Forget MVP: Belli, Yeli may duel for Triple Crown

August 3rd, 2019

The Brewers’ and the Dodgers’ will spend the last two months of the regular season jockeying for position in the National League MVP race. But that’s not the only personal accomplishment at stake.

There is also the Triple Crown. Yes, really.

It’s a feat that may seem a bit old-fashioned these days, depending on a player leading his league in three traditional stats: batting average, home runs and RBIs. Yet it still carries some serious weight, with Miguel Cabrera (2012) the only player to win one since 1967, and one of 10 players to win one -- including two who did it twice -- since RBIs became an official stat in 1920.

Last season, Yelich’s torrid second half propelled him into a late run at the Triple Crown, although both he and Boston’s J.D. Martinez in the AL fell a bit short. Yelich remained in contention until the end, entering the Brewers’ Oct. 1 tiebreaker game against the Cubs within one home run and two RBIs. Ultimately, Yelich won the NL batting title handily (.326) and finished tied for third in homers (36) and tied for second in RBIs (110).

With less than two months to go this season, Yelich is once again in the thick of the NL Triple Crown chase. But this time he has company, with Bellinger neck-and-neck with him through Friday’s action.

Let’s break it down.

Batting average: Bellinger .330 (2nd in NL), Yelich .328 (3rd)

Bellinger sits just behind the Mets’ Jeff McNeil (batting .331 overall but just .257 since the All-Star break), with Yelich trailing them. The Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon (.318), the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon (.314) and the D-backs’ Ketel Marte (.313) lurk behind them.

Bellinger has come back to the pack since May 21, when he was batting over .400. But since dropping as low as .327, he has gone 7-for-18 (.389) over his past five games.

Yelich is hitting for a slightly higher average than he did when he captured last year’s batting title, and now is in position to become the first NL player to win in back-to-back years since the Rockies’ Larry Walker in 1998-99. After a bit of a slump in May (.247), he batted .365 in June and .352 in July, before going 1-for-9 to begin August.

Bellinger and Yelich both have a lot working for them when it comes to keeping their averages high. Both strike out at a below-average rate, have excellent hard-hit rates and pair that with way above-average sprint speeds (91st percentile for Bellinger, 87th for Yelich). In fact, Yelich also ranks second in the NL with 23 stolen bases and could become the first player since 1932 to lead his league in both steals and homers, as well as the first ever to go 50-30.

Home runs: Both have 36 (T-1st in NL)

Bellinger cranked his 36th homer of the season -- and the 100th of his career -- on Friday night, tying Yelich (Mike Trout also has 36 to lead the AL). Mets rookie Pete Alonso (34) is applying the most heat in this category, though the Padres’ Hunter Renfroe has quietly reached the 30 mark as well.

After going deep 39 times as a rookie in 2017, Bellinger slumped to 25 big flies last year. But the 24-year-old was hot from the very beginning of ‘19, launching 14 homers in his first 29 games through April 28. He has endured some modest dry spells since, including one from July 17-31, but Bellinger now has homered in consecutive games to get him back on top. He needs 14 more for the first 50-homer campaign in Dodgers history.

Yelich already has matched his homer total from last year, when he doubled his 2017 total. In an awe-inspiring 162-game stretch from the ‘18 All-Star Game through this past Sunday, he went deep 61 times -- two more homers than he hit in 643 career games with the Marlins from 2013-17.

Yelich has been a particularly robust source of power in his 50 games at Miller Park, launching 25 homers, easily the most by any player at home this season. That’s helped put him within striking distance of the Brewers’ single-season franchise record of 50, set by Prince Fielder in 2007.

RBIs: Bellinger 85 (T-2nd in NL), Yelich 81 (T-4th)

This is a crowded field. The Pirates’ Josh Bell leads with 89, the Braves’ Freddie Freeman is tied for second with 85, and the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and D-backs’ Eduardo Escobar both have 81 as well. Rendon (80) and Alonso (78) are within striking distance.

All the hits and home runs obviously help a lot in this department, but the complication with RBIs is that the players are to a large extent dependent on teammates to get on base.

That hasn’t helped Yelich, who has spent the whole season hitting second behind Brewers leadoff batters (primarily Lorenzo Cain), who have a collective .309 OBP. Combine that with the pitcher usually batting ninth for the NL club, and the Brewers not getting much offense out of the No. 8 spot either, and Yelich’s opportunities have been somewhat limited. While he is hitting even better with runners on base than he is overall, he entered Friday tied for 64th in the Majors in plate appearances in those situations -- compared with tied for 23rd in bases-empty scenarios.

As the cleanup hitter in a talented Dodgers lineup, Bellinger has been a bit more fortunate in that regard. He ranks among the MLB leaders in most plate appearances with runners on base -- and has a whopping 37 more than Yelich, in just eight more total PA.

So as the stretch run plays out, a lot will depend not only on the continued excellence of both Bellinger and Yelich, but also on their teammates’ ability to support their quest for baseball history.