If you just look at the raw numbers for Miguel Cabrera — a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI — you wouldn’t immediately say “best triple crown ever!” After all, Mickey Mantle hit 52 home runs to secure his. Lou Gehrig hit .363 in his triple crown year. Jimmie Foxx hit 163 RBI the year he did it. I’m not even sure that adjusting for era make Cabrera’s raw numbers one of the best triple crown years.
But there is something else besides those numbers that has convinced me that it is, Joe Sheehan’s argument about it in his latest newsletter:
Cabrera achieved the greatest Triple Crown ever. Forget the raw numbers or any single-number evaluation of his season, and consider that he beat out the largest fields of any winner. No one had won the Triple Crown since 1967, and that’s not a coincidence; it has nothing to do with specialization, the idea that there are more hitters for power and more for average. There are simply more hitters. It’s a math problem.
Expansion in 1969, 1977, 1993 and 1998, Joe notes, dramatically increased the number of players in the game and thus the number of guys in the hunt in triple crown categories each year. To climb to the top of any one of those lists, let alone all three, you have to beat out a lot more dudes.* Joe breaks down the specifics of that math, and it puts the significance of Cabrera’s accomplishment into perspective.
By the way: Joe does this kind of thing almost every day, plus much, much more. Just today, in addition to the Cabrera stuff, he talks about why the Rangers are not dead and, in fact, can be considered favorites to make the ALCS right now. Then he imagines Clayton Kershaw’s free agent negotiations in a couple of years. Good stuff. If you are interested in it, I highly recommend subscribing to his newsletter.
*Note, this “there are a lot more teams and a lot more players out there” is also one of the things explaining why there are a lot more no hitters and perfect games these days too. In 1955 you had 16 teams playing a total of 1,232 major league games each year. In 2012 you have 30 teams playing 2,430. When you increase the number of players you make leading those players in any category harder, but at the same time, as you increase the number of games being played, you increase the chances of a given phenomenon happening. People tend to ignore this and instead look for explanations involving steroids, magic pitches and the decline of some traditional value they hold near and dear or whatever. It really doesn’t have to be that difficult.