The power of Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown, I believe, does not come from the fact that it has been 45 years since the last one. I don’t think rarity has much to do with it. When I was a kid, thoroughbreds seemed to win horse racing’s Triple Crown pretty much every year. Secretariat won it when I was 6, Seattle Slew when I was 10, Affirmed when I was 11. The mushrooming of thoroughbred Triple Crowns did not diminish the thrill of the thing. When Spectacular Bid came to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown the year I was 12, it was just as cool, just as suspenseful, and deeply disappointing when he failed. And so it was for Pleasant Colony and Alysheba and Sunday Silence and Silver Charm and Real Quiet and Charismatic and especially Smarty Jones …
The power of Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown, I believe, also does not come from the great legend of the winners. Any baseball fan steeped in history will tell you that Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown in ’67 -- schlepping and lugging the Impossible Dream Red Sox to the World Series. The year before that it was Frank Robinson, 10 years before that Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams (twice) before that. There are no also-rans among the Triple Crown winners. Well, you could argue that Chuck Klein and Joe Medwick are not all-timers, but both of them are Hall of Famers. In fact, every Triple Crown winner is a Hall of Famer. Lou Gehrig. Rogers Hornsby. Ty Cobb. Still I don’t think it’s the glamour of the Triple Crown winners.
Here’s why I think the Triple Crown has so much potency: repetition.
When we were growing up watching baseball -- and I’m probably covering a span of about 75 years of kids growing up -- there were three numbers that mattered. Only three. Batting average. Home runs. RBIs. That was it. Those were the three numbers that popped up on the scoreboard when you were watching from the stands. Those were the three numbers that the radio guy would recite when the player came to the plate. (Hear it in Vin Scully’s lovely voice: “And here comes Garvey, he’s hitting .317 on the season with 13 home runs and 80 RBIs.”) Those were the three numbers that flashed on the television screen when the camera showed that straight-on angle. Those were the numbers we argued about on the playground.
Kid 1: I don’t care what you say. Peanut Barnaby is better than Hubcap Mulloy.
Kid 2: You’re crazy. Hubcap’s hitting .304. Peanut’s hitting like .270.
Kid 1: Fine, you win. Now I’m going to punch you in the shoulder repeatedly.
In many ways, those Triple Crown numbers still dominate the baseball mainstream. But for many years, the Triple Crown numbers had exclusive rights to the game. You didn’t think about whether batting average, home runs and RBIs were the best statistics to define a hitter’s value any more than you wondered if there was a better way to listen to music than with records and record players. Those numbers were all we had. Back then, you needed to wait for your weekly Sporting News to find out how many runs a hitter had scored, and forget about slugging percentage. Hitters WERE their batting averages, home runs and RBIs.
After a while, this just got ingrained in our minds. We all call flying discs “Frisbees,” and we use “Xerox” as a replacement verb for photocopy, and we call those little bandages “Band-Aids,” and we call any lip balm “ChapStick” … because these brand names have been so dominant and have been so hammered into our heads. So it is with batting average, home runs and RBIs.
I cannot even begin to count how many people have emailed or commented that they KNOW that RBIs are a flawed statistic, they KNOW that driving in a run has almost as much to do with opportunity as skill.*
*This year, for instance, only one player in the American League -- Robinson Cano -- came up with more runners on base than Miguel Cabrera. Josh Hamilton drove in runners at a demonstrably higher rate than Cabrera. But Cabrera’s combination of skill and opportunity made him the RBI leader by a fairly wide margin.
So, they know this, they admit that they know this, and they understand that counting RBIs is such a limited way to look at a player’s value … but THEY CANNOT HELP IT. It’s like a gut reaction. You see Robinson Cano with 88 RBIs, and you can’t help but feel impressed by it.* RBI numbers are padlocked deep into our baseball DNA.
*They shouldn’t be -- according to Baseball Prospectus, Cano’s 12.2 percent success rate of driving in runners was the worst for any hitter among the top 30 in RBI opportunities.
Batting average is padlocked even deeper into our psyche. It is almost inarguable that on-base percentage is a better way to measure a hitter than batting average. There are statistical measures that show clearly how on-base percentage correlates more closely with runs scored. But, even on its face, on-base percentage just makes so much more sense. Batting average treats a walk like a non-event. You can’t simply ignore something as important and common as a walk and be a viable statistic. This would be like coming up with a statistic that gives a quarterback no credit for screen passes. That’s it. No completion. No attempt. No yards gained.
Think of it this way: If you have one player at the plate, fighting off Verlander fastball after fastball before finally drawing a walk, and you have another sitting on the bench spitting sunflower seeds, their batting averages reflect NO DIFFERENCE between the two. Neither one of them got an official at-bat.
But batting average still carries the day. It’s too much a part of us now. The .300 hitter concept is bigger than baseball. Teaching kids complex division by figuring out batting averages is too big a part of the American educational system. The ease of batting average language -- “What’s John Boy hitting?” “.274” “OK, thanks” -- overpowers the statistic’s flaws.
If I’m a kid now -- with easy access to more interesting statistics like OPS+ and WAR and FIP and OBP and SLG -- I might not get why the Triple Crown is such a big deal. Seems just as logical that a person who led the league in OPS+, WAR and Win Probability Added might claim a Triple Crown (Mike Trout led the league in all three).
But today, we are swarmed with statistics, just as we are swarmed with television choices, with music choices, with reading choices. Back in the walk-through-the-snow-to-school days of ancient times, we had three TV channels (and an independent channel or two on the UHF band), we had AM radio, we had Pac-Man and Galaga at the very cusp of gaming technology, and we had batting average, homers and RBIs.
So, when Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, his .330 average, his 44 homers and his 139 RBIs became a part of history. And many of us have reverted back to that time when those were the only three statistics we had … and leading the league in all three was the biggest accomplishment we could imagine.