Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Prince Albert and the Crown...Again

It was about a year and a week ago that I wrote that Albert Pujols had the best chance at a triple crown that we'd seen in a very long time. I did a few little quick-and-dirty things to try to gauge how plausible it was, and later in the day, David Pinto chimed in with his real-life math and determined that his chances were actually even quite a bit better than I would've thought.

Well, it didn't happen, of course. But it was fun to follow along while it lasted. And he did lead the league in OBP and SLG, which is really a lot more important in terms of runs and wins, but it's just not the same, is it? I don't care about batting average or RBI -- or even home run totals, really -- but I really want to see another triple crown winner at some point. It would just be cool.

Last year, though, Pujols was on fire right out of the gate, hitting around .340 in the first two months and his 30th homer by the end of June. This season he had just 18 homers on the same date, and his batting average hit a low of .295 as late as July 30. There have been debates over whether Pujols was on the decline, and whether he was even the greatest player in baseball anymore.

Well, don't look now, but he's actually in an even better position to win the triple crown than he was a year ago.

Coming into Monday night (and he's having another terrific game in all three categories as I write this), Pujols has hit .425/.488/.849 with 9 homers and 18 RBI in as many games from July 31 on, and now sits first in homers (by one over Adam Dunn), first in RBI (by three over Joey Votto), and third in batting average (but just seven points behind Votto).

It bears mention that Votto himself is in the triple crown running, sitting third in homers just three behind Pujols. It's not impossible to see him doing it. But given Pujols' track record and where he now sits in all three categories, I think it's pretty safe to say that Pujols -- for real, this time -- has by far the best shot at it that we've seen this late in the season in a very long time.

Indeed, the ZiPS updated projections -- which project the rest of the season based on an estimate of the player's true talent and then add those numbers to the ones he's already produced -- have Pujols finishing first in the NL in homers (by two over Dunn), first in RBI (by eight over Ryan Howard), and second in batting average (one point behind Votto).

A lot still has to go right, of course. Pujols has to stay healthy, of course. And he has to hit no fewer than one HR fewer than Adam Dunn for the rest of the year (never easy for anyone to do). And Votto, at least entering yesterday, could overtake him for the RBI lead with one swing of the bat. And he's got to post a significantly higher batting average than the three guys ahead of him while not being significantly outhit by the two or three guys behind him.

But he's got some things going for him, too. We know he's actually a better hitter than any of these guys, for one thing (well, I won't speak for you, but at least I feel confident saying he is). And probably most importantly, the Cardinals are locked in a pennant race that figures to more or less go the distance. Not only will Pujols not get any rest, but he won't suddenly start seeing replacement-level minor leaguers trying to get on base in front of him. LaRussa's habit of batting the pitcher 8th has to be considered a slight advantage to him in the RBI race, too.

The point is: it's far from a sure thing, far from even 50/50, but it's a very, very real possibility that we'll be seeing our first triple crown winner in over 40 years. And it couldn't happen to a better hitter.


Cardinal70 said...

He also has eight more games against Pittsburgh (five in PNC), a team he absolutely owns. It's hard to believe, but there really is a chance, which is so surprising given how this year started for him.

Mark said...

What's odd is that he could do this in a year that really isn't near his best, which I think speaks to the arbitrariness of the accomplishment (though it's still quite impressive).

Sam said...

It's worth mentioning that Neyer talked about the possibility of Omar Infante qualifying for the batting title (he's currently hitting over .350) in time to leave Pujols out in the cold yesterday: http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/4947/nobodys-laughing-at-omar-infante . It would be pretty amazing if Pujols missed winning the Triple Crown by losing out to a guy who likely won't make the minimum required PAs.