Is It Too Early? (05/08/00)
Fusaichi Pegasus will win horse racing's Triple Crown this year. He was the first favorite to win the Kentucky Derby in 21 years and was clearly the best horse in the field in Saturday's race. Sitting in the middle of the pack until the backstretch, he exploded from the inside rail to the outside in the final turn, and in a matter of 100 or so yards, blew by the rest of the field and coasted to a length and a half victory. Jockey Kent Desormeaux didn't once use his whip in the final furlong. Unless something tragic happens, he will join Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) as the twelfth to win horse racing's most glamorous achievement.
Ironically, there have only been 11 hitters in the history of modern baseball who have led their league in batting average, homers and RBI, the three jewels in baseball's batting Triple Crown. Similarly, there have been only 16 pitchers in the modern era who have topped the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA for their equivalent achievement. It may be a little early to start talking about that kind of dominance, but there are some serious candidates in the field this year who might join the ranks of those immortals.
Winning the Triple Crown in either sport is extremely difficult, as it requires a competitor who is complete in all facets of his sport. In horse racing, the horse has to master not only various distances, but also negotiate varying sizes in the field. In baseball, a hitter has to be proficient in hitting for average, but also has to hit for power, and do both when the pressure is greatest - when there are baserunners. For the pitcher, it's less of an individual achievement, as wins and ERA are at least partly dependent on the success of his teammates ability to score and prevent runs, respectively.
The list of hitters who have accomplished this achievement is an impressive one. All are in the Hall of Fame, so it's pretty evident that these guys were very good hitters both before and after they won it; no one-year wonders here. Ted Williams (1942, 1947) and Rogers Hornsby (1922, 1925) are the only ones to have done it twice. Williams missed a third crown in 1949 by .0002 points in batting average. The rest of the list is a veritable who's who in hitting: Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1909), Jimmie Foxx (1933), Chuck Klein (1933), Lou Gehrig (1934), Joe Medwick (1937), Mickey Mantle (1956), Frank Robinson (1966) and Carl Yastremski (1967).
The list of pitchers is also prestigious: Cy Young (1901), Rube Wadell (1905), Christy Mathewson (1905, 1908), Walter Johnson (1913, 1918, 1924), Grover "Pete" Alexander (1915, 1916, 1917, 1920), James "Hippo" Vaughn (1918), Dazzy Vance (1924), Lefty Grove (1930, 1931), Lefty Gomez (1934, 1937), Bucky Walters (1939), Hal Newhouser (1945), Sandy Koufax (1963, 1965, 1966), Steve Carlton (1972), Dwight "Doc" Gooden (1985), Roger Clemens (1997, 1998) and Pedro Martinez (1999). All but Gooden and Walters are either in the Hall or destined for the Hall. Gooden certainly had the talent to make it, but several years of off-the-field troubles and injuries cost him.
So who are this year's candidates? In the pitching department, the two most likely candidates are Randy Johnson in the NL and Pedro Martinez in the AL. Johnson became only the third pitcher in major league history (Vida Blue in 1971 and Dave Stewart in 1988) to win 6 games in the month of April. He currently leads the league in wins (7), ERA (0.93) and strikeouts (75). While he's only 1 win ahead of his closest competition, his ERA is a full run better and he has 24 more K's than his closest rival. Even though it's ludicrous to suggest he'll continue his current pace, his numbers pro-rate to a 35-0 season with 375 Ks and the best ERA ever for a starter. Perhaps only Braves fans would begrudge him another Cy Young award for that kind of performance. Martinez has been almost as impressive. He is currently tied for the lead in wins in the AL with 5, but leads in ERA by over a full run (currently at 1.22) and strikeouts by 20 with 67.
For the hitters, it's less clear cut, but there are definitely some early favorites. In the AL, only Jermaine Dye looks like a threat. As of today, he sits atop the leader board in homers with 13, third in batting average at .374, .010 back of David Segui, second in RBI with 33, 2 behind Jason Giambi. Dye is the same age as Helton, but has never hit more than 30 homers, nor does he hit in Coors field. He also has the disadvantage of playing in the same league as Darrin Erstad, Nomar Garciaparra, Frank Thomas and Derek Jeter, all of whom are perennial batting title contenders. Dye's best year in batting average came last year when he hit .294. Dye is a good all around player, but even with his great start, probably won't come close to baseball's toughest achievement.
In the NL, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Edmonds and Todd Helton are battling for supremacy in batting average where Guerrero currently leads Edmonds by .003 and Helton by .031. Edmonds is tied for the lead in homers at 11, along with 5 others including Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, and 6 back in RBI. Guerrero is just two back of the leaders in homers and is tied for the lead in RBI with Helton and one other. Like Guerrero, Helton is also just two back from the lead in homers. Edmonds is probably a little out of his element showing this kind of power. The most homers he has ever hit in the majors is 33, and at age 30, he's not likely to improve on that number by more than 25%, even in what's beginning to look like a career year. Helton, 26, hit a career best 35 homers last year and has always been a scout favorite to challenge for a batting title. The fact that he plays 81 games in Coors Field only helps his cause. But Guerrero is my choice for the best candidate. If not this year, then soon. At just 24 years old, he's already had 2 seasons in which he's hit more than 35 homers, hitting 42 last year. He has been amongst the leaders in batting average the past 2 years and was 5th in RBI last year. This year's Expos team is the best he's been on, so he should get plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. The biggest obstacles to his Triple Crown hopes are the two aforementioned sluggers: McGwire and Sosa. Both have hit over 60 homers in each of the past two years and neither shows any signs of slowing that pace this year. So for anyone to join the likes of Hornsby, Medwick and Klein from the NL, 60 homers looks like a must. Can Vlad do that? A jump of 18+ homers in pretty rare. But his manager Felipe Alou raves about his bat speed and several scouts think he'll develop that kind of power. The only question then is, will it happen this year?
It's been 63 years since a horse, a hitter and a pitcher each won their Triple Crowns in the same year. And that particular aligning of the stars has happened only once. There are stars out there that can make it happen again. With just a little luck, it'll be this year.