19 to 21…Miggy’s Triple Crown
It’s been an interesting year for players named “Cabrera.” First, the Melkman looked to be on his way to the National League MVP award plus a batting crown. Then, a little matter of PEDs cropped up, and Melky took a seat on the sidelines for the Giants’ last 45 games or so. However, the issue of the Melkman didn’t go away. He had accumulated enough plate appearances so that it seemed all but certain that he would still at least win the batting title.
The propriety of this was kicked around at some length until, one suspects, Cabrera’s agent came up with the idea of having the soon-to-be-free-agent Melky recuse himself from the batting race by means of a one-time change in the eligibility rules. And indeed, another Giant, catcher Buster Posey, is now officially listed as the National League batting champion, having hit 16 points less than the Melkman. Talk about winning something on a technicality…
About the time this unprecedented recusal took place, the baseball world started to come to the realization that another Cabrera, Detroit’s Miguel, was on the verge of wining the American League Triple Crown. Maybe not an unprecedented happening, but it’s pretty close, since the last Triple Crown belonged to Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. And indeed, Miggy did take the Triple Crown, hitting .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBIs. That is a fact. What is not a fact, or at least what can be debated, is the overall significance of this accomplishment.
As is the case with many statistical accomplishments, there are two sides to the debate. First, it has most certainly been 45 long years since Yaz won the Triple Crown for the Impossible Dream (“The Man of LaMancha” was a big hit at that time) Red Sox of 1967. Anything that happens after a 45-year hiatus is pretty impressive. In addition, consider the fact that the American League in 1967 had 10 teams of 25 players each. That means Yaz was competing against 249 other players for the Triple Crown. If you consider each team as having 10 pitchers, who would hardly be Triple Crown candidates, that really means he was competing against about 150 others for the batting honors. Now, in 2012, the AL has 14 teams of 25 players, or 350 players overall, of which about 150 at any one time are pitchers (more like 11 per team). The math is rough, but the bottom line is that Miggy was competing against an additional 50 hitters for his Triple Crown, and that’s impressive.
So is the time gap. Leaving out the two sometimes-disputed 19th Century Triple Crowns, Miggy has chalked up the 14th such accomplishment. Starting with Nap Lajoie’s record-setting .426/14/125 (the .426 mark is still the “modern” era batting average record) line for the 1901 Athletics, a Triple Crown was reached almost exactly once every five years – 13 times total for the first 67 seasons. Of course, it wasn’t an even distribution – for instance, there were four in the 1930s, including two in the same year and the same city in 1933 (there’s a good trivia question for you). And, Yaz won his Triple Crown the year after Frank Robinson won his for the Orioles. Still, the longest gap between Triple Crowns was 13 years between Ty Cobb’s 1909 AL Triple Crown and the first of Rogers Hornsby’s two, in 1922. So, yes, doing it after 45 years is a big deal.
On the other hand, the Triple Crown is merely a statistical anomaly, a fluke, marking one-league dominance in three offensive categories, but ultimately not saying everything about a player’s overall offensive contribution. (Now, if you considered the Triple Crown to be leading a league in batting, on base and slugging in the same year, that might be a different matter, but that’s a discussion for another day.) And both the stats, and the MVP voting, bear this out. Here are the 14 Triple Crown winners, most of whom need no introduction, with their OPS+ and Offensive Wins Above Replacement (OWAR) figures for those years…
What’s not shown here is that four of these Triple Crown winners didn’t win their league’s MVP (leaving out the first three listed — there wasn’t an MVP award in those leagues in those years.) Chuck Klein was second in 1933, and Teddy Ballgame was second in BOTH of his Triple Crown years, although his contentious relationship with the baseball writers had something to do with that. More astounding, Lou Gehrig was FIFTH… FIFTH… in the 1934 American League balloting. He finished behind, are you ready… Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Gomez, Charlie Gehringer and Schoolboy Rowe. That’s correct, the writers didn’t even find him the most valuable player on his own team.
What’s also not shown is that Cabrera, Mantle, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx, Hornsby, Cobb and Lajoie all had better seasons statistically than their Triple Crown seasons. At least, that is, by means of having posted a higher OPS+ in a season other than the Triple Crown season. Cabrera, for goodness sakes, had a better year last year, with a 179. He had a better OPS+ in 2010, a 178. The Mick topped out at a monumental 221 in 1957. Williams’ top year was the .406 campaign of 1941, when he posted a scary 235 figure. Gehrig’s best was in 1927, with a 220, and when he did win the MVP award. However, some guy named Ruth hit 60 home runs that year, to Gehrig’s 47. (In fact, he didn’t win the batting crown that year, either.) Foxx was also a little better the year before his Triple Crown, with a 207. Both of Hornsby’s Triple Crown years weren’t as good as his 1924 season (the year he hit .424) when he went up to 222. Cobb’s best was in mid-career, in 1917, when he posted a 210. And, as much as Lajoie’s 1901 season has been denigrated because the AL was in its first year, he had a better season in 1904, a 203.
Still, they were all great years. It is worth summarizing that the 13 previous Triple Crown winners averaged an OPS+ of 200 and an OWAR of 9.3. Both figures are way above Miggy’s 2012 numbers. In fact, his 166 OPS+ and 7.5 OWAR are the lowest for any Triple Crown winner, by a lot in the case of OPS+, where only Medwick and Klein (the weakest previous Triple Crown winners) were below 193.
As shown by Cabrera’s 2012 season, a Triple Crown year is not necessarily the peak of production of a player’s career, although it was the peak for the four lesser attainees; namely Medwick, Klein, Yaz (who was great for one year, and merely very good for the rest of his long career) and Robby (except for 1967, when he posted a 187 mark, Robby didn’t get within 25 points of his 1966 OPS+ for the rest of his career). Should it then be a total surprise that a Triple Crown isn’t necessarily an MVP performance? Which leads to another hot question… does Miggy deserve the MVP?
To say it right up front… no way. The award should go to the Millville Meteor, Mike Trout. The rookie had a LOT better season in 2012, he just didn’t hit the statistical lottery and win any of the Triple Crown categories, although he did led the AL in runs and stolen bases. Trout’s OPS+ was a league-leading 171. His WAR was an easily major league-leading 10.7 (any time you get over 10, you’ve had a YEAR). His OWAR was 8.6, more than a game above Miggy’s.
Want more “proof’ from other metrics? In Lee Sinins’ Runs Created Above Average, Trout led the AL with 76, 17 ahead of second place Miggy’s 59. If you factor in defensive prowess, which Sinins’ Total Runs Above Average does, it’s an even bigger gap. Trout leads the AL at 80, while Cabrera is only third, also trailing Robinson Cano at 56. (BTW, this means that, as a defensive player, Miggy was a net minus three – his glove at third gave up three runs more than the average third baseman.) Without even getting into the offensive side of their games, is a good centerfielder more valuable than a bad third baseman?
Just because Miggy happened to get the winning numbers on the offensive Powerball jackpot doesn’t make him the most valuable, especially since it was arguably the weakest Triple Crown year in history. It’s a notable accomplishment, and a memorable one, but Mike Trout was the most valuable player in the American League.