Tuesday September 25th, 2012

With just nine games left on the Tigers' regular-season schedule, Miguel Cabrera leads the American League in batting average (.331 to Mike Trout's .323) and runs batted in (133 to Josh Hamilton's 124) and is just one home run shy of Hamilton's league-leading total of 43. If he finishes the season with the lead in all three categories, he'll be the first hitter in either league to do so since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. That accomplishment is known as baseball's Triple Crown, and it's clearly a unique and impressive achievement, but those three categories don't provide the best snapshot of who the league's best hitter is, which makes one wonder how and when they were chosen, and what a more meaningful triple crown might look like.

A 2006 article by Bennett Liebman, executive director of the Government Law Center of the Albany Law School, suggests that baseball's triple crown got its name from horse racing, where the Triple Crown consists of wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. According to Liebman, there are mentions of horse racing's Triple Crown in the New York Times dating back to 1923, but the first mention in the Times of the term in connection to baseball came after the 1942 season in an article discussing Ted Williams, who had just accomplished the feat, losing the Most Valuable Player vote to the Yankees' Joe Gordon. A quick bit of research supports Liebman's finding, as Lou Gehrig's six-column, front-page obituary in the Times from June 1941 mentions Gehrig's 1934 batting title and home run crown in separate paragraphs, but makes no mention of his having won the Triple Crown that season, which he did.

If 1942 sounds too late for the concept of the Triple Crown to have taken hold, consider that home runs were not a key aspect of most teams' offensive attack until well into the 1920s (in the National League in 1919 there were less than two home runs every five games) and that Runs Batted In weren't even an official statistic until 1920. Home runs and RBIs just weren't a significant part of dead-ball era baseball, so it doesn't seem ludicrous that it took 22 years for those two statistics to be elevated to an importance comparable to batting average by the press and the fans. For example, on-base percentage did not become an official statistic until 1984, and it only just started appearing on scoreboards and television graphics within the last 10 years or less.

As for why those three statistics, well, batting average had long been considered the most important hitting statistic, and Babe Ruth and the liveball era pushed home runs to the center of the game. As for RBIs, they piggy-backed in on home runs as large home-run totals beget large RBI totals. The problem there is that the traditional Triple Crown really only measures two skills: the ability to hit for average and power. Any hitter who does both of those will naturally drive in a lot of runs with the primary variable there being not his own performance in other aspects of the game, but how many of his teammates get on base ahead of him.

If one were to designate a Triple Crown for today's game, given the explosion of statistics and advanced analysis in last few decades, it would look very different. Of the three traditional Triple Crown statistics, batting average and RBIs have been diminished by advanced analysis, and without the other two, home runs provide only a keyhole view of a hitter's production. RBIs are a team- and batting-order-dependent statistic as dependent on the number of runners on base as the performance of the hitter at the plate. Batting average, meanwhile, lacks the year-to-year consistency required to help predict future performance and also fails to distinguish between singles-hitters and power hitters or to address what a hitter does in all of those plate appearances not considered official at-bats.

Simply replacing RBIs with walks would go a long way toward fixing the Triple Crown, as adding home runs and walks to batting average help round out the image of a hitter's production by showing his power and patience or lack thereof. However, that's a half-measure that ignores the most obvious 21st century alternative: the three slash stats, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging, most commonly expressed as a string of three-digit decimals separated by two slashes (ie. .300/.400/.500).

Those slash stats are gaining in popularity for good reason. There is no more efficient way to summarize a hitter's performance. On-base percentage is the most important of all hitting statistics as it measures the rate at which a hitter avoids making an out. The only way an opponent can prevent you from scoring a run is by recording an out (or three), so avoiding outs is the most important thing an offense can do. If you don't make outs, you can't avoid scoring runs.

The second most important hitting statistic is slugging percentage, as it measures the rate at which a hitter accumulates extra bases. A team needs to accumulate four bases to score a run, and runs score quicker (before that pesky third out) if hitters hit for extra bases.

Those two statistics alone would tell you most of what you need to know, but keeping batting average in the picture gives them context, particularly in small samples. A hitter batting .250/.420/.450 is drawing a ton of walks and hitting for a good bit of power, skills which are sustainable and repeatable, but a hitter batting .400/.420/.450 is mostly hitting singles and will likely lose most of his value once his hits stop finding holes, which is bound to happen given the way batting averages fluctuate.

As such, the slash stats are the ultimate expression of a hitter's performance short of complex-formula advanced statistics such as Wins Above Replacement, Equivalent Average or OPS+, and the Triple Crown that most impresses me is what I like to call the Slash-Stat Triple Crown, something I first wrote about back in 2007.

The Slash-Stat Triple Crown has been far more common than the traditional Triple Crown over the course of baseball history, occurring 46 times compared to just 15 for the latter, but just 26 of those seasons have come since 1928, and just 13 have come since the end of World War II.

When Joe Mauer became the most recent man to win the Slash Stat Triple Crown in 2009, he was the first to do it in the American League in 29 years, dating back to George Brett's landmark 1980 campaign. In the National League, the last four players to do it were BALCO-era Barry Bonds and two men who played their home games at pre-humidor Coors Field. Before that quartet, the last to do it in the NL was Stan Musial in 1948.

The two most recent traditional Triple Crown seasons, Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 campaign and Frank Robinson in 1966, were Slash-Stat Triple Crown seasons as well, and in the 46 years since, the Slash-Stat Triple Crown has been captured only seven times, the six mentioned above and Fred Lynn's forgotten 1979 campaign (.333/.423/.637, 39 HR, 122 RBI).

Going back further, Rogers Hornsby won the Slash-Stat Triple Crown an astonishing seven times, including six years in a row from 1920 to 1925, when he hit an aggregate .397/.467/.666 and twice won the traditional Triple Crown. Ted Williams won the Slash Stat Triple Crown five times. Honus Wagner won it four times. Ty Cobb and Dan Brouthers each won it three times. Bonds, Musial, and Nap Lajoie each won it twice. All of those men, save Bonds, are in the Hall of Fame, and so are 16 of the 25 men to win the Slash-Stat Triple Crown, with Walker still on the ballot, and Bonds, Helton and Mauer not yet eligible.

Cabrera may yet add his name to their ranks. He led the AL in on-base percentage in 2010, led the majors in batting average and on-base percentage in 2011, and is leading the league in batting average and slugging this year, though his .395 OBP is a distant third to Mauer's AL-best .415 mark.

However, Cabrera's failure to capture the Slash-Stat Triple Crown thus far shows just how difficult it is. Only two active players, Mauer and Helton, have done it. Albert Pujols has led his league in all three categories in different years, but never all three in the same season. Alex Rodriguez has won a batting title and led his league in slugging four times, but has never led in on-base percentage. Joey Votto led the league in on-base percentage the last two years and slugging in 2010, but has yet to win the batting title. Josh Hamilton led in batting average and slugging in 2010 but his impatience at the plate made it so that, even with a .359 batting average, he couldn't beat out Cabrera for the on-base percentage lead.

This year the tables have turned, with Hamilton threatening to keep Cabrera from the traditional Triple Crown, a threat upon which, if recent history is any indication, he's likely to make good.

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