Why Adrian Gonzalez is going win the Triple Crown in 2012

Adrian Gonzalez led the American League with 213 hits last season. (AP)

So we’ve now had 44 full seasons since Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown. If no one manages to pull it off this season it will be 45 years, which is really remarkable. Forty-five years. In the 45 years prior to 1967? Nine Triple Crowns (eight players — Ted Williams did it twice). Babe Ruth’s single-season and career home run records didn’t last 45 years. Hank Aaron’s career mark? Nope. Roger Maris? No luck.

When you think about the number of great, great hitters who have played over the last four and a half decades and failed to lead the league in homers, RBI and batting average in the same season just once it borders on the incomprehensible. Think about it: Willie McCovey, Jim Rice, Mike Schmidt, Don Mattingly, Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Rafael Palmeiro, Eddie Murray, George Brett, Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, Dave Winfield, Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, Alex Rodriguez, Dave Parker, Dick Allen (the best hitter not in the Hall of Fame), Albert Belle and a a bunch of other greats haven’t been able, over the last 45 years, to accomplish what was done 10 times in the 45 years before 1967.

Look, of course some of that is fluky. Dante Bichette led the National League in homers and RBI in 1995 and hit .340, but Tony Gywnn hit .368. Stuff like that hasn’t been uncommon since 1967 — if Dick Allen had batted .319 instead of .308 he would have won it in 1972 — but no one has put it together for that one season.

And I think that ends in 2012. Call it at least half a hunch, but Adrian Gonzalez is going to win the Triple Crown this season.

Three things have to happen for Gonzalez to join about as exclusive club as there is in professional sports (well, I mean three things other than leading the league in homers, RBI and batting average) — he has to stay healthy, the other key guys in front of him in the lineup have to stay healthy and there can be no serious slump from Gonzalez. The idea that he “slumped” in the second half last year is a little overblown — he did hit .317 with a .404 OBP — but 10 homers and 40 RBI over a 70-game stretch isn’t going to get it done.

Can we assume for a moment that Gonzalez was playing hurt in the second half, that his right shoulder was a significant factor in his lack of power? If that’s true, maybe the first 80 games of 2011 is a more accurate representation of what Gonzalez may do over 162 games with this lineup. At the mid-point of the season Gonzalez was batting .354 with 17 homers and 77 RBI. That projects to .354 with 34 homers and 154 RBI. Miguel Cabrera (another terrific Triple Crown candidate) led the league with a .344 average, Jose Bautista led in homers with 43 and Curtis Granderson had 119 RBI.

So it’s doable, I guess is the point. It’s not a reach to believe that a healthy Gonzalez could knock in, say, 130 runs. Now, hitting .338 was a huge jump over his previous career best (.304 in 2006, he’s a career .293 hitter). But he is a career .307 hitter on the road (don’t forget, he was buried in Petco Park for five years, there were seasons where his home/road batting average splits were 60 points) and spent years stuck stuck in the middle of a lineup filled with Tadahito Iguchi’s and Jody Gerut’s and Chase Headley’s. Take 2009, for example. Gonzalez topped the NL with 119 walks, finished fifth with 40 HRs and fifth with an OPS of .958. He did that for a Padres team that finished last in the NL in runs scored. No regular (other than Gonzalez, obviously) had a slugging percentage that even equaled the league average.

Now give him a full season (again, he has to stay healthy) with Ellsbury and Pedroia and (maybe?) a productive Carl Crawford and Ortiz and Youkilis and I really think .340-45-140 is absolutely in play.

Would that be enough? Depends on what you think about Jose Bautista, I suppose. He never hit more than 16 homers in a season before 2010, then hit 54 that season and 43 in 2011. I have my theories why he experienced that kind of historical power sure at age 29 and so do you, but I’m betting against him going north of 45 again (and he’s not a Triple Crown threat — this is a career .254 hitter). Albert Pujols is one of the 10 best hitters in baseball history, but he is (ahem) 32 years old, switching leagues (his career home numbers are better than road, but nothing alarming) and coming off the worst season of his career. His batting average, OBP and OPS have gone down in each of the last four years. I understand why the Angels felt they had to sign him and there’s no question in my mind that he’ll be hugely productive for the first half of the deal, but how about when he’s (ahem, Part II) 38 years old and struggling in 2018 and you’e still got four years and $116 million left on the deal?

To me, the two real candidates and Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera (a wild card would be Robinson Cano, maybe he can jump up and hit 40-45 homers, but he hasn’t reached 30 yet) and I just trust Gonzalez more than Cabrera, who has managed to produce every season at a really high level despite fighting and often losing battles with alcohol issues. I do wonder when that catches up with Cabrera.

Adrian Gonzalez is in his prime (29 years old ), has an extraordinarily high established level and probably won’t hit in a lineup as good as this one for the rest of his career. Can he be moody, even surly? Sure seems that way. Does he give off a vibe that suggests winning isn’t the most important thing in his world? Yup. Does that matter? Not at all. Who really cares, other than the media? The guy is a hitter, this isn’t J.D. Drew. And there’s also this idea floating Out There that being like Wade Boggs with power is a bad thing. Comparing Gonzalez to Boggs is a very good thing, a team with nine hitters like Boggs in his prime would win 100 games with a below-average rotation.

You read it here first: Time for Yaz to have some company. The streak ends in 2012. Adrian Gonzalez will win the Triple Crown.