When Batting Champions Get Traded

It shouldn't come as any surprise that if Jose Reyes, the current National League leader in batting average, gets traded, the move will be almost entirely unprecedented. Generally, players at the top of the league leaders category in batting average are considered irreplaceable, and stay put. But as should be obvious by now, these aren't ordinary times for the New York Mets.

But the only time a batting champion was ever dealt mid-year, it was by the arch rivals of the New York Mets back in the most successful period of the franchise's history. The year was 1990. The player was Willie McGee, the team the St. Louis Cardinals, and the statistical ramifications were truly wacky.

It had been a rough year for the Cards, who'd won a National League pennant in 1987, and 86 games in 1989. A team whose best seasons were built around speed, defense and pitching saw all three areas decline. Other than John Tudor, the pitchers were decidedly average- and Tudor, now 36, pitched just 146 1/3 innings.

The hitters were slowing down, too. Ozzie Smith turned 35. Vince Coleman, who'd stolen more than 100 bases three times, swiped just 77. Terry Pendleton hit .230 with six home runs, and no one had the power of Jack Clark – the home run leader was a young catcher named Todd Zeile, who clouted 15.

But Zeile, along with young outfielders Bernard Gilkey and Ray Lankford, appeared to be the foundation of the next Cardinals team. That made for a very different fit in the manager's chair, and halfway through the season, the great Whitey Herzog called it quits. Rebuilding mode was on.

But that didn't stop McGee, who'd already won a batting title and MVP back when the stakes were higher in 1985. Playing primarily center field, McGee posted a .335 batting average in 125 games during his age 31 season. The Oakland Athletics had Dave Henderson in center field, and wanted a better defensive alternative to the aging Hendu. So on August 29, Oakland traded Felix Jose, Stan Royer and Daryl Green to St. Louis for the magical McGee.

Jose was supposed to be the centerpiece of the deal, but he simply never developed into the top-tier slugger the Cardinals wanted. (Actually, his numbers mirror, rather dramatically, his minor league production). McGee's pace fell off as well, and he hit just .274 with the Athletics- enough, however, to get them to the 1990 World Series. McGee, a free agent-to-be like Reyes, then signed with the San Francisco Giants that winter.

Thanks to the math of the time, however, McGee's .274 didn't prevent him from winning a batting title. Back then, totals accrued in the American League were considered separate from NL totals. So McGee, with his .335 NL average in the required number of plate appearances, sat frozen atop the batting average leaderboard. Thus, he edged out the full seasons of Eddie Murray (.330), Dave Magadan (.328) and Lenny Dykstra (.325). George Brett's .329 took home AL honors. McGee's combined .324 average wouldn't have won either league.

How baseball would handle the leaderboard if Jose Reyes switched leagues is still unclear. Currently, Reyes trails Adrian Gonzalez, the AL leader in batting average, by a single point. But if Reyes should get dealt while winning a batting title, Mets fans cannot accurately bemoan an unprecedented occurrence. And in a fascinating twist, the GM who'd deal Reyes, Sandy Alderson, is the same GM who traded for McGee with the Athletics. Maybe the man just hates untainted batting titles.

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