The One Man Who Can Stop Albert Pujols From Winning the Triple Crown

August 25, 2010

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?

Wrong.

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.

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Mid-Market MLB Method: Lock Up Now or Wait Until After Arbitration Years

August 24, 2010

When the Tampa Bay Rays opened the 2008 major league season, third baseman Evan Longoria was playing for the Durham Bulls in the Triple A International League.

It was the minor leagues for the Rays first choice in the 2006 draft, and was the third overall pick. Many people, including myself, suggested the Rays were trying to save themselves some money by delaying Longoria’s “arbitration clock” by sending him to the minors.

Isn’t the idea to try and win games? Longoria was the Rays best opportunity at third base to help them win, but was mired in Triple A for financial reasons.

But being mired lasted all of seven games and 25 at bats, before Longoria was promoted to the majors. The Rays were going to let the clock start early on their prize after all.

But even the Rays startled everyone by signing Longoria the next day to a six year, $17.5 million contract through 2013 including three club options for 2014-2016. The Rays bought out all of Longoria’s arbitration years and his first three free agent years with club options.

Based upon Longoria’s performance, the team has made out very well. Even though they gambled on an unproven young talent and are going to save a bunch of money over the long haul.

This buying out of a players early “control” years is a growing trend which began in the early-to-mid 1990’s by General Manager John Hart when he was with the Cleveland Indians. He signed up youngsters Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Carlos Baerga, plus Joey and Albert Belle to multi-year deals WHILE they were really good…and really young. 

For example, Lofton has a 7.7 WAR* in 1994 (shortened season due to strike), the highest in baseball that season and his WAR was 7.3 in 1993. He made only $925K that year and $1.925 million in 1995. His salary would have been much higher had Lofton actually gone to arbitration in 1995.

*That is the first time I used the WAR stat in any article ever. While I am not needing to be rushed to the hospital, I am still in shock. It was needed for reference on how good Lofton was those seasons. Don’t expect it all the time.

Hart needed to do this to keep together what he projected his core would be for many years at reasonable prices than what these players would receive through arbitration and early free agency. As a smaller market team, Hart reasoned the Indians had a smaller window to win.

Signing up young players is a great tactic for these small market** teams to use.

**I love the term small-market. With all these billionaire owners, they can afford to spend their OWN PERSONAL money on players. I don’t mean to spend frivolously big on free agents like you are Omar Minaya, but to spend to keep the players your organization develops.

Why then are there small markets when these guys have their own money they can spend. Before he died, Carl Pohlad of the Minnesota Twins was the richest owner in baseball but did not spend money. Lucky the Twins re-signed Kirby Puckett when Carl was alive, but I am not so sure he would have signed Joe Mauer to that contract last off season.

Should other small-market teams use the same ideas?

Of course, they should. They have to in order to compete with the so-called big boys of Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

But these big teams do the same thing.

The Red Sox signed Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, and Kevin Youkilis to long term deals before even going to arbitration on Lester and Pedroia and after the first arbitration year for Youkilis. I fully expect them to extend Clay Buchholz after the 2011 season.

They want to see players perform for two or three seasons before they sign players longer term. This allows for any adjustment periods the league makes to the players after their rookie and sophomore seasons.

The Yankees also did that with Robinson Cano two seasons ago and even Derek Jeter, who was signed to a ten-year deal after his second arbitration year. Yankees would probably sign Phil Hughes to a multi-year deal, too, after 2011, buying out several arbitration years and maybe a free agent year or two.

Even the Philadelphia Phillies tied up their young guys Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard, who were tied up after their first arbitration years.

There is quite a bit of talk now about the MLB financial statements for several teams being made public. These statements put teams like Pittsburgh and Florida into bad light, and for once it was not about their on field records. They show that the teams have made tens of millions of dollars but have not put that much of that money into player salaries.

These teams need to start signing their young stars when they believe their young players are going to be well-above average for the long haul. This is tricky because if you jump too soon on a player, you could be left holding the bag at big dollars for very little in the way of results.

Similar to what Scott Kazmir and Nate McLouth have become.

But certain smaller-market teams have reaped the benefits of signing young talent early, like Milwaukee with Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo and Corey Hart, the Marlins with Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson; and the Mariners with Franklin Gutierrez and Felix Hernandez.

Other teams like the Braves with Brian McCann (and likely Jason Heyward soon), have done this.

The Pirates have a couple good, young talented ballplayers in Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen. Alvarez is signed through 2014 (including club options), but it would be good to spend some of that profit and also sign McCutchen after his first full season to a long-term commitment, saving long-term money.

The smaller-market teams need to decide who the players they want to keep. Not just “team” players who can be replaced cheaper through from their farm system, but players who already have been All-Stars.

And who they feel will continue to be All-Stars and league leaders, not league average.

McCutchen appears to be that type of player a team can take that risk.

Many other teams have major decisions to make.

Players like Wandy Rodriguez of the Astros, Dallas Braden and Trevor Cahill of the A’s, and Jair Jurrjens of the Braves need to be looked at longer term at below future-market rates. 

But the biggest task might fall to the Cincinnati Reds have to decide if Joey Votto (yes, of course!), Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto need to be locked up soon. They all are coming up on their arbitration years.

This would be a great move for the first-place Reds to sign all three, who have plenty of young players in the fold who could keep the Reds at the top of the NL Central standing for many years to come. Similar to what their in-state brethren, the Cleveland Indians, did almost 20 years ago.   

Most of the big market teams seem to like to get their players just before or a year after their first year of arbitration. 

I feel it might be better for the smaller-market teams to take a bigger risk by signing top guys earlier, like Longoria in Tampa and Troy Tulowitzki (his college teammate) in Colorado. The Rockies would be wise to lock up Carlos Gonzalez to a “Longoria type” deal this off season and keep the young slugger locked up in Colorado through age 30.

It sure worked for the Rays.