Triple Crown fever has struck the National League as Joey Votto and Albert Pujols, the matched set of big-hitting first basemen in the formerly compelling NL Central race, both rank among the league leaders in each of the three Triple Crown categories (batting average, home runs, and RBIs). So who has the best chance to win baseball's first batting Triple Crown since 1967 and the first in the National League since 1937?
The Rockies outfielder and NL leader in batting average and RBIs has been largely left out of the discussion because he doesn't fit the narrative. Pujols is a superstar, a certain future Hall of Famer and three-time NL MVP who has been an October regular. Votto is a former second-round draft pick who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2008, picked up some MVP votes in 2009 and plays for an upstart first-place team that looks ready to unseat Pujols' Cardinals as division champions. Gonzalez, meanwhile, entered this year never having played 90 games, hit more than 15 home runs or driven in more than 30 runs in a season. If he was known for anything, it was for being traded twice in 11 months in packages that involved ace Dan Haren and star slugger Matt Holliday. Gonzalez also plays a different position (in fact, three, as the Rockies have bounced him between left, center, and right fields all year and continue to do so) for a team in a different division that has been on the periphery of the pennant race. Yet, while he lacks the big-bat pedigree of the other two, Gonzalez's large lead in batting average (32 points over Pujols, 19 over Votto) means he is not only in the best position to capture the Triple Crown, but has made it very unlikely that either Pujols or Votto will be able to accomplish the feat.
Here is the race as it stands right now, with a little more than three weeks remaining in the regular season:
Leading the league in home runs and RBIs is an impressive, if hardly unusual, feat. In the 42 completed seasons since Carl Yastrzemski won baseball's last batting Triple Crown in 1967, 45 men have led the league in two of the three Triple Crown categories. Forty of them did so in home runs and RBIs but not batting average. Of those forty, Dick Allen came the closest to the batting champion, falling 10 points shy of Rod Carew in 1972. No player since Yastrzemski has led his league in both home runs and RBIs and finished higher than third in batting average.
Batting average is the hard part. Not only because big sluggers don't always hit for high batting averages, or because great hitters like Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Ichiro Suzuki have tended to put the batting crown out of the reach of non-singles hitters. It's also hard because, unlike home run and RBI totals, batting averages can go down as well as up. Also, while home runs and RBIs can come in bunches, batting averages move slowly and require sustained performances over long stretches of time.
For example, right now either Pujols or Votto could catch and pass Gonzalez in RBIs in their very next at-bat. Votto and Gonzalez could, conceivably, catch him in home runs a single game. Votto hit three home runs in a game last May, and Gonzalez hit three over the course of two games at the end of August. Even setting aside such fearsome feats, either could take over the league lead with a strong week.
Now consider batting average. Gonzalez currently leads the NL with a .340 mark, which he has lifted from .315 on the strength of a 15-game hitting streak that he carries into Wednesday night's action. During the streak, he has hit .525/.574/1.102 with seven homers and 21 RBIs. Pujols is at .308, so he could get as hot as Gonzalez for two weeks and still not catch him (assuming Gonzalez stays put, that is).
Consider some scenarios. Let's say Gonzalez finishes the season at .340, either because he maintains his current average (given how hot he has been, it's not out of the question that he'll continue to climb, then cool off and finish "back down" at .340), or because he suffers a season-ending injury (he already has enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title over a full season, which means a season-ending Gonzalez injury at this point would likely keep anyone from winning the Triple Crown, as we're about to see).
Assuming Pujols plays all of the Cardinals remaining 26 games maintaining his season average of 3.79 at-bats per game as a starter, he'd have to hit .505 over the next 26 games to catch Gonzalez. Great as Pujols may be, he's not going to get a hit in more than half of his at-bats for the remainder of the season.
Now, say Gonzalez cools off a bit and finishes the season around .330. First of all, he'd only have to hit .277 (a worse batting average than he posted during his two-month "slump" in May and June when he hit .279) over his remaining 24 games to finish at .329. In that scenario, Pujols would have to hit .444 over the remainder of the season to pass Gonzalez. Even the red-hot Gonzalez hit "only" .417 over his last 26 starts. In other words, it's not very likely.
What about Votto? Well, he'd have to hit .444 over his next 24 games to catch Gonzalez at .340 and .377 to catch Gonzalez at .330. That's closer to the realm of the possible, but still a longshot.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, just has to make up a three-homer deficit to Pujols over the course of three weeks while keeping pace with Votto. If he does that, the RBI race, which he's already leading, will likely take care of itself, in part because Gonzalez is driving in runners on base at a higher rate -- 21.6 percent -- when he comes to bat than anyone else in the major leagues (minimum 250 plate appearances). To that end, of the Rockies remaining 24 games, 14 of them will come at home, where Gonzalez has hit 25 of his 32 home runs this season.
The odds are against any player winning the Triple Crown, as the last 42 seasons have shown, but if that drought is going to end this year, it won't be perpetual Triple-Crown threat Prince Albert or the slugging star of the upstart Cincinnati Reds who will do it. It will be the slender 24-year-old Venezuelan kid who was traded twice in a calendar year less than two years ago. If anyone is going to win baseball's Triple Crown in 2010, it will be Carlos Gonzalez.