- NotGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/not -

The Triple Dunce Cap

Lost in the commotion over Miguel Cabrera‘s Triple Crown candidacy is the fact that another player is in contention for an equally historic accomplishment. I’m referring to the remarkable Jemile Weeks of Oakland, who — although it’s a very long shot — could theoretically still join the very short list of Triple Dunce Cap winners. To win the Triple Dunce Cap, of course, one must finish last in one’s league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. This feat, and Mr. Weeks’ run at it, has not gone entirely unnoticed, although it’s been treated somewhat more prosaically elsewhere. In any case, nowhere to my knowledge has the proud history of the Triple Dunce Cap been properly historiographed. I’ll just come right out and say it: it’s my intention to do so right now.

In the modern era, thirteen players have won baseball’s Triple Crown, and fourteen have won baseball’s Triple Dunce Cap. If you don’t count Ivan DeJesus, who won it during a strike-shortened season (and finished tied in home runs with 7 others), then that makes thirteen. Here is the list:

(T = player finished tied with at least 1 other player in this category.)

Name League Year BA HR RBI
Bobby Byrne NL 1908 .191 0 (T) 14
George McBride AL 1914 .203 0 (T) 24
Herbie Moran NL 1915 .200 0 (T) 21
Jack Smith NL 1919 .223 0 (T) 15
Freddie Maguire NL 1929 .252 0 (T) 41
Freddie Maguire NL 1931 .228 0 (T) 26
Woody Williams NL 1945 .237 0 (T) 27
Stan Rojek NL 1949 .244 0 31
Willy Miranda AL 1956 .217 2 34
Mark Belanger AL 1970 .218 1 (T) 36 (T)
Enzo Hernandez NL 1971 .222 0 (T) 12
Ozzie Smith NL 1979 .211 0 (T) 27
Ivan DeJesus NL 1981 .194 0 (T) 13
Ramon Santiago AL 2003 .225 2 29

It’s just as hard, though for different reasons, to win the Triple Dunce Cap as it is to win the Triple Crown. There are plenty of players who lack power or who struggle to hit for average. No fewer than 154 men have finished last in two of the three categories, and that has happened 13 times since 2000. (Nick Punto finished last in HR and RBI in 2006, and last in RBI and BA in ’07 [and was 1 HR away from a Cap]!) But it’s rare for a player who excels at both weaknesses to get enough PA’s to qualify by season’s end.

There are patterns here, but there are also exceptions to every pattern. Most of the teams these men played for were bad teams, like the 1971 Padres, or the 2003 Tigers. Mark Belanger’s Orioles, on the other hand, were one of the greatest teams of all time. Most of the players here were bad players, like Willy Miranda, or Enzo Hernandez. Ozzie Smith, on the other hand, is in the Hall of Fame. Most of them — like Freddie Maguire, who nearly won the Cap in three of his four full seasons — had short careers, in which the Triple Dunce Cap turned out to be the last straw. Jack Smith, on the other hand, spent fifteen years in the majors, hit .300 six times, and just crapped his pants for a season. It happens.

An important difference between the Triple Crown and the Triple Dunce Cap is that it is extremely rare — one of the rarest feats in all of baseball — for a player to win the latter outright. You will note from the table above, in fact, that only three players have ever done so. These three seasons, whose stories have so seldom been told, must rank among the most extraordinary accomplishments in the history of sport. Certainly they had drama to rival that of any Triple Crown campaign. Consider:

In 1949, Stan “Happy Rabbit” Rojek was coming off a very good season. He had played every game for the ’48 Pirates, batting leadoff and leading the league in PA’s and singles. He’d hit .290, stolen 24 bases, played a solid shortstop, and even finished tenth in the MVP vote. But the season of ’49 started with an epic slump. It took Rojek nearly two months to clear the Mendoza line, and at the beginning of September, he was hitting a pitiful .227/.296/.259, with no home runs and 25 RBI (and only two stolen bases). The Rabbit was not happy. He was trailing the league in all three categories, and baseball’s first outright Triple Dunce Cap seemed all but inevitable.

But then Rojek’s bat woke up. He hit well over .300 for the next month, going 4-for-5 on September 25th to raise his average five points and vault over Willie “Puddin’ Head” Jones. Happy Rabbit and Puddin’ Head stayed neck-and-neck during the season’s last week, and with a doubleheader on the final day, Rojek put up an untimely 0-fer in the first game. He added a couple of singles in the nightcap, but still needed Jones to go hitless to avoid the Dunce Cap. Puddin’ Head was facing Dodgers ace and Rookie of the Year shoo-in Don Newcombe, so it didn’t seem like too much to ask. But in the bottom of the fourth, Jones stepped up against Newk and cranked a three-run homer. And so Stan Rojek took his unwilling place in the history books.

Ramon Santiago was the last outright Cap winner in baseball, and the only Cap winner of any kind in the past thirty years. The 2003 season was a pretty dismal one for Ramon and his 119-loss Tigers, but the Cap seemed like a long shot as late in the year as September 1. With only 18 RBI and a .214 average, Santiago was well on his way to going two-for-three, but the home run anti-title seemed safely out of reach. After all, he already had hit two homers, while fellow shortstop and division rival Cristian Guzman had hit zero. In fact, on the morning of September 13, Guzman still had yet to hit a home run. But he hit one that evening, against the Indians. Then he hit another one, two evenings later, also against the Indians. Now Guzman and Santiago were tied. On the 23rd, the Twins faced the Indians again. And again, Cristian Guzman hit a home run. Santiago doubled twice over the next week, but he couldn’t clear the fence. And so Ramon Santiago took his unwilling place in the history books.

At the time of this writing, Jemile Weeks has two home runs, 20 RBI, and a .221 average — a line that would nestle quite nicely into the table above. He’s hardly playing anymore, so those numbers are likely to more or less stand. Unfortunately, he needs a good bit of help to win the Cap. He’s got three guys behind him in BA who would need to catch fire over the last few days, notably Carlos Pena, who’s now back below .200. Also, he would need Ben Revere, who is homerless thus far, to find his power stroke real quick. Stranger things have happened, but Weeks is probably safe. In Triple Crown terms, though, he’s managed to put together the worst season in several years. And that, in my opinion, is something worth commemorating.