- Alan Schwarz, MLB
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Jason Kendall has been asked if a catcher will ever win another batting title, and the Pirate backstop, who has flirted with a crown or two over the years, is quick with his response. "I don't buy the theory that a catcher can't win a batting title," he says. "If you know how to pace yourself and stay strong for an entire season, there is no a reason a catcher can't win it."
Still, can the last 122 batting championships be wrong? Whether because of defensive distractions, fatigue or the outright beating backstops take every day, no catcher has led his league in batting average since 1942, when the Boston Braves' Ernie Lombardi topped the National League at .330. And over in the American League, not one catcher has won a batting title in the circuit's 103 seasons.
As most fans realize by now, that drought could soon be ending, with every downpour of Ivan Rodriguez hits pelting Comerica Park's outfield grass. Rodriguez' torrid June, in which he batted an unfathomable .500, launched him into the AL batting lead at .381. As of Tuesday he still was at .373, 26 points ahead of Vladimir Guerrero and Melvin Mora, making the AL batting race look about as uncertain as the Republican nomination.
The batting crown might not sparkle quite like it used to, what with baseball's grudging appreciation of superior statistics, but it remains a prestigious line on any hitter's résumé. Besides, Rodriguez might wind up not only with the AL's highest average, but the best of any catcher ever. (That distinction, among players with 502 plate appearances in a season, belongs to Mike Piazza and his .362 average in 1997.)
Like their hefty chest protectors and shin guards, extra baggage weighs down catchers as they rumble through the batting race. It's tough to keep your hand speed going when foul tips slam into your wrists and knuckles every night; that front leg doesn't stay too strong after eight squat-filled innings, either. Beyond that, when you're a catcher who happens to be the team's top hitter, you don't get all the days off that other catchers do, compounding the fatigue.
The result? Since Lombardi's batting crown in 1942, no AL catcher has finished even second in the race; the last to finish third was California's Brian Downing in 1979, when he hit .326. Piazza was the last NL catcher to finish as high as second, when in 1995 he hit .346 in 475 plate appearances, 22 points behind league leader Tony Gwynn. (Piazza was actually closer to winning the batting title two years later, when his .362 average placed third but was just 10 points behind Gwynn.)
Like Kendall, Piazza doesn't want anyone to cry for the catchers. As he came close to several batting titles in the '90s, he claimed that catching actually afforded him an advantage.
"I think what keeps everything in perspective for me is the responsibility I have to the team and the pitching staff -- that allows me to go out and not put pressure on my hitting, not worry about what I have to do with the bat," Piazza told me in 1996. "I think catching helps my hitting a lot. If I have a bad day or something, I can just go out there and have a job to do. I can't dwell on an at-bat or two.
"When you realize you have to go back there and catch a ballgame, block a pitch or try to throw a guy out, block the plate, that kind of takes your mind off hitting -- which I think is beneficial. If you're playing another position, you have more time to dwell on some things."
While Rodriguez could squander his lead, that cushion of 27 points could be even larger than it might appear. Last summer, I examined how often midseason leaders go on to win various categories and found that since 1976, the biggest lost lead (as of July 15) in a batting race was 29 points, by the Yankees' Dave Winfield to teammate Don Mattingly in 1984.
Rodriguez, 32, has a history of hot first halves that have put him in the thick of batting races on July 5. In 1997 he stood fourth at .343. The next year he was second at .351, just two points behind Bernie Williams. In 2000, he was third at .361, 28 points behind Nomar Garciaparra. But he didn't finish strong any of those years, and has placed in the top 10 in batting average just three times, never higher than seventh.
Baseball used to be more accommodating to catchers when it came to batting titles. In 1926, when the Reds' Eugene Hargrave -- who got stuck with the enduring nickname "Bubbles" because of his stuttering problem -- won the NL crown at .353, the minimum to qualify was 100 games played. (He had just 355 official plate appearances.)
Lombardi won the only other two batting titles among catchers, in 1938 at .342 (when he had a robust total of 529 plate appearances) and also in 1942, when the 100-game rule allowed him to win one he wouldn't have today. In hitting .330, Lombardi caught in just 85 games and pinch-hit in 20 others, leading to just 347 plate appearances -- just over half of the 685 amassed by runner-up Enos Slaughter, who batted .318. These types of relatively soft batting titles led to the gradual ratcheting up of rules to its present 502 plate appearances for everyone.
Including catchers, so Ivan Rodriguez will continue to pursue his batting title the hardest way -- behind the plate.
"Pudge has been around a long time," Kendall said. "He knows what it takes to stay strong for a full season."
Come late September, it could be the strongest in baseball history.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is being published by St. Martin's Press in early July, and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.
No American League catcher has ever won a batting title, but Pudge Rodriguez might be strong enough to pull it off.