August 9, 2005
Can Of Corn
New and Improved Triple Crown
Here are the numbers for Cubs' first baseman Derrek Lee over the last seven days: .182 AVG/.280 OBP/.409 SLG.
Normally, an isolated week's worth of plate appearances wouldn't merit any sort of mention, but, as you know, Lee's in pursuit of the Triple Crown this season, so even his short-term vicissitudes are of interest. Lee's recent struggles have certainly hurt his chances of becoming the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to lead his league in batting average, home runs and RBI; he's now tied with Miguel Cabrera for the lead in batting average, trailing Andruw Jones in homers and lagging Carlos Lee and Albert Pujols in RBI. So his chances are most assuredly fading.
Perhaps lost in all the Triple Crown furor is the fact that the ingredients of the feat are by no means the best measures of offensive performance. Regular readers of this site are no doubt aware that RBI are highly team-dependent, homers are not the best measure of power, and batting average, as rate stats go, is less informative than OBP or SLG. One of the hazards of such conspicuous chases is that the putative value of such metrics becomes even more cemented in the mind of the rank-and-file fan. So why don't we concoct a more telling Triple Crown?
To do this, let's say the New and Improved Triple Crown (NITC) comprises the categories of OBP, SLG and plate appearances. As you know, OBP and SLG, in tandem, are the best traditional offensive measures in the presence of some indicator of playing time, which, of course, is why plate appearances are thrown in the mix. (It's worth noting that we already account for production and playing time in one measure, VORP, but a chase for the "Single Crown" doesn't exactly roil the blood.)
Presently, Lee ranks third in the NL in OBP, behind Nick Johnson and Albert Pujols and first in SLG (with a 48-point lead over Pujols) but only 12th in the league in plate appearances. So it's also unlikely he'll claim the NITC. How rare is it? In historical terms, it's far less common than the traditional Triple Crown. Throughout baseball history, 15 hitters (ranging from Tip O'Neill in 1887 to Yastrzemski) have claimed the traditional TC, while only two players have claimed the NITC. Here's the chronological NITC list:
Year Player LG PA OBP SLG 1943 Stan Musial NL 691 .425 .562 1949 Ted Williams AL 730 .490 .650Throw park adjustments into the calculus, and Musial and Williams remain the only two NITC winners. Since it's such a rarity, let's expand the list to those whose rankings in the three categories total five or fewer. The near misses …
Year Player LG PA Rank OBP Rank SLG Rank 1906 George Stone AL 3 1 1 1910 Nap Lajoie AL 1 2 2 1914 Benny Kauff FL 2 1 2 1915 Ty Cobb AL 1 1 2 1917 Ty Cobb AL 3 1 1 1923 Babe Ruth AL 2 1 1 1927 Babe Ruth AL 3 1 1 1946 Stan Musial NL 1 2 1 1946 Ted Williams AL 3 1 1 1947 Ted Williams AL 3 1 1 1948 Stan Musial NL 2 1 1 1951 Ted Williams AL 3 1 1 1953 Al Rosen AL 3 1 1 1959 Hank Aaron NL 2 2 1 1963 Hank Aaron NL 2 2 1As you can see, no one's even come close since Aaron in '63. So can Lee pull it off this season? His substantial deficit in plate appearances (in tandem with a balky shoulder) will likely shanghai any run at the NITC. More than a month ago, Nate Silver opined that Pujols might have a better shot than Lee at winning the Triple Crown. Well, that's probably also the case for the NITC.
Pujols, as noted above, has substantial ground to make up in terms of SLG, but if, as many of us anticipate, Lee's staggering level of performance withers over the season's final weeks, Pujols will have a shot at overtaking him. Pujols trails Johnson by only five points in OBP (and the possibility remains that Johnson will fall short of qualifying), and he ranks fourth in plate appearances, 27 behind Brady Clark of the Brewers. As is the case with Lee, Pujols probably won't be able to pull it off, but he's the likeliest candidate at this juncture.