Cano Battling Mauer, Jeter for American League Batting Title

And down the stretch they come.

With a week remaining in the season, Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter were still running one-two in the battle for the American League batting title. It’s been generally assumed one or the other will eventually win the crown and they each have interesting story lines. Mauer is trying to become the first catcher in A.L. history to capture a batting championship and Jeter is trying to win his first batting title, about the only thing he hasn’t accomplished in his stellar career. A hitting crown also could help Jeter claim the A.L. most valuable player award.

But there may be a dark horse candidate. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Jeter’s teammate, Robinson Cano, ended up leading the league in hitting? Don’t laugh. It could happen. Cano missed six weeks earlier in the season due to a strained left hamstring, but should have enough plate appearances by the end of the season to qualfy.

Through September 24, the three players were separated by only eight points, and Cano had actually passed Jeter for the Yankees’ team lead. Mauer was leading with a .347 average, followed by Cano at .341 and Jeter at .339. It’s remarkable how close the race has been. Since September 1, Mauer and Jeter have been separated by no more than eight points:

September 1, Mauer .350, Jeter .342
September 2, Mauer .350, Jeter .343
September 3, Mauer .348, Jeter .342
September 4, Mauer .346, Jeter .344
September 5, Mauer .345, Jeter .343
September 6, Mauer .345, Jeter .344
September 7, Mauer .344, Jeter .344
September 8, Mauer .348, Jeter .343
September 9, Mauer .348, Jeter .344
September 10, Mauer .350, Jeter .345
September 11, Mauer .350, Jeter .346
September 12, Mauer .348, Jeter .346
September 13, Mauer .348. Jeter .345
September 14, Mauer .347, Jeter .346
September 15, Jeter .346, Mauer .344
September 16, Mauer .344, Jeter .343
September 17, Mauer .344, Jeter .341

On August 24, Mauer appeared to have the batting crown locked up, enjoying a 26-point lead over Jeter, .361 to .335. However, the strain of his position appeared to take a toll as Mauer went into a 3-for-26 slump. Jeter also closed the gap with a 25-game hitting streak that ended on September 17 and briefly took the lead two days earlier. However, Jeter struggled in a four-game series against the Boston Red Sox, going just 2-for-14, which allowed Mauer to regain contol of the race.

The amazing think about Cano is that he didn’t miss a beat despite being sidelined for the six weeks. Since returning to the lineup after the All-Star break, he was batting .356 through September 17. Yankees batting coach Don Mattingly has predicted that Cano will eventually win a batting title but no one thought it could come in his first full season in the major leagues.

If Jeter and Cano remain in contention it could add some drama to the final few games of the season. Otherwise, the Yankees would be merely preparing for the playoffs, although there still is the issue of trying to finish with the league’s best record, which would guarantee New York home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

It also would be reminiscient of 1984, when Mattingly, the Yankees’ first baseman, edged teammate Dave Winfield for the batting title on the final day of the season. Winfield entered game No. 162 with a two-point lead. However, Mattingly went 4-for-5 to finish at .343. Winfield managed just one hit in four at-bats and closed at .340. That season, Yankees fans clearly chose sides in the batting race, pulling for Mattingly, the golden boy, and it bothered Winfield to some degree. Derisively called “Mr. May” by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner,
Winfield never came close to approaching the popularity of “Donnie Baseball.”

If Jeter and Cano go down to the wire, there isn’t likely going to be that kind of partisanship, but they would fill the same roles as Winfield and Mattingly more than 20 years ago. Jeter would be Winfield, the veteran, and Cano would be Mattingly, the young kid. Eight points is a lot to make up in a week but it is possible.

It is unusual for a batting title to come down to the final day of the season, but certainly not unheard of. Here’s a look at the closest batting races since 1901, in chronological order. All were decided by one point or less.

2003 – Albert Pujols, .359, Todd Helton. 358. Pujols won a batting title in his third season in the major leagues, batting a (so far) career-high .359. The Cardinals’ slugger also hit 43 home runs and drove in 124 runs that year. The remarkably consistent Pujols batted over .300 in each of his first five seasons and will do so against this year. He went 2-for-5 in the last game of the 2003 season to hold on to his lead in the batting race. Helton also collected two hits in the final game of the year.

2003 – Bill Mueller .326, Manny Ramirez .325. Amazingly, both batting races that year were decided by one point as a pair of Boston Red Sox teammates battled for the American League crown. In what was considered an upset, Mueller came out of nowhere to win the batting title in his first season with the Red Sox after hitting just .262 the previous season. The final day was anticlimatic as neither Mueller nor Ramirez were in the starting lineup, although Mueller did make an out as a pinch hitter in his only at-bat.

1991 – Terry Pendleton .319, Hal Morris .318. Pendleton earned National League most valauble player honors that season, helping the Atlanta Braves win the first of their unprecedented 14 straight division titles, a streak that ended this season. The .319 average was a career high for Pendleton, who also hit 22 homers and drove in 86 runs in 1991. Pendleton was not in the lineup for the final game as the Braves clinched the division the day before. Morris made things interested by going 3-for-4 for the Cincinnati Reds on the last day of the season.

1982 – Willie Wilson .332, Robin Yount 331. Despite hitting only three home runs and driving in 46 runs, Wilson batted a career-high .332 in 1982 for the Kansas City Royals. Yount, a future Hall of Famer, finished second in the batting race but his Milwaukee Brewers won the American League pennant before losing in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Wilson took the last day off and Yount, who collected a league-high 210 hits, nearly caught him by going 3-for-4 to pick up three points.

1976 – George Brett .333, Hal McRae .332. Like Mueller and Ramirez in 2003, teammates finished one-two in the batting race. With Brett and McRae leading the way, the Royals made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They would meet the New York Yankees in the first of three straight matchups in the American League championship series. A future Hall of Famer, Brett recorded a career-high 215 hits in 1976 – 36 more than in 1990, when he flirted with .400 before finishing at .387. Brett (three hits) and McRae (two hits) staged a dramatic duel on the final day of the season to decide the batting title.

1970 – Alex Johnson .329, Carl Yastrzemski .329. The statisticians needed to get out the slide rules as Johnson and Yastrzemski were involved in the closest batting race in major league history. Johnson (.32889) ended up winning the American League title by two ten-thousands of a point over Yastrzemski (.32862), who was three years removed from the last triple crown season in the major leagues. A future Hall of Famer and beloved member of the Boston Red Sox, Yastrzemski held the lead going into the final day but lost it by going 1-for-4. Johnson claimed the title without getting off the bench.

1953 – Mickey Vernon .337, Al Rosen .336. Vernon was one of the few stars for the woeful Washington Senators in the 1950s, recording more than 2,400 hits in a solid 20-year career in the major leagues. Despite hitting only 15 home runs, he drove in a career-high 115 runs and finished with his second-highest batting average in 1953. Vernon batted .353 in 1946. Despite losing the battle title, Rosen was named the A.L.’s most valuable player in 1953.

1931 – Chick Hafey 349, Billy Terry .349. In the closest batting race in National League history, Hafey (.34888) edged the better-known Terry (.34860) by two ten-thousands of a point. An outfielder on four St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series teams, Hafey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971. He won the batting title in 1931 despite just 157 hits and 450 at-bats. Terry registered 213 hits and 611 at-bats but technically finished second in the batting race. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1954, Terry batted over .300 in 10 straight seasons for the New York Giants from 1927 to 1936, including a .401 mark in 1930.

1911 – Honus Wagner .334, Doc Miller .333. One of baseball’s all-time greats who spent most of his his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wagner won his eighth and final batting title in 1911. Ironically, it was his lowest average to win a hitting crown. Wagner recorded nine seasons with at least 100 RBI and ranks 18th on the all-time list (1,732). He registered 3,415 career hits, which is eighth best all-time. Arguably the greatest shortstop to ever play the game, Wagner posted a career average of .327. In 1899, he started a streak in which he batted over .300 for 15 straight seasons.

1910 – Nap Lajoie .384, Ty Cobb .383. Another of the game’s early superstars, Lajoie was the American League’s first big-name player, winning his fourth and final batting title in 1910. In 1901, Lajoie posted the highest single-season batting average in major league history (post -1900), hitting. 426 for the Philadelphia Athletics. A .338 career hitter, Lajoie ranks 13th on the all-time hit list with 3,242. One of the game’s fiercest competitors, Cobb succeeded Lajoie as the American League’s best player. He won a record 10 batting titles and has the highest career batting average in major league history (.366). Cobb ranks second on the all-time hit list with 4,189, a mark he held until Pete Rose broke it in 1985.

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