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.