Albert Pujols can’t dance, act or sing, but he’s a triple threat again. With less than 40 games left in the 2010 season, the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman is again within reach of the top spot in batting average, homers and RBIs in the National League. If he achieves all three, he would be baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in more than 40 years and the first in the National League in more than 70 years.
This year, though, Pujols’ quest features the potential for an unlikely spoiler. Sure, there is Joey Votto, who might achieve the Triple Crown himself, and there’s Washington basher Adam Dunn, who could top Pujols in homers. There’s also Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard, who stayed in contention for the RBI crown despite missing 15 games in May with a minor injury.
The real threat to Pujols’s Triple Crown, though, is someone who isn’t even on most radars. In fact, Atlanta Braves third baseman Omar Infante wasn’t even on the same planet a few months ago. Infante, who has been a platoon infielder for much of his nine-year Major League career, didn’t start for the Braves on opening day and didn’t play in 11 of the Braves’ 23 games in April.
In May, though, Infante hit .343. That was enough to earn him a regular starting role, and Infante kept up the pace. On Aug. 22, he went 4-for-6 to raise his season batting average to .349. That put him 28 points ahead of Votto and 33 points ahead of Pujols. His production helped the Braves coast atop the National League East, but few outside of Atlanta have any idea what Infante is doing.
After all, he missed too many games in April to be included among the batting average leaders. The rules state that a batter must average 3.1 plate appearances for each of his team’s games to qualify for the batting title. For a 162-game regular season, that equals 502 plate appearances. Through Aug. 22, though, Infante had just 333 plate appearances in 123 games. He need 169 plate appearances, an average of 4.3 in each of the teams’ remaining 39 games, to reach the qualification requirement. Since he bats lead-off for Atlanta, that’s a distinct possibility, but there’s a saving grace for Infante. And it’s one that might spell doom for Pujols’ Triple Crown hopes.
While the general rule requires batters to have 502 plate appearances, baseball rules say that players who fall short of the qualification mark can still win the batting title. At the end of the season, the league determines the difference between a batter’s plate appearances and the 502 qualification mark. For every plate appearance less than 502, the player has a hitless at-bat tacked onto his total number of at-bats. Then the player’s batting average is recalculated with the extra at-bats factored in. If the player’s average is still better than any other qualified hitter, the player is declared the batting champ. In the record books, baseball even uses his actual batting average rather than the derived calculation.
In most situations, the rule makes little difference. In 2010, though, there is a wide enough gap between Infante’s batting average and the rest of the field. Thus, he could fall 10 to 30 plate appearances short of 502 and still win the batting title. After his big day on Aug. 22, Infante had 333 plate appearances, 312 at-bats and 109 hits. If Infante averaged one hit, three at-bats and four plate appearances over the final 39 games, he would finish with 389 plate appearances, 429 at-bats and 148 hits. After adding 13 at-bats to give him 442, Infante would have a .335 batting average. Provided he meets the assumed numbers, it means Votto, Pujols or someone else would need to raise his batting average at least 15 points to keep Infante from winning the batting title.
Is it likely? Possibly. Atlanta skipper Bobby Cox says the Braves are considering placing Troy Glaus at third base. Glaus has mostly played first base this season, but he was a regular at third base before he suffered shoulder problems in his days with the Los Angeles Angels. The Braves traded for Derrek Lee, who appears to be the new regular first baseman. Martin Prado, who is one of the team’s top hitters, is playing third base at the moment, and the Braves traded for shortstop Alex Gonzalez on July 14. If someone else is chosen to play third base, Prado likely inherits Infante’s role as the second baseman.
That could force Infante into another platoon role, and he likely would lose enough at-bats as a result to end any chance of a batting title. According to Rotoworld.com, though, the most likely scenario is that Glaus will be a reserve at both first and third base and a pinch hitter. First, though, he must complete a rehab assignment. He was placed in the 15-day disabled list on Aug. 18 with a sore left knee.
Most likely, the Braves will continue to give Infante at-bats provided he keeps hitting and continues to have a shot at the batting title, and Glaus is more likely to fill in at first base than at third base. After all, he spent an entire season trying to throw without pain in 2009 and never managed to play a single game at third base for the Cardinals. And that brings us, of course, back to Pujols. Stay tuned, folks. This is history in the making.