Justify is vying to finish off horse racing's Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, so what better time to discuss baseball's Triple Crown?Well, sure, if a guy were going into September leading his league in the Triple Crown categories, that would technically be a better time, but let's
Justify is vying to finish off horse racing's Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, so what better time to discuss baseball's Triple Crown?
Well, sure, if a guy were going into September leading his league in the Triple Crown categories, that would technically be a better time, but let's not quibble here.
Now, to be clear, talking about baseball's Triple Crown is a matter of custom more than logic. The Holy Trinity of batting average, home runs and RBIs lives on because it was embedded in our brains roughly around the same time we were told of Santa Claus. And just as leaving milk and cookies for a stranger breaking into your home in the middle of the night makes little sense, so, too, does putting an enormous amount of emphasis on these three categories taken in tandem.
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The problem with the Triple Crown is twofold:
• Batting average is a deeply flawed stat that treats all hits as equals and ignores non-hit-related means of getting on base. So it's not a great measure of a player's overall skillset.
• Home runs and RBIs are much too intertwined to tell us enough about the depth and dimension of a player and, therefore, to represent two-thirds of the Triple Crown. There have been 108 instances in the modern era (going back to 1901) in which a player has led his league in both home runs and RBIs. Obviously, a good number of those instances featured a player leading in those two categories in both leagues, but, on average, you've had about a 46-percent chance in a given year of a player accomplishing that feat in his league. Not exactly rare air. (Giancarlo Stanton did it in the National League last year.)
Whereas the Kentucky Derby tests a horse's focus, the Preakness tests speed and the Belmont tests endurance, baseball's Triple Crown is actually pretty limited in terms of what it tells us about its winners.
Still, as Jose Cabrera's 2012 Most Valuable Player Award win illustrated, we still can't help but be enraptured by the Triple Crown, if only for the sheer rarity of it (Cabrera became just the 15th person to win it). So as Justify tries to make history on the track, here are my picks for the half a dozen guys most likely to challenge for baseball's Triple Crown in the near future. If you have any others you'd add, let me know below.
1. Michael Trout
He's the answer to so many questions.
Who is the player most likely to win the MVP in a given year? Trout.
Who is the player most likely to reach 3,000 hits and 600 homers in his career? Trout.
Who is the player most likely to walk on Mars and cure the common cold? Trout.
It seems the only thing stopping Trout from winning the Triple Crown is that he has not gone into a season and decided, "I think I'll win the Triple Crown this year." Not yet, anyway. Going back to 2012, he has the sixth-highest batting average, the fifth-highest home run total and the sixth-highest RBI total in the big leagues.
2. Manny Machado
Might not have put Machado on this list before this season, but he's having the kind of year evaluators have long assumed he had in him. He's reduced his number of swings outside the strike zone, upping his walks and his average to a career high of .317.
But that improved average hasn't compromised him on the power and production fronts, as he's near the top of the league leaderboards with 18 homers and 50 RBIs. His placement here isn't so much about this specific season (Machado might get traded to an NL team, anyway) as it is about Machado still being a young (25 years old) player with an elite offensive profile that he has begun to maximize with more consistency.
3. Mookie Betts
Betts leaps to mind at the moment, because as of this writing, he is leading the Majors in batting average (.359) and is not far off the pace of teammate -- and American League leader -- J.D. Martinez in home run total (17 to Martinez's 20). The problem is that Betts is well off of Martinez's league-leading RBI pace (37 to Martinez's 52), so, as far as the Triple Crown is concerned, he's actually hurt his own cause by giving Martinez so many RBI opportunities.
But with his quick hands, plus bat speed and strike zone judgment, Betts is absolutely a candidate to have multiple years in which he challenges for the league lead in batting average and homers. It might just be a matter of the homer and RBI numbers syncing up as it has for so many others.
Martinez, by the way, has one of the top 10 batting averages in baseball over the last three years and is on pace for one of the highest averages of his career. But he's still far off Betts' batting average pace here in 2018, and, at 30, he doesn't have the untapped upside of the others on this list.
4. Nolan Arenado
Arenado led the NL in homers and RBIs in 2015 and '16, so he's got the double Double Crown, as it were. This year, though, he's elevated his average and currently stands sixth in the NL with a .324 mark. Trouble is (again, only in relation to discussion of the Triple Crown) he's significantly improved his walk rate, which drives down the RBI total.
I admit to sort of pooh-poohing the real value of the Triple Crown in the intro above, but Arenado is evidence of the difficulty of syncing up these stats all at once. He's also, however, evidence of the type of talent who can continually give himself an opportunity to make it happen. (Obviously, he benefits from playing his home games in the high altitude of Coors Field, and he probably falls off this list if he ever plays elsewhere.)
5. Jose Ramirez
He's drawn comparisons to Jose Altuve in the mighty mite category, but Ramirez's current home run total (19) is already nearing Altuve's career high (24). That improved home run production this year has come at the expense of Ramirez's average -- a tale as old as time. And who knows how long this 5-foot-9 infielder can outpace people like Stanton in homer total?
But now that this doubles machine has decided to become a homer machine too, we might as well include him here. Ramirez, after all, has elite bat-to-ball skills (an 88 percent contact rate going back to the start of 2016) and the seventh-highest average in the game over the last three years, so it's not inconceivable. By now, we should know not to place limitations upon him.
6. Kristopher Bryant
I wouldn't include someone like Aaron Judge on this list because of the high strikeout total that drives down his average (a common occurrence in today's game), and I wouldn't have included Bryant here when he first came up and struck out a league-leading 199 times in his rookie year.
But Bryant has reduced his strikeout rate each year in the bigs and he's only 26. So, although he's yet to hit .300 or better in a full season, you can't totally remove him from the conversation, even if his likelihood isn't as strong as some others.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.