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Pujols Triple Crown?

I started a post yesterday about Albert Pujols, but didn’t get very far, and after he went 0 for 4 last night, he no longer looks quite like the triple crown winner I was going to write about. Still, let me follow through on this. It’s quite a change in topic from my previous post, about my brother-in-law’s death two nights ago. He liked baseball, though, so he won’t mind.

First, a review for those in need of it. A baseball player is said to win the triple crown when he leads his league — American or National — in three categories: batting average, home runs, RBIs. It doesn’t happen too often, especially in the National League. The last person to win the triple crown in the NL was Cardinal Joe Medwick, in 1937. Before that, there were Chuck Klein in 1933 and Rogers Hornsby in 1925 and 1922. That’s it, if we ignore pre-1900 baseball history, which we will do. Since Medwick’s triple crown, there have been five AL triple crowns: Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947, Mickey Mantle in 1956, and the two I remember best, since I was actively following baseball at the time, Frank Robinson in 1966 and Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Back to Pujols. He hasn’t been getting much attention this season. Greatness has a way of being taken for granted. Plus, his numbers are down a bit from the norm he has established over the last decade. Yet, here he is, leading the National League in home runs and RBIs, and as of the end of two nights ago, he was batting .322 to Joey Votto’s league-leading .323. What I would have pointed out yesterday was that if you didn’t round to the third digit, you’d find they were actually closer, and had Pujols gotten one more hit over the season, he would in fact lead the league in batting. In other words, going into yesterday’s games, Pujols was a hit away from leading the National League in all three triple crown categories. For having an off season, he’s doing pretty well.

I need to point out that Joey Votto is doing pretty well too, especially after last night. While Pujols was going 0 for 4, Votto led the Reds to a wild 12-11 victory over the Giants in 12 innings, getting 4 hits in 7 at-bats, including 2 homers, and producing 4 RBIs. (I really should have gotten this post done before play started yesterday.) When the dust settled, Votto had created a gap between himself and his league mates in batting average, rising to .326 against Carlos Gonzalez’s .320 and Pujols .319. In home runs, he closed the gap on Pujols, tying Adam Dunn for 31 versus Pujols’ 33. And in RBIs, he closed in on the league lead with a total of 90 to Pujols’ 92 (while Gonzalez and Casey McGehee are way back at 84).

Maybe I should change the post’s title: National League Triple Crown? The story appears to have changed overnight. Before I panic about the title, let’s check tonight’s action. The Cardinals are in the 11th inning against the Nationals, with the score at 10-10. Tonight’s their night for a wild game. Pujols is 2 for 4, raising his average to .321, with a home run and an RBI. (The home run, by the way, is the 400th of his career.) Cincinnati has an off day. Advantage Pujols.

Yes, I know. Many baseball authorities no longer consider the traditional categories of batting average, home runs, and RBIs to measure accurately a player’s contributions at the plate. If we are interested in comparing Pujols’ season to Votto’s, we may wish to dig a bit deeper. Joel and I did that yesterday, only to discover that they are almost evenly matched by every major statistical measure, including on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. Joel and I looked before last night’s action. After last night, Votto and Pujols were the top two in the NL in on base percentage, at .423 and .411; the top two in slugging, at .603 and .597; the top two in OPS (the sum of the previous two), at 1.026 and 1.009. I don’t have the current numbers, but of course Votto’s haven’t changed, while Pujols’ have gone up.

What we can say for sure is that both are having great seasons, and they are all but evenly matched. Perhaps neither will win the triple crown, but there would appear to be a pretty good chance that together they will occupy the top two positions in every major hitting category. I wonder how often that has happened. Unless one has a strong September while the other tails off, there will be quite a debate about which should be voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player, with many sure to say that the award should go to the one whose team wins the National League Central title. (At the moment, the Reds are in first place and the Cards are second, 3 1/2 games back.) We can return to that debate in a month. Meanwhile, watch them if you have a chance, and enjoy.

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