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August 27, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

He Who Shall be Crowned

by Eric Seidman

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Baseball is a game of inches, but those inches help shape the numbers produced for each and every player. A line drive an inch more to the right of third base will elude the long arms of Ryan Zimmerman and result in a hit, and a big fly an inch to the left of the foul pole could be the difference between a loud strike and a walk-off win. In most cases, any type of luck based on inches is expected to wash out over the course of a season, but there are currently three players vying for the coveted Triple Crown in their respective leagues for whom the aforementioned liners and dingers could make all the difference in the world. These players are Miguel Cabrera in the American League and Central Division rivals Albert Pujols and Joey Votto in the National League.

First, a bit of background: the Triple Crown refers to when a player leads his league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. The three statistics are connected, as more home runs should theoretically lead to more runs batted in, and a higher average could mean that base hits are coming with runners on base. Then again, the stats can also be mutually exclusive. A player like Ichiro Suzuki tallies plenty of hits, but he isn’t going to fall anywhere near the top of the leaderboard in runs batted in. Similarly, notorious boppers Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn may lead the league in homers and RBI, but their propensity for striking out quells any chance they have of accomplishing this feat.

Simply put, the Triple Crown is incredibly difficult to attain. Earlier in the year, Colin Wyers wrote about the odds that certain players would finish the season atop this statistical triumvirate, attempting to determine why it has become so tall a task. His major finding—then again, nothing he does is less than major—was that the interrelatedness of the metrics had decreased over the last several seasons as compared to eras when everyone utilized that old-timey pitching windup. While in the past there was a good chance that the leader in one would lead in the others, they have become less contingent upon one another lately, for exactly the reason I alluded to above. There are more “specialists” now, players who excel in a specific area while falling a bit short in another.

Back in June, it really seemed that Howard was one of the best bets for the feat, which hasn't been accomplished since Carl Yastrzemski did it in the AL in 1967, as he was beginning his power surge, already topped the league in RBI, and was hitting right around .300 in a league where a .318 average led. It was a longshot for sure, but Votto seemed due for a regression and Pujols honestly wasn’t having as Pujolsy a season as we have all come to expect. Fast forward to the present day and an injury to Howard’s ankle effectively eliminated any chance he had, while Votto has improved, and Pujols has been so on that I’d bet some readers won’t even remember he had “fallen” to a .295/.397/.542 slash line as July drew to a close.

Over in the junior circuit, Cabrera went through a brief swoon of his own, in no small part due to being pitched around. While that certainly aided his OBP exploits, the rate of reaching base is not part of the Triple Crown. Realistically, though, not much has changed in the AL from June until now. Cabrera is still racking up the homers and ribbies, but Josh Hamilton is yet to cool down in one of the more improbable seasons. Hamilton’s average, which hovers around the .360 mark, makes Cabrera’s great rate look like a girly-man. Additionally, Jose Bautista hasn’t stopped hitting home runs. For Cabrera to take home the Triple Crown, he will need to remain hot, while Hamilton drastically declines and Bautista’s uppercuts fall short.

While Cabrera may end up finishing first or second in all three categories, it seems very unlikely that he will lead in each. The gap between his and Hamilton’s average is substantial, especially this deep into a season, when an 0-for-4 game might only reduce a mark from .356 to .354. Likewise, Bautista seems to understand that he does one thing well with the bat and is focusing all of his efforts in that department. Unless Cabrera starts homering at a Bautistian pace, it seems unlikely that he will pass the Toronto slugger. But what about Pujols and Votto? Do either of them have a legitimate shot?

The short answer here is yes, as unlike the AL, nobody is running away with the NL batting title. Over the last couple of weeks, Martin Prado, Placido Polanco, Carlos Gonzalez, and Votto himself have spent time at the top of the list, and none of them are anywhere near a .350 mark. Additionally, due to Howard’s injury, the only player that is a lock for 40 home runs is Adam Dunn, though Pujols and Votto are likely to end up there as well. What we have is a perfect storm for a Triple Crown, where the normal reasons for why it doesn’t occur have been effectively neutralized. Now, CarGo might win the batting title, with Dunn taking home the home run trophy, but Pujols and Votto definitely have legitimate shots at a Triple Crown.

What makes the situation even more exciting is that both players are in the midst of a pennant race, with the Reds atop the NL Central and the Cards fighting them as well as the Phillies and Giants for the wild-card spot. Not to detract from Cabrera’s efforts, but the Tigers aren’t going anywhere, giving his numbers much less impact. Entering Friday’s action, here are the leaders in each of the categories:

Player

BA

Joey Votto

.326

Albert Pujols

.321

Carlos Gonzalez

.320

Martin Prado

.318

Placido Polanco

.314

 

Player

HR

Albert Pujols

34

Adam Dunn

31

Joey Votto

31

Mark Reynolds

28

Dan Uggla

28

 

Player

RBI

Albert Pujols

93

Joey Votto

90

Adrian Gonzalez

86

Carlos Gonzalez

84

Casey McGehee

84

David Wright

84

There are approximately 40 games left in the season to see if Pujols, Votto or Cabrera can accomplish a feat that has been in hibernation for over four decades. For the first time in a very long time, someone actually has a real chance.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  Triple Crown,  Albert Pujols Homers

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