Commentary

Pujols pushing for Triple Crown history

King Albert leads the NL in homers and RBIs and ranks second in batting average

Originally Published: July 20, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Albert Pujols has won two MVP awards and is shooting for a third this season. He also is unanimously considered the best player in baseball, and now he has a chance to win the Triple Crown.

There's a reason no one has won the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski accomplished the feat in 1967 and, in the National League, since Joe Medwick in 1937: It's really hard to do, perhaps harder than ever.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Rich Kane/Icon SMIAlbert Pujols has 10 more home runs than the next-closest player in the National League.

How hard? It has been done only 13 times since 1900: Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1909), Rogers Hornsby (1922 and '25) Jimmie Foxx and Chuck Klein (1933), Lou Gehrig (1934), Medwick (1937), Ted Williams (1942 and '47), Mickey Mantle (1956), Frank Robinson (1966) and Yastrzemski. There's no Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron on that list.

For Robinson, it was the only season during his brilliant career in which he led his league in any of the Triple Crown categories. Since Yastrzemski won it, a player has won two legs of the Triple Crown in the same season 40 times, but no player has won the batting average and home run title in one season. And only four times has anyone won the batting title and RBI title in the same season: Joe Torre (1971), Al Oliver (1982), Todd Helton (2000) and Matt Holliday (2007).

Since Yaz won the Triple Crown, only four players have won all three legs of the Triple Crown in separate seasons during their careers: Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Andres Galarraga. Mike Piazza, one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever and the greatest-hitting catcher of all time, never finished first in any of the Triple Crown categories. Neither has Vladimir Guerrero. Frank Thomas, a two-time MVP, and one of the best right-handed hitters ever, won one batting title. Even Pujols has won only one of the categories, a batting title in 2003.

That season was one of the relatively close calls for the Triple Crown. Pujols led the league in hitting; his 43 home runs tied for fourth in the league, four short of the leader; and his 124 RBIs were tied for fourth, 17 shy of the leader. George Foster made a run in 1977, as did Larry Walker in 1997, Helton in 2000 and Gary Sheffield in 1992 when he led the NL in hitting, was second in home runs with 33 (two behind the leader) and finished fifth in RBIs (nine off the leader). The closest call was Dick Allen in 1972, when he led the AL in home runs (37) and RBIs (113), and his .308 average was third, 10 points behind Rod Carew's.

The reason it has gotten harder to win the Triple Crown is that the game has become more specialized every year. There are hitters who have sacrificed power for a high average, such as Carew, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn, who won a combined 20 batting titles after Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown. There are hitters who have sacrificed their averages to hit for power, such as Ryan Howard. And there are so many more teams and more hitters in today's game that the competition is perhaps stronger than it has ever been. Mike Schmidt won eight home run titles, but in this decade, seven different National League players have won a home run title, eight different NL players have won a batting title and seven different American League players have won an RBI crown. Sammy Sosa had more 60-homer seasons (three) than he had home run titles (two). Bonds has the most homers of all time but only two home run titles.

It has grown harder to win the Triple Crown because of the Rockies, who joined the NL in 1993 and play in the greatest hitters' ballpark of all time. In their brief history, they have had six batting champions, six RBI champions and three home run champions. Compare their history to that of the White Sox, who have been in the AL since 1900 but have only three batting champions, three home run champs and one RBI champ.

Pujols is up against history and the odds during the second half of the season. But he leads his league in average, home runs and RBIs since the 2008 All-Star break and is the fourth player, joining Aaron (1957), Tony Perez (1970) and Bonds (1993), to lead from break to break since Mantle's Triple Crown year in 1956. Now comes the hard part for Pujols -- leading from April until October. But for Pujols, who is behind in the batting race by 12 points as of Sunday's games, his task is even more formidable given that he's trailing a great hitter, Hanley Ramirez.

But Pujols has a shot to win the Triple Crown. Very few hitters in history have had that.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.

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