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9/14/2007 07:18:00 AM

Wild Card: The True Triple Threat

Jake Peavy
Jake Peavy could be the NL's first pitching triple crown winner since Randy Johnson in 2002.
Robert Beck/SI
By Cliff Corcoran

As the pennant races come down to the wire, the other races that are being decided in the final weeks of the season are those for the major awards, notably the MVP and Cy Young races. In the American League, Alex Rodriguez's recent home run barrage and the Yankees' late-season surge have all but locked up the AL MVP for Rodriguez despite the strong run made by the Tigers' Magglio Ordoñez. The AL Cy Young race is still wide open, however, with wins leaders Chien-Ming Wang and Josh Beckett going head-to-head in Fenway on Saturday. The real race, however, is likely between Beckett, Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia, and last year's winner Johan Santana.

In the NL, the MVP derby is wide open. The Marlins' Hanley Ramirez leads the league in VORP. The Mets' David Wright is second. Matt Holliday of the Rockies has had one of the best all-around offensive seasons in the league for a surprise contender. Milwaukee's Prince Fielder has been the league's best slugger for another underdog contender.

The NL Cy Young, however, is clear cut. It belongs to Jake Peavy.

The Padres' righty currently leads the NL in wins, strikeouts and ERA. If he holds on to his leads in all three categories, he will become just the fourth pitcher to win the pitching triple crown in the NL since the retirement of Sandy Koufax (the other three being Steve Carlton in 1972, Dwight Gooden in 1985, and Randy Johnson in 2002, all of whom won that year's Cy Young). In the AL, the pitching triple crown has been won just four times since the end of World War II (by Roger Clemens in his two years with the Blue Jays, in 1997 and 1998; Pedro Martinez in 1999, and Santana last year). Overall, since the creation of the NL in 1876 (including the 10 seasons of the American Association in the late 19th century), the pitching triple crown has been achieved 36 times, 20 in the NL, 15 in the AL, and once in the American Association. By comparison, the hitting triple crown has been won just 15 times over the same period, with Carl Yastrzemski being the last to achieve it, in 1967, and Joe "Ducky" Medwick the last to win it in the NL, all the way back in 1937.

A more apt barometer for hitters is what I'll call "the slash-stat triple crown." The two most important hitting statistics are on-base percentage and slugging percentage, not batting average. The first, OBP, is the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs. Since there is no clock in baseball, an offense's opportunity to score is limited only by the number of outs it makes. Thus, the hitter who reaches base most often is also the hitter who makes an out least often, which in turn gives his team the most opportunities to score. Since every hitter in major-league history with more than 32 plate appearances has made an out in more than half of his plate appearances, it's crucial to be able to advance more than one base at a time; thus the importance of slugging percentage, which measures a batters' ability to hit for extra bases. Throw in the classic batting average, which measures how often a hitter gets a hit, and you get what are commonly known as the slash stats: AVG/OBP/SLG.

In the 131 years of major league baseball, the slash-stat triple crown (leading the league in all three rate stats) has been won 45 times: 23 in the NL, 19 in the AL, and three in the American Association. Rogers Hornsby won the slash-stat triple crown the most, doing so seven times in the 1920s (Hornsby also won the traditional triple crown in 1922 and 1925). Ted Williams won the slash-stat triple crown an AL-best five times (including in both of his traditional triple crown seasons in 1942 and 1947). Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb are the only other men to have won it more than twice, doing so four and three times, respectively. Eleven of the traditional triple crown winners also won the slash-stat triple-crown (the exceptions being Medwick, Mickey Mantle in 1956, Jimmie Fox in 1933, and Hugh Duffy in 1894, all of whom led their leagues in slugging but not in OBP). In the NL, the slash-stat triple crown has been won just four times since Stan Musial did it in 1948, twice by a Colorado Rocky from the pre-humidor era (Larry Walker in 1999 and Todd Helton in 2000) and twice by Barry Bonds (2002 and 2004).

In the AL it has been won just twice since Yastrzemski won both the traditional and slash-stat triple crowns in 1967. Fred Lynn took the crown with .333/.423/.637 rates in his overlooked 1979 season (he was second in home runs with 39 and fourth in RBIs with 122), and George Brett took it with .390/.454/.664 rates in his MVP season the following year (Brett was second in RBIs with 118, but his 29 home runs were a distant ninth).

Although Rodriguez leads the AL comfortably in home runs, RBIs and slugging, there are no hitters in either league who have any hope of either type of triple crown. With that in mind, one could fairly describe Peavy as the most dominant player in the game this season. True, Peavy has gotten an assist from his home park, the most extreme pitchers park in baseball, but he still leads the league in the park-adjusted ERA+ by a fair margin over second-place Brad Penny of the Dodgers and Peavy's closest rival for the Cy Young, third-place Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks. Peavy also has a 23-strikeout lead over Cincinnati's Aaron Harang and leads the NL in strikeouts per nine innings pitched by more than a K per inning over his teammate Chris Young.

The only threat to Peavy's bid for a pitching triple crown comes in the team-dependent wins column, where he holds a slim one-win lead over Webb, with five more pitchers just a win behind Webb, all of them from contending teams. More tellingly, in his 30 starts this season, Peavy has failed to complete the sixth inning just three times and has allowed more than three earned runs just four times. What's more, he's been even better on the road than he has in his own pitching-friendly stadium, going 9-1 with a 2.13 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .179/.251/.275 line outside of San Diego. Winning the triple crown would be a historic achievement, but Peavy should win the Cy Young over Webb regardless of who ends up leading the league in wins.


posted by SI.com | View comments |  


Posted: September 14, 2007 2:50 PM   by Anonymous
I rather the slash stat, as a better metric, although it has been accomplished more than the Original Triple Crown.

One thing though, Brett had 24 homers in his epic 1980 season.
I don´t understand why not mentioned Kelvin Escobar. His numbers are pretty similar to the others pitchers you had named
Posted: September 14, 2007 3:33 PM   by Anonymous
It was great to read an article where every sentence wasn't "Josh Beckett and Chien Ming Wang have lots of Wins, so they're better than Sabathia who has a better ERA+ in more IP" or "ZOMG this guy is so good, he has a .300 AVG and 120 RBIs, never mind that his OBP is .300 and that he plays on the Yankees (so would obviously get lots of RBIs).

Very well written.
Posted: September 17, 2007 2:24 PM   by Anonymous
why is rogers hornsby always left out of the discussion of the greatest hitters of all time?
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