Thursday, September 16, 2010

Handicapping the NL Triple Crown Race

There’s been a lot of chatter lately on the fact that there are three (somewhat) legitimate NL Triple Crown contenders this season. Carlos Gonzalez currently leads the league in batting average and RBI, with .341 and 106, and is fourth in the league with 32 home runs. Albert Pujols leads the league in home runs, with 39, and isn’t far back in RBI, with 104. His batting average sits at .307, which is very good, but he’s probably not close enough to Gonzalez to make a serious Triple Crown run. Joey Votto also has 104 RBI, and pairs this total with a .320 average (third in the league) and 34 home runs (also third). 

Many baseball fans can tell you that the last Triple Crown was Carl Yastrzemski’s in 1967. Less well-known is the last NL Triple Crown. For that, you’d have to go back to Joe "Ducky" Medwick’s 1937 season with the St. Louis Cardinals. Each of the last 5 Triple Crowns has been achieved in the AL, and 3 of those 5 belong to the Boston Red Sox (Yaz’s and Ted Williams in 1942 and ’47). 

So do any of these batsmen have a chance to come away with the first Triple Crown in the senior circuit since before World War II? I’m going to say the least likely is Prince Albert. While he could certainly come away with the best home run and RBI totals in baseball, gaining .034 points on Gonzalez in the last two weeks of the season is pretty much impossible, even for Pujols. With plate appearance totals so high by this point in the season, making any sort of ground up takes an otherworldly effort. If Pujols went 3 for 5 in every single game for the rest of the season, he’d end up hitting .348. You don’t need me to tell you that Pujols, as good as he is, will not hit .600 for the balance of the season. Additionally, the Cardinals are now pretty much dead money, with a  PECOTA playoff probability of about a third of a percent. I’m not saying Pujols will dog the rest of the season, but he might not have as much focus as he would with the Cardinals in the thick of a division race.

Votto’s got a shot, but he’s going to need to finish the season on an incredible tear. Pujols is on pace for about 44.5 home runs. If we give him 44, Votto would need to hit 10 home runs in his last 16 games to tie Pujols. If he can get on a hot streak like that, I’m guessing the RBIs would catch up, as you’re gonna pick up a few ribeyes bombing a home run more than every two games. It’s not often that you see a guy hit 10 home runs in 16 games, but I suppose Votto could pull it off. Even if he does, however, he’d have to make up .021 points in batting average. Assuming he gets 5 at-bats per game, he’d need 38 hits in his last 16 games, or a .475 average. The Cincinnati Red would have to channel the ghost of Charlie Hustle, but if we’re going to give him a chance at hitting 10 home runs before the end of the season (and I don’t think we are), catching CarGo in average is probably no less likely.

Gonzalez is an intriguing case. A young, budding superstar, the only discernible weakness in Gonzalez’s five-tool game is his tendency to chase balls outside the strike zone, and his resulting high strikeout rate. His 37.8% O-Swing percentage is third highest in the NL, besides Alfonso Soriano and a Panda with a certain fondness for fastballs at brim-level. Average and RBIs are not an issue in Gonzalez's Triple Crown chase, as he leads the NL in both categories. The fly in the ointment is his home-run total, where he sits seven back of Albert. Again assuming Pujols’ home run pace stays roughly stable, Gonzalez would need 12 home runs in his next 16 games to take down the Triple Crown. He’s at Coors Field, and the Rockies have a penchant for strange Septembers, but I still don’t see that happening. 

So there you have it. The takeaway isn’t so much that, for the 73rd straight season, the NL will not have a Triple Crown winner. What should amaze baseball fans is that, although there hasn’t been a Triple Crown on the Senior Circuit since 1937, three players are within spitting distance in 2010. This suggests to me that it’s not impossible we’ll see the first Triple Crown since Yaz in the relatively near future. While the Triple Crown stats are, for the most part, useless in terms of player evaluation (BA and RBI more so than Home Runs, as BA discounts the ability to take walks entirely and fluctuates a ton based on BABIP and other factors, and RBIs are almost entirely dependent on batting order and the skill of other hitters higher in the lineup), watching these players take their shots at the title certainly has been entertaining. 

Will we ever see another Triple Crown? I think so, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens within the decade. I’m hesitant to even consider making a prediction, but Votto may have as good a chance as anyone. Pujols isn’t over the hill by any stretch, but at 30, he’s not getting any younger. Gonzalez’s strikeout rate will probably keep his batting average down in the future. His .389 BABIP this year is unsustainable, even for a player with his speed, so I think he settles in as a consistent .310-.320 hitter. I’d be surprised if he was over .340 in any year for the rest of his career, even if he can top that mark this season. “Vottomatic," (really hoping that'll catch on) however, could potentially pull it off. At 26, the Toronto native is just hitting his prime years, and has the power-contact combination it would take to complete this rare feat. The fact that he plays half his games in one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball doesn’t hurt either.

Check back tomorrow, when we’ll be taking a look at the race for the best record in the AL. Don’t look now, Rays and Yankees fans, but Minnesota turned this into a three-horse race while you were busy beating up on each other.

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