Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Can He Do It?

Detroit's Miguel Cabrera is on the verge of doing something very special. He is on the verge of winning baseball's coveted Triple Crown, something that has not been done since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967, when the average MLB salary was $10,000. In fact no player since '67 has even entered the last week of the season leading in all three Crown categories.
Cabrera's 137 RBIs are ten more than Josh Hamilton has. So that's a lock with just two games left. His .329 average is four points ahead of Mike Trout's .325. So that could still go either way. And he has just one more home run than Hamilton and two more than Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion.

Remarkably it's been nearly fifty years since any hitter won in two categories and finished second in the third, though last year Matt Kemp led in home runs and RBIs and was third in batting. Only two other players have hit 40 home runs and led in average and ribbies but lost because another guy had even more homers. In 1938 Jimmy Foxx hit 50 home runs but Hank Greenberg hit 58. And in 2000 Todd Helton hit 42 but Sammy Sosa hit 50.

The batting Triple Crown is rarer than the pitching Triple Crown (wins, strikeouts, and ERA). The batting Crown has been won thirteen times since 1900 and the pitching Triple Crown has been won 32 times. Just two batters have won two Crowns, Rogers Hornsby (1922 and '25) and Ted Williams (1942 and '47)  though you have to wonder if Williams might have won at least one more if he hadn't gone to war twice.  Grover Cleveland (a.k.a. Pete) Alexander won three pitching Crowns, in 1915 and '16 with the Phillies and in 1920 with the Cubs. Walter Johnson won in 1913, 1918, and 1924 and Sandy Koufax won it in '63, 65, and '66.

The only other Detroit player to win a Triple Crown was a guy named Cobb, who did it with just nine home runs and 107 RBIs in 1909, both totals the lowest among Crown winners since 1900. Mind you, nine was quite a few home runs in the days of dead balls and huge parks. Inside the park homers were more common that fence clearing hits in 1909.

Cobb actually eschewed home runs. Perhaps because behemoths like Jimmy Foxx were taking over the game or, perhaps, because if he hit the ball over the fence he wouldn't get to spike anybody on his way around the bases. According to baseball lore, he once told teammates that he could hit home runs if he wanted to and proved it by hitting five in his next three games. Then he returned to his old style of spraying the ball.

The irascible Cobb (that's the nicest adjective ever used to describe him) had such bat control that once, when he was being heckled by opponents during bating practice, he hit thirteen consecutive line drives into their dugout. That shut them up.

As for the lowest Triple Crown batting average, Frank Robinson hit just .316 when he won in '66, that was ten points below Carl Yastrzemski's next worst .326 in '67.

The best and worst E.R.A.'s among winners were Walter Johnson's 1.14 ERA in 1913 and Johan Santana's 2.77 in 2006. Who had the fewest wins? (Editor's Note: Don't you hate it when people say less instead of fewer, they apparently don't know that you say less if it's an amount, like less sugar, but fewer if you can count the things, like fewer home runs.) The fewest wins would be Jake Peary's 19 with the Padres in 2007. Next lowest was Roger Clemens with 20 in '98. 

Tops in one category among Crown winners are Mickey Mantle with 52 home runs in 1956, Lou Gehrig with 165 RBIs in 1934, and Hugh Duffy with a .440 average in 1894. Nap Lajoie is tops in the modern era with a .426 average in 1901. Hornsby (at right) averaged over .400 in his two Crown years, hitting .401 in 1922 and .403 in 1925.

Have there ever been two Triple Crown winners in the same year? For hitting, just once, Jimmy Foxx and Chuck Klien in 1933. For pitching, three times. Clayton Kernshaw and Justin Verlander won Crowns last year. That had not happened since 1924 when Walter Johnson and Dazzy Vance did it.

A lot more impressive though were the performances turned in in 1884 when Guy Hecker won 52 games for the Louisville Colonels in the American Association (okay so he lost 20) and Charles 'Old Hoss' Radbourne won 59 and lost 12, with a 1.38 ERA, and 441 strikeouts for the Providence Grays in the National league.

If he does it, Cabrera will be the first third baseman ever to win the Triple Crown. Yes, Jimmie Foxx, who won it in 1934, did play some third base a couple of years but he was mostly a first baseman. That will mean that every position has a Crown except shortstop - not usually a lot of power there - and catcher - not usually enough speed to win a batting title.

It's a rare thing Miguel, but you can do it.

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