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The Triple Crown: Miguel Cabrera in line for one of baseball's unique achievements

Updated on October 3, 2012

As you probably know by now, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera is making a serious run at the Triple Crown. This is the closest anyone has come since, well, last year when Matt Kemp of the Dodgers won the home run and RBI titles and was in contention for the batting average until he faded down the stretch. He ended up third, 13 points back.

Cabrera currently leads in average, homers and RBIs. If Cabrera finishes strong and wins all three titles, he’ll be the first Triple Crown winner in baseball since 1967.

(Side note: Many people are already debating whether he should be awarded the MVP if he wins the Triple Crown, or if it should go to someone else, like Mike Trout. I won’t get into that now, but there is a precedent for Cabrera to not win it. Since the Baseball Writers Association began awarding the MVP award in 1931, there have been nine Triple Crown winners. Four of them did not win the MVP. See if you can guess which ones. Answers at the end of the column.)

Triple Crown category leaders 2012*

Batting Average
Home Runs
RBIs
Miguel Cabrera, .331
Miguel Cabrera, 44
Miguel Cabrera, 139
Mike Trout .324
Josh Hamilton, 43
Josh Hamilton, 128
Joe Mauer .320
Edwin Encarnacion, 42
Edwin Encarnacion, 110
*Through games of Oct. 2
 
 

Triple Crown requires two hitting styles

The Triple Crown intrigues people, in part because it’s been accomplished so few times (13 times since 1901) and because it combines three hitting statistics that have become so disparate. It’s like finding someone who is great at both distance running and sprinting, or a piano player who also plays a mean tuba.

For the most part, the guys who win batting titles have been little guys who spray liners around the park and beat out infield grounders. The players who win the home run titles are the behemoths, the guys with muscles and big swings. The RBI title usually goes to the latter, although the guys who accumulate a lot of hits also sometimes pile up the RBIs.

Not always such a rarity

Most seasons since 1967 no one has come close to finishing first in all three. Many years no one is particularly close to winning even two of them.

At one time, though, it didn’t seem so rare. From 1901 to 1967 the longest span without a Triple Crown winner was the 12 years between 1909 and 1922. It happened four times in the 1930s, including one in each league in 1933. Then another one in 1934. It happened in back-to-back years in 1966 and ’67.

Rogers Hornsby (1922 and ’25) and Ted Williams (1942 and ’47) each won it twice. Each also came close to third Crowns. In 1921 Hornsby led in average and RBIs, but was two off in homers. In 1949, Williams led in homers and RBIs and batted .34275 but George Kell batted .34291 to take the batting average title.

Hornsby’s Triple Crown in 1922 was one of the most impressive (.401, 42, 152). He won the batting title by 47 points, homers by 16 and RBIs by 20. His 1925 season was almost as good (.403, 39, 143) and he won by .036, 15 and 13.

Jimmie Foxx in 1933 also stood out far above his fellows (.356, 48, 163) and won by .020, 14 and 24. Williams in 1942 (.356, 36, 137) won by .025, 9 and 23.

Triple Crown winners since 1901

Year
Player
Team
BA, HR, RBI
1901
Nap Lajoie
Philadelphia, AL
.426, 14, 125
1909
Ty Cobb
Detroit, AL
.377, 9, 107
1922
Rogers Hornsby
St. Louis, NL
..401, 42, 152
1925
Rogers Hornsby
St. Louis, NL
.403, 39, 143
1933
Chuck Klein
Philadelphia, NL
.368, 28, 120
1933
Jimmie Foxx
Philadelphia, AL
.356, 48, 163
1934
Lou Gehrig
New York, AL
.363, 49, 165
1937
Joe Medwick
St. Louis, NL
.374, 31, 154
1942
Ted Williams
Boston, AL
.356, 36, 137
1947
Ted Williams
Boston, AL
.343, 42, 114
1956
Mickey Mantle
New York, AL
.353, 52, 130
1966
Frank Robinson
Baltimore, AL
.316, 49, 122
1967
Carl Yastrzemski
Boston, AL
..326, 44, 121

No one has been very close in past 40 years

For some reason, the Triple Crown has predominately been an American League title. The AL has had nine winners to four for the NL (three by the Cardinals), and the NL hasn’t had a winner since 1937.

Yet few American Leaguers have come very close since Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown in 1967. The closest was Dick Allen in 1972 when he led the league in homers and RBIs and finished third in batting, 10 points behind Rod Carew. In 1978 Jim Rice led in homers and RBIs and finished third in batting, 16 points behind Carew.

The closest anyone has come in the National League since Joe Medwick’s title in 1937 was Stan Musial in 1948 when he led in batting average and RBIs but finished one behind in homers. In 1963 Hank Aaron won in homers and RBIs but finished third in average, seven points behind Tommy Davis.

Billy Williams, had he hit three more homers in 1972, would have won the Triple Crown. He led in batting average and finished three behind in homers and RBIs. George Foster, in 1977, led in homers and RBIs but placed third in average, 18 points behind Dave Parker.

The closest anyone has come since then was Kemp last season and now Cabrera this year.

Many other players have come close to the Triple Crown. Lou Gehrig won one Triple Crown but came close in 1927, 1930, 1931 and 1937. Jimmie Foxx won it in 1933 but was close in 1932 and 1938. In 1953, Al Rosen of the Indians led in homers and RBIs and finished one point off the batting lead.

Babe Ruth came close but never won it

Babe Ruth never won a Triple Crown although he came close five times. In 1920 he led in homers and RBIs (54 and 137) and batted .376 – but that was 30 points behind George Sisler. In 1921 he led in homers and RBIs (59 and 171) and hit .378, .016 behind Harry Heilmann. In 1923 he led in homers and RBIs (41 and 131) and pushed his batting average to .393 – yet finished 10 points behind Heilmann.

In 1924 Ruth finally won the batting title with a .378 average and led in homers with 46, only to finish eight RBIs behind Goose Goslin. In 1926, he again was first in homers and RBIs (47 and 145) and hit .372, six points behind Heinie Manush.

Triple Crown takes luck and skill

Those are a lot of stats, basically to point out that winning the Triple Crown is not only hard, it also requires a lot of luck. Had Ruth mixed and matched years, he would have won at least one. Had Williams got one more hit in 1949 he’d have won a third, or if Rosen had another hit in 1953 he’d have won one.

There were years when Don Mattingly’s 1985 season would have easily won a Triple Crown. There are seasons where Frank Robinson’s 1966 season wouldn’t have placed him first in any category. (Robinson’s Triple Crown is the luckiest of them all – there are only two other seasons in AL history where his .316 average would have led the league.)

More players returning to Triple Crown hitting style

But as I mentioned earlier, it also takes skill at two hitting styles that, after the 1940s, largely became very separate. After that point more and more hitters made a choice of swinging for the fences to hit homers or cutting back their swings to go for more hits.

Many of the early Triple Crown winners like Hornsby, Foxx, Gehrig and Klein were line drive hitters – they just hit very hard line drives that often left the stadiums (even Ruth was a line drive hitter and hit many of his homers to center and left-center).

The ‘70s and ‘80s saw the biggest gap between the average guys and the power guys. That began to change in the 1990s when players like Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez began to combine power and average again, and has continued with guys like Albert Pujols, Kemp, Cabrera and Braun. Mike Trout looks like he might be a player in this same vein and if he’s moved into the third or fourth spot in the batting order, could be a Triple Crown contender some day.

Because more players are combining the power-average numbers these days, I think we’ll see another Triple Crown winner sooner than later. Possibly by Wednesday if Cabrera keeps up his current pace.

(Answers: Above I asked readers to name the four Triple Crown winners who didn’t win the MVP award. The answers are Chuck Klein in 1933 (Carl Hubbell won the MVP); Lou Gehrig in 1934 (Mickey Cochrane); Ted Williams in 1942 (Joe Gordon) and Ted Williams in 1947 (Joe DiMaggio). Yes, Williams won two Triple Crowns and didn’t win the MVP either year.)

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