After lining out to third in his first plate appearance of the 2012 season, Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera then walked three times to finish the day with a .000 batting average, no home runs and no RBIs. Things picked up quite a bit in his second contest, one that saw the defending American League batting champ stroke a pair of home runs while making three outs. And then in the third game of the year, Cabrera singled twice, homered and drove in five runs. And so, at the close of play on April 8, the soon-to-be 29-year-old was leading the league in RBIs, was tied for first in homers and was batting a robust .455. The race for the Triple Crown was on.
Between 1920 and 2011, a Triple Crown batting season -- a feat achieved 11 times by nine players -- on average featured a .360 batting mark, 41 home runs and 138 RBIs. Against these three numbers, Cabrera's line (.330 average/44 homers/139 RBIs) in 2012 holds up nicely, making the newest Triple Crown season -- the first since 1967 -- a worthy addition to one of baseball's most cherished accomplishments.
As with any achievement in the game that occurs so rarely, the juxtaposition of some of Cabrera's numbers against those compiled by the other Triple Crowners in the live-ball era can add some depth and appreciation to what took place recently. For example, while Cabrera's 44 homers matched Carl Yastrzemski's total from 1967, a few of his other numbers hadn't been seen in a Triple Crown season in a fair amount of time: his .330 batting average was the highest since Mickey Mantle's .353 in 1956, and one has to go back to Joe Medwick in 1937 to see a Triple Crown winner with as many hits, at-bats and RBIs as Cabrera accumulated.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
Number of categories led in Triple Crown seasons
* Among the following 13: Hits, runs, doubles, homers, walks, RBIs, total bases, extra-base hits, batting, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+
Of course, the raw numbers involved in a Triple Crown season can take a back seat to how those numbers (and other stats) look in relation to the other players in the league, for the accomplishment is all about leadership and relative distances from the pack. Within this framework, Cabrera's season can be examined against the 11 other Triple Crown years, giving a rough sense of the strength of the overall performance in the Triple Crown season.
From this perspective, Cabrera's Triple Crown year certainly appears to be relatively weak. Among the group of 12, not only is his OPS+ the lowest, but he also topped his league in the fewest number of top-line categories (in addition to leading the AL in the three Triple Crown slots, Cabrera also finished first in total bases, extra-base hits, slugging and OPS). Certainly, part of this relative weakness is connected to the volume of competition; in 2012, Cabrera was pacing himself against players from 13 other teams -- nearly twice as many as Hornsby, Klein, Foxx, Gehrig, Medwick, Williams or Mantle faced, all of whom won a Triple Crown when each league featured eight teams.
Though Cabrera's Triple Crown season might not be among the strongest of the dozen we've seen since 1920, even if one considers the traditional Triple Crown -- with its focus on batting average and RBIs -- antiquated in an era that provides a multitude of refined metrics, Cabrera's achievement is still undeniably worthy of celebration and examination. The ability to do something no one had accomplished in nearly half a century is certainly a huge part of it, but it also emanates from a perspective that is as much a part of the game as batting averages, home runs and RBIs: the chance to dance through the history books and make connections to players who now only reside in the two-dimensional worlds of books and screens.
When Hornsby dominated the National League competition in 1922 and claimed the Triple Crown, it was the first time the feat had been accomplished since 1909, when Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb turned the trick. The allure of Cobb's Triple Crown season stems not so much from his presence atop the league leaderboards (of the 13 categories referenced in the table, he led in 10) or from his OPS+ (he produced a 193, the same as Yastrzemski in 1967), but from his age: he was 22 years old, making him the youngest Triple Crown winner.
Cobb entered the 1909 season having won each of the past two batting titles, having led the league in hits, RBIs, slugging, OPS, OPS+ and total bases in each of the past two years, and having assembled a career OPS+ of 153 that is, to this day, the highest for any player in history with at least 400 games through his age-21 season. In 1908, he had topped the AL in 10 high-end categories, and had helped the Tigers to the club's second consecutive pennant.
Cobb's prominence at the very top of the AL leaderboards in '09 is truly exceptional; of the 586 players in history who have qualified for the batting title in their age-22 season, no one has ever led in more categories (among those 13 mentioned, plus triples) than the Georgia Peach, with Stan Musial in 1943 also leading in 10, and Pete Reiser in 1941 leading in nine. In this Triple Crown season, Cobb batted .377 (the league as a whole owned a .244 mark), he drove in one run for every 5.4 at-bats (the league was at one per 11.7), he homered once every 63.7 at-bats (the league average was one for every 366.7 at-bats), his slugging percentage was 65 points higher than that of the No. 2 guy (his teammate Sam Crawford) and his OPS was 81 points higher than the runner-up's (Eddie Collins). All of this -- his numbers against the league, and his age -- turns this Triple Crown into a Triple Crown.
Interestingly, Cobb and Cabrera both led the Tigers to the AL pennant during their Triple Crown seasons, then struggled as Detroit lost in the World Series. In seven games in 1909, Cobb batted .231 with five RBIs and no homers, while in the 2012 Fall Classic, Cabrera's four-game total saw him also hit .231, with one home run and three RBIs. For both, it was a subdued conclusion to an amazing regular season.