Would the Triple Crown Make Miguel Cabrera the New Top Player in MLB?

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Would the Triple Crown Make Miguel Cabrera the New Top Player in MLB?
Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE
What has his Triple Crown pursuit done for Miguel Cabrera's stance on the MLB landscape?

There are middle-aged men and women out there who have never had the pleasure of watching a Major League Baseball player achieve the Triple Crown.

This could change as soon as Wednesday night. Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera is this close to becoming MLB's first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. 

Heading into Tuesday's contest against the Kansas City Royals, Cabrera is leading the American League with a .329 batting average, 44 home runs and 137 RBI. He has a four-point lead over Mike Trout in the batting race, and he leads Josh Hamilton by one home run and 10 RBI.

It's going to be a tight finish, but Cabrera has been hot enough over the last couple weeks to deserve the benefit of the doubt that he'll get it done. All he's done over his last 35 games is hit .341 with 13 home runs and 35 RBI.

So let's go ahead and assume that Cabrera is going to finish this thing off (there's the jinx). What then?

Best player ever, right? Or at the very least, maybe the best player in baseball? Best hitter? Best-dressed? Best smile?

I mean, come on, he'll have to sit atop some sort of ranking/category/chart if he actually manages to polish off his Triple Crown season, right? Such a season would surely elevate him to, well, something.

In my opinion: Yes, absolutely. It's just not so simple, hence the reason we need an immediate discussion.

 

Would the Triple Crown Make Cabrera the Best Player in Baseball?

If you've gone anywhere near an internet discussion of the American League MVP race in recent weeks, you'll know where this particular discussion is headed.

The answer is no. Winning the Triple Crown will not make Cabrera the best player in baseball by default.

Oh, don't go and get up in arms. This is nothing you haven't heard before, and it's a sentiment that is proven way too easily.

The Triple Crown is a remarkable feat. Nobody is going to say that it's not. It's only been done 15 times before in MLB history, including just nine time since 1933.

The list of players that have achieved the Triple Crown includes names like Yaz, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby. Cabrera may as well be a musician trying to carve his name next to those of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Cabrera owes a lot to guys like Quintin Berry and Austin Jackson.

But in this day and age, we know that measuring the value of a given hitter by his batting average and his homer and RBI count is a flawed approach. Home runs are very important, but batting average and runs batted in both have their limitations.

One is a stat that assumes all hits are equal while also ignoring a hitter's overall ability to get on base, and the other is a stat that reflects just as well on the hitters ahead of a given hitter as it does on the given hitter himself.

We can do better these days. On-base percentage is preferable to batting average in many ways, and we have things like OPS and OPS+ to held us determine just how much of an impact a given hitter is making at the plate.

When it comes to stuff like this, though, there's really no need for old-school fans and new-school fans to argue, as stats like OPS and OPS+ all reveal Cabrera to be exactly the kind of hitter his Triple Crown chase says he is. He's one of the best there is (more on whether he's the best in a moment).

But this doesn't make him the best player. In fact, suggesting that the best hitter in baseball is also the best player in baseball is nothing short of ridiculous.

Again, we all know where the discussion is going here. The new-school stat geeks love Cabrera's hitting abilities, but they frown on his defensive and baserunning abilities (or lack thereof), and for good reason. When he's not hitting, Cabrera isn't such a great player.

Nobody seems very interested in arguing that Cabrera isn't a liability on the basepaths, but things can get heated in regards to his defense.

The eye test doesn't reveal Cabrera to be a total disaster at third base, and he does have a fairly nifty .966 fielding percentage. So why all the complaints?

Because for the sabermetrics crowd, this is like pointing to Cabrera's RBI count as a tell-tale sign of his value. Fielding percentage is even worse in many ways, as it gives a fielder credit for making easy plays while only docking him points if he makes an error. The truth is that a fielder doesn't need to make an error in order for him to not make a play he should have made.

This is why we have things like Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, both of which are tracked by FanGraphs. UZR uses play-by-play data to determine how many "theoretical" runs a fielder saves or costs his team. DRS does something very similar, measuring a player's defensive quality in terms of how many runs below- or above-average he is.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
That ball should have been in Cabrera's glove on this play.

Sorry for boring you if you've heard all this before, but the point is that these metrics suggest...no, scream that Cabrera is a bad fielder. He ranks dead-last among AL third baseman with a UZR of -9.2, and he also has a DRS of -4.

A truly great player can contribute at the plate, on the basepaths and in the field. The best stat we have that measures a player's total contribution is, of course, WAR.

WAR is the reason why a lot of people are in love with Mike Trout, who tops FanGraphs' charts with a WAR of 10.3. And presently, it's a stat that tells us players like Robinson Cano, Andrew McCutchen, David Wright, Buster Posey and Ryan Braun have all had better seasons than Cabrera.

This doesn't mean a case can't be made that Cabrera isn't the AL MVP, but that's a whole other headache. The point is that his overall contributions don't measure up to those of some of MLB's other great players. He's in the same league as they are offensively, but not in terms of the completeness of his game.

Cabrera winning the Triple Crown would change nothing. All it would tell us about Cabrera is that he's an amazing hitter.

As for whether it would officially make him the best hitter in baseball, well, let's just say it's a little complicated.

 

Would the Triple Crown Make Cabrera the Best Hitter in Baseball?

For many, the Triple Crown is the ultimate validation of a hitter's dominance. The fact that Triple Crown seasons are so rare definitely lends some credence to this notion.

My question is whether Cabrera really needed something like a Triple Crown season to validate his status as the best hitter in baseball. 

I mean, wasn't he already?

You could have debated it before the season, but it would have been pretty hard. The numbers all favor Cabrera.

In 2010 and 2011, Cabrera combined to hit .337/.434/.604 with a 1.038 OPS. No player hit for a higher average, no player compiled a higher OBP, and only Jose Bautista posted a higher slugging percentage. Cabrera's OPS between 2010 and 2011 topped Bautista's by 13 points.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Only Jose Bautista has hit more homers than Cabrera since 2010.

We can dig even deeper using sabermetric stats. Weighted on-base average (wOBA) is a stat that combines all the different aspects of hitting and weighs each of them in proportion to their run value. In time, it may overtake OPS as the most important offensive statistic.

In 2010 and 2011, Cabrera compiled a wOBA of .432, higher than that of any other player.

As such, it really didn't matter whether you favored traditional stats or new-age stats. Heading into this season, all signs pointed towards Cabrera being baseball's top hitter.

His track record hasn't gotten any worse throughout the course of this season. Per FanGraphs, Cabrera leads all hitters in average, slugging and wOBA since the start of the 2010 season. Only Joey Votto (another drool-worthy hitter) has a higher OBP, but Cabrera's OPS since 2010 trumps Votto's by a full 27 points.

You could be completely oblivious to the fact that Cabrera is chasing a Triple Crown season. One look at these stats (and the knowledge of what they mean) would tell you that the best hitter in baseball is none other than Miguel Cabrera.

As such, Cabrera's triple crown pursuit is more a bow on his larger body of work, and not so much part of the body of work itself. His pursuit of the Triple Crown has more to do with his reputation than anything else.

Hmmm..."Reputation." I think we may be getting somewhere.

 

Would the Triple Crown Make Cabrera the Most Celebrated Player in Baseball?

Players who achieve the Triple Crown immediately become living gods as far as baseball fans are concerned. That's what the legends say, anyway.

Ever has it been, and so shall it be with Miguel Cabrera. If he finishes his pursuit of the triple crown, baseball immortality is his.

And if you look back on where he's been, you'll realize that he will have come quite a long way to achieve baseball immortality.

Think back, if you will, to early October of 2009. That was when Cabrera's problems with alcoholism spilled over into the public domain, as he found himself in the company of the police with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit in Michigan after he had gotten into an altercation with his wife.

Meanwhile in the background, Cabrera's Tigers were still in the middle of a fight for the AL Central title. It was a battle they eventually lost, and Cabrera was fingered by many as a villain even after he went 2-for-5 with a homer in a tiebreaking game against the Minnesota Twins a few days after the incident.

Cabrera's poor reputation stuck for a while longer, and it was fueled by additional alcohol-related incidents, the most recent of which came in February of 2011.

Now look at Cabrera. He's the most feared hitter in baseball, and he's calmed down to the point where he didn't even have any interest in being in the middle of Detroit's celebration of its division-clinching win over the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports told the story, Cabrera was content to linger out of sight. He's no longer the dumb, privileged superstar so many thought he was a couple years ago.

Has Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown chase made him baseball's most beloved player?

Submit Vote vote to see results

It goes without saying that Cabrera has his teammates on his side. And since ESPN's Buster Olney has written that the vast majority of MLB's "uniformed personnel" (meaning players and coaches) support Cabrera for the AL MVP over Mike Trout, it's apparent that he has his peers on his side as well.

And from what I can tell, it's very safe to say that he has the fans on his side. Those who hate all the sabermetric stuff love Cabrera. Those who love the sabermetric stuff think Trout is a better player, but none of them have anything against Cabrera. Everyone is well aware that this is a banner year for a truly excellent baseball player.

So maybe the question of Cabrera's season shouldn't be whether he's now the best player or the best hitter in baseball. Maybe it should be whether his Triple Crown pursuit has made him the most beloved player in baseball.

That's entirely up to you, dear readers. All I can say is that it's pretty amazing that we can even ask that question with a straight face knowing where Cabrera as recently as the winter of 2011.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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