Cards are Stacked: Can Albert Pujols Capture the NL Triple Crown?

Man or Machine? Either way, Pujols is the game's best.

Man or Machine? Either way, Pujols is hands down the game's best hitter

Well, the secret is finally out. Albert Pujols is a machine. Although ESPN may have been first to officially break the news, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has followed baseball since 2001. After all, in 8+ seasons Pujols has been the best in the game, averaging a batting line of .334-43 HR-129 RBI-124 R; a feat unmatched in the history of baseball and an accomplishment unthinkable for any mere mortal. Even though Pujols is stuck in a rather pedestrian St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup (though the recent addition of Mark DeRosa should help), last year’s NL MVP continues to prove that he is the best hitter in the game today, and arguably one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the history of baseball (move over Greg Vaughn Jimmie Foxx). After going deep twice against Minnesota on Saturday, Pujols was hitting .328 with a league leading 28 HRs and 78 RBIs, despite already drawing 59 free passes.

As the season moves closer to the midway point, and Pujols continues to mash at the plate, is it time for the Triple Crown talk to begin? It seems every few seasons there’s a player in baseball who jumps out of the gates quickly only to fade in the dog days of summer (i.e. Derek Lee in 2005), but Pujols is clearly in a league of his own and shows no signs of slowing down (12 HRs in 88 ABs in June). It’s been 72 years since the last NL Triple Crown winner, and strangely enough it was another Cardinal. Joe “Ducky” Medwick had a season for the ages in 1937, hitting .374 with 31 HRs and 154 RBIs (numbers which, besides the HRs, would probably still lead the league today). So, is it in the cards for St. Louis to have another Triple Crown hitter in 2009, or will Pujols find leading the lead in the three major batting categories impossible even for a machine?

Pujols will have to stay on fire for the NL's first Triple Crown since '37.

Pujols will have to stay on fire all season long for the NL's first Triple Crown since '37.

Let’s take a look at his current numbers, main competitors in each category, and Pujols’ chances of leading the league in HRs, RBIs, and batting average:

Homeruns (28-1st in NL): Believe it or not, Pujols has never led the league in HRs, although in his defense he did play in the NL during the peak of Barry Bonds’ accidental steroid usage power barrage. The closest Pujols has come is finishing tied for second in 2004, hitting 46 HRs to Adrian Beltre’s 48 (loud groan from Mariners’ fans). Pujols’ current HR rate puts him on pace for 59 longballs which would almost assuredly lead the NL. His closest competition at this point in the season are Padres 1B Adrian Gonzalez (24 HRs), Phillies OF Raul Ibanez (22 HRs), Diamondbacks 3B Mark Reynolds (21 HR) and Phillies 1B Ryan Howard (20 HRs). Ibanez has been on fire all season long but is currently stuck on the DL, and at the age of 37, is not likely to keep up with Pujols as the summer drags on. Reynolds definitely has some pop in his bat when he hits the ball (his 102 Ks lead the league by a wide margin) but is too inconsistent and will have too many slumps to lead the league in longballs. Gonzalez will probably set a career high in HRs this season but has little protection in the San Diego lineup (he leads the league in BBs) and has slowed considerably since hitting 20 HRs in the first two months. The player with the best shot out of this group to keep Pujols from topping the NL in HRs is Ryan Howard. Howard is one of the game’s best sluggers, averaging 51 HRs a season over the past three years, while leading the league in 2006 and 2008. He plays in a homerun friendly ballpark and hitting between Chase Utley and Ibanez sure doesn’t hurt, but like Reyolds he is prone to the punchout and is already 8 HRs behind Pujols.

Odds Pujols leads league: 75%

Will the world's biggest vegetarian play spoiler this season?

Will the world's biggest vegetarian play spoiler this season?

Runs Batted In (74-1st in NL): RBIs are another statistical category that Pujols has never led the league in due in large part to the Cardinals lineup(s) and the fact that he draws so many walks (24 intentional walks already); he has finished 2nd three times (2002, 05, 06). His 74 RBIs have him on pace for 157 total, yet he leads Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder by just one RBI. Besides Fielder, no one in the league is within 15 RBIs of Pujols, with Ibanez (59) and Howard (59) the closest behind. It will likely be a two-horse race all season long and could come down to which player has more chances with runners in scoring position. As mentioned before, Pujols hits in an average Cardinals’ lineup, typically manning the #3 spot behind leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker (.358 OBP) and Colby Rasmus (.307 OBP). Fielder on the other hand hits in a solid Brewers’ lineup and is entrenched in the cleanup spot behind Craig Counsell (.368 OBP), JJ Hardy (.299 OBP) and Ryan “Brains &” Braun (.416 OBP). Neither hitter has great protection behind them in the order, leading to their inflated walk totals. This might be the most difficult leg of the Triple Crown for Pujols to capture but his chances have been bolstered thanks to the Redbirds addition of Derosa.

Odds Pujols leads league: 60%

Batting Average (.328-8th in NL): Despite the fact that he is currently behind 7 other players, Pujols will probably have the easiest time winning the batting average portion of the Triple Crown. Why? Well, for one thing Pujols’ career .334 average is the highest among all active players and he’s already captured a batting title (2003) and finished 2nd two other times. Additionally, despite the fact that he is hitting a robust .328 on the year, Pujols has suffered from bad luck so far. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is only .277 this season, which is 40 points lower than his career .317 BABIP meaning that Pujols should be due for an upswing in average soon. Most of the players ahead of him in batting average (Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Tejada, Cristian Guzman and Carlos Beltran) are hitting well above their career numbers, and are likely to regress in the coming months. Pujols’ primary challengers for the batting title are Mets 3B David Wright (.342) and Florida SS Hanley Ramirez (.333). While Wright has sacrified his power for contact this season (just 4 HRs), the results have paid off so far. However, a recent 0-11 slide has chopped 14 points off his average and he seems to be coming back down to earth after a torrid May and early June. Ramirez is no slouch either, a .311 career hitter who topped out at .332 in 2007. He has been hitting well since a slow start, but his .360 BABIP will be difficult to maintain throughout the course of the year.

The NL's last Triple Crown winner, Ducky Medwick.

The NL's last Triple Crown winner, Ducky Medwick.

Odds Pujols leads league: 90%

Pujols definitely has the career numbers, positive statistical trends and talent to put him on pace for the NL’s first Triple Crown in 72 years. He’s proved season after season that he is a special talent and is virtually peerless at the plate in baseball. However, there is a reason that no one has captured the NL’s Triple Crown since 1937–it’s not easy. It will be an uphill battle all season long for Pujols, with heated competition in all three categories, but if any player in the game today can do it, it’s Pujols. Because, if a machine can’t do it, who can?

Overall odds Pujols wins Triple Crown: 40.5%

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  1. […] Cards are Stacked: Can Albert Pujols Capture the NL Triple Crown? […]

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