With the Tigers slugger on pace to achieve an unprecedented feat, the fight between statheads and baseball traditionalists rages on
Miguel Cabrera could very well do something no one has ever done in the history of baseball: Win back-to-back Triple Crowns.
Last year, Cabrera led the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. And now, with more than one-fourth of this season in the books, Cabrera is at or near the top of the league in those three categories once again. Only two players, Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby, have ever won two Triple Crowns, but they didn't do so in consecutive years.
But Cabrera's historic opportunity raises a question that has pitted advanced stat nerds against baseball traditionalists: Does the Triple Crown even matter?
The easy answer is "yes, it matters." Bad players don't lead the league in home runs. Or batting average. Runs batted in gets a bit trickier (that stat has a lot to do with how good the hitters in front of you in the lineup are), but even there, good players typically top that category. Hitting for power and average is such a rarity that winning the Triple Crown is certainly a laudable feat. Only 15 players have ever done it, and when Cabrera achieved the feat last season, it was the first Triple Crown in nearly 50 years.
Yet as number crunchers have turned baseball from a game of blind faith, superstition, and tradition into one more concerned with sample size and the scientific method, the three Triple Crown statistics are no longer quite so sacred.
Batting average is a useful tool to measure plate production, but on-base percentage (OBP) offers a fuller picture of a player's offensive contributions. RBIs indicate a player performed well with runners on base, but that stat is heavily dependent on teammates also getting on base; a cleanup hitter on the Yankees will have more RBI opportunities than, say, a cleanup hitter on the Astros.
Stat heads love WAR (wins above replacement), an all-encompassing stat that calculates the number of wins a player contributed to his team on both offense and defense. Sabermetricians and other advocates for a more rational approach to the game obsess over WAR, though it's not without its critics, who vehemently claim it's a newfangled abomination more worthless than a splintered bat.
That's the argument that cropped up last year when Cabrera won the Triple Crown and AL MVP award, yet placed third in WAR. WAR adherents insisted that Mike Trout, who blew away the competition based on that stat — and in a whole bunch of other, more traditional stats as well — should have handily won the award; purists claimed it would have been insane to not give the MVP award to a guy who'd won the first Triple Crown since Lyndon Johnson was president.
"You don't have to buy into WAR as the be-all, end-all statistic to know that Trout has been the AL's best player by a country mile this year," Fangraphs' Dave Cameron wrote at the time. "Simply look at all the facts, and not just the three that were treated as important 100 years ago."
"The AL MVP is obvious," he added. "It's just not Miguel Cabrera."
Cabrera's manager, 68-year-old Jim Leyland, was less impressed. Here's an exchange captured by MLive last year:
"I'm going to answer that this way," [Leyland] said. "I will not use the player's name, but according to the sabermetrics there is a player that is better than Miguel Cabrera. So when the guy that gave me the sabermetrics told me that, I said, 'Well, should we trade Miguel Cabrera for the player you're talking about?' He said, 'Oh, no, you can't do that.'
"And I said, 'Well, then you don't believe in sabermetrics. And neither do I.'" [MLive]
It gets trickier. As Joe Posnanski pointed out, every single Triple Crown winner has also led the league in WAR — that is, until last year.
"In other words, WAR is not out to suppress the value of those comfortable statistics, it is an attempt to take in the whole ballplayer," he wrote. "If you win the Triple Crown, WAR will tell you — you've had one incredible season."
To some degree, that vindicates Cabrera's incredible Triple Crown-winning season. Sure, he didn't lead the league in WAR, and maybe he shouldn't have won the MVP award. But by any measure, he absolutely had a great year.
This year, he's doing even better. He had an otherworldly .391 batting average as of Friday and, notably, was leading the league in WAR. No one else was even close in either category.
Even more insane, his 207 OPS+ for the season — on base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted to account for quirks in a player's ballpark — would be the highest mark ever if sustained for the entire season, just edging out a guy named Ruth.
So while the Triple Crown itself might not be as big a deal as some would have you believe, the fact that Cabrera could win it twice in a row is certainly indicative of the amazing run he's putting together.
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