball story. Because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning more about this race, a batting title chase for the ages among four players: Bill Madlock of Pittsburgh, Jose Cruz of Houston, and teammates Lonnie Smith and George Hendrick of St. Louis. (To be clear, I started this post the day before MLB.com decided to feature an article about the Cruz family; it’s just a happy coincidence that there’s something fun there to link while I was writing about the eldest in the family.)
Let’s start with the team narratives. The Pittsburgh Pirates are not thought of as the “Team of the ’70s.” Who can blame people? I mean, the Big Red Machine was in full swing, the A’s won three World Series… but it was the Pirates who made six League Championship Series (so did the Reds, to be fair). The Bucs won 916 games in the decade – always 88 to 98 wins in every year of the decade but one (only 80 wins in 1973). But the 1980s were proving to be a different story. By 1983, gone were Pops and Dave Parker and Bert Blyleven. (Actually, Parker was still there… but he wasn’t DAVE PARKER anymore, either way.) From 1980-83, the Pirates when 297-291 – not exactly striking fear into the hearts of their fellow NL teams.
The 1983 Houston Astros finished third in the NL West, at a good-but-unremarkable 85-77. Here’s the thing, though; the Astros actually had the best record in the National League from April 15th on. The had dropped their first NINE games to open the season. For a team that had pushed playoff series to their final 5th game in both ’80 and ’81, seeing a terrible start after a disappointing ’82 was not what the team wanted. But they did rally, and had a real shot at the postseason. They were, with 28 games remaining, sitting at 72-62. They were six back of the division, leading Dodgers, and had six head-to-head matchups left. The Dodgers really flagged at the end, too, so the ‘Stros had a chance. Alas, it was not to be, as they posted a 13-15 record from that point on – same as the boys in Dodger blue.
The Cardinals were in a very different boat. Coming off a world championship in 1982 (one this Brewer-backer was trained to resent from the time he was a lad), there’s really no other word for the ’83 Cardinals’ season than “disappointing.” They had losing streaks of 8, 8, and 7 games in the course of the season. Meanwhile, their longest winning streaks were 6, 7, and 6 games. So if you’re thinking, “That sounds like a recipe for a team to finish a little below .500,” I’d say your logic was right on the money – 79-83 on the year. Here are their winning percentages, 1981-1985: .549, .554, .480, .519, .623. They finished 1st, 1st, 4th, 3rd, and 1st. Remember that ol’ “one of these things is not like the others” song from Sesame Street? It seems to apply to the ’83 Cards pretty darn well.
But we’re not here to talk about underperforming teams; we’re here to talk about their star players. So I’m going to go through this, not quite day-by-day (not until the end, anyway), starting at right about this point in the season.
On June 17th, George Hendrick was the clear-and-away favorite to win the race. Coming off his fourth-straight multi-hit game, Hendrick was batting .351. He was the clear leader of the Cardinals, as Lonnie Smith was out with injury. And Jose Cruz was steady as ever – a .300 hitter (.302) with an .812 OPS. Meanwhile, Bill Madlock was hitting a very Bill-Madlock-like .317. It was Hendrick’s race to lose – I daresay, it was as in-the-bag as a batting title can be, before the All-Star break.
Over the next month, Hendrick got even better. From June 3 to July 13, this is Hendrick’s slash line: .399/.443/.587. That is an MVP line. Heck, that’s a Hall of Fame line. But as you probably know, there’s only one fairly random 1980s Cardinal who inexplicably hit .350 one year – and it wasn’t George Hendrick. So it’s probably no spoiler to let you know that those numbers didn’t last for ol’ George.
Here’s how the race stood after today’s games:
I mean, it looks like an interesting battle for second place is the best we can hope for. It will get more interesting at the top, though. That can’t possibly be considered a spoiler, because, I mean, I wouldn’t be writing about this if it were, right?
What is the definition of “going on a tear”? How about Bill Madlock hitting .457/.474/.714 for a week, over nine games in seven days. He was 0-1 in a pinch hitting appearance, but otherwise hit in every one, with multiple hits in seven of the games. If you look back to the 16th of July up through this date, it’s not Madlock, but Lonnie Smith who ranks as the hottest hitter, going .442/.510/.628 in eleven games – with an uncaught ten stolen bases, to boot. Jose Cruz batted a very empty .320 over the same period to up his average, but remains well back. But Hendrick was absolutely brutal. Since July 14, Hendrick has been batting .139/.256/.222. While the others have batting averages around .470, that’s been Hendrick’s OPS over a similar frame. Here’s the race, with a familiar face now on top:
Welcome to the batting race, Jose Cruz! Over eleven games, Cruz has batted .478/.500/.848. George Hendrick has, uh… improved… to a .226/.265/.387 line over the same span, while Madlock has been hitting .368 to remain in the driver’s seat, and Smith has refused to flag, batting a solid .310. Here’s another race update:
It’s not exactly tight yet, but we are seeing a little bit of bunching for the #2 spot.
As an upper-midwesterner for my whole life, I always see the end of August as the true change of season. I mean, not only are kids going back to school in September, but the weather is about to turn to sweatshirts more days than not. And since our last update, that chilly wind has really gotten a hold of the bats of our batting chasers. The strongest bat has belonged, again, to Cruz – and he’s batted only .283 since our last update. Hendrick is close behind at .279, while Smith has flirted with Mendoza at .239. But if that’s flirting, Madlock is in a full-blown affair, batting only .200 since the 19th. Here’s the state of the race:
All our heroes are hoping for better days to come in September… and they’ll all find a little success before the year is out.
After another half-month, we’ve seen some changes. Jose Cruz’s 19-game hitting streak came to an end on September 11th. In the month to-date, Madlock, Cruz, and Hendrick have all been hitting an identical .333 – and none of them is the hottest hitter in the group. That would be our trailer, Lonnie Smith, batting .368 so far this month, with six XBH and six SB. Here’s where the race sits:
Madlock, at this point, basically takes a powder. He will only have two PAs (as a PH) over the next two weeks, and since one of those ends in a walk, there’s not much to talk about with him for a while. Still, this is the tighest the race has been all year, and the shortest gap for all four… at least until October.
We’ll now move to daily updates; so if you’ve been skimming, now’s the time to pay attention.
As I said, Bill Madlock hasn’t really been playing: he’s hit in his only AB in the last week, which brings him up to .325 and he appears to be closing in on a fourth career batting title. But the others have something to say about that. Jose Cruz had a stretch with 10 hits in 5 games, and even with an o-fer on this day, is batting .458 since the last update over a week ago. George Hendrick continues his downward slide, and is struggling to keep his average above .300; he’s below that mark for the second straight calendar month. That’s actually not a big deal for George Hendrick – but it is a big deal if you wanted to hit .350 and sail to a batting title. But it’s really Lonnie Smith who’s been most disappointing. Smith was in the thick of it, within 5 points at our last update. Now he sits well back of the back after managing only 5 hits in 8 games (29 ABs):
But at the risk of parodying a too-parodied line… “Heeeeeeeeeeere’s Lonnie!”
Smith bangs out 3 hits in 4 ABs; Cruz is disappointed with a 0-5 while Hendrick does him one hit better. Madlock sits.
Smith is again the star, going 4-6 with a couple of homers. Cruz, for his part, keeps pace, going 2-4. Hendrick, worn out after a long season of playing beyond his true skill level, takes an 0-5 and then sits for a few days (3 games). Madlock continues to sit.
If Cruz or Smith is sweating catching up to a three-time batting champ, they’re not showing it. In spite of all three of these teams being out of the race, the batting title is certainly something to keep the fans interested. Cruz and Smith each go 2-4 while Madlock and Hendrick sit. If you’re wondering why I even keep Hendrick in the race… I get that. But just keep paying attention.
I wonder if Bill Madlock is feeling the pressure. He has not played nine innings since the 5th of September, yet he plays a complete game today (he will not again for the duration of the season). You can almost feel Jose Cruz and Lonnie Smith breathing down his neck. It seems dishonorable to win the batting title by sitting. So Madlock and Smith suit up this day, while Cruz gets a rare day off and Hendrick continues to sit. Madlock shows no signs of rust going 2-5, while Smith inches closer, going 2-4.
Madlock makes out in his only PA; Hendrick is still sitting; Smith finally cools off with an 0-3, and Cruz… well, Jose Cruz had a real opportunity. The ‘Stros played a doubleheader against the Braves on September 28, leading to 7 PAs for Cruz. With a three- or four-hit day, he takes a commanding lead heading into the home stretch. Alas, a 1-7 set him back. It particularly stings after the day off on the 27th. The update:
The Cardinals are off today, and Madlock makes a lone PA at the beginning of the game (for an out). Cruz tries to take advantage, going 2-5 to keep his average competitive. Here we go, with three games to play:
Cubs-Cardinals to close out the season (as per tradition), while the Astros play the Reds and the Pennsylvanians take on one another. Madlock is the big loser on the day: 0-2. Everyone else batted .500 or better. Cruz was 2-4 with singles, while the Cardinals managed 4 hits – all doubles, three by Kendrick and one by Smith. Let’s be clear on George Hendrick for a second. He was playing unsustainably well, not just for him, but for just about anyone the first few months of the year. We can’t be surprised that he slipped. He was batting .352/.402/.539 through July 13, but since, until today, was hitting .261/.323/.403. That probably seems like falling off a cliff (and it is), but here’s the thing: it’s actually significantly better than what he’s going to do over the next four years and 321 games, which is hit .243/.297/.381. The truth is, age just caught up with him, for whatever reason, on July 14th, 1983. There are a couple things that are actually date-able like that in baseball history. I think the rise of Jose Bautista (September 5, 2009) and the fall of Chris Davis (I’d pick September 17, 2016) are two such things, that you can pinpoint to an exact date. This is a less talented player, but who has a similarly identifiable drop-off point. Either way, the last three days of the year, he’ll be a beast one last time, pushing for a batting title that no one would ever have imagined he could win as a guy who only hit .300 three times in his first 12 big league seasons. Anyway, here’s the list as of this date:
A monster finish by any one of these guys – yes, even George Hendrick – would win him the batting title. So what will we get?
Bill Madlock started the game, but played a single inning. He was hitless on the day. In fact, Madlock has very much limped to the finish line this season. He’s only 2-11 in since September 20, with both hits coming the same day. In fact, his two hits that day were in his first two PAs. He’s going to sit tomorrow, which means he ends the season 0-9. Not exactly a charge to the finish.
Alas, he’s not the only one faltering under the pressure of the batting race. Jose Cruz manages a sac fly, but is otherwise 0-4. Lonnie Smith hits a double… but that’s his only hit in four ABs, which hurts his average at this point. But it’s George Hendrick alone who charges to the finish line. Going 2-4 with a homer, Hendrick’s batting average goes up by a full point or more for the second consecutive day. The last time that happened to him? That was way back on July 10 & 11!!! (That’s a little bit of a cheat; his average did go up at the end of two consecutive games in between – both ends of a doubleheader on July 28 – but it’s more dramatic if it took longer, y’know?). Here’s the end-of-day update, with a couple extra decimal places for clarity:
As I said earlier, Madlock is going to sit tomorrow. Knowing that, here’s what these guys would need to do tomorrow to win the batting title:
Hendrick would need to go 6-6. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but possible.
Smith or Cruz would need to go 3-3 or 4-5 to pass Madlock. There’s margin for error for either of them, but you have to imagine that Madlock felt pretty good about his chances heading into that last day.
Madlock sat out today, as I said above. But he couldn’t even scoreboard watch. His game, like that of the Cardinals, was a day game. He could’ve sat around and watched if he’d had an evening start to know what the Cardinals did, but that wasn’t an option. Once he chose to sit, his number was set.
So the other day game belonged to the Cardinals. In the bottom of the first inning, Smith led things off with a double, bringing his average to .321. Three batters later, Hendrick singled him home to raise his own average to .318. The Cardinals don’t make the third out until the #9 hitter; that drastically increases Hendrick’s chances of going that necessary 6-6.
Smith leads off the second, as well… with a single to left! He’s now at .322, passing Cruz and moving within one hit of Madlock! He then steals second, too, for good measure. Hendrick comes to the plate with two outs and Smith on third (he took it on a groundout). And you know what the Cubs do? They walk him! I wasn’t there, but from the perspective of this article, I’m like… seriously?! This man has a chance at a batting title, and you’re down 5-1. I know you don’t want the other team’s cleanup hitter to beat you, but this just strikes me as cowardly. I mean, it’s not like there’s a reason to set up a double play or worry about a sac fly – there are two outs! Mathematically eliminated from a batting race he once led by like 30 points, Hendrick played one more inning, and then was subbed for a defensive replacement in the 4th. He ends the season at .318 – something to be proud of, to be sure.
In the bottom of 4, Lonnie Smith comes to bat again. In the midst of a huge day, Cubs starter Chuck Rainey, our villain of the piece so far, walks Smith. No biggie, though; he just needs one more hit. So while I can’t say I’m thrilled with the result, there it is. He will score his second run of the day on a Willie McGee triple. The 7-8-9 hitters went 1-2-3 in the fifth, leading to Smith’s PA in the sixth. This is the one for all the marbles. If Smith gets a hit here, he should sit and hope for Jose Cruz to have a miserable day. If he fails, he’s going to need two more hits.
With the Cards now leading 8-3 and the Cubbies on their third pitcher, Smith came to bat. And… he flied out to RF. Alas. That means he’ll need two more ABs, and he’ll need hits in both.
Alas, circumstances determined that was not to be. Given that the Cards were at home and leading big, there was to be no bottom of the ninth. So the Cards were going to have to bat around in the eighth with Smith leading off. An over-zealous Smith popped out to third, and that was the end of that – no mathematical chance, barring an enormous Cubbies-comeback.
I wish I could say that Jose Cruz had an even more exciting night game. Alas, 0-4 with a sac fly is not even worth writing about – not compared to the near-batting-title Lonnie Smith got himself. In fact, Cruz was 0-8 in his last two games. 4-8, would’ve won him the batting crown. But it wasn’t to be, and Bill Madlock really faced no competition in September, after all, with the exception of Smith’s late-late charge. The final tally:
There are a few well-known batting races, but before I started researching, I never would’ve told you that the 1983 NL batting race came down to the final day. Heck, I don’t know if anyone else knows that, either – even those who might otherwise remember that season.
Few are the batting races that come down to ten points; even fewer are those that come down to five points. And, in fact, the 1983 National League featured four guys within five points of the title. It’s a true rarity in baseball history. And even though only two of the four players really made a charge to the finish (even if one – Hendrick – was basically without a prayer), it was still fun, for me, at least, to watch the minutiae of a hit here or there, a day off here or there, and see how batting titles are really decided in a tight race.
I had a really good time researching this, so I hope you all don’t mind if I go ahead and write another of these again. Not sure which one I’ll do next, but when I was doing rankings of batting races, this is one of the only ones I ranked as a 5-star batting race (which meant lots of players and/or slim margins). But I look forward to a future entry in the series, if it interests anyone else. Thanks for reading!