Monday, November 12, 2012

Three Tools Triple Crown

It's time to dump on Miguel Cabrera some more. Well not so much him, but the system that's about to give him his first MVP. In what was truly an impressive season this year, Miguel Cabrera led the league in home runs, RBIs, and batting average, allowing him to become the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

I don't fully understand the Triple Crown though, and this has nothing to do with RBIs no longer being recognized as a stat completely correlated with skill. The Triple Crown is meant to recognize three different skills: hitting for average, hitting for power, and ability to produce runs. The problem is that the third skill is very much a function of the first two. RBIs are produced by being able to hit for power, and being able to frequently hit. Even if you're not getting lucky by having a lot of runners on base in front of you, if you have a high average and a high home run total, the RBIs will naturally follow.

In fact there have only been four instances in baseball history where a player has led the league in home runs and batting average without leading the league in RBIs:
  • In 1912 Heinie Zimmerman led the league with 14 HR and a .372 AVG, but his 99 RBI total put him in third behind Honus Wagner at 102 and Bill Sweeney at 100. With such low home run totals Zimmerman was able to be passed, and it didn't help that Sweeney had 80 more PAs and Wagner had 15.
  • In 1924 Babe Ruth won the home run race with 46 HR, 19 more than second place Joe Hauser. His .378 AVG led the league but he finished second to Goose Goslin 129-121 in the RBI race. Ruth actually ended up with more plate appearances but a lot of those were "wasted" in walks. Ruth's walk total of 142 dwarfed Goslin's 68.
  • In 1939 Johnny Mize won the home run title by 1 with 28, and led the NL with a .349 AVG. His 108 RBIs finished third though to Frank McCormick's 128 and Joe Medwick's (who won the Triple Crown two years prior) 117. The 20 RBI difference is the largest on the list. McCormick finished second to Mize in AVG, and similar to Goslin and Ruth, was able to get more at bats by having 52 less walks. 
  • In 1941 future two-time Triple Crown winner Ted Williams easily won the batting title, becoming the last player to top .400 with his .406 AVG. He won the home run race by 4 with 37, but only finished 4th in the RBI race with 120, falling behind Joe DiMaggio (125), Jeff Heath (123), and Charlie Keller (122). DiMaggio played a great season, finishing 3rd in the home run race and 4th for the HR title, and having the benefit of playing for a Yankees team that won 17 more games than Williams' Red Sox. Similar to the past two guys, Williams was losing RBI opportunities to walks. He led the league with 147, far ahead of DiMaggio's 76, Heath's 50, and Keller's 102. If he takes another couple swings in those 71 extra walks, he probably gets those 5 RBIs he needed for the crown, but his average also probably drops below .400 too.
Winning the batting title and the home run title in the same season is a tremendous feat. Winning the RBI title once you have those two is almost a given. If we're going to give out awards celebrating different skills in baseball we should be looking at metrics that aren't as closely related. We often talk about 5-tool players in baseball, so I'm going to redefine the Triple Crown in terms of the three offensive tools. If we want to talk about the range of skills a player has, lets focus on the Three Tools Triple Crown, which requires leading the league in AVG, HR, and SB to win.

The Three Tools Triple Crown is much more difficult to win than the traditional Triple Crown. In fact it's only been done once. Ever. In 1909 Ty Cobb hit 9 HR, batted .377, and stole 76 bases to lead the league in all three categories. Although it should be mentioned that all 9 of Cobb's home runs that season were inside the park.

No player has come close to winning it in a long time. In the age of stolen base specialists, it's difficult for players with any power to keep up with some of these speed demons. Aside from Cobb, the only times a player was even able to win both the SB and HR crowns were Chuck Klein in 1932 and Jimmy Sheckard in 1903. Both of those guys lost the batting title by at least 20 points. 

The early 1900's saw a few more close calls. Ty Cobb missed the HR title by 3 in both 1907 and 1911. Although that 3 HR gap seems a little larger when you consider that the leaders had 8 and 11 respectively. Honus Wagner came 4 HR away in 1907 and 2 HR off in 1908. In the age of bigger home run totals, Mickey Mantle was the last player to win two of the categories and finish top ten in another. In 1956 he won the home run title by 20 but came up 11 SB short of being the steal king. Unfortunately those 11 SB would have been more than double his year end total of 10.

Last season gave us our closest threat in recent years. Matt Kemp won the HR title by 1, and finished third by 13 points for the batting title. His 40 SBs put him in a 4-way tie for second, but he still finished 21 SBs back of winner Michael Bourn.

In the current age of specialization it's tough to see a player ever winning this award again. Miguel Cabrera barely won the batting and home run titles this season, but he finished 45 SBs short of Mike Trout. Trout may actually represent the best current challenger to the Three Tools Triple Crown. He won the stolen base title last season and finished second in the batting title race by 4 points. He only finished 14 HRs behind Cabrera, but he missed an entire month of the season and at the age of 21 might still be getting stronger. I wonder if he were to win all three of these categories if that would be MVP worthy.

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