By In Stuff

Thoughts on the Triple Crown

Health is the key for Hamilton. (US Presswire)

Josh Hamilton’s impossibly great start has some people talking triple crowns — and why not? — so let’s talk a bit about them. Let’s start with the surprise: How many times since 1967 — the year Carl Yastrzemski won the last triple crown — do you think a player has led his league in home runs and RBIs? Take a guess. You know that no player in those 44 seasons has won a Triple Crown, well, how often do you think a player has captured the two power-hitting jewels of the Triple Crown?

You ready for this?

Answer: FORTY!

Yes, that’s right. It has happened forty times in the last 44 years. There’s a point to this, but first I think it’s good to take a minute and marvel at that absurdly high number. For so many years, the only three baseball stats any announcer would give you, the only three numbers anyone ever wrote about in the newspaper, the only three you ever saw on television or the scoreboard, the only three anyone ever talked were the triple crown stats — batting average, home runs, RBIs. There was nothing else. Even a request for basic stats like runs or doubles would be met with derision: “Do I look like a calculator? Look on the back of the baseball card, Sonny.” It was a time when people called you “Sonny.”

Those three numbers — with batting average as Larry, home runs as Curly and RBIs as Moe — were everything. And it did not seem to occur to anybody that home runs and RBIs, in large part, measured the same thing. In 1991, for instance, Howard Johnson led the National League in home runs and RBIs. Yes, that’s right. Howard Johnson. He hit 38 home runs and drove in 118 RBIs.

But the two were obviously related. Of his 38 home runs, he hit 13 with a man on base, one with two men on base and one grand slam. That means 54 of his RBIs came on home runs … and, of course, 38 of those were just him driving himself home. That’s actually a relatively low percentage. In 2006, Ryan Howard drove in 149 runs. But 58 of those were himself, and another 41 were the runners who were on base when he hit those 58 home runs. This is not to detract from the achievement. But counting home runs and RBIs as completely separate categories is like counting “Cookie Crumble Mocha Frappucinnos Consumed” and “Body fat” as two completely separate categories. They might have something to do with each other.*

*He writes while drinking a Cookie Crumble Mocha Frappucinno — how did the author allow his life to get away from him?

So, yes, over the years the home run leader often leads the league in RBIs also. Mike Schmidt did it four times. George Foster, Ryan Howard, Willie McCovey, Cecil Fielder, Jim Rice, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Bench all did it twice. But beyond that, Boomer Scott did it once, HoJo did it once, Tony Armas and Jose Canseco and Dante Bichette did it once too. It’s common enough that most players who led the league in homers multiple times — with Eddie Mathews and Dave Kingman as notable exceptions — also led the league in RBIs at some point. Some of them, like Sammy Sosa* and Dale Murphy — won multiple home run titles and multiple RBI titles but not in the same years.

*You want to talk about an odd career. Of course you already know the crazy stat that Sosa hit 66, 64 and 63 home runs in his top three years and did not lead the league in ANY OF THOSE YEARS. But he did lead the league in home runs when he hit 50 and 49. He led the league in RBIs twice, but never in a year when he led in home runs. One year, he hit .328 with 64 home runs, 160 RBIs, 146 runs, and he did not win the MVP award. Obviously, the era is still pretty fresh in our memory, but I’m thinking in 20 years people will look back at the SE the way we look back at pitchers who won 35 games in a season.So, while leading the league in home runs and RBIs the same year is common, leading the league in batting average and RBIs is not. It has only happened three times since Yaz, and and two of those were at Coors Field. Matt Holliday did it in 2007, Todd Helton in 2000. The only time it happened outside of the light air was in 1971, when Joe Torre did it in his MVP season.

And leading the league in batting average and home runs is even more rare — it has not happened a single time since Yaz.

* * *

The wonderful thing about the triple crown in horse racing is that the three races seem to challenge different talents. The Kentucky Derby is, of course, the big stage, the huge crowds, the intense attention. The Preakness is the shortest race with the tightest turns; the one that challenges the horses speed and dexterity. And the Belmont is the longest race, the one that demands the ability to go the distance and finish the job in that impossibly long stretch.

The wonderful thing about tennis’ grand slam is that the four tournaments challenge different and even contrasting talents — their ability to handle the heat and physical pounding at the Australian, their patience and endurance on the clay at the French Open, their serve and return and of serve and sense of history at Wimbledon, their will and late-night authority and resilience under the spotlight at the U.S. Open.

Baseball’s triple crown doesn’t really challenge three different talents. Home runs and RBIs, as mentioned, are too similar. Batting average, however, is a whole other thing. It’s like baseball’s double-crown. But one problem is the batting average is such a flawed statistic (for reasons brought up here again and again) that the skills it takes to win a batting title are not NECESSARILY the skills it takes to be a great offensive player. Jose Reyes won the 2011 batting title; he finished eighth in the league in runs created. In 2006, Freddy Sanchez won the batting title. He finished 23rd in the league in runs created.

If the triple crown was home runs, RBIs and on-base percentage — a much more compelling statistic when you think about scoring runs and winning games — there would have been four since Yaz*:

Barry Bonds, 1993: .448, 46, 123
Mike Schmidt, 1981 (strike year): .435, 31, 91
Dick Allen, 1972: .420, 37, 113
Willie McCovey, 1969: .453, 45, 126

*It’s interesting, there was not an on-base triple crown during the Steroid Era.

But, of course, let’s be realistic: That’s not the triple crown. There’s too much history with batting average to change the thing now. And so let’s focus on the triple crown: One thing that is undeniable is that the two groups — the kinds of hitters who win home run/RBI crown and the kinds of hitters who win batting titles — are rarely the same kind of hitter. Since 1968, Tony Gwynn (8), Rod Carew (7), Wade Boggs (5), Bill Madlock (4), Pete Rose (3) and Joe Mauer (3) — just those six players — have won 30 of the 88 possible batting titles, and obviously none of them were (or in Mauer’s case, are) threats to win the home run crown. There are a whole bunch of one-year winners — Ralph Garr, Willie Wilson, Carney Lansford, Willie McGee, Julio Franco on and on — who did not hit with anything close to enough power.

At the same time, many of the home run hitters — Fielder, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Armas, Johnny Bench, on and on — have been relatively low average hitters.

So that means it really does take a special kind of hitter to mesh the two talents*.

*Or a special kind of ballpark. Since 1968, the highest batting average for any player who led the league in home runs and RBIs is — get ready for it — Dante Bichette, who hit .340 with 48 homers and 128 RBIs. Of course, he did this in Coors Field when the place was absolutely absurd and, yes, he hit .377 at home that year. Another amazing thing about Bichette’s 1995 season — he walked 22 times. All year. And five of those were intentional. It’s not quite Manny Sanguillen’s 1973 season, when he unintentionally walked nine times in 619 plate appearances. But it’s impressive nonetheless.

Since Yaz, only six players have led the league in home runs, RBIs and batting average at any point in their careers. You know how golf and tennis have “career grand slams?” Well, this would be a “lifetime triple crown.”

— Manny Ramirez
Batting average: .349 (2002)
Home runs: 43 (2004)
RBIs: 165 (1999)

— Barry Bonds
Batting average: .370 (2002); .362 (2004)
Home runs: 46 (1993); 73 (2001)
RBIs: 123 (1993)

— Miguel Cabrera
Batting average: .344 (2011)
Home runs: 37 (2008)
RBIs: 126 (2010)

— Alex Rodriguez
Batting average: .358 (1996)
Home runs: 52 (2001); 57 (2002); 47 (2003); 48 (2005); 54 (2007)
RBIs: 142 (2002); 156 (2007)

— Albert Pujols
Batting average: .359 (2003)
Home runs: 47 (2009); 42 (2010)
RBIs: 118 (2010)

— Andres Galarraga
Batting average: .370 (1993)
Home runs: 48 (1996)
RBIs: 150 (1996); 140 (1997)

Galarraga, obviously, is a beneficiary of Coors Field in its most insane hitting days. But the point is, these are rare hitters.

* * *

Which, finally, brings us to Josh Hamilton. He has won a batting title (2010 when he hit .359). And he has led the league in RBIs (2008, his first year in Texas). So the only thing left is the home run title, and he already has 18 home runs this season — five more than anyone in American League. Also that ballpark is crazy good for home runs. Since moving into the ballpark in 1994, the Rangers have had 28 different season of 30-plus homers, and 10 of those hit more than 40 homers.

To contrast that, since 1994 Kansas City has had just four seasons of 30-plus homers and, of course, zero of more than 40.*

*The embarrassing home run record for the Kansas City Royals is 36, set by Steve Balboni in 1985.But it’s not just the Royals. The Ranger’s 10 seasons of more than 40 home runs is the most for any team in the American League since 1994. The triple crown is always a long shot, of course, but this is about as good a setup as anyone has had since Todd Helton and Larry Walker at Coors Field.

In many ways, Hamilton might be in even better position because he’s on such a good team with so many good hitters. That will obviously help boost that RBI total. The Rangers will almost certainly be at or near the top of the league in runs scored — they always are — so if Hamilton can stay healthy he will be at or near the top of RBIs, almost guaranteed.

Ah, but there’s the big thing. Staying healthy. And this is probably the most underrated — and yet most important — part of winning a triple crown. Yaz played 161 games in 1967. Frank Robinson played 155 in 1966. Mantle played 150 of 154 in 1956; Ted Williams played at least 150 his two triple crown seasons, and led the league in games played when he lost the triple crown by batting average percentage points in 1949.

You really can’t get hurt and win a triple crown — this is obviously because home runs and RBIs are counting stats requiring playing time as well as excellence — and Hamilton has missed, on average, 50 games the last three seasons. The ability to stay healthy in baseball remains, I believe, the most underrated tool in the game. I have little doubt that Grady Sizemore would have been one of the best players in the game, but he could not stay healthy. Chase Utley was unquestionably one of the best players in the game for four or five years, but the pain of playing second base day after day seems to have worn him down to the point where his future is very much in doubt. Larry Walker — and many others — would have been a slam dunk Hall of Famer, I believe, had he stayed healthy (he only had one season where he played 150 games).* And, of course, the story of Pete Reiser, the man who crashed into walls, is legend.

*All of which, I must say, just makes Derek Jeter’s career that much more remarkable. I know people are waiting for me to write the mea culpa about Jeter being done as a good every day shortstop now that he’s hitting .366 and had that power surge early in the year … and I have scheduled that for August 23rd if he’s still performing at the same high level at that point. But either way, his 12 seasons of 150-plus games trails only that marvel of durability, Cal Ripken, and he’s had a few more good offensive years than Ripken. Jeter’s ability to play through the pains year after year after year might not be the most thrilling part of his marvelous career, but it might be the most amazing.
Hamilton’s style of play has led to some injuries. He has played with abandon — slamming into walls and catchers — and he has bruised his ribs, fractured his arm, torn abdominal muscles and so on. Is that style likely to change? The Rangers keep putting him in center field, which is tough on the body. When you look at players who played a lot of games in center field, you see quite a few players who did not age especially well into their mid-to-late 30s: Ken Griffey Jr.; Dale Murphy; Andruw Jones; Bernie Williams and so on. Hamilton, like Murphy, is a big and athletic guy. His durability will be a question.

It’s funny, the other day there was a poll during the Royals broadcast asking fans what was the MOST LIKELY of these three possibilities: Hamilton hitting .400. Hamilton hitting 74 home runs. Hamilton driving in 191 runs. These three lead me to a friend’s great line that “distinctions at that level are not worth making.” His chances of hitting .400 are like .000000001 and his chances of hitting 74 home runs are like .000000000099 and his chances of driving in 192 RBIs are like .00000000010001. Or whatever. Not going to happen.

But his chances of winning the triple crown? I’d say they relate very closely to his chances of playing 155 games. If he gets there, I think he just might do it.

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31 Responses to Thoughts on the Triple Crown

  1. Josh says:

    I’m so distracted by the name of the drink Joe’s consuming, I can’t think straight.

  2. joKa says:

    Will Andruw Jones make the HOF?

  3. Doug says:

    One of my favorite storylines about the end of last year was Matt Kemp’s (NL) Triple Crown charge – with a couple days left in the season, he was on top in HR and RBIs, and within 5 or 6 points in batting average. He had a legitimate shot at it, and he ended up in the lead on HR and RBI, but 13 points off the batting title – which is still a pretty great year. And he’s had a ridiculously hot start this year as well. Kemp is such a complete player and so fun to watch (although I wish he didn’t have to play for the Dodgers – I’m a Giants fan).

  4. troy says:

    You just made me go look up the least games a triple crown winner played. Not surprisingly, it was in the century before last, when Some Guy I Never Heard Of won playing 62 games. So of course I wondered how many games were in a season back then … and his team played 60. Bet Hamilton can’t top *that*.

    • Left Field says:

      Back then, they must have counted stats for unofficial games that weren’t completed. I noticed there were several teammates of Paul Hines who also played 62 games that year.

    • JBJ says:

      More likely, there were a few tie games, called on account of darkness, that had to be replayed. A fairly common occurrence before ballparks had lights. I think there are a handful of cases of guys playing 155 games out of a 154-game season, or even 163 out of 162.

  5. what about OBP, SLG and HR as a new triple crown?

    • manimal0 says:

      That’s probably the best, but we get 9 since Yaz (McCovey in ’69, Allen in ’72, Schmidt in ’81, Bonds in ’93 and ’01, McGwire in ’96 and ’98, Walker in ’97, and Pujols in ’09).

  6. Dinky says:

    Re: Howard Johnson. You wrote: Of his 38 home runs, he hit 13 with a man on base, one with two men on base and one grand slam. That means 54 of his RBIs came on home runs … and, of course, 38 of those were just him driving himself home.

    13 + 1 + 1 = 15 times he homered with somebody on base.

    38-15= 23 solo homers 23 RBI
    13 homers with one on=26 RBI
    1 homer with two on = 3 RBI
    1 grand slam homer = 4 RBI

    Totals 56 RBI, not 54. Or you can do it:

    38 homers + 13 one on + 2 (one with 2 on) + 3 (one grand slam) = 56 RBI.

    Really, I do not sit down and count this stuff out. But my weird brain looked at that and said something is wrong and then I went and added it up for myself. So HoJo’s percentage was slightly higher than attributed. Someday this article might go into the HOF alongside Hamilton’s Triple Crown and it would look better if the math was right.

    • clashfan says:

      I think Joe meant that 38 of the HRs came with at least one man on base–of those 38, one instance had two men on and another instance had the bases loaded.

      My brain is unfocused right now–does my supposition make the math work right?

    • nightfly says:

      Nope. 38 homers with men on base would be 76 RBI on homers, at a bare minimum. Dinky’s got it: 38 RBI for driving in himself, 13 for the two-run homers, 2 for the three-run job, and 3 for the granny.

      (It’s parallel to adding up total bases: hits + doubles + 2*triples + 3*homers.)

    • Ian R. says:

      I think Joe meant that there were 38 total home runs, of which 13 had at least one man on base. Of those 13, one had two on base and another had three; the remaining 11 had just one man on base. Thus, HoJo drove in 38 runs + 11 for the two-run shots + 2 for the three-run + 3 for the grand slam, for a total of 54.

      I have no idea whether it’s Joe or Dinky who actually has it right, but the math makes sense either way.

    • Dinky says:

      Joe expressly says 54 RBI on homers for HoJo when it should have been 56 RBI. I believe (silly me) that it’s better for Joe’s reputation, future earnings, eventual selection to the baseball writers wing of the Hall of Fame, etc. to have these minor errors of fact corrected by a friend (or at least a fan) than corrected by somebody responding to a wider audience and implying Joe does not deserve that audience. However, unlike most other clearcut errors, this one is still not corrected, making me feel Joe doesn’t like me. Dinky sad 🙁

  7. Your says:

    *He writes while drinking a Cookie Crumble Mocha Frappucinno — how did the author allow his life to get away from him?

    Joe, call your brother.

  8. Mark Coale says:

    I noticed at the beginning of the season, this year’s version of MLB the Show for PS3 used “AVG SLG OPS” as the graphic for batters, instead of “AVG HR RBI”

  9. NMark W says:

    Are we back being able to reply/comment with ease as far as Joe’s Blog goes? I have missed it, but like many things in life, we find other things to occupy our time. Just reading a post from Joe often occupies more than enough of that time!

    Ease off on those sweet drinks, Joe. Stay healthy and moving forward!

  10. Mark Daniel says:

    Do we even have a chance? These mega corporations like Starbucks are pushing cookie crumble mocha frappucinos on us, and to be frank, a drink like that is irresistible. And the company spends millions ensuring that it is irresistible, and then they spend more money putting images of said drink on TV and on billboards. Next thing I know I’m at Starbucks ordering a venti cookie crumble mocha frappuchino on my way home from work. The bastards!

  11. David in NYC says:

    The stat that only Ripken has more 150+ game seasons than St. Derek must refer only to full-time shortstops.

    Pete Rose (unsurprisingly) leads the list with 17; 8 others have at least 13, and 4 others have 12 (one of them being a less-than-full-career SS, Ernie Banks).

    Nevertheless, it is a lot. And, yes, definitely, the ability to play every day (or close to it) is grossly underrated as a determinant to a player’s career value.

  12. Richie says:

    Just want to say how happy I am that you (Joe) are back to posting nearly daily. I love columns like these. I love your ability to put history in perspective with objectivity.

    The Sammy Sosa stat about hitting 60+ homers three times and not winning the HR title in any of those seasons is amazing. I lived through the steroids era, but it still seems like a lifetime ago.

  13. nickpa1 says:

    Sitting here in Philly, I always get depressed when Joe writes anything about Ryan Howard…

    Damn objectivity!

  14. Berg says:

    How about on base, slugging, and a fielding stat? Or on-base, slugging, and a base-running stat? That would give you the most all-around offensive player, no?

  15. Berg says:

    How about on base, slugging, and a fielding stat? Or on-base, slugging, and a base-running stat? That would give you the most all-around offensive player, no?

  16. nickpa1 – I would say I feel your pain, but I’m a Twins fan, and we’re so depressed for ourselves, all empathy has gone out the window.
    And – how about Home Runs, OBP, and Cookie Crumble Mocha Fraps consumed before playing a day / night double header without puking.

  17. Elliott P. says:

    I’ll Have Another has a better chance at the TC than Hamilton, I’d wager . . .

  18. Tampa Mike says:

    I don’t think that we will ever see another triple crown winner with the way the game is now. You have to hit too many home runs now to be able to have a high enough average. No one has come close since Yaz. The lifetime triple crown that Joe’s mentions would make for an all time great season.

  19. Aaron Reese says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Aaron Reese says:

    I don’t know if it was intentional, but I can hardly believe you didn’t mention Brett in you list of hitters with three or more batting titles. You wrote an omnibus blog on his 1985 season once.

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