Years ago, future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. reminded us all that “defense wins [baseball] games.” Even with the bracket, which Griffey skipped because of context, that’s not a memorable saying, but it does have the virtue of accuracy. The World Champion Phillies, for example, feature four players this year with at least 31 home runs, but more importantly, every other half inning they run four players onto the field for every defensive play who have won, or should have won, Gold Gloves – Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, who have the trophies, and Pedro Feliz, who should. However, anyone who has ever played baseball – or softball – will tell you that baseball feels as though it’s all about hitting.
Therefore, after 162 games each year, the ordinary roll of hitting champs should be called. This year the leaders in the universally heralded Most Popular Play in the Game category, Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira led their respective leagues with 47 and 39 home runs. In the more important runs batted in race, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard finished in an N.L. dead heat with 141, and Teixeira picked up a second trophy in the A.L. with 122. Unfortunately, he finished below the top ten in batting average, the third ring of the Triple Crown, as the Blue ribbon there will go to Joe Mauer of the Twins, when – as pointed out by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Don McKee – he doesn’t go 0 for 18 in his one-game playoff appearance against Detroit tomorrow. Mauer will finish somewhere between .362 and .366, a remarkable mark for a catcher. In the N.L. the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez won the BA gold with a .345 mark. The hit king of both leagues was Ichiro with 225, and only three other players climbed to the 200-hit plateau, Derek Jeter (212), Robinson Cano (204) and Ryan Braun (203).
So, who was the best hitter this year, and which league hit better than the other at the top? Let’s think outside the box here for a change. In fact, let’s leave the box in the other room entirely and consider hits per game, a number rarely crunched. This will explain why those anonymous scouts quoted so often in the sports pages universally agree that A.L. teams are not simply better because they get an extra “real” hitter on each side every game, but that they are simply better – period.
All of the top twenty hitters in both leagues collected, as might be guessed, better than a hit per game, but in the A.L. five of the top ten topped the 1.25 mark. In the N.L. four of the top ten did that as well, but Hanley Ramirez, Chris Coghlan, Ryan Braun, and Miguel Tejeda (a long-time American Leaguer) were all clustered between 1.25 and 1.30 hits per game, with Ramirez at the top. In the A.L., though, all five of their hit-a-quarter-plus guys are lifetime A.L. players. Robinson Cano came in fifth by this metric (1.27), Michael Young finished fourth (1.29), and three players pounded the living daylights out of Ramirez’ 1.30 (keeping in mind that .05 here is a big number). Joe Mauer posted a 1.38, and Derek Jeter a 1.39. The real batting champ, however, left everybody still in the final turn before the straightaway. Seattle’s Suzuki was the only player in either league to hit 1.40, then leave even that figure dead in road. At 1.54 he was this year’s only everyday player to guarantee his club at least a hit and a half a game, and he is the real batting champ.
Oh, and the A.L. is still better as a whole. Their regular season champs, the Yankees, played .598 ball against winning teams. When McKee added things all up before the Bombers’ final weekend (1-1), that figure was an even .600 – three wins in every five games against anybody in either league with a plus season.
McKee, Don, “Low & Outside: We salute” & “Good omens?” The Philadelphia Inquirer 5 October 2009: E4.
“American League Leaders” & “National League Leaders,” The Philadelphia Inquirer 5 October 2009: E4.