If there’s any upside to Miguel Cabrera’s calf injury, it’s that he went on the disabled list on July 4 sitting atop the American League’s batting list. At a lofty .350, he has a comfortable cushion over Jason Kipnis, Prince Fielder, and other rivals in his attempt to win his fourth batting title in the last five years. A fourth crown would put him in incredibly select company, a feat that only a handful of diamond legends have been able to pull off.
With roughly two-thirds of the season gone, Miggy’s stats remain frozen until he returns to the lineup. He has 333 at-bats in 77 games, but its his plate appearances (PA) that are the key to being eligible to win the batting championship. Plate appearances include not only at-bats, but also walks, sacrifices, hit-by-pitch, and catcher’s interference. A batter needs 3.1 PA per game originally scheduled; in a 162-game season, that works out to 502.
As of now, Miggy has 389 PA, meaning he’ll need 113 more to qualify. Since he was averaging 4.4 PA per game before he was injured, this means he could amass the necessary number by playing 28-30 more full games. However, Brad Ausmus is unlikely to risk his star’s future by taking unnecessary chances with him in the field and on the basepaths, so look for the manager to put in a pinch runner or defensive replacement for Miggy in late innings. Assuming these substitutions pare Cabrera’s PA down to, say, an average of 3 per game, he would need to play in roughly 36-38 of the Tigers’ remaining games.
While it might take a few games for Cabrera to fully regain his timing, it’s doubtful that his average will suffer greatly. Unlike the others below him on the batting chart, most of whom are batting well over their heads this year (Fielder, for example, has hit over .300 only once in 10 previous big-league seasons), Miggy is a remarkably consistent .321 career hitter. Even if a short spell of rustiness and his tender calf wind up costing him a few hits the rest of the way, the feeling here is that his average shouldn’t drop more than 15-18 points. That would put him at around .332 to .335, which would probably still be good enough to outlast the others. All of his competitors have been mired in the .300-.320 range for most of the summer, and the bats are starting to get heavier as the season drags on. Of course, Miggy’s average may very well go up, not down. Remember that he batted .348 just two years ago, and that unlike the others, he’ll be swinging a fresher bat because of his time off.
Cabrera has been working out, doing some hitting and agility drills, and is traveling with the team. This is all in anticipation of him returning to the lineup sometime in mid-August, at which point the Tigers will have about 45-48 games left to play. That’s plenty of time for Miggy to pile up the requisite PA, assuming he doesn’t re-injure his calf.
Even if Cabrera winds up on top of the batting list but falls short of 502 PA, a rule in effect since 1967 can save him. According to Rule 10.22(a), if the player with the highest average fails to meet the minimum PA, the remaining at-bats until qualification are hypothetically regarded as hitless at-bats. If the batter’s recalculated average still leads the league, he is awarded the batting championship. This is how San Diego’s Tony Gwynn won the National League crown in 1996, despite having only 498 PA.
All of this is just having fun with numbers. In the larger scheme of things, it hardly matters if Miggy winds up capturing a fourth batting crown. He’s a cinch Hall of Famer without it, and the Tigers will still miss the postseason even if he returns to the lineup and wins it. But the chase would give Tigers fans something to root for in what has shaped up to be a lost summer.
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