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Placing Triple Crowns In Perspective

Miguel Cabrera may just win the triple crown. He leads the American League in batting average and RBIs. He is tied with Josh Hamilton for the league lead in home runs at 43. The last player to win the triple crown in either league is Carl Yastrzemski, back in 1967. Cabrera would become only the 13th triple crown winner since the birth of the World Series.

Wrapped up in the Cabrera triple crown race is an MVP debate, which has increasingly been colored as a battle between history and modern analysis. Traditionalists supposedly prefer and respect the historical glory of the triple crown more than sabermetricians, while the number-crunchers say that focusing on antiquated hitting statistics sells the rightful MVP recipient, Mike Trout, woefully short.

Get a taste of the debate for yourself, if you wish, via the internets. Arguments for Miguel Cabrera tend to romanticize what a triple crown represents. Arguments for Mike Trout tend to feel sound and logical, or cold and calculated, depending on your preferred view/adjectives.

I tend to live more on the sabermetric side of things, but the argument for the triple crown compelled me to investigate. What does it mean to win the triple crown, and what might that mean for Miguel Cabrera in the 2012 MVP race?

I couldn't resist a chance to create a few statistics to help me out. I wondered where Cabrera's bid for the triple crown stacked up against the others, and chose to compare triple crowns using what I will call AVG+, HR+, and RBI+. They all work similarly to OPS+ because they are scales that compare a player's production to that of their peers in that season. This neutralizes the environments that players play in, allowing for direct comparison. In other words, as you will see, Ty Cobb's 9 home runs in 1909 are worth as much as Jimmie Foxx's 48 home runs in 1933 according to the formula because home runs were way more common in 1933.

However, unlike OPS+, 100 is not average with the three stats I've created. 100 is actually the maximum. The scales are also logarithmic, which mostly impacts HR+. The final score is simply a sum of AVG+, HR+, and RBI+. A full explanation of how the statistics are calculated is included at the end of this blog post. Here is how I rank the triple crown seasons, from most to least amazing:

If you read closely, you will notice some of the totals seem to be incorrect. The discrepancies are due to rounding errors. I chose to keep the numbers listed without decimals because I do not believe they add any meaningful information. Are a couple tenths of one point going to completely change the valuation of a season? Not for me. These numbers are simply a method to generate a list. There is still plenty of room for debate.

With that said, it is clear to me that Miguel Cabrera will log the least impressive triple crown in MLB history if he indeed leads all three categories. This is not meant to rain on Cabrera's parade at all; it would still be a triple crown. The triple crown list includes only seasons from among the greatest in MLB history.

The triple crown suggests a certain level of dominance that Cabrera, I would argue, is actually a shade below. Just because he might win a triple crown like Carl Yastrzemski does not mean his triple crown is as impressive as Yaz's - even though Cabrera could potentially end up with a higher batting average, more home runs, and more RBIs than him. Romanticizing the triple crown leaves little room to recognize these differences.

Also, since when does the triple crown guarantee the MVP award? Only 6 of the previous 13 triple crown seasons have resulted in MVP awards*. There is a historical precedent for triple crown winners not getting the MVP award.

*Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, and Rogers Hornsby had triple crowns before the MVP award was given, so this ratio is misleading. Subtracting those instances we have 6 out of 10 triple crowns also garnering MVPs. The point stands though - a triple crown has never guaranteed an MVP award.

Miguel Cabrera will have the least elite triple crown in MLB history if he captures it, and there are also several examples from history of triple crown winners who were not voted MVP. I hope nobody with an MVP vote will base their vote on whether Cabrera capture the triple crown or not. People should pretty much know who they are going to vote for already with so few games left, regardless of what happens these final few days. 98% or so of the 2012 season is already over. Whoever is the most valuable player had better have done significant damage in the first 98% of the season if they really are the most valuable.

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Explanation of AVG+, HR+, and RBI+

The first step is to compute a raw value for each statistic. Here is how that is done for each of them:

  • AVG+: A player's batting average is divided by the league's batting average that season
  • HR+: The league's plate appearances per home run is divided by a players plate appearances per home run
  • RBI: The league's plate appearances per RBI is divided by a players plate appearances per RBI
Scaling the statistics: Take each value (for all three statistics), multiply by 100, and then subtract 100. What is left is the percent value above average, which I will name v. Take the logarithm of v, with the base being the maximum value for v to the .01 power. This guarantees that the highest value is 100.

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