Yesterday, Detroit Tigers’ 3rd baseman Miguel Cabrera became the 14th player in baseball history to pull off the Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting average (.330), home runs (44), and RBI (139). His other-worldly ability to square up a baseball on the sweet spot of the bat is uncanny in today’s game, and Cabrera’s power to all fields can only be matched by one or two other players in baseball . These unique skills have allowed the 29-year-old slugger to achieve a Triple Crown season, something that has become a part of American iconoclast, due both in part to its rarity and its difficulty. How difficult is hitting for the Triple Crown you might ask? Well there are now only 3 living players who have achieved the feat: Cabrera, Carl Yastrzemski (1967), and Frank Robinson, who achieved the treble in 1966 as a member of the Baltimore Orioles.
To put it simply, Miguel Cabrera has put up a season for the ages. But how does his fantastic 2012 season stack up against other famous Triple Crown-winning seasons? And does Cabrera have a shot to repeat his feat in the future, which would put the slugger in the same class as Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby, the only players ever to accomplish the feat twice? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Miguel Cabrera, 2012 – .330/.393/.606, 44 HR, 139 RBI, 167 OPS+, 377 total bases, 7.5 offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR)
In 2012 Miguel Cabrera decided to host a day-in-day out clinic on hitting in the modern game. No player in baseball was more dangerous with a bat in his hands than the Tigers’ 3rd baseman.
It can also be argued that this wasn’t even Cabrera’s finest offensive season in the bigs and that he isn’t actually the best player in the American League this season. He actually hit for a higher OPS and OPS+ in each of the last two seasons, although his power numbers, specifically home runs had a massive spike this year. And as for the MVP race, well, I think Mike Trout might have something to say about that.
Cabrera is one of 3 or 4 total players in baseball with year-in-year-out Triple Crown potential, so repeating this feat may actually be doable, although if it’s going to happen it better happen soon. Miggy turns 30 next year, which means the clock is ticking.
Carl Yastrzemski, 1967 – .326/.418/.622, 44 HR, 121 RBI, 193 OPS+, 360 total bases, 9.5 oWAR
In addition to winning the Triple Crown and every category listed above, Yastrzemski also led the AL in runs scored, hits, and extra-base hits. His incredible season led the 1967 Red Sox to an improbable American League pennant after finishing in 9th place the year before. Yaz hit .513 with 5 homers and 16 RBI over the final two weeks of the regular season, propelling himself into a tie for first with Harmon Killebrew in the home run race.
Frank Robinson, 1966 – .316/.410/.637, 49 HR, 129 RBI, 198 OPS+, 367 total bases, 8.6 oWAR
Robinson’s Triple Crown is among the cruelest in baseball history, at least if you’re a Cincinnati Reds fan. Prior to the 1966 season, Reds owner Bill DeWitt decided the 3rd baseman was on the down slope of his career, and he decided to trade Robinson to Baltimore in exchange for Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson. Robinson proceeded to have one of the greatest seasons in Oriole’s franchise history, totaling 7.3 WAR in 1966 alone, and 30.4 WAR over the rest of his career in the black and orange. Pappas, Baldschun, and Simpson on the other hand, totaled just 5.7 WAR in 7 combined seasons in Cincinnati. Ouch.
Mickey Mantle, 1956 – .353/.464/.705, 52 HR, 130 RBI, 210 OPS+, 376 total bases, 10.4 oWAR
Mantle is the last player in baseball history to win the MLB-wide Triple Crown, leading both leagues in homers, batting average, and RBI. Mantle was just 24 at the time and was considered one of the future stars in the game going into his 1956 season. By the end of May, Mantle already had 20 homers compared to just 21 strikeouts and boasted a batting average topping .400. As spring bled into summer, pitchers began walking Mantle more and more, opting to give him fewer chances to do damage. Mantle was able to hold off furious charges by Ted Williams in the batting average department and Al Kaline in for the RBI title, giving himself the Triple Crown — and one of baseball’s all-time great seasons.
Ted Williams, 1947 – .343/.499/.634, 32 HR, 114 RBI, 205 OPS+, 335 total bases, 9.6 oWAR
Ted Williams, 1942 – .356/.499/.648, 36 HR, 137 RBI, 216 OPS+, 338 total bases, 9.7 oWAR
Williams put together what has to be the most amazing decade of all-time during the 1940s. He led the American League in on-base percentage in each of the 7 years he was present, while winning the batting title a cool four times. What about those 3 seasons he was absent you may be asking? Teddy Ballgame was off piloting planes in the Marine Corp. during World War II, which is both awesome and inspiring.
As for his two Triple Crown seasons,well, neither ranks as the best in the Splendid Splinters’ illustrious career. Williams was even better in 1941 when he hit .406 and posted the best OPS (1.287) of his career, which is the highest OPS ever posted by a player not named Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. Another interesting note on Williams’ Triple Crown seasons, is that he didn’t win the MVP award in either of them. Joe DiMaggio and his 56 game hitting streak edged out the Splendid Splinter in 1941 in a heated MVP race, and again in 1947, although Williams was the far superior player that year.
Joe Medwick, 1937 – .374/.414/.641, 31 HR, 154 RBI, 182 OPS+, 406 total bases, 7.9 oWAR
As we begin are descent into the 1930s we find the left fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, Joe Medwick. The Cardinal outfielder is still the last player to win the Triple Crown on the Senior Circuit, although his home run total would pale in comparison to players today. Medwick’s 31 dingers ended up as his career-high, and the hall of Fame Cardinal never approached that total again, only making it above the 20 homer plateau two other times in his career. Medwick didn’t walk much, but boy could he slap doubles into the gap, hitting 56 in addition to winning the Triple Crown and the MVP award.
Lou Gehrig, 1934 – .363/.465/.706, 49 HR, 165 RBI, 206 OPS+, 409 total bases, 9.9 oWAR
Gehrig’s 1934 season is among the finest in baseball history, and among the top 3 seasons in the illustrious 1st baseman’s career. Gehrig is one of only 5 players in baseball history to have a .360+ average, 40+ homers, and 150 RBI season, and he’s the only one to have done so in 3 separate seasons! His 1927 season also has a rightful place in the discussion of best year ever, as Gehrig hit a phenomenal .373 to go along with 117 extra-base hits!!! Those numbers are absolutely jaw-dropping and will never, ever be seen again, but were they good enough to take home the MVP award? No! Detroit catcher Mikey Cochrane received the hardware despite the fact that Gehrig hit 47 more homers, drove in 91 more runs, had a 40 point advantage in batting average and OBP, and slugged nearly 300 points higher. You’d be hard pressed to find a worse MVP vote in baseball history.
Jimmie Foxx, 1933 – .356/.449/.703, 48 HR, 163 RBI, 201 OPS+, 403 total bases, 9.0 oWAR
The Philadelphia A’s great actually had a better season the year before, in 1932, when he hit .364, got on base at a higher clip, and put up more homers, RBI, and total bases. But alas, Dale Alexander, who split time between Detroit and Boston, edged Foxx out by just 3 points in batting average, otherwise we’d be talking about the only back-to-back Triple Crowns in baseball history.
Chuck Klein, 1933 – .368/.422/.602, 28 HR, 120 RBI, 176 OPS+, 365 total bases, 7.6 oWAR
Klein’s Triple Crown truly is a throwback to baseball from another era. In today’s game, the 28 homers Klein used to win the Triple Crown would have ranked 13th in the National League, 13 behind leader Ryan Braun. Klein was beaten out by New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell for the MVP Award. Hubbell had a dominant season on the mound, throwing over 300 innings with a 1.69 ERA, which made him a fine choice to take home the hardware.
Rogers Hornsby, 1925 – .403/.489/.756, 39 HR, 143 RBI, 210 OPS+, 381 total bases, 10.1 oWAR
Rogers Hornsby, 1922 – .401/.459/.722, 42 HR, 152 RBI, 207 OPS+, 450 total bases, 11.2 oWAR
The Rajah won two Triple Crowns in the 1920s as well as a host of other individual and team accomplishments including: 7 batting titles (6 in a row from 1920-1925), 2 MVP awards, 2 home run titles and 1 World Series title. He also led the league in OPS in 9 of the 10 seasons and hit over .400 during 3 separate seasons during the 1920s. Ridiculous.
Ty Cobb, 1909 – .377/.431/.517, 9 HR, 107 RBI, 193 OPS+, 296 total bases, 9.2 oWAR
Nap Lajoie, 1901 – .426/.463/.643, 14 HR, 125 RBI, 198 OPS+, 350 total bases, 8.2 oWAR
Both Cobb and Lajoie’s Triple Crowns are truly from another era and should probably be considered under a different context. For example: Every one of Cobb’s 9 homers during his Triple Crown season was an inside-the-park job. There weren’t 9 inside-the-park homers during the entire 2012 season. This isn’t to say that these aren’t historically great seasons, they just come from a time and place that is extremely foreign to today’s baseball culture.
Tip O’Neill, 1887 – .435/.490/.691, 14 HR, 123 RBI, 213 OPS+, 357 total bases, 6.3 oWAR
Paul Hines, 1878 – .358/.363/.486, 4 HR, 50 RBI, 177 OPS+, 125 total bases, 2.5 oWAR
The modern era in baseball began in 1901, the year of the first World Series. Anything that happened before 1901 occurred under dubious circumstances at best. Scorebooks from the era are riddled with errors and inconsistencies. Pre-1900s baseball was actually a radically different game altogether, played with very little protective equipment, a number of different rules, and a variety of different strategies.
On the whole, Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown probably falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. I’d personally take either of Williams’ Triple Crowns or Mantle’s or Gehrig’s over Cabrera’s, but that would be where I draw the line. If you choose a quick approach which would be only looking at OPS+ or WAR that doesn’t appear to be the case, as Cabrera’s 2012 trails would rank near the bottom, only topping a couple of the seasons listed above.
But Cabrera should be given more credit for the era he plays in, because his Triple Crown actually has one of the highest degrees of difficulty because of the era he plays in. When Yaz and Frank Robinson were winning Triple Crowns pitching staffs were put together in an entirely different way.
Back in 1967, closers had yet to be dreamed up, saves had yet to be invented, and a LOOGY was something you spat out of your mouth, rather than a clever acronym for a situation lefty. There are larger leagues with more teams that carry and use more pitchers than ever before. Video scouting was unheard of and devices like Pitch F/X and hot-and-cold zone maps wouldn’t make their way into baseball for decades. If we go back even further, Triple Crowns that occurred prior to 1947 (the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, thus beginning the process of integration) were much easier to come by because there weren’t any minority players. Technology has improved, the game has gone global. Triple Crowns are harder to come by, and that, my friends, is what makes Miguel Cabrera’s 2012 season so special.