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The cruel nature of baseball awards

The rules for winning a baseball award are harsh sometimes. Men like Tito Francona were robbed

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In 1959, Tito Francona, father of the current Cleveland Indians manager, led baseball in batting average by 11 points at .366. The man trailing him was fellow future Indian Harvey Kuenn at .353. At the end of the season, the winner of the American League batting title was, you guessed it, Harvey Kuenn. This was Ken's only batting title, only breaking .310 two other times in his career. Now, you might be thinking this doesn't make any sense. You're right, it doesn't. But by the strictures of baseball, Tito Francona's 499 at-bats was simply not enough. it was literally one too few to be qualified to win the batting title. That was Francona’s greatest season, and because of bad timing it goes from in the record books to barely a footnote. Baseball is brutal.

Of course, you could look at it another way. It's such an odd thing that happened to Francona, perhaps people remember it more? Kind of like Armando Galarraga's Imperfect Game. That madness came at a time where we saw a wave of no-hitters and perfect games, from Philip Humber and King Felix to Roy Halladay, and Matt Cain. Gallaraga's would have been lost in the shuffle. Instead it's this special thing that happened, and we all can remark on it. A unique instance in the history of baseball. But is being remembered as trivia enough? We all want to be thought of after we're gone, but not on the underside of a Snapple cap.

It’s odd though, that the ironclad rules of baseball that make us forget things like Francona’s amazing year, or even Roberto Clemente in 1970. He hit .350. It wouldn’t have won an award, but his playing time certainly hurt his MVP chances. Or even this past year, when Clayton Kershaw had a season for the ages in terms of ERA and just general pitching. He held a 1.69 ERA through 152 innings, and when on the mound was simply the best pitcher in the world. It’s something most of his career. But because he didn’t make one or two starts, not only was he locked out of the ERA title, he also probably lost a Cy Young. Say what you will about Max Scherzer’s season. It was truly excellent. But despite pitching 228 innings to Kershaw’s 152 he was still worth only .6 WAR more than Kershaw. Wins above replacement is a stat you accrue over time. So essentially it took Scherzer nearly half a season’s worth of innings to be slightly better than Kershaw.

This is all a long way to say, do awards in baseball really mean anything? Or at least, do we overvalue playing time when it gets really close? Whether 10 innings or one plate appearance, especially when the one suffering from the arbitrary rules (3.1 PA per game or at least 162 innings pitched), does that little bit really matter. It would have been literally impossible for Francona to lose the batting title in that one at-bat. It was simply a managerial decision that cost him that award. Kershaw did get hurt, which you can’t use to detract from Scherzer or Hendricks or any of them. But it hurts to not award clear, head and shoulders greatness. Maybe not the Cy Young Award, but at least the consolation prize that is the ERA title. Especially when he was so much better. Plus that would have split voting, and we would have seen a Cub win the award perhaps. That’s why Mike Trout’s MVP this year still doesn’t feel like enough. This is the same award Justin Morneau won in 2006. That’s not enough for Mike Trout. There should be some sort of double award, some kind of Platinum Glove style MVP. MIP, Most Incredible Player, or something that doesn’t sound like the backhanded compliment of Most Improved.

I wonder if Francona ever reflects back on that and curses his manager silently. It was such a great year, in an era where people still did care about batting average and the batting title. Like, with actual news coverage. Really, how do you not give him one more at-bat? Did the front office see that, notice he’d cost more the next year if he actually won an award, and tell the manager to bench Francona? The way many teams were run back then, you could understand that. That was actually a good year for the Indians. And the man he lost to was the man traded for Rocky Colavito. Yet another dark reason Kuenn finds himself in Indians lore. It's incredible he didn't get that at-bat, but at the end of the day he has a place in the minds of old Indians fans, on an excellent team that fell short, then utterly fell apart. For all our love of round numbers, there's something special about 399 and Tito Francona, something more meaningful. And that would be a neat Snapple cap to get.