A Fresh Look at the Triple Crown

published September 6, 2010

There hasn’t been a batting Triple Crown winner in baseball since 1967, or in the National League since 1937.  And there may never be again.

Any time a hitter reaches September near the top in the three component categories – batting average, home runs, and RBIs – there’s a burst of chatter about breaking the drought.  This year, three National Leaguers have a fighting chance: Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez (1st in BA, 5th in HR, 2nd in RBI), Cincinnati’s Joey Votto (2nd/3rd/1st), and perennial candidate Albert Pujols (5th/1st/2nd).

It should be obvious that if you have three viable candidates, you don’t have one dominant player, which is what the Triple Crown requires.

Incidentally, I’m aware that batting average isn’t as important as on-base average, RBIs are too teammate-dependent, and home runs are subject to large park effects.  If you want to argue that OBA should replace BA and Runs Created or Wins Above Replacement should replace RBIs, I see your point but that’s not where I’m going here.

The three traditional categories represent three different disciplines: “pure” hitting that gets you on base without making an out; power hitting; and clutch hitting defined as your ability to bring home runners including yourself.

The supposed riddle of why no one has won the Triple Crown in so long has a simple, one-word answer: expansion.  Ducky Medwick was playing in an eight-team league when he won the NL Triple Crown in 1937; Carl Yastrzemski and Frank Robinson won theirs in the ten-team American League of the 1960s, which was a pitching-dominated era.  (Dominant pitching means a dearth of great hitting, by definition.)

Today, a National Leaguer faces twice as much competition for each title, while an American Leaguer has to overcome the hitters from four more teams as well as one additional hitter per lineup – there was no DH until 1973.

Still, the versatility demonstrated by winning all three categories seems significant, doesn’t it?  Is there any way to take the value of the accomplishment and adapt it to today’s circumstances?

There is.  We can borrow a concept from the Grand Slams in tennis and golf, and recognize those players who have won the Career Triple Crown.

Whether he does it in one year or ten, a hitter has achieved something impressive if he’s good enough to be the best in his league in home runs and in batting average, two distinctly different imperatives.  RBIs represent direct action towards winning; it’s going to be a long time until players themselves value sabermetric formulas as highly as simple counting stats like runs batted in.

Since 1900, there have been eleven hitters who’ve won the Triple Crown in a season: Nap Lajoie (1901, AL), Ty Cobb (1909, AL), Rogers Hornsby (1922 and 1925, NL), Chuck Klein (1933, NL), Jimmie Foxx (1933, AL), Lou Gehrig (1934, AL), Medwick (1937, NL), Ted Williams (1942 and 1947, AL), Mickey Mantle (1956, AL), Frank Robinson (1966, AL), and Yaz (1967, AL).

A fine list of hitters.  Who gets added to it if we consider the Career Triple Crown?

Since 1900, just nine other players have led their league in the three Triple Crown categories at some point in their careers: Heinie Zimmerman, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, Hank Aaron, Andres Galarraga, Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez.

Bill James has observed that a statistic that is never surprising is never interesting, and one that is always surprising is probably wrong.  The Career Triple Crown list contains a few surprises: Zimmerman, whose 1912 season was far better than the rest of his career and would probably start steroid rumors today; Galarraga, a fine hitter whose inclusion probably tells us more about conditions in Colorado in the 1990s than his standing in baseball history.  (Galarraga provides a nice match for Mize; they’re the only two players nicknamed “The Big Cat.”)

Can anyone question that the rest of the list represents the outstanding power-and-pure hitters in the game?  It would be nice to have Willie Mays and Stan Musial, but Mays never led the league in RBIs nor Musial in homers.

Still, the statistic works surprisingly well.  It remains exclusive: twenty players in a hundred and ten years.  Pujols belongs on the list, and he’ll get there if he leads the league in RBIs this year.  Recognizing his Career Triple Crown will put him in appropriate company without demanding the impossible.

Does the Career Triple Crown work as well with pitchers?

The less-known Triple Crown for pitchers consists of leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA.  (Yes, I know these are full of skews too.)  Since 1900 there have been thirty such seasons by twenty pitchers: Cy Young (AL, 1901), Christy Mathewson (1905 and 1908, NL), Rube Waddell (1905, AL), Walter Johnson (1913, 1918, 1924, AL), Pete Alexander (1915, 1916, 1920, NL), Hippo Vaughn (1918, AL), Dazzy Vance (1924, NL), Lefty Grove (1930 and 1931, AL), Lefty Gomez (1934 and 1937, AL), Bucky Walters (1939, NL), Bob Feller (1940, AL), Hal Newhouser (1945, AL), Sandy Koufax (1963, 1965, 1966, NL), Steve Carlton (1972, NL), Dwight Gooden (1985, NL), Roger Clemens (1997 and 1998, AL), Pedro Martinez (1999, AL), Randy Johnson (2002, NL), Johan Santana (2006, AL), and Jake Peavy (2007, NL).

Factor in the Career Triple Crown, and the following names are added:  Ed Walsh, Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, Sam Jones, Billy Pierce, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, and Mike Scott.

Again, a few surprises – Jones, Pierce, and Niekro – but otherwise worthy additions to the list of great pitchers above (in Scott’s case, only for a very brief period when he either learned the splitter or doctored the baseball, or both).

It’s time we give the Career Triple Crown the respect it deserves.    A stat that recognizes Aaron and A-Rod, Seaver and Spahn can’t be too far wrong.

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