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Chase of baseball history by Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw creates buzz

Dodgers teammates have spark big interest with their pursuit of the hitting and pitching triple crowns, which two players on the same team have accomplished in the same season once, in 1934.

September 27, 2011|By David Wharton and Dylan Hernandez
  • Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, left, and center fielder Matt Kemp celebrate following Kershaw's complete-game shutout against the Detroit Tigers on June 20. Both players have had standout seasons for the Dodgers.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, left, and center fielder Matt Kemp celebrate… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

Maybe this season wasn't so bad for Dodgers fans after all.

The franchise is in Bankruptcy Court, the owner widely despised and the team mired well out of first place on the final day of the regular season.

But the faithful got to watch pitcher Clayton Kershaw and center fielder Matt Kemp chase a statistical rarity.

Only once — in 1934 — have two players on the same team captured the triple crowns of batting and pitching.

Kershaw has done it with National League bests in wins, strikeouts and earned-run average. Kemp leads in home runs and runs batted in, and is third in batting average.

"Why not get excited?" said John Thorn, the historian for Major League Baseball. "The idea that Kemp and Kershaw had a shot at it was pretty cool."

First baseman Lou Gehrig and pitcher Lefty Gomez earned triple crowns for the 1934 New York Yankees, a team that won 94 games but finished just out of the postseason.

Leading in the three major batting categories is so difficult that only 15 players have accomplished it since 1878. The last player to do so was Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox in 1967. The last NL player was Joe Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1937.

The pitching version is more common, with 36 winners in 134 years. Dazzy Vance won as a Dodger in 1924, followed by Sandy Koufax, who won triple crowns in 1963, 1965 and 1966.

Vin Scully watched from the announcer's booth during Koufax's amazing stretch but has found something extraordinary in the 27-year-old Kemp and 23-year-old Kershaw.

"What's so impressive is that they're so young," he said. "It shows you that, even to be considered to win, how special both of them are."

Certainly no sport cherishes its numbers more than baseball, aficionados poring over box scores, applying mathematics to almost everything that happens on the field.

"It's a game where the statistics do matter and do last," said filmmaker Ken Burns, whose documentary "Baseball" chronicled the history of the sport.

In some ways, the triple crown is dated. Over the last two decades, stat geeks have created a new kind of analysis — sabermetrics — devising formulas with acronyms such as OPS and VORP to measure a player's worth.

The current Brad Pitt movie "Moneyball" depicts Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane's embrace of such statistics.

Still, there is something to be said for the nostalgic value of time-honored numbers such as home runs and strikeouts.

"They mean something," said Bob Costas of NBC and the MLB Network. "That's what thetriple crown means until someone redefines it."

Even more rare is the 40-40 club, which has only four members.

Kemp has stolen 40 bases. If he can hit two more home runs, he will join Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano as the only players to amass 40 in each category in a season.

"Given the premium position and everything he does, Kemp is the best all-around player in the league," said Bud Black, manager of the San Diego Padres.

By sheer numbers alone, Kemp and Kershaw have a shot at winning the most valuable player and Cy Young awards, respectively. They would become the first teammates to do so on a ballclub that was all but out of the playoff picture by midseason.

"That would be something good for the organization," Kemp said. "It would let us end on a high note."

Teammates have won the awards 18 times, and 17 times they played for league or division champions. MVP Maury Wills and Cy Young winner Don Drysdale were the exception, their 1962 Dodgers finishing in a first-place tie, then losing to the San Francisco Giants in a three-game playoff.

In all, the Dodgers have had 12 MVPs, the last Kirk Gibson in 1988, and nine Cy Young winners, most recently Eric Gagne in 2003.

Orlando Hudson, a former Dodger who plays for the San Diego Padres, thinks Kemp and Kershaw should join that list.

"It's a no-brainer thing," he said. "It's hands down."

Trying to become the first Dodger to win a triple crown at the plate, Kemp has 38 home runs, 123 runs batted in and a .324 batting average. He also has a measure of redemption.

The highly gifted athlete had been considered an underachiever, booed by fans and criticized by General Manager Ned Colletti as recently as last year.

Colletti, who would now like to sign the slugger to a long-term extension, recently said Kemp should easily win the MVP award and called his performance "one of the all-time best seasons."

For Kershaw, who has 21 wins, 248 strikeouts and a 2.28 earned-run average, the last few months have served as a breakthrough.

The left-hander went head to head with Tim Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young winner for the Giants, four times this season and came away with four wins. He was 12-1 after the All-Star break to help his team salvage some dignity by finishing above .500.

"I wasn't thinking of having a special year," he said. "I'm just trying to win."

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