It's time for the Modern Triple Crown, and here's how to do it

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You may have seen that Stuart Miller over at my favorite newspaper, The New York Times, champions a suggestion that a few people at my blog have suggested as well -- namely to replace batting average with on-base percentage in the Triple Crown. It's an idea good enough that Steve Phillips is on board*, which as you know is pretty much all you need to say in this little corner of the blogodome.

*I should point out here -- especially since I've not always had the kindest words for Steve Phillips' baseball theories -- that he apparently is a Zack Greinke for Cy Young guy. These last few days of the season, unfortunately, I find myself dividing the world into pro-Zack and anti-Zack. I really shouldn't be that way. But so it goes. Anyway, Steve Phillips is on the side of angels when it comes to Zack.

I do think it's a good idea to replace batting average with on-base percentage for the Triple Crown. But, to be honest, I kind of wish we could create a whole new Modern Triple Crown. That way we could have an Ancient Triple Crown and a Modern Triple Crown, kind of like they have a Modern Pentathlon and a Modern Olympics and Modern Warfare 2 and so on.

The Modern Triple Crown could be so many things, with so many great current stats out there. But to me, the simplest way to do it is to take the three building-block stats that most people use now anyway. They are the three slash stats that probably tell you more or less what you need to know about an offensive player, namely: batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage. And so, to win the Modern Triple Crown you would need to lead the league in hitting, in getting on base and in slugging. Tough trick.

The Modern Triple Crown (Let's call it the MTC) has been pulled off eight times by by seven different players in the last 50 years. I think that you might be able to come up with the seven players if you think hard enough -- or any way you might come up with six of them. I came up with six. I'll give you a couple of minutes to think about it. Of course, it looks like Joe Mauer will be the eighth person in 50 years to pull it off -- he has a pretty commanding lead in all three categories. Needless to say, none of the previous seven -- heck, none of the 18 players who have pulled it off in baseball history -- were catchers. Those 18 players have every one of the other seven positions covered, though.

We'll start with ancient times -- every player who pulled off the MTC before 1959 is in the Hall of Fame. But if we have to give a name to the Modern Triple Crown, we should probably call it The Hornsby. In the early days of baseball, the MTC was pretty common. Nap Lajoie won it in 1901 and 1904. Honus Wagner won it four times between 1904 and 1909. Ty Cobb won it three times between 1909 and 1917, with Tris Speaker winning a Modern Triple Crown in in 1916.

But Rogers Hornsby was the king of the MTC. He won it SEVEN TIMES from 1920 to 1928. I have been working on this rather long blog post about why I think the Big Red Machine was the greatest lineup in baseball history -- the big problem is that it really is difficult on so many levels to compare players and teams from different generations. Does anyone know what would really happen if you could somehow reach back into 1925, grab Rogers Hornsby, pull him through the time continuum, and place him on a team in 2009, where he would face pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Adam Wainwright (and, to be fair, Garrett Mock and Felipe Paulino). I have to say that even though I've thought a lot about it, I have no idea what would happen ... I don't know if Hornsby would instantly adjust and crack line drives and be a star, if he could be completely overwhelmed, if he would start off slowly but then adjust, if he would actually be BETTER than current players. I don't know. I guess the only fair way to measure is to see how Hornsby did when he faced Jamie Moyer and use that as our baseline.

Babe Ruth won his only MTC in 1924, and Lou Gehrig won one in 1934. Chuck Klein won one in 1933 when he was playing in the absurd hitting fairground the Baker Bowl. Klein that year was the only player in the National League with an on-base percentage above .400 (his was .422) -- and his teammate Spud Davis finished second with a .395 OBP. It's unfortunate that we don't have Klein's splits from 1933 yet, but we do have his splits from 1932. They look like so:

Home: .423/.464/.799, 29 homers, 97 RBIs, 92 runsRoad: .266/.340/.481, 9 homers, 40 RBIs, 60 runs

Uh, that seems pretty extreme to me.

Stan Musial won a Modern Triple Crown in his remarkable 1948 season -- you probably already know that he was one home run short of the ancient Triple Crown. He hit 39 homers -- Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner hit 40. If I remember correctly, Musial had a home run washed away because of a rainout. But nobody was even close to him in the MTC -- he won the batting title by 43 points, the on-base crown by 27 and slugging percentage by 138.

Then, of course, there is Ted Williams. He won the MTC five times from 1941 to 1957 -- his 1957 season might be the most incredible individual season in baseball history. Here you have a 38-year-old man, a veteran of two wars, and he hit .388, his on-base percentage was .526, and he slugged .731 -- all of those were the second-best totals of his career behind, of course, 1941, when he was 22 years old, and he hit .400, and he was invincible. Remarkable.*

*And since I brought up Chuck Klein's home/road split, I should probably point out Williams' home/road in 1957 -- it is stunning for a whole other reason.

Home: .403/.525/.670Road: .374/.528/.790

How about a 38-year-old man slugging .790 on the road? Williams hit 26 of his 38 homers on the road.

OK, and that takes us to the last 50 years. You have your guesses ready? It should be said that when Mauer wins the MTC this year, he will become the first American Leaguer to do it in 29 years. That should give you a good hint for one of the players. Here we go:

Frank Robinson, 1966: .316/.410/.637He won the Ancient Triple Crown that same year. I've often joked about writing a book about the mid-1970s Cleveland Indians -- joked because I don't think anyone would buy it. But one fascinating part of that team was Frank Robinson as player/manager.

Carl Yastrzemski, 1967: .326/.418/.622He won the Ancient Triple Crown, of course, the last guy to do it. I've sometimes wondered: What happens if Yaz retires after his 30-year-old season. He was an absolutely brilliant player until age 31 -- three batting titles, five on-base percentage titles, three slugging titles, twice led the league in hits, three times in doubles, once in homers, twice in runs scored, once in RBIs, twice in walks, four times in OPS+. And, of course, he won the Triple Crown and had one of the greatest stretches in baseball history at the end of the 1967 season. He was, in my view, the best player in the league in the 1960s, though you could make a case for Al Kaline or Hank Killebrew or the aging Mickey Mantle. At that point, I think you rank him up there with Roberto Clemente, not too far behind Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron.

But from 31 on, Yaz hit .275/.370/.430, and he only once hit more than 21 homers in a season, he only once hit 30 doubles, he only once hit .300 (.301 to be exact). These were low-scoring times, true, and he still walked a lot, which helped his value. But he clearly was not the same player after age 30. And yet, because he stayed around he got his 3,000th hit, his 450th homer, his 1,800th run scored and RBI.

And that's my question: Did Yaz secure his place in the Hall of Fame and baseball history by hitting those career landmarks with a whole bunch of pretty good seasons after age 30? Or is he mostly in the Hall of Fame because of the brilliant young player he was? I know this is basically just a remodeled version of the longevity vs. peak question that people have been asking about the Hall of Fame for a long time. But it's the Hall of Fame question I think about all the time.

Anyway, the next MTC winner is a bit of a shocker.

Fred Lynn, 1979: .333/.423/.637I was on Boston radio last week for The Machine, of course, and I was asked if Fred Lynn would be in the Hall of Fame had he spent his entire career in Boston. I told them that I think Fred Lynn has a pretty decent Hall of Fame case NOW -- if he had stayed even five more years in Boston, I think he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In his time in Boston, he hit .308/.383/.520 and won four Gold Gloves in center field. He didn't need too many more seasons like that to be a Hall of Famer.

Was Lynn's 1979 better than Jim Rice's famous 1978 season? Rice played 16 more games in 1978, so that really helps his case. Rice has more win shares, 36-34. Sixteen games is a big difference. But Lynn had a better batting average, a much better on-base percentage and a better slugging percentage. Lynn played center field, while Rice played left (and actually played DH 49 games in '78). Whether it was better than Rice's season or not, Lynn probably deserved the MVP award, which would have been his second (he didn't come close to winning the MVP -- he finished fourth). And he deserved to have 1979 remembered as one of the all-time great seasons. And those two things, too, might have made a difference in his Hall of Fame case.

George Brett, 1980: .390/.454/.664I sometimes wonder if I should revisit my George Brett in 1980 book idea.

From there there was a 19-year gap between MTC winners ... and the gap would have been even longer except for the erecting of a place called Coors Field and a laboratory in California.

Larry Walker, 1999: .379/.458/.710Todd Helton, 2000: .372/.463/.698I really do think it will be fascinating to see how the Hall of Fame voters respond to Walker and Helton. Walker, for his part, was a brilliant player before he came to Colorado. His 1994 season in Montreal -- when he hit .322/.394/.587 in the strike-shortened season -- was about as good as anything he did in Colorado. He only played in 127 games in 1999, which is part of the reason why he finished TENTH in the MVP voting.

Helton is a tougher case in some ways -- he has never played for any team but Colorado and never played in any home park but Coors Field. His home road split is outrageous. He's hitting .361 and slugging .642 at home. And he's hitting .294 and slugging .489 on the road ... But those road numbers are pretty good (his road on-base percentage is .395) and at the end of the day a player who hits .328 with walks and power belongs in the Hall of Fame, right? He has had a pretty nice comeback year -- even if his 30-homer days seem to be over -- and he has a few years left to tack on some Yaz counting stats. I think he will get in.

Barry Bonds, 2002: .370/.582/.799Barry Bonds, 2004: .362/.609/.812A Seinfeld thought: Will it get to the point that Bonds' cartoon numbers -- a .609 on-base percentage, I mean, seriously -- simply become like mirages in the desert? Years from now, you're looking through the record book, wondering who has the best on-base percentage in a single season, and you see that .609, and you go: "Oh my gosh, who was THAT? Who could possibly have gotten on base 61 percent of the time?" And then you see it's Barry Bonds and you go: "Oh. Never mind." And it's like you never saw the number in the first place.