I am quite certain that if Jose Reyes had not been in the news for changing teams from the New York Mets to the Miami Marlins that by February I would not remember who won the National League batting title this year.
At least twice this off-season I have been asked who won the American League batting title. For those who forgot already, it was Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, who sneaked in on the last day of the season. For months it was a forgone conclusion that the Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was going to win it, but just like his team he endured a September swoon.
Maybe I am just being grumpy, but winning a batting title was always a great honor, proof that for one season you were the best hitter in your league. Now I wonder if our most recent winners are all one-year wonders.
Looking back over recent National League hitting champs, you ponder how that particular hitter won that particular year’s title. Anyone who can name the last seven NL batting champs and the years they won is entitled to a lovely parting gift.
Reyes hit .337 in 2011. Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies hit .336 in 2010. Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins hit .342 in 2009. Chipper Jones of the Braves hit .364 in 2008. Matt Holliday of the Rockies hit .340 in 2007. Freddy Sanchez of the Pirates hit .344 in 2006. Derrek Lee of the Cubs hit .335 in 2005. (Derrek Lee won a batting title?)
Right now on that list there is one player who is a potential Hall of Famer–Jones. For the others that batting crown might well be the high point of their career. If the 162-game season is supposed to be the great equalizer for teams, then it also should be for hitters. But flukes do happen.
Going back through the rest of the 2000s, the results are less surprising. Barry Bonds won two batting crowns, Albert Pujols one, Larry Walker (who won two others in the 1990s), won one. And Todd Helton, who was runnerup three times, won one.
Between 1984 and 1997, Tony Gwynn won eight batting titles. Now we’re talking. You knew when the season started that if Gwynn wasn’t going to be the champ, he was going to be in the picture. Still, even during Gwynn’s fantastic run guys like Andres Gallaraga, Gary Sheffield, and Terry Pendleton picked off a batting title. And you must be a serious fan to remember that Willie McGee won two.
Even stranger, in 1990 McGee was traded from the Cardinals to the Oakland A’s in the American League on Aug. 9 while hitting .335 with enough qualifying plate appearances and won the title in absentia. Talk about an ungrateful team.
Between 1946 and 1973, you pretty much had to be a Hall of Fame-caliber player to snare a National League batting title. Stan Musial won six of them, Roberto Clemente won four, Pete Rose three, Richie Asburn and Hank Aaron two apiece, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Billy Williams one each.
The American League was like that from the beginning. The first AL batting champ in 1901 was Larry “Nap” Lajoie and he hit .426! He also won the crown in 1903 and 1904. Ty Cobb came along and made the batting title his personal fiefdom, winning 12 of them. Tris Speaker squeezed in one crown. George Sisler had to hit .420 to win his title in 1922. Harry Heilmann, in the shadow of Cobb with the Tigers, won in 1921 with a .394 average and in 1923 with a .403 average. He won in 1925 by htting .393 and in 1927 by hitting .398. Hats off to Harry!
Babe Ruth managed one title in 1924. Lou Gehrig grabbed one in 1934. Jimmie Foxx picked off two. Then along came Joe DiMaggio, who won two, and Ted Williams, who between 1941 when he became the last man to hit .400 (.406) and 1958 won six batting titles.
In the 1960s, Carl Yastrzemski and Tony Oliva won three batting titles each. The American League modern equivalent of Gwynn was Rod Carew, between 1969 and 1978, when he won seven batting titles. Almost as soon as Carew slowed down, Wade Boggs stepped in, winning five. George Brett did OK with three.
More recently Joe Mauer won three batting titles bunched together between 2006 and 2009 and Ichiro Suzuki won two and was also twice runner-up. But since 2003, Bill Mueller, Michael Young and Magglio Ordonez won less-remembered batting titles.
The lesson is that you can beat out all of the hitters one year, but if you win more than one batting title in your career you are on a path to the Hall of Fame unless injuries derail you. That was true of Oliva and Mauer has already been sidelined with an inordinate number of physical woes. He is still young enough to recover and become the Mauer of recent vintage.
Or Mauer may never win a batting title again even if he plays another dozen years.
Topics: Babe Ruth, Chipper Jones, George Brett, Hank Aaron, Ichiro Suzuki, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Maurer, Jose Reyes, Larry Walker, Lou Gehrig, Miguel Cabrera, Richie Ashburn, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Todd Helton, Tony Gwynn, Ty Cobb, Wade Boggs, Willie McGee