Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 4, 2012

Detroit’s Cabrera Wears A Mighty Crown

On various blogs I’ve read comments by a few fans, clearly besotted by the newer and increasingly complex measures of performance on the diamond, dismissive of the Triple Crown just won by the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera. It is true of course that batting average is an incomplete measure of offensive production, because it does not take into account how often a batter walks. Equally valid and equally obvious is the assertion that runs batted in is a statistic reflecting not just a hitter’s abilities but also those of the teammates preceding him in the batting order. Winning the Triple Crown by leading the league in average, RBIs and home runs says nothing about a player’s all-around ability. The sabermetric statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is certainly a more complete measure of all of the tools that a player brings to the game.

Yet as much as complex sabermetric measures can provide valuable insight into the Great Game and those who play it, there is still something to be said for the simpler statistics that have been part of the sport since its early days. Part of the appeal lies in their very simplicity. Any fan can count up homers and RBIs. Dividing hits by at bats is basic math, a pristine calculation. While they may not tell us everything we want to know about a ball player, these three simple measures of hitting prowess are time-honored and true. At the end of the longest season, to lead the league in any one is a signal accomplishment that can earn a player both the love of his fans and the likelihood of a richer contract. To lead in all three, to achieve the batting Triple Crown, can define a career and make Hall of Fame voters take notice.

The surest proof of the magnitude of Cabrera’s accomplishment is its rarity. Since 1878 the batting Triple Crown has been won just fifteen times by a total of thirteen players. The list of Hall of Famers and feared hitters who were never able to accomplish the feat is itself astonishing, featuring names like Ruth, DiMaggio, Mays, Musial and Aaron; not to mention all of the beefed-up sluggers of the steroid era. Only Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams managed to do it twice. The decade of the 1930’s saw the most Triple Crown winners, with a total of four, including Jimmie Foxx of the AL’s Philadelphia Athletics and Chuck Klein of the NL’s Philadelphia Phillies in 1933, the only time there were Triple Crown winners in both leagues (and in the same city!) in the same year. After Williams won in 1942 and 1947, Mickey Mantle became just the second Yankee (joining Lou Gehrig) to accomplish the feat in 1956. Mantle’s title was also the fifth and most recent time that a Triple Crown winner actually led both leagues in all three categories. Frank Robinson was next a decade after Mantle, and then one year later, in 1967, Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski batted .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBIs to win the fifteenth Triple Crown.

After Yaz thrilled Red Sox fans, then came, nothing. For forty-five years no major leaguer could achieve single season dominance in all three batting categories. Fans were born and grew to full adulthood without knowing a single season with a Triple Crown batting champion. Over that period a player led in two of the three statistics forty-seven times, including the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp just last season. Kemp led the NL in homers and runs batted in, but trailed well behind Jose Reyes for the batting title. Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Cabrera are the three active players who have led each category at some time in their career. Cabrera topped the AL in homers in 2008, RBIs in 2010, and batting average last year. All of which only goes to show that the hard part is to lead all three, in the same year.

Which is what Detroit’s 29-year old third baseman did this season by batting .330 while slugging 44 homers and driving in 139 runs, finally ending a four and one-half decade long Triple Crown drought. On the season’s final day it was the home run title that was most in doubt. Josh Hamilton would have had to tie the AL record for RBIs in a single game to catch Cabrera; and while the Angels’ phenomenal rookie Mike Trout had a mathematical chance of seizing the batting title, it would have taken a sensational game. But Cabrera led the Rangers’ Hamilton by just one home run, and earlier this season Hamilton homered four times in a single game. However Texas played Oakland in the afternoon, so by the time Cabrera and the Tigers began their game in Kansas City Wednesday night he knew that Hamilton had gone homerless. What he didn’t know was that his former Detroit teammate and current Yankee Curtis Granderson would hit two balls into the seats in the Bronx to match Hamilton’s total of 43 homers, before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the Yankees 14-2 rout of Boston. Detroit manager Jim Leyland pulled Cabrera out of the Tigers game as well, in order to protect his average against any late heroics from Trout. When he did so in the 4th inning, the fans in Kansas City responded with a standing ovation, happy to be witnesses to history even if it was being made by an opposing player.

Cabrera is equal parts a logical and unlikely candidate for Triple Crown glory. He is supremely talented as a hitter, always hitting for average and with power to all fields. He hit a walk-off home run in his major league debut in 2003, has a career batting average of .318 and has averaged 34 home runs and 120 RBIs per season. When the Tigers signed Prince Fielder last off-season, Cabrera was instantly assured of seeing more good pitches to hit this year with the slugging Fielder waiting behind him in the on-deck circle. As already mentioned, he’d shown in recent years that he was capable of leading each of the three statistics that make up the Triple Crown.

Yet despite his sweet swing Cabrera is far from perfect. As a player his defensive skills are suspect and he is ponderously slow, factors that perhaps explain the grousing from sabremetrics devotees. More relevant to his batting skills is that Cabrera has struggled with alcohol for much of his career. Late in 2009 and again at the start of spring training in 2011 he had alcohol-related run-ins with the police; the latter incident coming after he spent time in rehab in 2010. More than a few promising careers have been derailed by the evils of addiction. That could have happened to Cabrera in any of the past few seasons; but for the moment at least, he seems to have tamed his inner demons. If he can continue to hold them at bay, the best years are arguably still ahead of a player who is already a seven-time All Star. This season Cabrera proved that one need not be perfect to make history in a game where, like life, success is often measured by how well one limits failure. As he leads the Tigers into the postseason, it’s worth remembering that modern statistics aside, every other Triple Crown winner in the Great Game’s modern era has a plaque in Cooperstown.

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