Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/21/12
There has been a lot of banter about the Most Valuable Player Award this week. While the National League has an even field with multiple candidates, it’s the American League — with  Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera — that’s gotten most of the attention.
At the center of the debate is baseball’s triple crown, an incredibly rare achievement that is within reach for Cabrera. The fact that Trout is going to finish with the better season, regardless, has led many to pooh-pooh the fact that Cabrera has the chance to become just the 14th player since 1901 to win the elusive title. And while the triple crown in and of itself doesn’t signify greatness, it has only been won by great players. And most often, the league’s best player has won it.
It’s common knowledge that no player has hit for the triple crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and even his claim to it is debatable. He tied for the AL lead in home runs with Harmon Killebrew, who matched Yaz’ 44 taters. History gives Yastrzemski credit for his triple crown, though, and so shall we. The feat has been accomplished just 13 times, with 11 different players (Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams each did it twice):




Year
Player
Lg
Tm
AVG
HR
RBI


1967
Carl Yastrzemski
AL
BOS
0.326
44
121


1966
Frank Robinson
AL
BAL
0.316
49
122


1956
Mickey Mantle
AL
NYY
0.353
52
130


1947
Ted Williams
AL
BOS
0.343
32
125


1942
Ted Williams
AL
BOS
0.356
36
137


1937
Joe Medwick
NL
STL
0.374
31
154


1934
Lou Gehrig
AL
NYY
0.363
49
165


1933
Chuck Klein
NL
PHI
0.368
28
120


1933
Jimmie Foxx
AL
PHA
0.356
48
163


1925
Rogers Hornsby
NL
STL
0.403
39
143


1922
Rogers Hornsby
NL
STL
0.401
42
152


1909
Ty Cobb
AL
DET
0.377
9
107


1901
Nap Lajoie
AL
PHA
0.426
14
125



You’ll recognize every name on this list. All 11 players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The triple crown is not baseball’s rarest feat — there have been only four hit streaks of 40 or more games since 1901; only eight 60-homer seasons; and there have only been 13 .400 batting average seasons. But that doesn’t mean the feat isn’t ridiculously difficult to accomplish.
In most seasons, at least one player has won two of the three legs of the triple crown. At least one league has had a player win (or tie to win) two of the three triple crown categories in 85 of the 111 seasons, starting with 1901. In 33 of those 85 seasons, both leagues had a player win two of the three triple crown categories.
To put that more plainly: It’s just as frequent for two players — one from each league, in all cases — to lead their league (or tie for the league lead) in two of the three triple crown categories as it is for zero players to do so in any given season. History is littered with players who have led the league in two of the three categories, but not all three. Alex Rodriguez did it twice. Mike Schmidt did it four times. George Foster and Willie McCovey did it in back-to-back seasons. Hank Aaron did it three times. Babe Ruth did it six times in eight years — five times leading in both home runs and RBI, and one time leading in average and homers.
Not only is it a rare achievement, it is not a cheap one. While we don’t put much, if any, importance on RBI these days, these seasons weren’t exactly Dante Bichette’s 1999 season. Eleven of the 13 led their league in WAR outright, with Nap Lajoie tying Cy Young for the WAR lead in 1901 and Cobb’s 10.8 WAR in 1909 coming in slightly under Eddie Collins’ 11.1 WAR. The third-best WAR in the AL that season was Donie Bush, with 7.4 WAR, though, so it’s not like Cobb was a scrub that season.
In fact, let’s take another look at these guys, but with some advanced stats swapped in for the more traditional selections:




Year
Player
Lg
Tm
wRC+
wOBA
OPS
Batting
WAR


1967
Carl Yastrzemski
AL
BOS
194
0.454
1.040
70.2
12.1


1966
Frank Robinson
AL
BAL
196
0.447
1.047
74.8
9.1


1956
Mickey Mantle
AL
NYY
204
0.502
1.169
93.4
12.2


1947
Ted Williams
AL
BOS
209
0.507
1.133
87.5
10.8


1942
Ted Williams
AL
BOS
211
0.522
1.147
94.2
12.2


1937
Joe Medwick
NL
STL
178
0.467
1.056
65.7
8.1


1934
Lou Gehrig
AL
NYY
196
0.509
1.172
100.9
11.5


1933
Chuck Klein
NL
PHI
181
0.468
1.025
62.3
7.8


1933
Jimmie Foxx
AL
PHA
192
0.508
1.153
91.4
11


1925
Rogers Hornsby
NL
STL
208
0.544
1.245
93.9
11


1922
Rogers Hornsby
NL
STL
198
0.521
1.181
98.9
11


1909
Ty Cobb
AL
DET
204
0.478
0.947
72.7
10.8


1901
Nap LaJoie
AL
PHA
188
0.504
1.106
80.8
10.3



Not too shabby, right? Aside from Lajoie’s and Cobb’s WAR, the players here finished first in their respective season and league in WAR, wOBA, wRC+, OPS and “batting” (from the value section). In fact, by wRC+, eight of these seasons are in the top 51 seasons from 1901 to 2011. Simply put, these were some of the best seasons in baseball history. As a group, they blew away the competiton in their respective years and leagues. To wit:




Stat
Triple-crown winner
Best/Next-best player


WAR
10.6
8.3


wOBA
0.495
0.444


wRC+
196.8
166.5


OPS
1.109
0.984


Batting
83.6
54.9



Even with Collins beating out Cobb and Young tying Lajoie, the players here were more than two wins better than either the best or next-best player in their league and season — a description that doesn’t quite fit Cabrera. The Detroit slugger leads the AL in OPS, wOBA and batting, but OPS is the only category in which he has a sizable lead. He’s second in wRC+ and WAR.
But even when the triple crown winners thoroughly dominated, they didn’t always take home MVP honors. Only 10 of the players were eligible to be awarded MVP, as the MVP wasn’t around when Lajoie, Cobb and Hornsby (the first time) took their titles. Two of the other times, it was Williams who won and still didn’t get the MVP. In 1947, he lost because a Midwestern writer left him off of the ballot. There are two other instances where a player won the triple crown and not MVP: Chuck Klein in 1933 and Lou Gehrig in 1934.
Klein won the year before, and came in second in ’33 to Carl Hubbell, who posted a 1.66 ERA and won a league-leading 23 games for the World Series champion New York Giants. Gehrig tallied more votes and was closer to first in the AL vote a year later, but he finished fifth in what was a very fractured vote: Mickey Cochrane took first place with 67 vote points. Gehrig had 54 vote points.
Which brings us back to this year’s MVP debate. Cabrera hasn’t been a better player overall than Trout this season. But rather than cutting down the triple crown, we really should be praising Trout’s season. Since 1901, there have been 12,000 qualified position player seasons. Fewer than 200 of them have posted 9 WAR or better, and Trout would be just the second (Alex Rodriguez, 1996) to do so before his age-21 season. That Trout is on pace to finish with a WAR that is so much higher than Cabrera’s is essentially uncharted territory.
The triple crown is, as Keith Law said in his Wednesday chat, a statistical quirk. It’s one that doesn’t account for the full breadth of a player’s contribution. And while Cabrera might pass Josh Hamilton in homers, the triple crown wouldn’t necessarily make him the player most deserving of the MVP.
Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that winning the triple crown is incredibly rare. Yes, RBI is one of the categories — and yes, it doesn’t account for all of the nuances that more modern statistics do — but the triple crown is not evil. In fact, it’s actually pretty cool.
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