The air is a little crisper, the days are a little shorter and it is again socially acceptable to drink at nine in the morning, provided it’s a Saturday. Fall is here.
If you’re a baseball fan, this means one of two things: Either you’re watching the out-of-town scoreboard, hoping your two-game division lead holds up, or you’ve made the complete transition to football fan. Or you’re a Yankees fan, and to you, the “regular season” is just a myth, something that exists only in rumors — like the Loch Ness monster, or Roger Clemens’ integrity.
But for 18 teams, the ride is over, even though there’s a month to go. I’m looking at you, Brewers and Cubs fans — or, Packers and Bears fans, as it is.
It’s interesting what a crossroads September represents. There’s the group of teams trying to lock up a spot in the postseason — or just safely waiting for the postseason — and the other guys. You know, the ones who are still only playing because, well, it’s their job. They’re now golfers wearing high socks and baseball caps.
There are rarely good pennant races anymore. After they introduced the wild card, there’s just not as much of a premium placed on winning your division. Where’s the compelling baseball?
Well, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get that extra reason to watch. Something interesting, like a batter chasing .400. Or a batting Triple Crown race, which we have in the National League this year. All casual eyes are on Carlos Gonzalez, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto, especially since there’s the added bonus of playoff hopes involved for each player’s team. It’s a relatively tight race, at least. The Rockies’ Gonzalez, or Cargo, if you want to sound cool about it, has the lead in RBI with 100 entering yesterday’s games. Votto is two back with 98 and Pujols has 97. Pujols’ 35 homers are three more than Cargo and Votto have. The only aspect that seems to doom Votto’s chances is the fact that Gonzalez has a 19-point lead in batting average (.340 to .321). Pujols sits back at an embarrassing (by his standards) .308.
Ah yes, the Triple Crown. That antiquated standard of offensive excellence — I mean, nothing is a better indicator of offensive production than batting average, home runs and RBI, right?
Wrong. OPS (on-base plus slugging) is a much better indicator of offensive performance. Some of the traditional (read: old) baseball folk don’t buy into on-base percentage as a real stat, despite the fact that MLB has recognized it as an official statistic since 1984. Focusing on batting averages ignores the fact that walks are often as good as hits and the bottom line is as a hitter, it is your job to get on base.
As for slugging percentage, it is a much more accurate way to define a hitter’s power. Home runs are great, but doubles and triples get the job done too; why ignore them by focusing solely on long balls?
Here’s an example of how misleading it is to overvalue home runs and runs batted in. Compare the following players’ final stats from 2009:
Player A: 39 home runs, 100 RBI
Player B: 14 home runs, 66 RBI
It’s pretty easy to say Player A severely outperformed Player B that year. But now compare these two slash lines:
Player A: .227 batting average, .356 on-base percentage, .537 slugging percentage
Player B: .320/.389/.490
All of a sudden, Player B isn’t looking nearly as shabby, especially with the almost 100-point lead in batting average and the hefty lead in on-base percentage.
The mystery players are Tampa Bay’s Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett. If it’s the bottom of the ninth inning and your team is down by one, which batter do you want? Probably the one who’s more likely to at least get on base.
Don’t worry, I’m not bashing Votto, Gonzalez or Pujols and their offensive accomplishments this season. Guess who the NL’s top three in OPS are? I’ll give you a hint: I just listed them.
So why can’t we celebrate the fact that these three are contending for the “modern” triple crown (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage)? Not only does it give a clearer indication of offensive talent, but if you’ve got the best slash stats in the league, you’re also up there in homers and RBI. Last season, Joe Mauer wasn’t even close to an ancient Triple Crown, but owning the first AL modern TC in 29 years was good enough to earn him an MVP. Also, both “ancient” and “modern” Triple Crowns are rare: 15 ancient to 19 modern.
I’m trying to walk a fine line here; there are much better ways than the ancient Triple Crown stats to judge a player offensively, but there’s also a reason nobody has won it since 1967 — it’s really friggin’ hard to do.
So I’m a little conflicted. Any reason for casual baseball fans to watch games not involving their home team is a good thing. But while we’re rooting for the right three guys, it’s for (two of) the wrong reasons.
Adam is a senior majoring in journalism. Thoughts on either the ancient or modern Triple Crowns? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org