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The Triple Crown Is Not Evil

There has been a lot of banter about the Most Valuable Player Award this week. While the National League has an even field with multiple candidates, it’s the American League — with  Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera — that’s gotten most of the attention.

At the center of the debate is baseball’s triple crown, an incredibly rare achievement that is within reach for Cabrera. The fact that Trout is going to finish with the better season, regardless, has led many to pooh-pooh the fact that Cabrera has the chance to become just the 14th player since 1901 to win the elusive title. And while the triple crown in and of itself doesn’t signify greatness, it has only been won by great players. And most often, the league’s best player has won it.

It’s common knowledge that no player has hit for the triple crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and even his claim to it is debatable. He tied for the AL lead in home runs with Harmon Killebrew, who matched Yaz’ 44 taters. History gives Yastrzemski credit for his triple crown, though, and so shall we. The feat has been accomplished just 13 times, with 11 different players (Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams each did it twice):

Year Player Lg Tm AVG HR RBI
1967 Carl Yastrzemski AL BOS 0.326 44 121
1966 Frank Robinson AL BAL 0.316 49 122
1956 Mickey Mantle AL NYY 0.353 52 130
1947 Ted Williams AL BOS 0.343 32 125
1942 Ted Williams AL BOS 0.356 36 137
1937 Joe Medwick NL STL 0.374 31 154
1934 Lou Gehrig AL NYY 0.363 49 165
1933 Chuck Klein NL PHI 0.368 28 120
1933 Jimmie Foxx AL PHA 0.356 48 163
1925 Rogers Hornsby NL STL 0.403 39 143
1922 Rogers Hornsby NL STL 0.401 42 152
1909 Ty Cobb AL DET 0.377 9 107
1901 Nap Lajoie AL PHA 0.426 14 125

You’ll recognize every name on this list. All 11 players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The triple crown is not baseball’s rarest feat — there have been only four hit streaks of 40 or more games since 1901; only eight 60-homer seasons; and there have only been 13 .400 batting average seasons. But that doesn’t mean the feat isn’t ridiculously difficult to accomplish.

In most seasons, at least one player has won two of the three legs of the triple crown. At least one league has had a player win (or tie to win) two of the three triple crown categories in 85 of the 111 seasons, starting with 1901. In 33 of those 85 seasons, both leagues had a player win two of the three triple crown categories.

To put that more plainly: It’s just as frequent for two players — one from each league, in all cases — to lead their league (or tie for the league lead) in two of the three triple crown categories as it is for zero players to do so in any given season. History is littered with players who have led the league in two of the three categories, but not all three. Alex Rodriguez did it twice. Mike Schmidt did it four times. George Foster and Willie McCovey did it in back-to-back seasons. Hank Aaron did it three times. Babe Ruth did it six times in eight years — five times leading in both home runs and RBI, and one time leading in average and homers.

Not only is it a rare achievement, it is not a cheap one. While we don’t put much, if any, importance on RBI these days, these seasons weren’t exactly Dante Bichette’s 1999 season. Eleven of the 13 led their league in WAR outright, with Nap Lajoie tying Cy Young for the WAR lead in 1901 and Cobb’s 10.8 WAR in 1909 coming in slightly under Eddie Collins’ 11.1 WAR. The third-best WAR in the AL that season was Donie Bush, with 7.4 WAR, though, so it’s not like Cobb was a scrub that season.

In fact, let’s take another look at these guys, but with some advanced stats swapped in for the more traditional selections:

Year Player Lg Tm wRC+ wOBA OPS Batting WAR
1967 Carl Yastrzemski AL BOS 194 0.454 1.040 70.2 12.1
1966 Frank Robinson AL BAL 196 0.447 1.047 74.8 9.1
1956 Mickey Mantle AL NYY 204 0.502 1.169 93.4 12.2
1947 Ted Williams AL BOS 209 0.507 1.133 87.5 10.8
1942 Ted Williams AL BOS 211 0.522 1.147 94.2 12.2
1937 Joe Medwick NL STL 178 0.467 1.056 65.7 8.1
1934 Lou Gehrig AL NYY 196 0.509 1.172 100.9 11.5
1933 Chuck Klein NL PHI 181 0.468 1.025 62.3 7.8
1933 Jimmie Foxx AL PHA 192 0.508 1.153 91.4 11
1925 Rogers Hornsby NL STL 208 0.544 1.245 93.9 11
1922 Rogers Hornsby NL STL 198 0.521 1.181 98.9 11
1909 Ty Cobb AL DET 204 0.478 0.947 72.7 10.8
1901 Nap LaJoie AL PHA 188 0.504 1.106 80.8 10.3

Not too shabby, right? Aside from Lajoie’s and Cobb’s WAR, the players here finished first in their respective season and league in WAR, wOBA, wRC+, OPS and “batting” (from the value section). In fact, by wRC+, eight of these seasons are in the top 51 seasons from 1901 to 2011. Simply put, these were some of the best seasons in baseball history. As a group, they blew away the competiton in their respective years and leagues. To wit:

Stat Triple-crown winner Best/Next-best player
WAR 10.6 8.3
wOBA 0.495 0.444
wRC+ 196.8 166.5
OPS 1.109 0.984
Batting 83.6 54.9

Even with Collins beating out Cobb and Young tying Lajoie, the players here were more than two wins better than either the best or next-best player in their league and season — a description that doesn’t quite fit Cabrera. The Detroit slugger leads the AL in OPS, wOBA and batting, but OPS is the only category in which he has a sizable lead. He’s second in wRC+ and WAR.

But even when the triple crown winners thoroughly dominated, they didn’t always take home MVP honors. Only 10 of the players were eligible to be awarded MVP, as the MVP wasn’t around when Lajoie, Cobb and Hornsby (the first time) took their titles. Two of the other times, it was Williams who won and still didn’t get the MVP. In 1947, he lost because a Midwestern writer left him off of the ballot. There are two other instances where a player won the triple crown and not MVP: Chuck Klein in 1933 and Lou Gehrig in 1934.

Klein won the year before, and came in second in ’33 to Carl Hubbell, who posted a 1.66 ERA and won a league-leading 23 games for the World Series champion New York Giants. Gehrig tallied more votes and was closer to first in the AL vote a year later, but he finished fifth in what was a very fractured vote: Mickey Cochrane took first place with 67 vote points. Gehrig had 54 vote points.

Which brings us back to this year’s MVP debate. Cabrera hasn’t been a better player overall than Trout this season. But rather than cutting down the triple crown, we really should be praising Trout’s season. Since 1901, there have been 12,000 qualified position player seasons. Fewer than 200 of them have posted 9 WAR or better, and Trout would be just the second (Alex Rodriguez, 1996) to do so before his age-21 season. That Trout is on pace to finish with a WAR that is so much higher than Cabrera’s is essentially uncharted territory.

The triple crown is, as Keith Law said in his Wednesday chat, a statistical quirk. It’s one that doesn’t account for the full breadth of a player’s contribution. And while Cabrera might pass Josh Hamilton in homers, the triple crown wouldn’t necessarily make him the player most deserving of the MVP.

Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that winning the triple crown is incredibly rare. Yes, RBI is one of the categories — and yes, it doesn’t account for all of the nuances that more modern statistics do — but the triple crown is not evil. In fact, it’s actually pretty cool.