Ethics Quiz Of The Day: Backing Into A Batting Championship

Milwaukee Brewers v Colorado Rockies

On the final day of the 2016 regular season yesterday, Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu had a one point lead on Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy for the National League batting championship, .348 to.347. Murphy was nursing a pulled muscle, and hadn’t played for several games as the NL East winning Nationals rested him so he could be healthy for the play-offs. Murphy wasn’t going to be in the final game either, which meant that the only way LeMahieu could lose his lead was by making outs. Thus, with the consent of his manager, Walt Weiss, the player sat out the last game to protect his average. Realizing that the Rocky player was attempting to “back in” to the batting title, regarded in baseball ethics as dishonorable, or, in technical terms, “the conduct of a weenie,”  Nats  manager Dusty Baker sent Murphy limping up to the plate to pinch-hit for Jose Lobaton in the fifth inning. A hit by Murphy would have given him the lead, and required LeMahieu to bat in the Rockies game to pass him. Murphy, however, flied out.

Your End of Baseball’s Regular Season Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Was it fair, sportsmanlike and ethical for LeMahieu to win the batting title by not playing?

This is a tough one, involving a lot of precedent and baseball lore.

Baseball has a long history of these kinds of controversies. In 1987, the famously self-centered Wade Boggs (of the Red Sox) built up a big lead over New York’s Don Mattingly and only batted once in the last 12 games. essentially freezing his average while Mattingly tried, and failed, to catch up. Colorado Manager Walt Weiss has aided and abetted this kind of thing before. In 2014, Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau clinched the National League batting title  with a final average of .319 by sitting out out the team’s final two games, while his competition, Josh Harrison of the Pirates, played and fell behind him. Apparently Morneau skipped the games  to increase his odds of winning the batting title, for he had no injuries. Weiss told the Denver Post:

“I’ve got him out of the lineup. It’s my decision. The way I look at it, the guy has experienced a career-threatening injury and if he’s in a position to win a batting title, I’m going to try to make sure he does. Anybody who has a problem with it, then their beef can be with me….People can talk about backing into it and stuff, but that doesn’t bother me. It takes six months to win a batting title, not one day. So that’s how I look at it.”

Others look at it very differently. That same year, in the American League, Houston’s Jose Altuve entered the final game  with a league-leading but hardly secure .340 with Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez close behind at .337. Altuve was offered the chance to sit out the game, to protect his average but insisted on playing. He went 2-for-4,  finishing his season at .341. Martinez went 0-for-3, and finished second with a.335 average. (Altuve won the batting championship this season, too.)

There have been many other examples of players winning the batting title on the bench:

  • In 2011, Jose Reyes won the NL batting title with the Mets with a .337 average by reaching on a bunt single in his first at-bat and then leaving the game, to much criticism. In Milwaukee, Ryan Braun needed to go 3-for-4 to pass him, but didn’t, and finished second at .332.
  • In 1976,  Ken Griffey Sr. of the Reds entered the day leading the NL race with a .338 mark, while Bill Madlock was hitting .333. With a seemingly safe lead, Griffey was on the bench in Cincinnati when the game began. Madlock played, however and went go 4-for-4 to raise his average to .339. Griffey desperately entered the game in the seventh inning to try to catch up, but would go hitless in two at bats to finish at .337.

Before free agency and huge player salaries, winning the batting race was much more significant to the players, for whom it could mean bonuses and a significantly larger contract the next year. There have also been big prizes connected with the title, leading to accusations of cheating and selfishness (In 1969, in a close race with Roberto Clemente and needing a single hit to nail down the batting title, Pete Rose bunted for a base hit in the final game when some teammates felt he should have been trying to knock in the winning run) and one famous scandal.

The 1910 American League batting race saw Detroit’s Ty Cobb and Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie running neck and neck as the last games loomed. To give the competition special drama, the Chalmers Automobile Co. had announced that it would give the winner new car. Thinking he had the car already won, Cobb skipped the Tigers final two games to protect his average, claiming an eye infection.

On the last day of the season, Lajoie and his “Naps” (the Indians, but then nicknamed for their star)  played a double-header in Sportsman’s Park against the St. Louis Browns. When Lajoie came to the plate in the first inning, he noticed Browns rookie Red Corriden playing unusually deep at third base. Lajoie bunted in front of him for a hit. Every time up, the Browns third baseman played in the same place, essentially giving Lajoie, a master bunter, a hit if he wanted to settle for a single. Lajoie wanted that car, and bunted safely six times in the two games, adding  a triple and an infield single for eight hits in nine trips. Although it was never proven, most believed that the Browns manager, hating Ty Cobb like most in the game, intentionally positioned the rookie so Lajoie could win the batting title and the Chalmers “30.” An official investigation by the league, however, failed to prove it.

Unofficial final batting averages  declared Lajoie the winner by a couple points. Cobb’s fans, led by Tiger president Frank Navin, cried foul, but many more, who, like the Browns, detested Cobb, enjoyed the spectacle of Lajoie’ snatching the car from Cobb’s eager grasp, especially because Cobb had sat out the last two games. It tells us something about Cobb that eight of his teammates sent a telegram to Lajoie congratulating him on the batting title.

When the official averages were announced, however, it looked like the rigged Lajoie bunt orgy still wasn’t enough. The Sporting News named Cobb the winner with a .3850687 average to Lajoie’s .3840947.  Chalmers tried to smooth things over by awarding both players a car.

More than 70 years later, baseball historian Paul MacFarlane discovered that Cobb was mistakenly credited with two hits during the season, meaning that the batting crown rightly belonged to Lajoie (or not, since he was unfairly allowed to bunt for all those singles.). Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, however, refused to take Cobb’s 1910 batting title away, so his record string of nine consecutive AL batting titles stands.

It all might have been avoided if Cobb  just played the last two games and didn’t try to “back in.”

The Murphy-LeMahieu controversy rests on how you frame it;  in other words, how you answer the initial question in any ethics inquiry: What’s going on here?

Framing 1: Murphy didn’t play for several games last week, giving him an advantage and removing his risk of lowering his average while LeMahieu played and risked lowering his. Since LeMahieu played, took the risk and earned the lead, there was nothing unfair about him sitting out the last game.

Framing 2: Murphy had a legitimate injury, and couldn’t play. LeMahieu unfairly exploited the injury to win the title.

Of the two, I gravitate towards the second more than the first. However, since Murphy was also not playing the final game, I don’t feel that one can call what LeMahieu did unethical. It just wasn’t exemplary. Baseball, however, encourages exemplary sportsmanship. That’s one reason I love baseball.

The template for exemplary sportsmanship in such situations was established by Ted Williams, in 1941, when he refused to sit out an end-of-season double-header to protect his .400 average. Yes, that’s the right way to win a batting championship too. Williams, whoever, is famous for making that decision. LeMahieu can’t be justly condemned for not emulating the very best.  He still won the batting title fairly, just not gallantly.

13 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz Of The Day: Backing Into A Batting Championship

  1. Ted Williams going after .400 on the last day of the 1941 season says it all on how you approach situations like this. Hitting .3995 TSW could have sat. Meaningless games. Went 6-8.

  2. “Murphy didn’t play for several games last week, giving him an advantage and removing his risk of lowering his average.”

    No. Murphy was at an advantage if he HAD played. He was hitting .400 for the month of September. He was batting better than any other point in he season since May.

    Murphy being injured and riding the bench gave LeMahieu the best chance to catch him.

  3. I have to admit that a few of my friends and family have accused me of being a “Viking” (Norse ancestry, as well of Celtic), but this one is a no-brainer to me. If you are going to win something, you win it by doing the best you can at what you do. NOT sitting on the sidelines and hoping your competition will screw up. No, not against the rules and possibly not even unethical, but certainly not showing the soul of a warrior.

    • I thought viking was something you do not something you are. Have you been raiding along the cost of East Anglia?*

      *And do you need any extra shield-maidens?

      • It’s actually an avocation, but a very lucrative one. Most people, though think it’s either a Minnesota football team or a race of people…very LARGE people. And generally, I like Scottish monasteries. Finally, I appreciate the offer, but my lady is all the shield maiden I can handle at the moment. Certainly avoiding the Valkyries as long as possible.

  4. In my “math” about this, most honorable > less honorable > unethical, for LeMahieu not to play solely for the sake of keeping his average unchanged. It would have been most honorable for him to play and take his times at bat, risking a drop in his average. But since he did not play, then, assuming he was healthy and one of the best hitters on the team who could be inserted into the lineup for that last game, it was less honorable to “back in” or “weenie out” as it’s being called – but, it was not unethical. He still earned the average he had, for the games that he did play.

  5. Jack,

    Friendly correction:

    “In 2104, Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau clinched …”

    Ethics aside, I do take comfort in knowing that professional baseball will still be going strong in 2104.

    Hope you’re well!

  6. Id rather see a player go for it and miss then sit back and not do anything and get the title.

    And I’m surprised by Cobb’s actions.

    Rose’s not so much.

    And as big of a jackass that William’s was he knew how to play the game the right way.

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