Jose Altuve told the Houston Astros he wants to start Sunday's finale rather than sit to preserve his lead in the batting race over Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers.
Altuve enters the day hitting .340, and Martinez is at .337. If Altuve didn't play, Martinez would have to go 3-for-3 to pass Altuve, giving him a .3407 average compared with Altuve's .3399. If he plays the whole game, Altuve risks lowering his average and giving Martinez a better chance to catch him. Of course, if Altuve goes 1-for-1 and then sits down, then Martinez has to go 4-for-4 to catch him.
That's what Jose Reyes did back in 2011 when he won the NL batting title with the Mets with a .337 average. Reyes reached on a bunt single in his first at-bat and then pulled himself from the game, to much criticism. Ryan Braun needed to go 3-for-4 to pass him (he didn't and finished at .332).
But Reyes was hardly unusual in his decision. Bill Mueller of the Red Sox sat on the final day of the 2003 season, pinch-hitting in the eighth inning, and finished at .326, one point ahead of teammate Manny Ramirez (who also sat that day, so it could have been a manager's decision with the Red Sox heading to the postseason) and two points ahead of Derek Jeter, who went 0-for-3. Bernie Williams of the Yankees left the 1998 finale after six innings and a 2-for-2 performance that gave him a .339-to-.337 edge over Mo Vaughn.
One of the most famous "sits" occurred in 1976. Ken Griffey Sr. of the Reds entered the day leading the NL race with a .338 mark, while Bill Madlock -- a guy who obsessed over batting titles (he would win four) -- was hitting .333. With a seemingly safe lead, Griffey was on the bench in Cincinnati when the game began. Sparky Anderson originally had Griffey's name in the lineup, but several teammates urged Griffey to sit. So he did. When asked about the decision, Anderson replied, "Is this for print? Because I have two different ways to answer that."
But in Chicago, Madlock would go 4-for-4 to raise his average to .339 (he was pinch-hit for in the eighth inning). Seeing what had happened in Chicago, Griffey finally entered the game in the seventh but would go 0-for-2 and finish at .337.
Bill James once wrote of Madlock, "Sometimes it seemed like all he cared about was winning the batting title. The last month of the season, if he was in the hunt for a title, the guys in the press box used to run a poll to see who could pick the days that Madlock's hamstring would keep him out of the lineup."
Madlock's last title came in 1983, when he hit .323 for the Pirates, while Lonnie Smith of the Cardinals hit .321. Check out Madlock's final week:
Game 157: Played the entire game
Game 158: Started, played three innings
Game 159: Started, played four innings
Game 160: Started, played four innings
Game 161: Started, played one inning
Game 162: Didn't play
Seems a little weird, doesn't it? Madlock did tear a tendon in his calf muscle in early September and missed some time, and it was clearly an issue all month. But why did he keep trying to play? By then he had accumulated enough plate appearances to qualify for the title (he finished with 530). Maybe he knew of his reputation and didn't want the perception that he was sitting on his lead. Smith made a late run -- he was hitting .314 with a week left in the season -- and went 2-for-4 on the final day to fall just short.
An incident similar to the Griffey-Madlock episode occurred in 1982, when the Royals' Willie Wilson led the Brewers' Robin Yount .332 to .328 on the final day. The Royals were at home, but the Brewers were in Baltimore (needing a win to beat the Orioles for the AL East title), and Yount went three for his first four (two home runs and a triple!) to raise his average to .331 and lead the Brewers to a big win. By then, the game in Kansas City had started with Wilson on the bench. The Royals called Baltimore to keep track of Yount's progress. With Yount possibly getting one more at-bat, the Royals stalled their game to see if Wilson would need to enter. Yount was hit by a pitch in the ninth. Wilson sat and the batting title was his.
In 1986, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly were in a tight race down the stretch, with Boggs leading by four points with six games to go. The Miami Herald reported, "Though the Red Sox have clinched the AL East title, Boggs, 28, says he intends to play every remaining game."
He didn't. He missed the final five games with a hamstring injury. The Red Sox and Yankees played each other the final series, and by the final day, Mattingly had to go 6-for-6 to catch Boggs. "What if I go 5-for-5. Will they pitch to me the sixth time?" Mattingly asked. He went 2-for-5, and Boggs had the title. He was back in the Boston lineup for the ALCS.
These episodes don't even touch on some of the other controversial batting races. Most notably, 1910 between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, when Lajoie caught Cobb by going 8-for-8 -- including several bunt hits -- in a season-ending doubleheader against the Browns, who basically kept their third baseman way back to allow the hits out of spite for Cobb. Then there was 1976, when Royals teammates George Brett and Hal McRae were dueling for the title. It came down to the final inning, and Brett needed a hit to pass McRae (who was on deck). Brett's fly ball fell in front of Twins left fielder Steve Brye and turned into an inside-the-park home run. McRae grounded out, made two obscene gestures to the Twins dugout and had to be restrained from going after Twins manager Gene Mauch after the game, accusing Brye and the Twins of letting Brett's ball drop on purpose. (More on that whole episode here.)
Anyway, it's nice to see Altuve electing to play the finale. Or at least start it. Now, if he goes 1-for-1 and then sits ... well, it won't be the first controversial batting title. [Postscript: He didn't come out, had two hits in his first three at-bats, so yeah, this is awesome.]