Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 7: Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 7: Miguel Cabrera Wins the Triple Crown

When you do something that had only been done 16 times in the previous 134 years — and which had not been done at all for the previous 45 years — it’s big news, so you bet your bippy that Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown in 2012 was going to be near the top of this list.

The fact of his Triple Crown, and any Triple Crown, is pretty straightforward: Cabrera led the American League in batting average, homers and RBI in 2012, batting .330, smacking 44 dingers and knocking in 139. He topped Angels rookie Mike Trout, who hit .326, in batting. Josh Hamilton of the Rangers and Curtis Granderson of the Yankees each hit 43 homers. Hamilton finished second in RBI too, with 128.

There were a couple of things about Cabrera’s Triple Crown, however, that made it a bit more interesting apart from the mere fact that no one had done it since Carl Yastrzemski did back in 1967.

For one thing, there were only 20 teams — 10 in the AL — back in 1967 but there were 30 by 2012. With more teams come more players and with more players comes greater competition for the lead in any given statistical category. The expansion which came in 1969, 1977, 1993, and 1998 which increased the number of teams and players by 33% is likely a big reason why it took so long for someone to pull off Cabrera’s feat.

For another thing, Cabrera’s Triple Crown season may have, actually, been his worst season in a four-year span in which it fell.

Yes, Cabrera led the league in the three Triple Crown categories in 2012, but as measured by both OPS and OPS+ he was probably a better overall hitter in the two seasons which came before it and he definitely was better in the season which followed. Indeed, Cabrera 2012 OPS+ of 164 is the lowest for any winner of the Triple Crown in baseball history. Which is not intended to take away from his feat. It just speaks to the randomness of it and, of course, the fact that the Triple Crown categories, particularly RBI, are less suggestive of excellence than they were assumed to be back when the concept of the Triple Crown became elevated as one of baseball’s greatest feats.

Which, of course, led to a lot of arguing, even if Cabrera’s feat was damn impressive. The arguing came mostly in the form of the AL MVP debate.

The short version: despite how neat it was that Cabrera won the Triple Crown he didn’t have the best season in the American League by, basically, any other measure. The guy who finished second in batting, Mike Trout, clearly did. Unlike Cabrera, Trout was a superior defender at a premium position and was an asset on the base paths, leading the AL in stolen bases. The numbers bore this out, with Trout posting a 10.5 WAR — still tied for the best of his illustrious career — to Cabrera’s 7.1, as well as leading Cabrera by basically all other advanced metrics. Simply put, Trout posted one of the best all-around seasons in recent baseball history. He just did it while leading the league in less-venerable — albeit more truly valuable — offensive categories than Cabrera did.

Anyone with even passing familiarity to the discourse surrounding baseball analytics knows the basic contours of that argument so I won’t rehash it beyond the previous paragraph, but with the hindsight of a few years, a couple of things become obvious:

  • Cabrera MVP backers were so tied up in the novelty of his achievement that they gave shorter-than-justified shrift to the numbers and, above all else, were interested in pushing back against more analytically-minded baseball commentators, with this as just the latest front in their by then many years-old war; and
  • Trout MVP backers were so tied up in the numbers that they gave shorter-than-justified shrift to the novelty of Cabrera’s achievement and, above all else, were interested in pushing back against old school baseball commentators, with this as just the latest front in their by then many years-old war

The most amusing part: people who supported each side were convinced that their side was being totally ignored, even if there was no shortage of ink spilled by who wanted to fight about it.

Indeed, up until and immediately after Cabrera won the Triple Crown people were writing about how “no one was paying attention” even though it was abundantly clear that people were paying massive amounts of attention to it. Lost in all of this was a quote from Carl Yastrzemski at the time who noted that, back in 1967, there actually was no coverage of his Triple Crown and that he wasn’t really aware he won it until the day after the season ended. So much for that “today no one respects the Triple Crown” narrative. Adherents to the analytics side were often seen using the then still-prevalent tactic of casting themselves as intellectual underdogs, out-shouted by the “mainstream media” despite the fact that, by 2012, analytical analysis had taken over as the dominant school of thought both among major league front offices and in the sporting press.

After all the shouting was done, Cabrera won the MVP in 2012 and Trout settled for the Rookie of the Year award. The shouting resumed in 2013 when, once again, Cabrera topped Trout in the MVP voting, with all of the discourse surrounding it continuing to be a proxy battle in a larger war. Trout would eventually win three MVPs and counting. I’m pretty sure he’s OK. As for Cabrera, he cashed in in a major way in March of 2014 when he and the Tigers agreed to a ten-year, $292 million contract extension.

Cabrera began to fall off, production and health-wise, in 2017 and has been a shell of his former self since then. The Tigers can say the same about themselves, of course. It happens to both ballplayers and ballclubs. But each of them have that 2012 season under their belts. A season in which the Tigers won the pennant and Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown. A feat which, whatever you argued back in 2012, you have to sit here, at the end of the decade, and say was pretty damn cool.

(Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB via Getty Images)

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES 

No. 8: The Biogenesis Scandal
No. 9: Bullpen Mania Takes Over the Game
No. 10: The Rise of the Young Player
No. 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball To Juiced Ball
No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.