In 1967, Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown by hitting .326 AVG/.418 OBA/.622 SLG with 44 HR and 121 RBI. This was a mild surprise, as he only hit .278 with 16 home runs and 80 RBI the previous season. He would drive in more than 100 runners just four more times over the next 16 seasons, and hit more than .300 just three times. This season, Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee is doing his best Yaz impression, coming from nowhere to contend for the Triple Crown.
Lee is currently hitting .388/.466/.719 with 22 home runs and 64 RBI, ranking among the top three in each of the Triple Crown categories: He’s first in batting average, second in home runs, and tied for second in RBI. The “glass half full” crowd has already begun the Triple Crown Watch, while the “glass half empty” crowd is convinced that Lee will merely join the long line of players who have fruitlessly threatened the Triple Crown from time to time. Either way, with the season almost halfway over, it’s a good time to step back and scrutinize Lee’s monster 2005 campaign.
One of the many challenges in baseball forecasting is identifying which performances are early signs of emerging trends, and which are likely sample-size blips that will even out or disappear as the season progresses. For a thumbnail sketch of Lee’s season to date, consider his ranking according to Value Over Replacement Player. Lee currently leads the majors with a VORP of 66.6, nearly 20 runs more than second-place Brian Roberts. In other words, Lee has been far and away the most dominant player in baseball this season.
On the other hand, Lee’s career to this point has given little indication that he would–or even could–contend for a Triple Crown. Before 2005, he was a career .266/.353/.474 hitter in 3,489 big league at-bats. Even if we charitably exclude his first three seasons, which were either subpar or part-time, he’s still just a .276/.365/.497 hitter. So how has Lee managed to hit 125 points above his career batting average? Let’s turn to a stat called batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which, for hitters, measures how often a batted ball in play avoids being turned into an out. While the National League is mostly clustered around .300, Lee currently sports a BABIP of .432, suggesting that he has been quite fortunate to have so many of his batted balls fall in for hits, and that his batting average is likely to diminish as the season progresses.
Lee seems much more likely to maintain his power stroke, which has him on pace for 48 homers this year. While he averaged just 30 homers a year from 2002-04, and slugged a career-high 32 last season, it isn’t uncommon for players to discover a power stroke later in their careers (Lee turns 30 this year). That’s not to say that it is for real, though. Lee began this season with 162 career home runs, good for an average of about one homer per 21.5 ABs.This season, he’s hitting one every 12.5 ABs.
Continuing at this pace would mean maintaining his torrid slugging average, which is way out of line with his past. If he were to preserve his .719 SLG, his 2005 season would rank as the 26th-best season ever in that regard. It’s also 245 points higher than his career SLG entering this season. We might be tempted to find a reason behind a success like this but, unfortunately, there isn’t one; few players in history have enjoyed a spike in slugging average so far out of line with career norms–neither Yastrzemski nor Babe Ruth ever turned the trick. While players do gain power as they age, they rarely gain this much.
Finally, the Lee who currently leads the majors in RBI is the wrong one: It’s Milwaukee’s off-season acquisition Carlos Lee, with 69 RBI. Meanwhile, Chicago’s top of the order–Neifi Perez and Corey Patterson–is doing its best to make sure that Derrek doesn’t improve himself in this category. Though he began the season with a torrid April, Perez has hit .259/.264/.329 since being moved to the leadoff spot, and has struggled in the #2 slot as well in the last few weeks. Perez has ranked among the major league’s worst hitters for most of his career, and his lifetime .301 OBA will certainly limit Lee’s shot at a gaudy RBI total.
For his part, Patterson has a paltry .278 OBA in 2005,and has spent most of his time hitting first or second. With Todd Walker (.358 OBA) and Jerry Hairston (.360 OBA) hitting as far down as eighth in the lineup, the Cubs are handicapping themselves every game. If the table-setters aren’t actually setting the table, then Lee won’t continue driving in runners. It is worth noting, however, that Lee has been the most efficient hitter in the majors in 2005 when it comes to capitalizing on his RBI opportunities. He ranks just 79th in the total number of base runners that have been on base during his plate appearances, yet he’s third behind Lee and Manny Ramirez with 64 RBI; not even Ted Williams was able to drive in so many runs with so few opportunities. Lee’s performance in this regard is completely unprecedented and has never been sustained for an entire season.
All told, we’re faced with a choice when evaluating Lee’s 2005 season: Either we blindly embrace his season as a meaningful improvement in his skills, or we accept that 100 years of history suggest his performance will regress to his career level. Alas, the Triple Crown will likely go unclaimed for yet another season.
This article originally ran in the New York Sun newspaper.