In the entire history of baseball, the most difficult accomplishment for a hitter is winning the Triple Crown.
During the modern era that began with the advent of the American League in 1901, only a dozen men have done it, including Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby twice apiece.
Latino winners are especially scarce: the only name on the chart is Miguel Cabrera, the 6’4″ Venezuelan slugger who anchors first base for the Detroit Tigers. He led the American League in batting, home runs, and runs batted in during the 2012 season — the only time anyone has won all three legs of the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
The National League’s last winner was Joe Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1937. Marcell Ozuna of the Atlanta Braves made a spirited challenge during the pandemic-shortened season of 2020 but eventually finished third in batting, even those his average was a robust .338.
Now that he’s armed with a new four-year contract, however, the recently-resigned Ozuna is one of four Latinos likely to make a run at the crown. He could be joined by Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres, Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals, and Ozuna’s Atlanta teammate Ronald Acuna Jr.
The odds, of course, are stacked against them: in the modern era, the only National Leaguers ever to win a Triple Crown were Rogers Hornsby in 1922 and 1925, Chuck Klein in 1933, and Medwick. Such luminaries as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial never did it, though Frank Robinson did — in his first American League season after the Cincinnati Reds traded him to the Baltimore Orioles before the 1966 season.
The other American League winners included Napoleon Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Yastrzemski, Cabrera, and Ted Williams twice.
But this story is about the Senior Circuit, which is loaded with young Latino superstars. Tatís and Soto are 22 and Acuna is 23, making Ozuna the old man of the foursome at 30. All were good last year and is prime position to get better.
Soto, for example, will have more protection in the Washington lineup now that the Nats have added Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber. Not that he needs much help: in the short season, he led the NL with a .351 batting average, .490 on-base percentage, .695 slugging mark, and 1.185 OPS (on-base plus slugging). In 2019, the last full season, the Dominican outfielder had 34 home runs and 110 runs batted in while working to become a more selective hitter.
Tatís, who also hails from the Dominican Republic, has even less big-league experience — just 84 games in 2019 and 59 last year. But he hit .317 with 22 homers in his abbreviated rookie year and provided prodigious power last season. Now that the Padres have padded their pitching staff by trading for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, Tatís could realize his enormous potential in a hurry. Baseball historians recall that his father is the only man in baseball history to hit two grand-slams in one inning!
As for Acuña, he boasted last spring — before the pandemic shuttered the game — that he hoped to become the first man ever to produce a 50/50 season — 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases. He came close to the 40/40 club in 2019, finishing with 41 homers and 37 stolen bases but suffering an injury that sidelined him for most of the last week. Still, he managed to lead the league in both steals and runs scored (127).
Now that Ozuna’s back in Braves livery, Acuña will remain at the top of the lineup, where he terrorizes rival pitchers and hits an amazing share of leadoff home runs (five games in a row during one stretch of 2019 before head-hunter José Ureña stopped the streak by beaning him with a first-inning fastball). With Chipper Jones back in uniform as an extra hitting coach for Atlanta home games, Acuña will work hard to be more selective, make more contact, and let his natural ability rise to the surface. Having Ozzie Albies, NL MVP Freddie Freeman, and Ozuna follow him in the lineup means he’ll get a diet of good pitches to hit.
Ozuna, who parlayed last year’s one-year, $18 million Atlanta contract into a new deal that could be worth $80 million through 2025 if the club renews its option year, returns to the Braves after leading the Senior Circuit with 18 home runs, 145 total bases, and 56 RBIs in 60 games. He had a three-homer game in Fenway Park and three more homers in postseason play.
The rap on Ozuna is defense; because of his surgically-repaired shoulder, his throwing is barely good enough for him to play left field. But his speed is still good and he’ll be helped by the addition of Cristian Pache, a 22-year-old Dominican who performed well when pressed into service in the playoffs after an Adam Duvall injury. Pache is generally considered the best defensive player anywhere in the minors for the last several years.
Atlanta waited til this week to re-sign Ozuna but closed on a contract quickly after the Tampa Bay Rays, usually a low-budget operation, started sniffing around like a baseball bloodhound. Freeman, more than anyone, is thrilled — Ozuna’s righthanded bat fit perfectly behind Freeman’s lefthanded stroke and allowed the latter to waltz home with his first MVP trophy. Even more importantly, the overly-enthusiastic Ozuna energized the entire Braves team, which came within a whisker of dethroning the Dodgers and winning its first pennant since 1999. The Instagram image of his Championship Series selfie is still going viral.
Any of these accomplished hitters can make a run at Medwick, who might also be in the sites of newly-acquired New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor. But the problem for all is identical: producing more power and a better batting average than the rest of the league in the same season.
José Abreu, the reigning Most Valuable Player in the American League, has a chance too. The Chicago White Sox first baseman finished first among his AL compatriots in hits (76), total bases (148), runs batted in (60), and slugging (.617) while typing his career peak with a .317 batting average. At age 34, he’s four years younger than Cabrera but can he hit enough home runs to bid for a Triple Crown? He had 36 as a rookie in 2014 and hit as many as 33 twice, most recently in 2019, but who knows whether that would be enough now that the ball has been altered to reduce the ridiculous home run explosion of recent seasons.
With the Chisox expected to give the Minnesota Twins fierce competition in the AL Central, the Cuban slugger has plenty of motivation, both personal and professional.
It should be interesting to watch, especially if the entire 162-game schedule can be played.
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