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October 5, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Miguel Cabrera's Retroactive Triple Crowns

by Sam Miller

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After 60, 61, 1941, .406, 56, 755, 1.12 and 190, 1967 might have been the number most seared into my head as a child. To have gone 20 years without a Triple Crown was proof enough for me that the Triple Crown was a very difficult thing and, by extension, a very big deal. That we would go another 25 years on top of that only makes it clearer. But now 1967 doesn’t matter, and Miguel Cabrera can get used to being a somebody our grandchildren will know of.

He couldn’t have done it alone. The rest of the American League had to help. Nobody hit .390 this season, for instance. Through no fault of Miguel Cabrera’s, anybody else could have hit .390 and made a Triple Crown all but impossible. Nobody did.

What follows might strike some as an attempt to take something away from Cabrera. It’s not. Cabrera had an amazing year. I was cheering for him to win the Triple Crown. I’m glad he won it. I hope he wins it again. And again. Maybe four more times I hope he wins it. Great hitter.

No, what follows is just me being curious and wanting to know how much of this achievement is about Cabrera’s season (which was tremendous, and would be tremendous in any season) and how much is about the league. So I took Cabrera’s stats. I put them through Baseball-Reference’s neutralizer tool*, available on each player's page. And I looked at whether those neutralized stats would have led the league in each previous year since 1967. For instance:

Cabrera hit .330, with 44 home runs and 139 RBIs, in a 2012 run-scoring environment. B-Ref thinks that those numbers would be .339/46/149 in a 2011 run-scoring environment. Those numbers would be good enough to lead the AL in home runs and RBIs, but not enough to beat out his own .344 batting average last year. No Triple Crown. 

There were 44 seasons between Triple Crowns. In those 44,

  • Cabrera’s 2012 performance would have been good enough to win no Triple Crown categories: Two times.
  • Cabrera’s 2012 performance would have been good enough to win one Triple Crown category: Nine times.
  • Cabrera’s 2012 performance would have been good enough to win two Triple Crown categories: 29 times
  • Cabrera’s 2012 performance would have been good enough to win the Triple Crown: Four times.

The four: 2008, 1999, 1982 and 1979.

Taking this, for a moment, in a slightly different direction: There were seven post-deadball Triple Crowns in the American League before Cabrera. In none of those seasons would Cabrera have won a Triple Crown, which isn't surprising, as he would have gone up against historic individual performances. In five of the years, though, he would have disrupted the Triple Crown. He would have won one category in 1967; two in 1966; one in 1956; two in 1947; and one in 1942. The Triple Crowns in 1933 and 1934 would stand.

And one more direction: Two batters in the 44 years between Triple Crowns actually had a batting average, home run total and RBI mark higher than Cabrera's in the same season. Both, though, benefit tremendously from high-offense era and high-offense park. Todd Helton's line in 2001, and Manny Ramirez' line in 1999, get "neutralized" below Cabrera's 2012 marks. 

Anyway, getting back to the 44 seasons: The biggest obstacle for Cabrera's chances in nearly all years was batting average. Cabrera’s batting average, after adjusting for era (it goes to .363 in 1996; it goes to .302 in 1972), would have been good enough to win just about a quarter of the time. His RBIs, on the other hand, would have won 41 of the 44 seasons. His home runs would have been enough 25 times.

The real obstacle, though, is circumstance. It’s very hard to have a season this good, and Miguel Cabrera did; but it’s especially hard to rule out anybody else putting together a career year in one of those categories. Consider that the median league leader in each of these categories over the 44 seasons is .348 for batting average, 43.5 home runs, and 127.5 RBIs. That’s a great season, and what looks like a classic Triple Crown season. Yet in 44 years, it would actually win the Triple Crown only seven times—almost all of them in the low-offense '60s and '70s.

Put one way, this means that Cabrera’s Triple Crown season, the season for which he will be remembered for many decades, could have almost as easily been a Zero Crown season, no different than, say, Gary Sheffield’s 2000 season. Put another way, it means that Cabrera could, with a little luck, have won this thing before. His 2010 season, for instance, relocated to 2008 or 1982 would have been enough to win the Triple Crown.

Maybe you take this to mean that Miguel Cabrera’s season isn’t all that special. Or maybe you take it to mean that Miguel Cabrera, and Miguel Cabrera's season, are extra special. Either is fine with me.

*Try not to get hung up on the legitimacy of neutralized stats. We have no illusion of precision here. The idea is just to look at Cabrera's stats and league leaders without all meaning getting wiped out by changing offensive environments. Consider this an exercise, not analysis. Also: I kept Cabrera in Comerica Park, at least as far back as Comerica Park existed. For earlier years I used a neutral park. 

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Miguel Cabrera,  Triple Crown

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