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Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown: the best ever?

Oct 4, 2012, 8:23 AM EDT

Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Getty Images

If you just look at the raw numbers for Miguel Cabrera — a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI — you wouldn’t immediately say “best triple crown ever!”  After all, Mickey Mantle hit 52 home runs to secure his. Lou Gehrig hit .363 in his triple crown year. Jimmie Foxx hit 163 RBI the year he did it.  I’m not even sure that adjusting for era make Cabrera’s raw numbers one of the best triple crown years.

But there is something else besides those numbers that has convinced me that it is, Joe Sheehan’s argument about it in his latest newsletter:

Cabrera achieved the greatest Triple Crown ever. Forget the raw numbers or any single-number evaluation of his season, and consider that he beat out the largest fields of any winner. No one had won the Triple Crown since 1967, and that’s not a coincidence; it has nothing to do with specialization, the idea that there are more hitters for power and more for average. There are simply more hitters. It’s a math problem.

Expansion in 1969, 1977, 1993 and 1998, Joe notes, dramatically increased the number of players in the game and thus the number of guys in the hunt in triple crown categories each year.  To climb to the top of any one of those lists, let alone all three, you have to beat out a lot more dudes.*  Joe breaks down the specifics of that math, and it puts the significance of Cabrera’s accomplishment into perspective.

By the way: Joe does this kind of thing almost every day, plus much, much more. Just today, in addition to the Cabrera stuff, he talks about why the Rangers are not dead and, in fact, can be considered favorites to make the ALCS right now. Then he imagines Clayton Kershaw‘s free agent negotiations in a couple of years.  Good stuff.  If you are interested in it, I highly recommend subscribing to his newsletter.

*Note, this “there are a lot more teams and a lot more players out there” is also one of the things explaining why there are a lot more no hitters and perfect games these days too.  In 1955 you had 16 teams playing a total of 1,232 major league games each year. In 2012 you have 30 teams playing 2,430. When you increase the number of players you make leading those players in any category harder, but at the same time, as you increase the number of games being played, you increase the chances of a given phenomenon happening. People tend to ignore this and instead look for explanations involving steroids, magic pitches and the decline of some traditional value they hold near and dear or whatever.  It really doesn’t have to be that difficult.   

  1. deanmoriarity - Oct 4, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    I think a lot of people diminishing Cabrera’s stats based on historical stats of triple crown winners are forgetting that the triple crown measures *relative* stats. In other words, he did better in anyone in the AL *this year* in those categories, where everyone in the AL faced (roughly) the same competition.

    Therefore, expecting him to put up as high of stats as the past winners would be asking him to outperform the competition this year by orders of magnitude larger than the previous triple crown winners outperformed their competition. Which gets at the same issue raised in the post…

  2. scatterbrian - Oct 4, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    Shouldn’t this argument hold true for pitching Triple Crowns as well? There have been 10 of them in the last 40 years.

  3. weaselpuppy - Oct 4, 2012 at 3:58 PM

    I would argue that all of the triple crowns previous to 1947 or even say 1965 are suspect….Ty,Babe, Lou etc never had to compete head to head with Josh Gibson or swing at Satchell Paige’s pitches. They never saw a Juan Marichal or Bob Gibson….or had to beat out Ichiro or Manny Ramirez…or compete against Albert Pujols. The talent pool isn’t diluted, it’s the greatest it’s ever been…..imagine contracting MLB down to two leagues of 7 teams….then you see how great the talent level is now…..this is what makes Miggy’s Triple Crown the best ever….

    • markbul - Oct 4, 2012 at 4:23 PM

      Satchell Page and Juan Marichal never had to pitch to Babe Ruth – what’s your point?

      • weaselpuppy - Oct 4, 2012 at 4:34 PM

        For the rest of the obtuse so I don’t have to repeat myself….a white guy with talent if he wanted to play was going to get his shot, and did, since the very beginning of the sport. The talent pool included all the available white talent…until 47 it didn’t include black talent and for the most part latino talent…and not asian talent until the 90s, really…winning a triple crown with all available talent from within and outside the USA, not just white guys, is a bigger accomplishment.

  4. roscoeraider - Oct 4, 2012 at 4:28 PM

    It’s a great article if you don’t actually look at facts, especially when the reasoning itself is based on numbers. There are just a sheer greater number of hitters out there so while apparently being at the top of all 3 categories should be even more difficult, the numbers just don’t prove that. For instance, in the “easier era” of Mantle, you take a look at how many different people actually pushed him to have to win the triple crown. So take the top 10’s of each category. For average, you obviously have 9 different individuals below him. Remove those names from the top 10’s in HR and RBI. Then removed any remaining top 10 names in HR from RBI and you are left with 18 different people (6 in HR & 3 in RBI + 9 in Ave) who Mantle had to beat from a possible 27 is each top 10 had 9 different people. This translates to 66.7%

    Take Cabrera’s competitors in the same fashion. You have 9 different names below him in average. You will find at the start 11 different names in HR before removals because of a 3-way tie for 10th, removing the names leaves 9, but you also find that only 1 name is left for RBI which equals 19 from a possible 29 or 65.5%

    There might be a lot more hitters in the league, but there’s still the same percentage of great ones.

  5. markbul - Oct 4, 2012 at 4:31 PM

    Is this guy serious? When MBL expanded, they didn’t merge with another top quality league – they brought up minor leaguers and pronounced them major leaguers. There are reasons to praise winning a triple crown this year – that’s not one of them.

    You can only say what a guy did in his year. What you can do is ask how much better was he at hitting for average/home runs/RBIs compared to the guys he played against. Babe Ruth wasn’t great because he hit more home runs that other players would in the future. He was great because he hit so many more home runs than other anyone else in his time.

    So how many more HRs did Cabrera hit than the second place guy? Same for average and RBIs. That’s how you compare.

  6. ezwriter69 - Oct 4, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    Just finished another long article explaining why it was the LEAST impressive of all the triple crowns in history… truth is somewhere in the middle, I suspect.

  7. ernie ernie - Oct 5, 2012 at 10:23 AM

    Congrats to Miguel. Great achievement by any measuring stick. My only comment and it does apply to football also – I saw the great Jim Brown play for the Browns and in those days you played 12 games a year and a championship.
    Brown put up numbers that only until the modern era of 14 and 16 game seasons did others finally surpass.
    You insert people like Gehirg, Mantel, Willaims into todays era with the number of games played and the weakness of pitching they would face and their numbers would be staggering. Not to take anything away from Cabrera but he had one great year, they had great years almost every year against the best pitching ever in baseball using a ball that did not go as far as today’s in smaller ball parks too.
    I’ll stick with the accomplishments of the legends. Not to mention today you have tremendous knowledge of how to get into shape, exercise machines, the whole nine yards of physical fitness equipment.

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