On the sports fan bucket list of athletic achievements unlikely to be witnessed in my lifetime, a baseball player winning the Triple Crown ranked somewhere between Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak being matched and an NBA player equaling Oscar Robertson’s feat of averaging a triple-double for an entire season in 1962.
For those under 50, the Triple Crown was a mythical mantle from the days before divisional play and the designated hitter. Until Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera won it this year in the American League, no one had worn the Crown — leading the league in homers, runs batted in, and batting average — since Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. It was an impossible feat that enhanced an Impossible Dream.
The only thing more incredible than Cabrera winning the 14th Triple Crown in major league baseball since 1900 with a .330/44 home runs/139 RBI stat line is that it might not be enough to garner him the AL Most Valuable Player award. The winner will be announced Thursday, and there is a sabermetric groundswell of support for Mike Trout, the transcendent rookie for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim who played this season as if he were starring in the sequel to Robert Redford’s “The Natural.”
The idea that Cabrera could accomplish something in baseball that hasn’t happened in 45 years while helping the Tigers finish in first in the American League Central and not be MVP is anathema.
The case for Trout, who has already been named AL Rookie of the Year after becoming the first major leaguer with at least 30 home runs (30), 125 runs (129), and 45 stolen bases (49) in a season, is based almost entirely on WAR (wins above replacement), a new-age stat meant to encompass a player’s total value and contribution to his team, across batting, baserunning, and fielding.
Trout’s WAR was by far the best in baseball at 10.7, according to baseball-reference.com, meaning the Angels were almost 11 wins better with him than if they had a major league fringy replacement player. Cabrera was sixth at 6.9.
Before I get e-mails accusing me of all manner of atavistic beliefs, ranging from thinking the world is flat to subscribing to phrenology, let me say that I was completely on board in 2009 and 2010 when Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez won AL Cy Young awards on last-place teams with 16-8 and a 13-12 records, respectively.
Wins for a pitcher are overrated. The Triple Crown is not. And neither is leading the majors in total bases, extra-base hits, slugging percentage, and OPS (on-base-plus-slugging), as Cabrera did.
While the baseball record book has been desecrated and disfigured by a generation of performance-enhanced frauds, there is still satisfying harmony in connecting the achievement of Cabrera to Yaz, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig, all Triple Crown winners, all Hall of Famers.
Although it remains the most number-idolizing of sports, the beauty of baseball is that it retains a metaphysical quality. There are certain elements you just can’t quantify. That doesn’t stop pioneer Bill James and his legions of disciples from trying to get to the square root of the game.
No sport clings to its past while simultaneously trying to rewrite it quite like baseball.
Sabermetrics were once scoffed at and dismissed in baseball circles. Now, it feels like those who were dismissed just as easily dismiss those who don’t automatically acquiesce to its deductions.
Part of the WAR differential between Cabrera and Trout can be blamed on how incongruous their games are, even though WAR is supposed to adjust for such things.
Trout is a terrific outfielder who made several gasp-inducing catches this season. He was credited with saving 21 more runs than the average player. Meanwhile, the lumbering Cabrera, who looks like he could play left guard for the Patriots, moved across the diamond from first base to third base to make room for Prince Fielder. He was estimated to have cost the Tigers four more runs defensively than an average third baseman.
But can you quantify that Cabrera was able to put up Triple Crown numbers while returning to a position he hadn’t played in four years? Or that in doing so he allowed the Tigers to get both his bat and Fielder’s in the lineup?
That says more about his MVP credentials than an esoteric formula that “will never be as precise or accurate as one would like,” according to the explanatory section on baseball-reference.com.
If Triple Crown winner Cabrera were to lose the MVP, it wouldn’t be completely anachronistic. It happened twice to Teddy Ballgame (1942 and 1947) and once to Gehrig, who lost to Detroit catcher and Bridgewater native Mickey Cochrane in 1934.
Since 1919, the end of the Dead Ball era, there have been 11 Triple Crown winners, five of whom didn’t win an MVP.
That number comes with an asterisk. Rogers Hornsby won the first of his two National League Triple Crowns in 1922, but wasn’t MVP. That’s because there was no MVP. The NL chose an MVP from 1924 to 1929 before suspending the award. The AL had one from 1922 to 1928. The modern MVP award, bestowed by the Baseball Writers Association of America, began in 1931.
The Triple Crown wasn’t always extraordinary. Robinson and Yaz did it back-to-back in 1966 and ’67. Between 1922 and 1947, it was won on eight occasions, basically once every three years. In 1933, there were Triple Crown winners in each league, Chuck Klein in the NL and Jimmie Foxx, (.356, 48 home runs, 163 RBIs) in the American League.
Now, the Triple Crown is a rare flash of brilliance across the baseball sky.
It is a feat that makes a bigger point than any arriviste numeral with a decimal point.