NL fans get to triple their pleasure thanks to Gonzalez, Pujols, Votto

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The National League Triple Crown and Most Valuable Player Award are up for grabs in these final 20 days of the season. Carlos Gonzalez of Colorado, Albert Pujols of St. Louis and JoeyVotto of Cincinnati, in some order, rank 1-2-3 in OPS, slugging, total bases, runs batted in, runs created and the odds of taking their place next to Ducky Medwick and Kenesaw Mountain Landis in baseball history.

No National League player has won the Triple Crown since Medwick in 1937, when Landis, for whom the MVP Award is named, was the commissioner. That three guys, let alone one, have a shot at the first NL Triple Crown in 73 years leads to four conclusions:

1) It's really, really hard to win the Triple Crown. The race this year basically comes down to this: Pujols has 20 games to make up 29 points in the batting race on Gonzalez (35 points if you include stealth candidate Omar Infante of Atlanta, who could get enough plate appearances to qualify), and Votto and Gonzalez have to outhomer Pujols by at least five and seven homers, respectively, to have a chance. Good luck, guys.

2) It's not impossible, especially in the Testing Era, when the home run numbers aren't so outrageous.Three guys taking a serious run at it? That normally sounds like two decades of opportunities. You're likely to see a Triple Crown winner before you see the next .400 hitter.

3) There's no cool like old-school cool. Batting average and RBIs sometime seem as devalued as landlines, rabbit ear antennas and floppy disks. A host of newer stats better explain a player's efficiency and production. But it's the old-school stats that really connect generations of ballplayers in a more accessible, seat-of-your-barstool kind of way. Go ahead: try to come up with something analogous to the Triple Crown in football, basketball or hockey.

Last year Joe Mauer won a Triple Crown of modern sorts by leading all AL players in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It was a phenomenal achievement that spoke volumes about his efficiency. And baseball fans reacted with a collective yawn. There were no "Percentage Triple Crown" watches. No one mentioned Yaz, Robby, Mickey or Ducky. Fans -- the majority of fans; that is, casual fans -- still love what is amassed, not the rate at which statistics are acquired.

4) New rule: You win the Triple Crown, you win the MVP Award. As a tasty side dish to the Triple Crown entree, we get the NL MVP race between Gonzalez, Votto and Pujols -- though Adrian Gonzalez of the Padres is right there with them in the discussion. Pujols may have a slight disadvantage because his team is least likely to get to the playoffs among the top contenders. He just might need to win the Triple Crown to wrest the MVP from a playoff-bound candidate.

Just how hard is it to win the Triple Crown? Since Carl Yastrzemski won the last one in 1967, three horses have won the racing triple crown, seven pitchers have won the pitching triple crown but no hitters have pulled off the genuine article. No information is readily available about the Triple Crown of surfing, of running, of polo and assorted other less discussed pursuits.

Here's a better way to appreciate the difficulty of a Triple Crown. Only two active players have won a career Triple Crown -- that is, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBI at the end of the season at any point in their careers, not even in the same season: Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. They are the only AL players with a career Triple Crown since Yaz in 1967.

In the NL, only four players have won a career Triple Crown since Medwick in 1937: Johnny Mize, Hank Aaron, Andres Galarraga and Barry Bonds. (Pujols would join the career Triple Crown club if he wins the RBI title.)

That is only four guys in 73 years, given their entire career to lead in all three categories. So what does it take to do it in the same season? Talent and luck.

The closest Triple Crown winner since Yaz was Dick Allen, who in 1972, five years after Yaz, missed such immortality by only five hits. The White Sox slugger led the AL in home runs and RBIs, but lost the batting title to Rod Carew, .318-.308. Allen was hitting .318 on Sept. 8 after the first game of a doubleheader, but hit .220 in his final 50 at-bats.

Gary Sheffield of the Padres made a strong Triple Crown run in 1992, winning the batting title but losing the home run title to teammate Fred McGriff (35-33) and the RBI title to Darren Daulton (109-100).

The Steroid Era didn't help make the Triple Crown any easier because home run thresholds rose. Nine of the 14 home run titles between 1996 and 2002 were won with at least 50 home runs -- a number that no one has hit over the past three seasons.

(Talk about old school: Jose Bautista of Toronto has hit 46 homers this year. If he hits 50, it will be treated the way Cecil Fielder's 50th was treated way back in 1991 -- like a true milestone.)

In 2005 Derrek Lee led the Triple Crown categories in June. He did win the batting title, but couldn't keep up with the Joneses: losing the home run title to Andruw Jones (51-46) and the RBI title to Chipper Jones (128-114).

One reason why Triple Crowns are so rare these days is expansion. Pujols faces more competition than Medwick simply because there are more teams, meaning more players. In 1937, 64 players qualified for the NL batting title. This year the number is 73 (not including Omar Invisible). Yaz had 45 competitors for the batting title in 1967.

But the rise in talent is even more important than the increase in teams. The 20th best hitter today, for instance, is far and away better than the 20th best hitter in 1947. A great hitter had a better chance of standing apart from the crown then than now.

The late Harvard professor and author Stephen Jay Gould explained this development when addressing why the .400 hitter has disappeared. Gould looked at the "range of variation," not just a single achievement. And back in the pre-expansion (and pre-integration) days, the range of variation between the best players and the worst players was far greater. Ty Cobb might not have been a better pure hitter than Tony Gwynn, but the range of variation in competition was far greater for Cobb, enabling .400 to become more possible for him than for Gwynn.

Now players come from all over the world and are better trained to play baseball. So Pujols, who was born in the Dominican Republic, competes with Gonzalez, who was born in Venezuela, who competes with Votto, who was born in Canada.

That three players could compete for a Triple Crown in the same season is highly unusual, but also demonstrates that a Triple Crown may not be as elusive as we think. The idea of three players chasing .400 in the same season, for instance, sounds much more fanciful.

Meanwhile, even if a 73rd year passes in the NL without a Triple Crown, we are guaranteed a great MVP race. That drama, like the NL pennant races, should go down to the last weekend.