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THE BASEBALL TRIPLE CROWN: MARK OF A HALL OF FAMER?

As of this writing, third baseman Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers is one home run shy of leading (or being tied for the lead in) the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (RBI). Historically, these three categories have constituted the batting Triple Crown, and it is a mark of this rarity that only 14 hitters in baseball history, 11 of those during the modern era begun in 1901, and only 9 of those during the live-ball era begun in 1920, have ever accomplished this feat, which signifies the ability to hit for average, hit for power, and produce runs. In the current sabermetrics era, both batting average and RBI are considered to be overvalued as measurements of ability and effectiveness, yet of the 14 men who have accomplished this, 12 are in the Hall of Fame. Coincidence? Let's see.

Pitching also has its Triple Crown, for (starting) pitchers who lead their league in wins, earned run average (ERA), and strikeouts, and although wins have also been discounted by sabermetricians as a measure of a pitcher's effectiveness—a "win" is composed of many factors contributed by the team—both ERA and strikeouts are still very much indicators of a pitcher's effectiveness. Last year both the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, for the National League (NL), and the Tigers' Justin Verlander, for the American League (AL), were Triple Crown winners, the first time since 1924 that each league had a pitching Triple Crown winner in the same year; not surprisingly, both Kershaw and Verlander won their league's respective Cy Young Awards, with Verlander also winning the AL Most Valuable Player Award—quite an unusual honor for a pitcher. (For the record, in 1924 the Washington Senators' Walter Johnson was the AL pitching Triple Crown winner, while the Brooklyn Dodgers' Dazzy Vance was Johnson's NL counterpart.)

There is also a high concentration of Hall of Famers among pitching Triple Crown winners, a situation that deserves examination but in a subsequent article, not this one. There is a slim chance that either the Tampa Bay Rays' David Price or the Washington Nationals' Gio Gonzalez could win their league's pitching Triple Crown, but it is not as likely as Miguel Cabrera's winning the batting Triple Crown. So, with Cabrera close to a batting Triple Crown with less than two weeks remaining in this season, it is worth examining the players and the circumstances surrounding this rare and highly coveted honor.

Hitting Dominance: The Batting Triple Crown

As of September 21, 2012, Miguel Cabrera is leading the AL with a .333 batting average and 130 RBI while trailing the Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton's 42 home runs by one. Certainly a lot can happen in the remaining few games: Cabrera's closest competitors in batting average are Los Angeles Angels' rookie phenom Mike Trout, at .327, and the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter, at .322, and barring a significant swoon by Cabrera as both Trout and Jeter catch fire, Cabrera has some breathing room. Home runs are another matter: Cabrera is only one behind Hamilton, but the Toronto Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnation is only one behind Cabrera, with both the Chicago White Sox's Adam Dunn (seemingly a lock for comeback player of the year following his disastrous 2011 campaign) and the New York Yankees' Curtis Granderson both at 39 homers. In RBI, Hamilton trails Cabrera's 130 by seven, but the Rangers' explosive offense, capped by Hamilton's own explosiveness, could close that gap in a hurry. Otherwise, the Minnesota Twins' Josh Willingham is next in line with 110 RBI.

The last time anyone was as close as Cabrera to the Triple Crown was Albert Pujols, then with the St. Louis Cardinals, in 2010. Pujols led the NL in home runs (42) and RBI (118) although the Colorado Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez was just one RBI behind Pujols while leading the league in batting average with .336, 24 points higher than Pujols, who trailed four other hitters in batting average. Pujols has been a threat to win a Triple Crown throughout his career, coming close in 2003 when he led the NL in batting average (.359) while finishing fourth in both home runs and RBI, and again in 2009 when he led the NL in home runs while finishing third in both batting average and RBI, although his 2011 season is seen as the beginning of the currently 32-year-old's decline phase, suggested somewhat by the lowest numbers of his career while in the first year of his blockbuster 10-year contract with the Angels; barring a blistering finish, Pujols will end the season with a sub-.900 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) for the first time in his career.

All of which makes Cabrera's run for the Triple Crown that much more urgent. Cabrera is 29, at his peak but not far from his decline phase, if Pujols's experience is any indication. Last year Cabrera led the AL in batting average (.344) but finished tenth in home runs and sixth in RBI. In 2010, Cabrera's .328 batting average was second in the AL but still 31 points behind batting champion Hamilton, and although Cabrera edged out the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez for the RBI title by one (126, to Rodriguez's 125), and his 38 home runs might have been good for third place, one behind the White Sox's Paul Konerko, both trailed considerably the 54 round-trippers the Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Bautista slugged. In 2008, Cabrera led the AL in home runs with 37, beating the White Sox's Carlos Quentin by one, and while his 127 RBI was third, just behind the Twins' Justin Morneau's 129 and Hamilton's 130, Cabrera's .292 batting average was well below the league-leading .328 batted by the Twins' Joe Mauer. Throughout his career, Cabrera has nailed one of the three components of the Triple Crown but hasn't been close with the other two. Until this year. And while it is impossible to state that he will or won't be able to perform at a Triple Crown level in subsequent seasons, in this era of increasingly high talent compression that makes players "age" earlier than in previous eras, Cabrera's time might be running out.

But should Cabrera, or Pujols, win a Triple Crown, would that make them Hall of Famers?

A Hall of Fame Season: Batting Triple Crown Winners in History

Since 1901, the birth of modern baseball, only 11 hitters have ever won a Triple Crown, and all of them are in the Hall of Fame. Since the advent of integrated baseball in 1947, only four hitters have won the Triple Crown, and one of those winners was in 1947, when there was only one African-American player in baseball, Jackie Robinson, and he played in the other league from the Triple Crown winner, the Boston Red Sox's Ted Williams.

This is significant because aggregate talent has been improving as baseball matures, and ending segregation in 1947 was one way to increase the pool of talent. As overall talent grows stronger, not only does it mean that hitters face better pitchers and fielders more often, but that there are more hitters that are better; in other words, it is harder for any single batter to dominate as a for-average hitter, a power hitter, and a run-producer. The last hitter to win a Triple Crown was Carl Yastrzemski of the American League Red Sox in 1967, 45 years ago; the last hitter in the National League was Joe Medwick, who did the trick for the Cardinals in 1937—three-quarters of a century ago.

The table below lists all the hitting Triple Crown winners since 1901.

Year

Player

League

Ave.

HR

RBI

OPS+1

WAR2

1901

Nap Lajoie

AL

.426

14

125

198

8.2

1909

Ty Cobb

AL

.377

9

107

193

9.5

1922

Rogers Hornsby

NL

.401

42

152

207

10.0

1925

Rogers Hornsby

NL

.403

39

143

210

10.1

1933

Jimmie Foxx

AL

.356

48

163

201

9.0

1933

Chuck Klein

NL

.368

28

120

176

7.3

1934

Lou Gehrig

AL

.363

49

165

206

10.1

1937

Joe Medwick

NL

.374

31

154

182

8.1

1942

Ted Williams

AL

.356

36

137

216

10.2

1947

Ted Williams

AL

.343

32

114

205

9.6

1956

Mickey Mantle

AL

.353

52

130

210

11.0

1966

Frank Robinson

AL

.316

49

122

198

7.3

1967

Carl Yastrzemski

AL

.326

44

121

193

12.0


1 OPS+: On-base percentage plus slugging percentage, league- and park-adjusted, for that season. An OPS+ of 100 indicates a league-average player. Not a statistic during the players' career but included here as a retrospective qualitative analysis. (From baseball-reference.com.)

2 WAR: Wins Above Replacement-level player. An aggregate calculation of a player's contribution to his team's wins, for that season. Not a statistic during the players' career but included here as a retrospective qualitative analysis. (From baseball-reference.com.)

Some notes on the Triple Crown winners: Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams are the only two hitters in baseball history to win two Triple Crowns. Not surprisingly, both are considered to be among the greatest hitters of all time. Hornsby's 1922 Triple Crown year is particularly remarkable because he became the only man in history ever to combine a .400 batting average with 40 or more home runs in the same season. And 1933 marked the only time that both leagues had a Triple Crown winner in the same season. Chuck Klein's 28 home runs are the lowest home run total for a Triple Crown winner in the live-ball era.

Of the 11 Triple Crown winners of the modern era, 9 are considered to be among the greatest hitters of all time. Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie are superstars of the dead-ball era, with Lajoie ranking as one of the greatest all-around middle infielders of any era. Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Hornsby are three of the biggest names of the first decade or so of the live-ball era, while Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Williams, and Yastrzemski are the marquee names of the "Golden Era" of the 1950s and 1960s. Only Klein and Medwick seem out of place among these elite players; we will examine both shortly.

The table below lists the career OPS+ and WAR of the Triple Crown winners, listed by overall ranking in each category.

Player

OPS+

Rank

Player

WAR

Rank

Ted Williams

190

2

Ty Cobb

144.9

4

Lou Gehrig

179

4

Rogers Hornsby

124.6

8

Rogers Hornsby

175

5

Ted Williams

119.8

10

Mickey Mantle

172

6

Lou Gehrig

108.5

13

Ty Cobb

168

9

Mickey Mantle

105.5

15

Jimmie Foxx

163

11

Nap Lajoie

102.2

18

Frank Robinson

154

26

Frank Robinson

100.9

19

Nap Lajoie

150

34

Jimmie Foxx

92.5

21

Chuck Klein

137

92

Carl Yastrzemski

90.1

25

Joe Medwick

134

121

Joe Medwick

52.4

138

Carl Yastrzemski

130

163

Chuck Klein

41.5

242

 

Listed in this manner, Cobb, Gehrig, Hornsby, Mantle, and Williams emerge as clearly elite hitters—among the top ten lifetime in OPS+ and among the top fifteen lifetime in WAR. All but Klein and Medwick are among the top twenty-five in lifetime WAR. Yastrzemski's last-place (in this sample) ranking in OPS+ is due to compiling 13,992 plate appearances in his 3308 games, generating a .285/.379/.462 slash line and a .841 OPS. But Yaz also amassed 3419 hits, 646 doubles, 452 home runs, 1845 bases on balls, 1816 runs, and 1844 RBI, ranking no lower than 35th all-time in any of those categories, and ranking within the top ten lifetime in hits, doubles, and bases on balls. And Yaz was elected in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, as was Cobb (actually among the inaugural class of the Hall of Fame in 1936), Mantle, Robinson, and Williams. (Gehrig was a special vote by acclamation in 1939 owing to his tragic circumstances.) Lajoie was elected in 1937, one year after Cobb, and Foxx and Hornsby had to spend their time on a few ballots before getting elected; in Hornsby's case, he was among the most disliked players of all time (as was Cobb, although that wasn't a factor in his election to the Hall), which must account for Hornsby's languishing before getting the nod—Hornsby's lifetime batting average is second only to Cobb's.

As for Klein and Medwick, Klein was a Veterans' Committee candidate while Medwick was elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) in his final year of eligibility. Chuck Klein was a slugging star outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies in the late 1920s and early 1930s who in his first six seasons (1928 to 1933) led the NL in home runs and total bases four times each, slugging percentage and runs scored three times each, and hits, doubles, and RBI twice each. He had at least 200 hits in five of the six years while hitting at least 40 doubles four times and at least 50 doubles twice. Klein was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1932 when he led the league in both home runs (38) and stolen bases (20), the last man in Major League history to do both in the same season. Klein finished with a .320/.379/.543 slash line that included 2076 hits, 398 doubles, and 300 home runs while scoring 1168 runs and driving in 1201. But during this time, Klein played his home games in Philadelphia's notoriously hitter-friendly Baker Bowl; for example, more than two-thirds of his home runs hit during this period were hit at home. When Klein was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1934, his numbers cooled, and although he was returned to the Phillies near the start of the 1936 season, he never regained that high-flying offensive prowess of his early seasons, although in 1946 he did become the first man in the 20th century to hit four home runs in one game. Klein's induction by the Veterans' Committee in 1980 smacks of favoritism, as he got all of three votes (2.5 percent) on his only appearance on a BBWAA ballot in 1948.

Joe Medwick did manage to get voted in by the writers in his last year of eligibility; like Klein, Medwick also started with a bang and ended with a whimper, although after nearly being killed by a beanball in 1940 he was never the same player as he had been in his first eight seasons. In those first eight seasons, from 1932 to 1939, he sported a .338/.374/.552 slash line while leading the NL in doubles, total bases, and RBI three times each, and hits twice. In his Triple Crown year of 1937, which saw him win the NL MVP, Medwick not only led the league in batting average (.374), home runs (31), and RBI (154), he also led the league in hits (237), doubles (56), and slugging percentage (.641). In seven straight seasons, Medwick hit at least 40 doubles and hit 64 in 1936, tied for most-ever by a right-handed batter and only three fewer than Earl Webb's single-season record. He finished his career with a .324/.362/.505 slash line, 2471 hits, 540 doubles, and 205 home runs—his 31 homers in 1937 was a career high, and he reached at least 20 in a season only two other times—while scoring 1198 runs and driving in 1383. Like Klein, Medwick played in a hitter-friendly park, Sportsman's Park, although it wasn't as pronounced as Philadelphia's Baker Bowl, and Medwick had fairly even home-road splits. Medwick is a bubble candidate for the Hall, but the writers have elected worse.

Is Miguel Cabrera a Potential Hall of Famer?

So, if Miguel Cabrera manages to win the AL Triple Crown in 2012, is this an indicator that he could be looking at an induction into Cooperstown once his career is over? As Yogi Berra would put it, Cabrera's career ain't over until it's over, but based on what he has accomplished so far, he is a possibility.

The 2003 season was nearly half over when Cabrera came up to the (then-) Florida Marlins as a left fielder and third baseman. He posted a respectable if unspectacular rookie year, with a .268/.325/.468 slash line with 21 doubles and 12 home runs in 346 plate appearances, scoring 39 while driving in 62 as he became the Marlins' cleanup hitter. Cabrera drew more notice during the postseason, particularly during the seven-game National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs (the infamous "Bartman" series) as he got 10 hits in 30 at-bats including 3 home runs, scored 9 runs, and drove in 6. Although he got only 4 hits in 24 at-bats in the six-game World Series against the Yankees, one of those hits was a two-run homer off Roger Clemens in Game Four; the Marlins went on to defeat the Yankees in six games.

In his first full season in 2004, Cabrera posted a .294/.366/.512 slash line while hitting 33 home runs and driving in 112 runs. For the next three seasons, Cabrera would drive in at least 100 runs while hitting at least 30 home runs two more times, no small feat in spacious Dolphins Stadium. In his four full seasons with the Marlins, Cabrera generated a .318/.396/.551 slash line while averaging 190 hits, 40 doubles, and 32 home runs, and averaging 102 runs scored and 115 runs batted in with an OPS+ of 147. Cabrera was still young and learning—he was in his fifth big-league season at age 24.

Then in late 2007 Cabrera was traded to the Tigers, where he switched to first base. Entering his prime years, Cabrera did not disappoint his team or their fans. In his first four years with the Tigers, from 2008 to 2011, Cabrera boasted a .322/.403/.571 slash line, averaging 189 hits, 41 doubles, and 35 home runs, and averaging 101 runs scored and 115 runs driven in while posting an OPS+ of 157. He has come within five hits of 200 four times already, and with 190 hits as of September 21, 2012, with 13 games left to play, he could reach 200. He is also two doubles shy of 40, which he has reached four times previously. He led the AL in home runs with 37 in 2008, in RBI with 126 in 2010, and in batting average with .344 in 2011, with a very good chance to lead all three categories in 2012. Cabrera's 2012 performance is informed by his move, after four seasons, back to third base to make room for Prince Fielder at first.

At age 29, Cabrera is a career .318/.395/.562 hitter with 1787 hits, 384 doubles, and 318 home runs, with 953 runs and 1114 RBI while posting a 151 OPS+ and generating a 44.0 WAR. Cabrera's counting numbers are fast approaching Chuck Klein's for Klein's entire career while Cabrera's qualitative measures, from slash line to OPS+ to WAR, match or surpass Klein's and Medwick's, keeping in mind that Cabrera is playing in an era of talent compression that both Klein and Medwick did not have to face.

Albert Pujols flirted with the Triple Crown on at least three occasions earlier in his career, and while it is not impossible for him to have another stellar year while with the Angels, it is not likely as he will be in his age-33 year in 2013, piling up more counting stats as he enters the twilight of his Hall of Fame career. His career .325/.415/.609 slash line will fall to some degree but he will add to his 2230 hits, 498 doubles, 475 home runs, 1371 runs scored, and 1425 RBI, and although his 168 OPS+ will likely fall, he will boost his 88.4 WAR—already 27th among position players all-time, 40th among all players all-time—before calling it quits.

If Pujols's career is any model for Cabrera, he has two more seasons before age begins to take its toll. Like Pujols, Cabrera can still be a contributor in his twilight seasons—but unlike Pujols currently, Cabrera can still enjoy his prime, at least for a couple more seasons. However, Cabrera seems to be closer to the Triple Crown this season than Pujols had been in previous seasons. The last few games of the 2012 season are going to be exciting to watch as Cabrera and Josh Hamilton, with Edwin Encarnation, Adam Dunn, and Curtis Granderson hot on their heels, swing for the fences to determine who will lead the American League in home runs—and if it is Miguel Cabrera, it will in all likelihood make him the first batting Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967, long before Cabrera, Pujols, Hamilton, and the rest were even a twinkle in their fathers' eyes.

Winning the batting Triple Crown is not a guarantee that a hitter will get into the Hall of Fame. But each of the 11 hitters in the modern era who has accomplished the feat has gone into the Hall. The qualifications of Chuck Klein and Joe Medwick can be disputed, but the other nine are hard to discount. (For the record, the three who won Triple Crowns in the pre-modern era are Paul Hines, who hit .358 with 4 home runs and 50 RBI in 62 games for the National League Providence Grays in 1878; Tip O'Neill, who hit .435 with 14 homers and 123 RBI in 124 games for the St. Louis Browns, then in the American Association League and thus not part of the existing two-league system, in 1887; and Hugh Duffy, who hit .440 with 18 home runs and 145 RBI in 125 games for the NL Boston Beaneaters in 1894—Duffy was inducted into the Hall by the Old Timers' Committee in 1945.)

Only the rest of Miguel Cabrera's career will tell us if he is going to be a Hall of Famer. But his winning the first batting Triple Crown in 45 years would put him in with some prestigious company indeed.

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DDT - 16:25

RIP Johnny Winter, dead at 70, cause not known at this time. Fine, pioneering guitarist who is in the Blues Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. "Rock and Roll, Hootchie Koo," Johnny.


DDT - 16:45

RIP: Tony Gwynn, dead from salivary-gland cancer at age 54. Cherish your memories of this great Hall of Famer.


bojanthebest - 23:31

Congrats to Oscar De La Hoya for getting into the Boxing Hall of Fame.


bojanthebest - 06:03

Congrats to Ronnie Milsap. Some reason I can't read the main articles.


Committee Chairman - 06:25

Saw this today....a must read IMO: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/10261642/mlb-hall-fame-voting-steroid-era


DDT - 02:01

Baseball's newest HoFers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas. Craig Biggio is hurting: 74.78 percent! PEDs guys still being punished; bye-bye, Rafael Palmeiro. Not a travesty like last year.


bojanthebest - 01:58

Congrats to Maddux, Glavine and Thomas for making the Hall today. Biggio should have made it also.


Spheniscus - 07:12

Torre and Cox were taken on by Rick Reilly, as well as LaRussa. I am in the camp that they should all be in, as should Bonds, Clemens, and McGwire. But the double standard is interesting.


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