Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Numbers vs. needles

Statistics trump drug use and cheating

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Statistics are a major part of the connection baseball fans have to the game's history -- a history that goes back to the 1800s.

In baseball, the numbers tell a story, which is one of the reasons fans love their box scores and stats almost as much as the game itself. In the case of fantasy baseball, sometimes even more.

So it's big news when a decision affects how statistics are recorded and interpreted, as is the case with suspended outfielder Melky Cabrera and his National League-leading .346 batting average.

Cabrera requested that he be removed from consideration for the batting title -- even though he's in line to win it under the previously existing rules. MLB has been all too happy to accept that request and spare itself the embarrassment of an admitted cheater winning the honour.

But there's one problem with this outcome. Cabrera hit .346. The numbers are the numbers. Baseball has never been about changing results, especially in the middle of a season, simply because the outcome is unfavourable.

Armando Galarraga deserved a perfect game but was denied when a blown call cost him the 27th and final out.

Barry Bonds is still the all-time home run king, even if the court of public opinion doesn't believe he should be.

Ken Caminiti's 1987 NL MVP award still stands, even though he admitted he used steroids that season.

The Cincinnati Reds are still the 1919 World Series champions, even though several members of the Chicago White Sox admitted to fixing the outcome.

MLB has stressed this a unique situation, but what's the justification for applying it in this case only? What if a convenient loophole didn't exist and Cabrera did have the one additional plate appearance he needed to qualify for the batting title? If a pitcher is suspended, will it be applied to the ERA title? WHIP title?

As several scribes wrote in the wake of the decision, does this mean Adam Dunn will ask to be taken out of consideration for the AL strikeout title? Or will the Giants take themselves out of the NL West race because the wins Cabrera helped them achieve in the 113 games he played were tainted?

Why is being the National League batting champion such a big deal? Because people have told us it's a big deal for 100 years.

The New York Mets pulled shortstop Jose Reyes from their final game last season after he singled in his first plate appearance to push his batting average to .337 -- all to protect him from going hitless the rest of the way and giving Milwaukee's Ryan Braun a chance to overtake him for the NL batting title.

And to what end? There's no actual award for having the highest batting average in the league.

Sabermetricians wonder why we're so concerned about who is able to put up the best ratio of hits to plate appearances that didn't result in a walk or a sacrifice -- especially when data strongly suggests that once a ball is put in play, where it falls is largely out of the batter's or pitcher's control.

Hall of Famer Ted Williams won six American League batting titles. But he also led the AL in on-base percentage an astounding 12 times (including every season he played during the 1940s). Which feat is more impressive?

Contrary to popular belief, the sabermetric movement (specialized analysis of baseball through objective evidence, especially statistics) isn't something that was invented to tell people that all the familiar stats they've used all these years were wrong. It's more of a way to look at the game from a fresh perspective, develop some new stats along the way to gain a greater appreciation for the game and allow people to choose for themselves which ones are most important to them.

Why not just give baseball fans the freedom to see Cabrera's batting average for what it is? A league-leading number achieved by a player who failed a drug test -- and let the rules governing both of those situations speak for themselves?

 

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 23, 2012 B16

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