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Inside MLB | Cabrera’s Triple Crown ranks high among all−time baseball honors

First triple crown winner in 45 years may not win MVP award

Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012

Updated: Thursday, October 11, 2012 01:10

Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera found a way to do something many baseball experts had considered a modern−day impossibility: winning a Triple Crown.

The last player to achieve the feat was Boston Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski, who managed to do so in 1967, beginning a 45−year−long drought.

Why did it take so long for another player to claim the Crown? For one thing, no matter what your grandfather tells you, the level of pitching in today’s game is far superior to that of the early years. Babe Ruth is regarded by many as one of the best players of all time, but it’s tough to know how he would have fared when facing a Justin Verlander 99 mph heater with movement on the inside black.

Second, there’s the sheer difficulty of the feat. The Triple Crown, much like its name suggests, is accomplished by leading the league in three statistics: home runs, runs batted in (RBIs) and batting average. Cabrera had to beat out home run specialists like White Sox first baseman Adam Dunn, RBI−machines like Texas Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton and high−average leadoff men like Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim rookie center fielder Mike Trout.

Lastly, and above all, is the amazing consistency needed to lead in all three stats at the end of the season. The winner must have power, the clutch gene and plate discipline, among other skills, and simply cannot go through prolonged slumps at any point during the season. That was perhaps Cabrera’s greatest strength — even when he was not performing at his peak offensive capability, he still managed to do enough at the plate to keep himself in the race until he could get hot again.

And in Cabrera’s case, there were unique circumstances that make the achievement as remarkable as any Triple Crown winner before him. For one, the Tigers were in a battle for the AL Central title with the Chicago White Sox for almost the whole season, meaning that the pressure was always on for Cabrera to perform down the stretch.

Exacerbating the situation was the Tigers’ general lack of offensive production. Besides Cabrera, center fielder Austin Jackson and first baseman Prince Fielder, no one in the Tigers’ regular lineup posted a Wins Above Replacement above 2.6, and the bottom of the team’s lineup was a hole that opposing pitchers consistently exploited.

And Cabrera’s .330/44/139 line seems even more impressive when a little math is done. He missed winning the “Major League” Triple Crown — leading the statistics in both the AL and NL — by just .006 batting average points. If he had ended the year with only four more hits, his average would have exceeded that of the NL leader San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey.

The history of the past Triple Crown winners is one of extremes, and it reveals characteristics of the game that have changed over the years. The first ever Triple Crown winner was Providence Grays centerfielder Paul Hines, whose 1878 line of .358/4/50 was enough to win.

After Hines, 100+ RBIs were always needed. But it wasn’t until 1922, with the fifth winner, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Rogers Hornsby, that more than 18 home runs were needed to be crowned — Hornsby hit 42.

Needless to say, standards have changed. The emphasis in the modern game is more on power and less on average, a trend which began in 1966 when Baltimore Orioles right fielder Frank Robinson hit just .316 on his way to becoming the 15th winner.

The magic numbers in today’s game seem to hover right around Cabrera’s splits, and with steroids largely out of the picture, we shouldn’t expect a return to 70−home run seasons any time soon. In the future, other potential winners could include Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano and Josh Hamilton. But again, you need impeccable consistency.

What makes Cabrera’s feat even more fascinating is that even though he has done something that hasn’t been done in 45 years, he may not win the AL Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. Many are arguing the case for the rookie phenom Trout, who made a huge impact when he was called up from the minors early in the year and whose defense is clearly superior to Cabrera’s. Trout will undoubtedly take home Rookie of the Year honors, but if he also takes the MVP, it won’t be the first time that a player won the Triple Crown and not the MVP award.

In 1934, Lou Gehrig won the Triple Crown in arguably the most incredible season ever: .363/49/165. Gehrig not only failed to win the MVP — he was voted fifth.

Still, don’t bet on Cabrera meeting the same fate. In the ’20s and ’30s, the Triple Crown lost some of its allure because six players in those two decades had won it. But before this year, the last time there was a Triple Crown winner, you had to be 21 to vote.

In other words, Miguel Cabrera deserves to be MVP. His performance this season is unparalleled in over four decades.

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