Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Triple Crown What Ifs

The baseball world's got Triple Crown fielder! Depending on how Miguel Cabrera does over the last week of the season, we might have our first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

What I'm interested in finding are players who not so much missed the Triple Crown by maybe one category, but were perhaps just playing in the wrong season. Players who ordinarily may have won the Triple Crown but happened to fall victim to another player's outstanding performance.

I looked at all the seasons since Yaz's Crown win to see if anyone just got unlucky. I split the 44 full seasons since into both 5 and 11 year intervals and averaged the league leading RBI, HR, and AVG totals for each season in the interval to see if a player in any season could beat the average title stats.

I found myself disappointed. Not a single player since 1967 was able to beat the averages in either the 5 or 11 year intervals. We no longer recognize some of the stats that make up the Triple Crown as great indicators of performance, especially when RBIs is much more a factor of the players around you than your actual performance. Sometimes though we have to step back and recognize when something truly special is happening. The Triple Crown is damn hard to win.

So I lowered my expectations. I took one standard deviation off the average title stats to see if anyone could meet this new threshold. I now had 9 seasons to look at, plus Jim Rice in 1978 which I'll include since his average was off the title mark by just slightly over one standard deviation. These are the players:

Albert Pujols200343124.359
Vladimir Guerrero200044123.345
Todd Helton200042147.372
Mike Piazza199740124.362
Larry Walker199749130.366
Ellis Burks199640128.344
Dante Bichette199540128.340
Jeff Bagwell199439116.368
Fred Lynn197939122.333
Jim Rice197846139.315

Any player leading their league in a statistic has that statistic in blue, and any underlined statistic means that the player was able to beat the average title winning statistic from their time era, and not just the one-standard deviation below threshold.

Only two players beat the average in two stats (and coincidentally led the league in both) so let's focus on those players first. Todd Helton's 147 RBIs and .372 batting average are impressive in any era and are in fact the highest marks in each category on the table. Unfortunately nobody around the year 2000 had any chance of leading the league with 42 HRs. The 42 put him 8 behind league leader Sammy Sosa and you'd have to go back to 1992 or forward to 2010 to find an NL HR leader with 42 or less HRs. You could maybe chalk up Helton's missed Triple Crown to steroids, but you can't say that he got unlucky in 2000.

Jim Rice had a bit of a tougher beat. He destroyed the HR and RBI categories, winning them by 12 and 18 respectively. His average was the problem though. He finished third to Rod Carew, who batted .333, but you would have to go back to 1972 when Carew batted .318 or ahead to pretty much never to find a player who won a batting title in the vicinity of Rice's .315, and since Rice never batted higher than .325 in any season, it's difficult to see this as a tough loss. Although it is interesting to note that of all the players on the list, Rice was the only one to beat the average HR title level in his era.

The main reason to look at all of this though is that although league average performance changes gradually, the best performers in close seasons can have wildly different stats. Ellis Burks and Dante Bichette put up almost identical numbers in back-to-back seasons. Bichette ended up winning two of the Triple Crown categories which Burks couldn't do better than second in any. Bichette is an interesting case since .340 is a very impressive batting average. Unfortunately for Bichette he played in the same league as Tony Gwynn, whose .338 lifetime batting average almost equaled Bichette's mark from 1995.

Including both Piazza and Walker from 1997 seems a little silly since Walker beat Piazza in every category. Good all-around season from Piazza, but not good enough. Same thing for Guerrero and Helton in 2000. Although Guerrero did manage to hit more homers, his RBIs and batting average from that season paled in comparison to the leaders of the era.

So how does Miguel Cabrera look? He has a solid lead on the RBI total and should be able to hold on in batting average. He currently trails Josh Hamilton by 1 HR, but he's also only 1 ahead of both Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion, either of which could be one game from passing him. When we compare Cabrera's stats to past seasons he sizes up pretty well. Since 2007 only Jose Bautista has hit more than Hamilton's current lead of 43 HR in a season. He's also blowing recent RBI numbers out of the water, it also having been since 2007 since a player could match his current total. He's getting a bit lucky when it comes to batting average though. His current average of .329 would have only beaten Joe Mauer's .328 for the batting title in the AL over the last 8 years and if nothing changes it will be the third lowest average to win a batting title since 1972. It seems like a very similar situation to that of Rice in 1978, only instead of losing to Carew, Miggy just has to hold off the fading Mike Trout who has only been batting .278 over the last two months.

So Cabrera winning might not be as special as it could be if he ends up riding this lucky season to a batting title. But given that in the last 45 years no one has really come close, with or without the aid of luck, it's nice to sit back and just watch something special happen. Now although it would be cool to see, I'm personally rooting against it. I'd like the stigma to live on and when someone finally does win the Triple Crown, it would be great if all my analysis of comparing season-to-season didn't apply. Also I want to see Trout win the MVP and the difference of one or two homeruns for Cabrera could end up making the difference in the race. Either way though, it should be a fun final week of the season.