During Monday night's St. Louis Cardinals loss to the last-place (and worst record in baseball) Pittsburgh Pirates, Albert Pujols was 3-for-5 with a double, raising his batting average to .322.
I know this stat is not important to saber heads (please bear with us), but for this argument it is imperative.
Meanwhile, on the west coast, Cincinnati's Joey Votto went 1-for-4 in a 13-5 drubbing by the now offensively resurgent San Francisco Giants. That effort dropped Votto's season average to .323, a single point above Pujols.
With Pujols ahead in the National League in home runs (33) and RBI (92), the batting crown is the only leg of the Triple Crown he doesn't lead.
Adan Dunn, with 31 jacks, and Votto, with 29 dingers, are right behind Phat Albert in the HR race. And with 86 RBI, Votto is six back of Pujols, I believe Albert is safe in both power departments. He is on a roll with the power and when that happens, usually a tidal wave of home runs (and RBI) ensue.
In fact, Albert's August barrage of nine home runs, 20 RBI while hitting .436 is what has put him back into the Triple Crown race.
While Votto is leading with a .323 average entering Wednesday's games, Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez is currently hitting .319, while Atlanta's Martin Prado is at .317. Both could also end up with a higher average than Pujols in his quest to become baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastremski in 1967*.
*If you have never looked into Yaz' stretch run in 1967, when he was not only attempting to win the Triple Crown, but more importantly, trying to lead Boston to the AL Pennant, you need to look into it. It is perhaps the best clutch performance of any player of all time.
While fending off Detroit, Minnesota, and Chicago (what no Yankees?) in a four-team race for the pennant, Yaz went 7-for-8 in his final two games with a double, HR, and six RBI including a 4-for-4 performance on the final day. During the September stretch run, Yaz hit .417 with nine homers, but hit .541 with four homers and 14 RBI over the last 10 games.
It was truly a remarkable performance.
Pujols is starting to turn it on with his incredible month of August, but it is probably the batting average category which could forestall any thoughts of a Triple Crown.
But despite all of Pujols's greatness, there is one guy who can keep Albert from winning the Triple Crown. Joey Votto, right?
It is Omar Infante of the Atlanta Braves.
What? Yes, you saw it correctly. Infante is the one player who can keep Pujols from winning this year's Triple Crown.
Entering today, Infante is hitting .349 this season as a utility player for the first place Braves, and was having such a fine season at the break, he even made his first All-Star team.
But he only has 342 plate appearances thus far, and with the Braves already playing 126 games, Infante currently needs 391 to qualify (3.1 plate appearances per team game played).
Infante is not just a utility player anymore, and has been a regular in Bobby Cox's lineup since late July. And he is not slowing down now that he is a regular. He has hit a robust .370/.400/.560/.960 OPS clip for August (37-for-100) with four home runs.
This is coming off him hitting .429 in July (27-for-63).
With Atlanta only 2.5 games ahead of Philadelphia, Cox has no reason not to play the red-hot Infante every day. With Chipper Jones out for the season, Infante is now the starting second baseman, with Martin Prado moving from second over to third.
Even when Troy Glaus comes back, I still see Infante in the lineup every day until the end of the season.
So let's do the math.
Infante has 342 plate appearances, but needs 502 to qualify for the batting title. For a conservative estimate, lets give him four plate appearances for each of the next 36 games the Braves have left.
That will allow for some games of five PA, while he may sit a game to get some rest. He may even be dropped in the batting order, who knows? He has hit in every spot in the lineup this season but fifth, but has been in the leadoff spot the last couple weeks.
That gives him another 144 plate appearances (36 games x 4 PA per = 144), and add that to his current 342 would give Infante 486 PA for the season. That is still 16 PA short of qualifying for the title.
Lets also say that Infante (even after his very hot July and August), hits only around .320 the rest of the way. Infante does not walk much (another no-no for any saber head HOF consideration), so lets say all his 144 PA become actual at bats.
If Infante gets 46 hits in his 144 remaining at bats (a .319 average), he will end up .33978 for the season (158 for 465). This leads Votto and Pujols at their current averages for the batting title.
But under our situation, Infante is still 16 PA short of a title. This is where playing with the numbers comes into play. Major League Baseball rules regarding a batting title state in order to become eligible, a player must accumulate 3.1 PA for every team games played, or 502 PA.
But if the player with the highest average in a league fails to meet the minimum plate-appearance requirement, the remaining at-bats until qualification are hypothetically considered hitless at-bats; if his recalculated batting average still tops the league, he is awarded the title.
Thus if we give Infante an additional 16 "hitless" at-bats to a total of 481, he would then have a batting average of .32848, still about five points higher than Votto or Pujols is hitting right now. Reduce Infante by one hit, and his average would then be .32640. Reduce by another hit (only 156 hits/481 AB) would reduce his average to .32432, still slightly above where Votto and Pujols are.
This tactic of adding "hitless" at-bats was started in 1967, and was implemented most recently in 1996 when Tony Gwynn won the batting title while only having 498 PA.
I believe Infante will hit around .320 (or better) the rest of the season, and pose an issue for the batting title and possible Pujols Triple Crown. At the end of the season with an average in the .326 to .333 range—after the hitless at bats are added.
This is all moot, of course, if Votto or Dunn, Gonzalez, or even Martin Prado gets hot at their specialties and pushes Pujols out of one or more of the other two categories.
Throw in a Cincinnati and St. Louis Divisional race down the stretch and the last six weeks become even more interesting for Pujols, Votto, and the rest of the National League.