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As a Nation Mourns, A Stats Buff Looks on in Wonder

It’s the worst of times to be in the Red Sox Nation and among the best of times for those who relish baseball’s marriage of probability, improbability and dazzling statistical detail.

One week after the premiere of Moneyball, a movie in which baseball stats play an improbable starring role, the Boston Red Sox concluded a late-season swan dive with a similarly improbable last-minute loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

It has Craig Parks’ gears spinning. Of course you’re thinking, hmm, as a WSU psychologist, he must be wondering what went through the Sox players’ minds as they choked so spectacularly. But no, as a fan of both statistical analysis and baseball, he sees several numbers wonders, including those in the race for the National League batting title and another batting title of a century ago.

His thoughts:

The Red Sox are the first team ever to blow a nine-game lead in September but the Braves came close—they were up 8.5 games on the Cardinals when September started.

An even cooler stat thing that almost happened: With two games left to play, the difference between the #1 and #2 batting averages in the NL was .00006. New York Met Jose Reyes broke away from Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun over the last two games and won the batting title outright, but there was serious discussion about what to do if they had maintained that degree of closeness.

Technically one guy would have had a higher average, but it was unclear whether Major League Baseball wanted to go to that degree of fineness to determine the batting champ.  Or whether it was even legitimate to do so, as that difference is pretty much uninterpretable.  Maybe they would have declared a tie, but the situation has never come up in baseball history, so there’s no precedent to appeal to.

Which calls to mind the 1910 batting title.

Statistics do not treat the 1910 batting title of Ty Cobb kindly.

With two games left in the season, Ty Cobb is hitting .385, Nap Lajoie is hitting .377.  League-wide, everyone hates Cobb, including many of his Tigers teammates, and loves Lajoie.  Cobb sits out the last two games, but Lajoie plays his final two, a doubleheader against the Browns (now Orioles).  Browns catcher-manager Jack O’Connor positions his third baseman back on the outfield grass every time Lajoie comes to bat, which means if Lajoie lays down a bunt, there’s no way the third baseman can get to it in time.  Lajoie reaches base eight times across the two games—five times on bunts—though the last bunt is scored as an error, so he officially goes seven for eight.  This raises his average to .384.  So he misses the batting title, but just barely.  Cobb wins it.  (By the way, the O’Connor manager was fired afterwards.)

Cut to 1981.  A baseball researcher discovers that, in 1910, a box score for the Tigers was counted twice in the official calculation of Cobb’s average.  Cobb had gone two for three in that game.  Subtract out that phantom game, and his average falls to .383.  Now Lajoie is the batting champ.

But, if we’re going to start adjusting hit totals, you can argue that Lajoie’s last two games should be thrown out, since it was clear the Browns were giving hits to Lajoie.  In fact, there is some evidence the Browns tried to bribe the official scorer to change that last at-bat from an error to a hit.  Do that, and Lajoie’s average resets to .377, and Cobb is clearly the batting champ.  Also, the 1910 American League president reviewed and certified Cobb’s average, so some people question whether it’s appropriate to retroactively change it, despite the apparent error.  Others wonder whether there would be this much scrutiny if the player in question was someone other than Cobb, who was indeed a nasty, vicious man.