Can Albert Pujols Win the Triple Crown?
“My guess is that we will see another Triple Crown winner in the next ten years. The historical trend lines are heading in that direction. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, as, as I said, the historical trend lines may be simply a result of a random clustering of talent. It’s difficult, and it hasn’t happened for a long time, but it has not become impossible for some player to win the Triple Crown.” Bill James—June 6, 2008
Albert Pujols has a serious shot at winning the first Triple Crown since Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski did so back in the 60s. It's been over 70 years since a National Leaguer led the league in home runs, batting average, and runs batted in. The only time Pujols has led the league in any triple crown category was when he boasted a .359 batting average back in 2003. He’s finished second in every category at least once. But this year might be different.
This year, Pujols might have a fully healthy elbow. This year, Chipper Jones might not threaten .400. This year, Ryan Howard might not pound 50 home runs. According to Joe Posnanski, you just have to have The Power to Believe. This is the year of Pujols.
Here's how Pujols has stacked up thus far in his career. This table shows Pujols' marks followed by the league leader's in parentheses.
| Year | Batting Average | Home Runs | Runs Batted In | Games | Plate Appearances |
| 2008 | .357 (.364) | 37 (48) | 116 (146) | 148 | 641 |
| 2007 | .327 (.340) | 32 (50) | 103 (137) | 158 | 679 |
| 2006 | .331 (.344) | 49 (58) | 137 (149) | 143 | 634 |
| 2005 | .330 (.335) | 41 (51) | 117 (128) | 161 | 700 |
| 2004 | .331 (.362) | 46 (48) | 123 (131) | 154 | 692 |
| 2003 | .359 (.359) | 43 (47) | 124 (141) | 157 | 685 |
| 2002 | .314 (.370) | 34 (49) | 127 (128) | 157 | 675 |
| 2001 | .329 (.350) | 37 (73) | 130 (160) | 161 | 676 |
Let’s break it down by category. I've looked at six projection systems—Bill James, CHONE, Marcel, Oliver, PECOTA, and ZiPS—to give us an idea of what to expect.
Last year, Chipper Jones'.364 average narrowly edged Pujols’.357 average for the batting title. This year, every projection system shows Pujols consistently hitting between .327 and .339. Chipper has a much wider range. CHONE and PECOTA, currently the two most trusted systems out there, completely disagree on Chipper. CHONE puts him at .310 while PECOTA shows Jones posting a .341 average to edge out Pujols. Jones’ true talent level with regards to batting average was the subject of much discussion here, here, and here. It's tough to say who has the edge between the two.
Pujols and Chipper both excel in their plate discipline skills. Last year they had the lowest first-strike percentage of all National League batters to qualify for the batting title. They rarely see pitches inside the strike zone, and neither is prone to swing at pitches in general. In fact, Pujols and Chipper both walked more than they struck out. Pujols has achieved this feat seven straight years. When shooting for a high batting average, the importance of not striking out is, of course, that one has a greater chance at getting a hit if the ball is put into play.
Chipper and Pujols also excel at earning surefire hits by putting the ball out of play and over the fence. Low strikeout and high homerun totals give players a good chance at having a high average. The rest is dependent on BABIP. The factors that go into BABIP, according to an article by Peter Bendix and Chris Dutton, boil down to pitch recognition, speed, the ability to make solid contact, and the ability to spread the ball to all fields. Pujols hits a lot of line drives (20% career), and has incredible power (22.7% HR/FB, 84 XBH/year). He rarely swings, but when he does swing, he makes contact 90% of the time, which is above average and exceptional for someone who swings so hard. However, Pujols doesn’t spray the ball particularly well and isn’t too fast down the line. (He’s not slow, though. Fans gave him 46 out of 100 on speed, he’s an average to good baserunner, and he has a great glove.) Overall, xBABIP says that Pujols has gotten very lucky with BABIP lately, but nevertheless, Pujols' best shot at any of the categories is in batting average, where he and Jones are almost in a class by themselves.
Other batting average contenders: David Wright and Hanley Ramirez project to hit better than .300 almost across the board. Their problem is that they strike out too much, having both eclipsed the century mark last year. Garrett Atkins. Milton Bradley. Matt Kemp, if his .376 career BABIP is sustainable. Chase Utley. Jose Reyes. Brian McCann. Manny Ramirez has a hitter's haven in Los Angeles. Pablo Sandoval is my sleeper.
Ryan Howard is going to be Pujols’ biggest challenger in home runs and runs batted in. Howard, unfortunately, simply is more one dimensional than Pujols. There are no average specialists like Ichiro is in the AL, but Howard is the National League specialist in hitting the ball a long ways. A third of his fly balls clear the fence. Howard has hit 48, 47, and 58 long-balls over the last three years. Not a single projection system has Pujols hitting greater than 41 homers. Meanwhile, not a single projection system has Howard hitting fewer than 40. But there is hope.
Looking at their skillsets, Pujols may actually be the better homerun hitter, but is simply in worse circumstances. If we can establish that he has a higher talent level when it comes to homers, I say we can at least give him a legitimate shot to take the category.
Howard’s home park is hugely beneficial to his power output. Statcorner’s park factors show a crazy 116 HR/FB park factor for Philly and an equally ridiculous 87 HR/FB for St. Louis. (That’s Petco level. I had no idea.) Greg Rybarczyk used his Hit Tracker system to come up with a new method for calculating home run park factors. Howard is 15% more likely to hit homers in Citizen Bank Park to any field except for straight away center, where Pujols would have an edge.
Howard’s average homer traveled 400 feet last year and the speed off bat was 104 MPH. But Pujols demonstrated more raw power, as he hit his average homer went 406 feet and 106 MPH off the bat. Furthermore, Howard's power figures seem to be declining, as his distance and speed figures are trending downward. Pujols shows more consistent power, averaging distance and speed off bat figures of 406, 412, 407, and 106, 109, and 110 in past years.
Here's the placement of their home runs from last year. Pujols' home runs and Busch's outfield walls are in red, Howard's home runs and Citizen Bank's outfield walls are in blue.
See that 20 foot discrepancy between Busch's left field wall and Citizen Bank Park's? It looks like Howard got three or four extra homers in that area, and there's little doubt in my mind that Pujols hit some fly balls out there that went for mere doubles.
Other home run contenders: Adam Dunn won the "golden sledgehammer" with an average of 419 feet and 109 MPH. Fortunately for Pujols, he's now playing in Nationals Park. Four straight seasons of exactly forty homers will likely come to an end. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are The Brewers Young Duo That Needs A Nickname. They're 24-25 years old and Fielder's already logged a 50 home run season while Braun's getting there. Joey Votto. Lance Berkman. Adrian Gonzalez was just profiled by Marc Normandin on Baseball Prospectus using Hit Tracker data, and it's crazy to think what he'd be hitting if he were still in Texas. Manny Ramirez. Alfonso Soriano. Chris Young is my sleeper, and who knows what Justin Upton is capable of?
Runs Batted In
Ryan Howard is out in front of the RBI race, but we all know how team-dependent those are. Last year, Chase Utley made up 32 of Howard's 146 RBI, but if Utley is dinged up, his decline, coinciding with Howard’s decline, would severely impact Howard's RBI potential. PECOTA, in fact, shows Pujols driving in more runs than Howard.
Last year, Pujols batted 3rd behind Aaron Miles and Skip Schumaker, who did well getting on base in front of him. Schumaker should bat leadoff this year, which is a plus, since he's OBPed around .360 the last couple of years and upped that to .370 last year when he was the leadoff man. Hopefully Ryan Ludwick bats second, which would give the Cardinals' top two batters higher OBPs than the Phillies top two of Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino. Pujols batted third most of last year, but it looks like Tony La Russa will switch Pujols to cleanup and insert Ryan Ankiel into the three hole. The trio of Schumaker, Ludwick, and Ankiel ought to set the table nicely for Pujols, at least better than did Miles, Schumaker, and Cesar Izturis, who La Russa batted ninth most of last season season in place of the pitcher.
Of note, Howard had fewer extra base hits than Pujols, despite all the homers. The lack of doubles is a large part of the reason why Howard is overrated. Howard had 146 RBI to Pujols’ 116. They both earned just over half their RBI on homers, but Howard was able to earn twice as many RBI on singles, while hitting thirty fewer singles. This suggests Howard had men in scoring position more often than Pujols did. Indeed, Howard had 50 more plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Perhaps that evens out this year.
Pujols has been getting intentionally walked more and more, and last year was given a free pass twice as often as Howard. That doesn't bode well for Pujols, considering all those walks come during RBI chances. Furthermore, Howard’s BABIP with RISP was .383 compared to an overall .285 BABIP. This is likely explained by the infield shift, as Rich Lederer noted last year. On the other hand, Pujols faced terrible luck in RBI situations, suffering a BABIP with RISP 50 points below his season total. Check out this graph from fangraphs, and first off notice the age. Ryan Howard is older than Albert Pujols! Again, I had no idea.
If Howard can't collect hits within the field of play, and continues his strikeout percentage trend, he'll simply be relying on his homers for RBI. I've already shown that that faucet of production might run drier for Howard than it has in previous years. Howard has a strikeout percentage three times that of Pujols, and when they swing, Howard swings and misses three times more often too. Howard's skills are in decline. I’m going to say there’s a chance for Pujols to out ribeye Howard.
Other RBI contenders: David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado. The top of the Mets' lineup is really dangerous. Lance Berkman. Manny Ramirez. Joey Votto. Aramis Ramirez. Braun and Fielder. Garrett Atkins. Andre Ethier is my sleeper. The top of the Dodgers lineup is awesome too, and Ethier slugged .510 last year. If Adrian Gonzalez were to get traded, he could compete, but the Padres aren't scoring many runs this year.
In my opinion, Pujols is the best hitter for average, best hitter for power, and best hitter at driving in runs in the National League. The problem is that the pieces around him have yet to fall perfectly into place. His park, his lineup, and other Triple Crown category contenders have not been kind to him. I won’t predict that Pujols wins the Triple Crown, if only for the fact that no matter how overwhelming a favorite is in any category, the field is generally a better play thanks to random variance. But if Pujols does pull it off, don't tell me I didn't warn you.