Avidly, Avidly

Now that the Jays are quietly and methodically fading from contention in the A.L. East--fitting for a team that more or less faded into contention accidentally--Toronto fans can turn their attention to three individual stories that have been taking shape all year: 1) Tony Batista's attempt to become the first third baseman ever to hit 50 HR. (Possible but unlikely--after a year-plus of a credible Mike Schmidt imitation, Tony finally seems to be slowing down.) 2) David Wells over Pedro Martinez for the Cy Young. (A longshot at the All-Star break, now a dead issue--Pedro has two months to get the 5 or 6 wins that would make him a lock no matter what Wells does.) 3) Carlos Delgado's pursuit of the first Triple Crown since Yastrzemski's in 1967. It took 36 years for somebody to break Maris's home run record; unless there's a Triple Crown winner in the next four seasons, Yaz's milestone will have stood up longer than Maris's. I'm surprised--compared to something like DiMaggio's streak or Williams's .400 season, a Triple Crown seems relatively manageable. I can't see anybody, under any circumstances (offensive boom year, playing in Coors Field, etc.), hitting in 57 straight games. There's just not enough margin of error-- essentially there's none, which is why, 60 years later, nobody's even gotten within 80% of DiMaggio's mark. In abbreviated seasons, George Brett (extended injury) and Tony Gwynn (strike) got about 98% of the way to .400, so that does seem like something that will happen one of these years. But even there, there's not the luxury of a lot of down-time. Delgado, for instance, recently went over two weeks without a home run, but having built up a comfortable lead beforehand, he's still tied for the league lead. A serious two-week slump for somebody chasing .400 (5 for 40, say) would pretty much kill his chances. So even though winning a Triple Crown is something of a juggling act, you can drop one of the balls for a couple of weeks and still recover, especially if nobody else comes along and picks it up while you're not looking (much like nobody went on a home run tear during Delgado's slump). In any case, Carlos is in the running. To go along with the home run lead, his .368 BA (complete through Aug. 8) leaves him second behind Garciaparra's .386, and his 101 RBI are similarly tied for second behind Edgar Martinez's 107. He should win HR: Griffey's gone, Gonzalez's year is a write-off, and the one guy I'd normally count as even-money to keep up with Carlos, Manny Ramirez, simply lost too much time on the DL. Glaus or Giambi? Maybe, but Delgado is clearly the league's premier home-run hitter right now. Taking the RBI title will be tougher, BA tougher still (where Garciaparra's DL time will work to his advantage). But absolutely, he's still very much in the picture. By my count, there have been 16 players since '67 who made a legitimate run at a Triple Crown. (Fifteen--Barry Bonds did it twice.) It's an arbitrary call, but "legitimate" for me counts as having finished with no less than 90% of the league-leading mark in all three Triple Crown categories. That's the minimum requirement, but in actual fact, 13 of the 16 players led the league in at least one of the three categories, while seven of the 16--almost half-- led in two. Having narrowed the field to 16, I then used the following formula to assign each player an overall "Triple Crown Index" (or, in the parlance of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "TCI"): [(BA/BA leader)-squared + (HR/HR leader)-squared + (RBI/RBI leader)-squared]/3 I squared each percentage in order to knock down stragglers in any one category. If you lead the league in something, you get a 1.00 for that category: Delgado scores (33/33) x (33/33) in home runs this year, or 1.00. Yastrzemski's '67 seasons works out like this: [(.326/.326)(.326/.326) + (44/44)(44/44) + (121/121)(121/121)]/3 = 1.00 In other words, a Triple Crown. The top 16 since Yaz, plus Delgado: BA HR RBI TCI 1. D. Allen, '72 0.969 1.000 1.000 0.979 2. G. Foster, '77 0.947 1.000 1.000 0.965 3. J. Rice, '78 0.946 1.000 1.000 0.965 4. M. Schmidt, '81 0.927 1.000 1.000 0.953 5. D. Bichette, '95 0.924 1.000 1.000 0.951 6. W. McCovey, '69 0.920 1.000 1.000 0.949 7. L. Walker, '97 0.984 1.000 0.929 0.943 8. B. Bonds, '93 0.908 1.000 1.000 0.942 9. B. Williams, '72 1.000 0.925 0.976 0.936 10. C. DELGADO, '00 0.953 1.000 0.944 0.933 11. F. Howard, '68 0.910 1.000 0.972 0.925 12. G. Sheffield, '92 1.000 0.943 0.917 0.910 13. B. Bonds, '92 0.942 0.971 0.945 0.908 14. J. Bagwell, '94 0.934 0.907 1.000 0.898 15. D. Murphy, '83 0.935 0.900 1.000 0.895 16. F. Thomas, '94 0.983 0.950 0.902 0.894 17. A. Belle, '94 0.994 0.900 0.902 0.871 I initially drew up a list based on highest TCI only, but a number of players qualified who won the home run and RBI titles without really coming at all close to the batting crown: Killebrew in '69, Stargell and Jackson in '73, Canseco in '88, and a half-dozen others. In 1973, when Reggie hit .293 to Carew's .350, he fell 31 hits short of a Triple Crown; even though his TCI of 0.900 places him ahead of Bagwell, Thomas, and Belle in '94, realisti- cally he was much farther away from the mark than the latter group. Securing a batting title is obviously the major stumbling block to winning a Triple Crown. Ten of the 16 players on the above chart (Delgado excluded) finished first in home runs, nine of 16 won RBI, and seven of 16 took both categories. By contrast, only Williams and Sheffield won batting titles. This should not be surprising. In any given year, there are always hitters who are primarily thought of as power guys hanging around the fringes of the batting race, with one or two of them invariably right in the middle; you'll never see players who are first and foremost high-average hitters on the home-run leaderboard. When Boggs opened everybody's eyes with 24 home runs in 1987, he wasn't even halfway to leading the league. A serious Triple Crown run does, absent any extenuating circumstances, seem to be a guarantee on winning the MVP. Eleven of the players above were MVPs, and four of the five non-winners can be easily explained: Sheffield and Belle lost to rival Triple Crown contenders (Bonds and Thomas), Howard was up against Denny McLain's 31 wins, and the voters were smart enough to realize that Bichette's big season (unlike Walker's '97) was an almost comical Coors Field illusion--.377, 31 HR, 83 RBI, .755 SA at home; .300/9/45/.473 on the road--giving the award to Barry Larkin instead. (I would have voted for Piazza.) Williams lost to Bench in '72, an arguable but reasonable pick. Bench led the league in HR and RBI; he hit .270 when .270 meant something for a catcher; he won a Gold Glove and Williams didn't; the Reds won and the Cubs didn't; and Williams did half his hitting in Wrigley Field, the Coors Field of its day. Incidentally, Williams is the only guy on the above list who technically came within three hits of winning a Triple Crown (Allen needed five), albeit three solo home runs. So I'm confident that Delgado will be the American League MVP this year. Pedro Martinez, whose season may turn out to be as historic in its way as McLain's '68, is the most credible competition I see, but with Ivan Rodriguez out and Pedro/Nomar, A-Rod/Edgar, and Thomas/Ordonez up against vote- splitting, I think Carlos will win. A Triple Crown, I don't know. He's got a chance--maybe the best since Allen and Williams in '72.

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