2010 NL Triple Crown Race: Albert Pujols vs. Joey Votto

The last Triple Crown winner was Carl Yastrzemski, who accomplished the feat for the Boston Red Sox in 1967. In the National League specifically, the drought is even longer: no player has done it since Joe Medwick in 1937. But this season, two legitimate contenders—St. Louis’ Albert Pujols and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto—are vying for the prestigious title.

Medwick, a Cardinal like Pujols, hit .374 with 31 home runs and 154 RBI 73 years ago. Nicknamed “Ducky” and “Muscles” during his playing days, Medwick lived a full life yet died 35 years ago. The Triple Crown is not an easy accomplishment.

So will it happen this year? Will Pujols or Votto win the unofficial award that has eluded major leaguers for more than 40 years? Let’s take a look at the numbers, updated for games played through August 31:

Player Batt. Avg.     RBI Home Runs
     Albert Pujols .316 95 35
Joey Votto .327 97 32
      Adam Dunn      .263      84 33
   Carlos Gonzalez      .326      91 29
      Martin Prado      .317      58 15

As you can see, Pujols and Votto are at or near the top in each category. They will likely fight for the Triple Crown (and the MVP award) right through to the final week of the season.

Which player has the upper hand? If experience counts for anything, Pujols has been here before. Except for 2007, the Cardinals’ star has been in the top five in all three categories each year since 2003; three times he has been in the top three of each. Despite this amazing consistency, Pujols has obviously never won the Triple Crown.* He’s put himself in position year after year, but hasn’t been able to do it, which shows just how difficult it is.

*Pujols did win the National League Triple Crown for the decade though, leading the league in homers, RBI, and average for the 00s. This has only happened twice, most recently when Ted Williams did it in the AL in the 1940s. But again, Pujols never captured the Crown for a single season.

Votto, on the other hand, is having a breakout season. He’s a lifetime .314 hitter, but this is only his third full season in the majors and the first time he’s hit more than 25 homers. He and Pujols are similar in that their power numbers are the same at home and away, but both hit for a significantly higher average on the road. Starting on September 1, St. Louis will have two more home games than road games, while the Reds will be on the road two extra games. It seems insignificant, but in a race this tight, every advantage helps.

Stephen Rhodes of The Reds Report points to the players’ opponents as well. He notes the Reds’ two series against St. Louis and San Diego, the top two pitching staffs (as far as ERA) in the league.

“I think that Votto should be fine in terms of HR and RBI; however, I am not so certain that he can keep up in the batting average race,” Rhodes wrote in an e-mail earlier this week. “If he can have a good series against both the Cardinals and Padres, then the Crown is within reach.”

If Votto can simply stay afloat against those tough pitchers, perhaps he can make up ground in the six games against Milwaukee (third worst staff) or four against Arizona (second worst).

Pujols, meanwhile, gets six games against the Pirates, the worst pitching team in baseball, and six against the Cubs (fourth worst). St. Louis does have a four-game series with Atlanta, which has the league’s third-best staff.

“All year, there have been stories and questions concerning Pujols’ production,” wrote Ryne Gery of Redbird Rants. “He had the worst slump of his career early on and he said the whole summer that he just didn’t feel comfortable at the plate. Yet his numbers were right there. He never fell far below .300 but his year didn’t have the same dominant feel to it that we’ve gotten used to. He’s had to battle a little bit at the plate and make more adjustments.”

Gery also made the astute observation that since steroid testing was implemented, players no longer need to hit 50-plus long balls to win the home run category. This gives more complete players like Pujols and Votto a better chance at winning the Triple Crown.

Pujols, left, and Votto are racing towards a Triple Crown. (Credit: Djh57, Pujols; BubbaFan, Votto)

While Rhodes was skeptical about Votto winning the batting title, Gery is a bit more optimistic about his guy. “I think Pujols has a great chance to win the Triple Crown and I think it will go down to the last few days of the season,” he wrote. “I would make Pujols the favorite considering his track record.”

The X-factor in all of this is a utility man with 44 career home runs. One of the most controversial All Star choices in recent history, Atlanta Braves supersub-turned-leadoff hitter Omar Infante is hitting .341 for the season. His name doesn’t show up on the above chart because he’s not a lock to reach the minimum requirement of 502 plate appearances. (And if a player with the highest average in a league fails to meet that requirement, the remaining at-bats needed for qualification are considered hitless at-bats; if his recalculated batting average keeps him in first, he is awarded the batting title.)

However, Infante has been an everyday player since the end of July and getting plenty of trips to the plate. He could play spoiler in this exciting Triple Crown race. “Some of it might have to do with how he is pitched down the stretch,” writes Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club. “He has generally fared better against right-handed pitchers—2010 being no exception—and hits fastballs very well. He’s been quite fortunate to have hit .341 thus far, but it’s not unreasonable to think if he keeps the average above .340 he’ll win the title—even if he doesn’t reach the 502 plate appearance mark.”

If Infante doesn’t crash the party though, baseball fans have a good shot at witnessing history, something that Pujols may also have on his side. Not only was a Cardinal the last player to achieve the feat, but the only player to do it twice—Rogers Hornsby, in 1922 and 1925—also did it for St. Louis. No Reds player has even won the Triple Crown.

In addition to the individual achievements, the Cards and Reds are battling for the NL Central division title. St. Louis is seven games back but this weekend’s series will provide an opportunity to gain ground. Both players have obviously been instrumental to their team’s success. “In terms of Votto’s value to the Reds, it would be an understatement to say that he is the team’s MVP.” Rhodes wrote. “And what’s scary is that, at age 26, he is only going to get better.”

Perhaps we’ll see these two Senior Circuit stars compete for the Crown for several more years. As for this season? I predict it will not happen. Pujols and Votto haven’t separated themselves enough from the rest of the league, yet alone each other, to presume one will sweep the categories.

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