The hitters' Triple Crown in baseball -- leading the league at the end of the season in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in -- is one of the more onerously difficult honors to achieve in professional sports. Only 15 men in the history of the sport have ever won it, only two of them (Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby) ever won it twice, and neither of them were able to do it in back to back years, though Williams was robbed of his first chance to do so by the Second World War. This is because not only does the award require personal excellence in two of the five tools that a baseball player can possess -- the ability to hit for average and the ability to hit for power -- but the skill to make those hits while runners are in position to score. That last one is not actually a "skill" at all, outside of the ability to hit the baseball well to begin with. But it's not quite luck, either.
As you're more than aware if you've watched a Detroit Tigers game or really just paid attention to baseball news at all over the last eight months, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown last season for the first time since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967 for the Boston Red Sox.
Why it's been so long since somebody pulled the feat off is up for debate, but it's probably a combination of things. There's been a change in how power hitters approach their craft, accepting lower batting averages and more strikeouts so long as it allows them to be selective and drive the pitches they want to hit, meaning there's more guys out there that could lead the league in HR but would never seriously challenge for the batting title. There's also variance in RBI totals from year to year for reasons we'll get into later, even if the elite nature of the batter himself hasn't changed. And perhaps parity has something to do with it, too: As the talent level rises league-wide, as it did during baseball's expansion into Latin America and the advent of international free agency, it might be that the chances for one elite talent to completely dominate the league in all aspects of hitting and do so in a year when he can challenge for the RBI title fell off hard.
As we enter the first week of June, however, none of this seems to matter to Miguel Cabrera. He leads the American League in batting average by ten points, and he already has 65 RBI through 55 games -- putting him on pace to break Hack Wilson's record of 191 RBI in 1930 by one. There are some records in baseball that will never be broken in the modern era: Cy Young's 511 career wins, or Will White's 680 innings pitched in 1879, for instance. But Wilson's, though it would require almost superhuman effort and success to break, is still in the realm of statistical probability. It just requires elite performance not only from the guy going for the record when runners are on base, but from those runners themselves.
When they're not hurt or away from the team, the Tigers have Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter hitting ahead of Miguel Cabrera at the top of their everyday lineup. Those two guys have posted a .331 and .361 OBP respectively, so they're doing a good job -- Hunter especially -- of getting on base ahead of Miguel Cabrera's at-bats. That means that when the home runs come out, and the home runs came out for Cabrera in bunches in May, they're very rarely bases-empty blasts.
For any 17 home runs, the RBI floor is 17 (all solo shots) and the ceiling is 68 (all grand slams). For the 17 home runs Miguel Cabrera has hit so far this year, only four came with the bases empty; all told, Cabrera got 36 RBI off of them. Seventeen of those were Cabrera himself. Of the remaining 19, 11 were either Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter, and of the remaining eight, four were Andy Dirks, who Detroit manager Jim Leyland has been batting leadoff in Jackson's absence. Dirks has only a .308 OBP this year, meaning that his continued presence on the bases when Cabrera goes yard should not be taken for granted, but he's also subbing in for a guy who's much better at getting on; assuming Jackson comes back from his hamstring injury and is still the guy he's been so far this year -- let alone the .377 OBP leadoff man he was last season -- those baserunners should still continue to be there for Miguel Cabrera.
Let's take a look at Chris Davis's home runs so far. Davis, the Baltimore Orioles' five-spot hitter, leads the American League in home runs, is second in RBI and batting average, and so far is the only serious competition that Cabrera has for the Triple Crown. However, Davis trails Cabrera not only by ten points of batting average but by 13 RBI. This is partially because while Chris Davis is hitting .407 with runners in scoring position this year, Cabrera is batting an otherworldly .515 -- and has been hitting nearly .400 with RISP since 2011. However, it also has a lot to do with the fact that while Davis leads the majors with 20 home runs, meaning an RBI floor of 20 and a ceiling of 80, all but seven of them came with the bases empty. So even though Davis has three more home runs than Cabrera, he has five fewer RBIs off his than the Detroit slugger does. So who are the guys hitting ahead of Davis that aren't getting on base for his home runs? Why, Nick Markakis (.357 OBP) and Adam Jones (.346 OBP). Neither of those are elite OBP numbers, but then, neither are Jackson's or Hunter's, and they seem to be getting on base for the Cabrera dingers just fine.
This is why this is such a crapshoot, not just with home runs, but with RBI in general. Adam Jones, for instance, is slugging over .500 and has 37 RBI of his own -- he stands a good shot of clearing the bases with a double before Chris Davis ever gets a chance at it. Torii Hunter, by comparison, hits fewer doubles and home runs at this point in his career, and is more likely to leave not only himself but other guys on base for Miguel Cabrera to drive in. If this state of affairs continues, I'd expect Chris Davis to linger behind Cabrera all year in RBI even if he keeps pacing him on home runs -- unless the sequencing lines up right, and suddenly Jones and Markakis start placing all their singles right before Davis home runs. Or Buck Showalter could decide to move Davis up to the three spot behind Nate McLouth and Manny Machado, both of whom have even higher OBPs than Markakis and Jones (he should do this anyway, to get Davis more plate appearances). Weirder things have happened.
All told, however, if we're going to handicap this race now, a third of the way to the finish line, it's Cabrera's to lose. Davis has power, and he's hitting for a very nice average right now -- the shift has proven completely ineffective against him so far, and his game strength is such that he's able to line balls into the outfield or blow them out of the park even on poor contact -- but he doesn't have the history of excellence that Cabrera has sustained over the past decade or so, and it's reasonable to expect at least some regression from him. Miguel Cabrera is slowly gaining ground on him in the home run race. I don't ever want to say you should bet on someone winning the hitter's Triple Crown in early June, and there's a lot of baseball left to play, but consider this: RBI luck dragons aside, if Cabrera continues hitting at this kind of a pace, Chris Davis might have to hit 55 home runs just to keep up.