J.D. Martinez probably will not win the Triple Crown this season. He currently ranks second in both the AL and baseball in batting average (.329, 11 points behind teammate Mookie Betts), second in home runs (41, four behind Khris Davis), and first in RBI (124, five ahead of Davis again). But despite the uphill climb, even the potential for a Triple Crown in the waning days of the season is a rarity; Miguel Cabrera owns the only one in the past half-century. The chase has injected at least a little drama into a stretch run that has, especially in the American League, been sorely lacking.
Not only is the Triple Crown chase itself an endangered animal, the seasonal statistical achievement itself has seen better days, as Joel Sherman wrote recently in the New York Post. We began to lose our innocence regarding the shiny round numbers and the batting titles a while ago, I believe—Coors Field, and the looming specter of park effects, flitted about the national consciousness long before Moneyball hit the shelves. But as Sherman notes, the loss of the fabled .300 season is more keenly felt because no advanced equivalent has risen to take its place.
Well, one has, obviously: Wins Above Replacement, with its various forms and preferences. There may be more fans who remember the WAR leader for the National League this year than those who file away the fact that Christian Yelich’s .322 batting average stands atop the Senior Circuit. But WAR’s calculation intentionally abandons something in its goal to encapsulate all-round greatness: the idea that the statistical leaders of yore were meant to describe who was the best at something, rather than just the best. This, more than simple anti-intellectualism, is why the Triple Crown has maintained its hold over the baseball fan’s imagination, even after losing its grip on the architects of the game. It celebrates the rare player who is the best not overall, but at everything (or at least, various things) all at once.
With that in mind, I threw a question out on social media: Which three statistics, basic or advanced, would comprise your ideal Triple Crown?
I got … a lot of answers. Which I’m glad for, because there’s no right answer to the question; the Triple Crown is more an aesthetic statement than a scientific one, something that reveals a person’s own values. This, it should be noted, is another cause behind Sherman’s hypothesis: there is less of a consensus over what we should celebrate. Not because of a cultural divide between new and old, but for the same reason that network television ratings will never return to their peak: there are just more choices now. We have so many ways of evaluating players and their accomplishments and their skills. Instead of being given one measure, we can create our own. It’s a better way of doing things.
But for all the variety, the results did fall into certain patterns. Here’s a sample of them:
1. AVG / HR / RBI
Times achieved: 17
Most Recent: Miguel Cabrera, 2012
Otherwise known as the “don’t mess around with it” vote, either because new statistics are bad or because the balance was already perfect. I sympathize with this faction, even if I disagree with them: all change comes with loss, especially when comparing eras. I understand why Ford Frick wanted to slap that asterisk on Roger Maris’ 61, even if it was ultimately pointless.
Personally, though, I just can’t get behind the RBI. Maybe it was because I was a leadoff hitter as a kid, annoyed that we pretended the cleanup hitter had some kind of mystical ability to single home the guy on second base. Maybe it’s because I lived through the dark days of Ruben Sierra. But counting RBI among the three vital statistics of offensive performance in 2018 feels like having Grover Cleveland on Mount Rushmore; I’m sure he instituted some valuable political reforms, but he’s still Grover Cleveland.
2. AVG / OBP / SLG
Times achieved: 67
Most Recent: Miguel Cabrera, 2013
The natural progression from the standard numbers above, the triple slash has been labeled as the “sabermetric triple crown” for a while now. It makes sense; these are vastly superior numbers to something like RBI in distilling a player’s talent, and yet can still be found on the back of a baseball card from 20 years ago. The problem is in the italics above: this is just too easy a feat compared to most of the others, because batting average is baked so heavily into the other two calculations. It’s a nice idea, but if Rogers Hornsby can do it six years in a row, we probably want something else.
3. HR / SB / ?
Times Achieved: 1
Most Recently: Ty Cobb, 1909
The third statistic varied from ballot to ballot, but it’s not important. HR/SB is honestly baseball’s Double Crown, a display not of greatness but of athleticism. It’s a shame that Jose Ramirez’s valiant attempt at the honor will also fall short, because to provide perspective: this is why Jose Canseco still haunts our collective consciousness. He wasn’t even the greatest athlete of his own time—though I’m sure he’d be happy to throw on some pads if paid to do so—but the Cuban slugger’s sole ownership of the 40/40 club in 1988 was the stuff of legend. We may eventually lose the stolen base, but for now, the Double Crown is perhaps the safest possible statistical achievement in baseball, two numbers we’ll always care about, and are easy for anyone to count.
4. H / 2B / HR
Times Achieved: 6
Most Recently: Joe Medwick, 1937
This one is ridiculous, but I kind of like it. Abandoning any illusions of greatness, this triumvirate measures on a different scale: light power, medium power, and heavy power. That’s it; there’s nothing else to really say.
5. OBP / HR / wRC+
Times Achieved: 39
Most Recently: Bryce Harper, 2015
This, or a variant, is where most of the votes fell, thematically. The logic appears to be: replace the three old best statistics with the three new best statistics. Where this process falls down, however, is in the inevitable overlap they cause: wRC+ is calculated using both OBP and HR. WAR uses wRC+. OPS uses OBP. It’s hard to find three amazing statistics that don’t overlap, because the whole point of an amazing statistic is that it correlates so well with continued offensive excellence, and they’ll inevitably draw from the same springs.
This is another reminder of the magic of the Triple Crown: its three statistics are so balanced. Yes, a homer adds to both average and RBI totals, but not very much; it’s just a good Venn diagram of what a hitter can do.
6. wRC+ / BRR / FRAA (or your defensive metric of choice)
Times Achieved: 0
(Willie Mays came closest in 1958, finishing first in wRC+ and BRR, and sixth in FRAA)
Just kidding! Nobody actually voted for this one, or wants it. Which is sad, because this is kind of the Mike Trout Triple Crown, combining the three major position-player elements, though Trout himself has never aligned all three in a single season himself. Hitting, running, defense: This is the perfect balance sought above. It’s hard to imagine a world where young boys are scrambling down to the kitchen table to grab the newspaper and find out if their favorite player increased their BRR last night, or any of the cutting-edge statistics. But more than anything it’s just sad that defensive statistics remain comical, perhaps even more so than ever as teams shift and position themselves with increasing accuracy.
Those who claim that the Triple Crown measures something other than greatness can whisk themselves back to the scarred battlegrounds of 2012, when the inferior baseball player won the AL MVP thanks to his performance in more concrete statistics. In that sense it’s almost a shame for fans of sabermetrics that J.D. Martinez will ultimately fall short; at the moment he stands well behind Betts and Trout (and Ramirez and Matt Chapman) in the MVP conversation, and it’s hard to see two home runs changing the narrative that drastically. The Triple Crown as automatic MVP award might finally be laid to rest.
7. OBP / HR / WPA
Times Achieved: 4 (since WPA became a thing in 1974)
Most Recently: Albert Pujols, 2009
This is my (hesitant) choice, with the provision that I’d probably still rather see a Double Crown. But in terms of capturing the spirit of the original, these three do it best: OBP is simply a superior version of AVG, measuring not only a purer skill (getting on base rather than getting hits) but also some of its grittier, enjoyable tactics, like getting hit with pitches and grazing catcher’s gloves. I could accept SLG instead of HR for aesthetic purposes, but because of the overlapping singles, there are just too many times when hitters lead their league in both categories (11 of the last 22, in the NL, thanks to Barry Bonds).
And lastly, we have Win Probability Added. This is the best method I can think of to approximate what people adore about the RBI: the invisible clutchiness of it, that heroic mysticism. (RE24 is in the same spirit, but overlaps too much with the other two categories.) I also think it’s vital, as a tool, to separate our potential Triple Crown from falling into the trap of simply replicating WAR; WPA isn’t meant to be prescriptive or projectable. It’s an entirely descriptive stat, supplemented by the skill of actually taking advantage of the game conditions provided; like RBIs, but more dependent on timing than lineup placement.
And by being descriptive, it allows us to do, without concerning ourselves with the alchemy of distilling the true talent behind the production, the absolute goal of the statistical achievement: to celebrate. Whether or not the lack of celebration is killing the game, I wouldn’t mind there being more of it.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now