Few candidates for Triple Crown are long shots

Few candidates for Triple Crown are long shots

Few candidates for Triple Crown are long shots
One month into the season, some optimists were already tossing around the notion of Matt Kemp potentially ending the nearly half-century drought of a hitter not winning a Triple Crown.

Kemp, after all, finished April with a blistering .417 average, 12 home runs and 25 RBIs -- all of which led the National League. A strained left hamstring, though, cost Kemp nearly two months and erased any chance the slugger had at the elusive achievement of leading a league in batting average, home runs and RBIs.

Now, with just less than two months remaining in the season and legitimate league leaders starting to emerge, it turns out all hope may not be lost for witnessing the Major Leagues' first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

In the American League, the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera entered play Thursday tied for the league lead in RBIs with 95 and sat just two home runs back of league leader Adam Dunn with 29. The biggest obstacle for Cabrera, who was hitting .323, figures to be claiming the batting title over Angels phenom Mike Trout, who is currently leading the way at a .345 clip and not showing any signs of slowing down.

In the NL, a few players seem to have an outside shot at the Crown, with Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen in the best position of the bunch. McCutchen led all Major Leaguers with his .370 average, was third in the league in homers with 23 (six behind the Brewers' Ryan Braun) and 10th RBIs with 69 (nine behind the leader, Carlos Beltran of St. Louis).

"Very seldom will you find someone who can hit for power and a high-enough average to go along with 40 to 50 homers," said McCutchen, who doesn't see himself rallying to the top of all three categories anytime soon. "[Barry] Bonds was pretty good at it -- good enough to win a couple of batting titles -- but now it's hard to find someone who can do both."

So hard actually, that no slugger has earned a hitting Triple Crown since Yastrzemski led the AL with a .326 average, 44 home runs and 121 RBIs. In the 44 seasons since, 10 hurlers have tossed their way to the pitching version of the Triple Crown (wins, ERA and strikeouts), including both Justin Verlander in the AL and Clayton Kershaw in the NL last season.

Overall, there have been 32 pitching Triple Crowns since 1900 compared to just 13 hitting. Not even Bonds could capture the batting, home run and RBI titles in the same season when he was putting up monster numbers in the early 2000s.

"The cycle the game went through ... [Triple Crowns were won] back in the day when 20 [homers] and 100 [RBIs] meant you were top-shelf," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "Now those kinds of numbers would get lost in the crowd. The emphasis on power has de-emphasized the average, so we lost some of that context."

In fact, since 2000, 11 players have led their league in two of the three necessary categories. Of those 11, only Matt Kemp in 2011 and Matt Holliday in 2007 finished in the top five of the other category.

Holliday posted the rare form of a near-Triple Crown, leading the NL with a .340 average and 137 RBIs with the Rockies in '2007. His 36 home runs placed him fourth in the NL but he finished 14 behind home run champ Prince Fielder.

As for Kemp, he took the more traditional approach, leading the NL with 39 dingers and 126 RBIs a season ago. He remained in contention for the batting title deep into the season, but ultimately finished third with a .324 average, 13 points behind league leader Jose Reyes.

"There's a lot better pitching now, stronger guys in relief. You have to see guys throwing 99 [mph] at the end of games," McCutchen said. "So it's almost impossible that you can see something like that now [winning a Triple Crown]."

Almost impossible may be a fair assessment, but guys like Kemp, Alex Rodriguez and Todd Helton are among the active players who have kept things interesting into previous Septembers.

Helton had a near-miss in 2000 when he led the NL with a .372 average and 147 RBIs, but unfortunately that came in a year when Bonds and Sammy Sosa were crushing balls out of ballparks all across the country. Helton finished eight home runs shy of Sosa's league-leading 50.

"Some offensive teams give opportunities that are off the charts for certain guys." Hurdle said. "To lead in RBIs, you have to be stuck in the middle of a powerful lineup. The opportunities to drive in runs vary for hitters depending on the lineup they're in."

Ironically enough, the player most likely to keep Cabrera from ending the Triple Crown drought this season is a 20-year-old who may himself contend for one down the road. Though Trout may not be considered a front-runner to lead the AL in home runs -- and continuing to bat leadoff would make it difficult from an RBI aspect -- he has shown flashes of the power and hit-for-average qualities necessary to compete for it.

Just ask Hall of Famer Al Kaline.

"He's a strong guy, runs really well, power -- he reminds me a little bit of a [Mickey] Mantle," Kaline told the Detroit Free Press last month. "You don't see the combination of power and speed that he has."

While Kaline wasn't necessarily discussing Triple Crown potential when he made the comparison to Mantle, he did invoke the name of one of the 11 sluggers who have turned in the 13 total Triple Crown seasons since 1900. Mantle accomplished the feat in 1956.

"Is it surprising that Mike Trout's talent is able to produce what's happening on the field? No, that's not a surprise. He's an extraordinary talent," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said recently. "You go back probably 50 years and you can count the guys on one hand that came up at such a young age and had this much of an impact on the team."

All of which makes one wonder what type of impact Trout might have on the Triple Crown in future years -- and even this year, as he could ultimately play spoiler to Cabrera.

Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.