In recent years, sitting down to debate which hitter has a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown has become something of a baseball tradition. With so many great hitters in the league at any given moment, Major League Baseball's longstanding Triple Crown drought was bound to end sooner or later, right?
For a while there, the answer actually seemed to be no. The league saw many great hitters come and go in the years following Carl Yastrzemski's Triple Crown season in 1967, but the Triple Crown managed to elude each and every one of them.
But not Miguel Cabrera. This year saw him succeed where so many other great hitters had come up short, as the Detroit Tigers third baseman polished off the first Triple Crown season in 45 years by leading the American League with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI.
There's a train of thought out there that Cabrera's accomplishment is being downplayed, and people aren't necessarily wrong to think so. Some think it's being overlooked because Cabrera himself isn't exactly the flashiest of superstars. Others think it's being overshadowed by the thrilling finishes to baseball's various postseason races.
And then there's the crowd who says that the Triple Crown is really no big deal. In this day and age, we simply have too many stats that tell us that batting average, homers and RBI really aren't all that. There are better ways to judge a player's overall quality. Like, you know, WAR.
I won't lie. This is a drum that I've been beating a little bit in the past couple weeks. I am, for good or ill, a sabermetrics geek and a proud supporter of Mike Trout's candidacy for the American League MVP. I have felt behooved to stand up for all the new-age statistics that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Trout had a better season than Cabrera.
But inside every stats geek is a diehard baseball geek. Even stats geeks have a deep appreciation for where the game has been, and it's impossible to appreciate where the game has been without also appreciating the Triple Crown. It's a very, very important achievement.
So important, I'll wager, that Major League Baseball hasn't seen a season as important as the one Cabrera just had since 1968.
Yes, this would be the year after Yaz won the American League Triple Crown with a .326 average, 44 home runs and 121 RBI. So what the heck happened in 1968 that's so important?
Denny McLain won 31 games. It was the first time in 34 years that a pitcher won over 30 games in a single season, and it hasn't happened since. For that matter, nobody has even come close since then.
A 30-win season is a lot like a Triple Crown season in many respects. It's also a lot like a .400 season, the last of which happened in 1941 when the great Ted Williams hit .406. Accomplishments such as these are relics that really have no business being accomplished in today's game.
We obviously just saw Cabrera accomplish a Triple Crown season, but the point stands that he really had no business accomplishing it. He's the best hitter in baseball, no questions asked, but the game has changed to such a degree over the years that actually accomplishing a Triple Crown season is the very definition of the word "impractical."
Fellow MLB Lead Writer Ian Casselberry brought up some fine points in an article he wrote about why we probably won't ever see another Triple Crown season after Cabrera's. Things are a lot harder for hitters these days because they no longer get to face the same pitcher three or four times in a single game.
To make matters worse, the relief pitchers they have to face oftentimes feature electric stuff designed to generate swings-and-misses. Fielders are more effective against hitters than ever before, as teams now employ defensive shifts tailored to each hitter's tendencies.
All of these things make it pretty hard for hitters to hit. And for RBI men like Cabrera, matters are made even more challenging by the fact that nobody wants to give him anything to hit with runners in scoring position and first base open. He was given four wide ones 17 times this season, and who knows how many times he was given the old unintentional-intentional walk?
It's as if the game is speaking to hitters these days.
"Hits? Bah! You have to earn those, buddy. You can't just have 'em anymore."
"Home runs? Bah! Try hitting one of those against this reliever who throws 99 miles per hour with a slider that defies the laws of physics. Good luck. No, seriously. Good luck."
"RBI? Bah! Who do you think you are? Hack Wilson? No thanks, we'll take our chances pitching to the bums who hit behind you."
[With all respect to Prince Fielder, of course. This disembodied voice is speaking generally].
It's still very much possible for hitters to achieve high averages, high home run counts and high RBI counts, but not so much all three at once. Today's game does not suffer that. It's harder than ever before for a player to hit well over .300 with 40 homers and 130-plus RBI, default minimums for a Triple Crown pursuit.
What Cabrera just did, in essence, was break an unwritten rule that the game of baseball itself had been carefully crafting for decades. He better be on the lookout for the baseball gods. Surely, they'll be out to get him for this outrage.
Any pitcher who manages to win 30 games in the future will have to be on the lookout for the baseball gods as well. In this day and age, McLain's feat simply cannot be duplicated.
The year McLain won 31 games, he made 41 starts. This year, four pitchers—Zack Greinke, C.J. Wilson, Justin Masterson and the immortal Bruce Chen—led the league with 34 starts each, seven fewer than McLain.
That's seven fewer chances to win games. If you apply the percentage of games won in McLain's 1968 season to a 34-start sample size, he's a mere 26-game winner and we're sitting here talking about the last 30-win season happening way back in 1934.
We're never going to see a pitcher start upwards of 40 games ever again. For that matter, it's rare for a single pitcher to start 35 games in a single season. And to win 30 games in a 35-start season, a pitcher would only have five games set aside for losses and no-decisions. The rest would have to be wins.
The odds of that happening are somewhere between slim and none for a variety of different reasons.
For a pitcher to win 30 games, he'd have to get pretty much unprecedented support from his offense. That's problematic because the best pitchers in baseball tend to get pretty weak run support. Clayton Kershaw only received 3.94 runs of support this year. Justin Verlander received 3.82. Johnny Cueto received 3.79. Felix Hernandez received 3.52 runs of support. And so on.
It's obviously not unheard of for great pitchers to get great run support, but there are reasonable explanations for why some of the elites always seem to get the short end of the stick in regards to run production.
Teams are more focused on beating them than they otherwise would be with, say, a No. 4 starter on the mound. The pitcher on the other side desperately wants to hold up against his elite adversary. Plus, all those changes that we discussed above make life tough for hitters in the first place.
Which are we more likely to see again after this season?
To win 30 games, a pitcher would need more than just great run support. He'd have to pitch deep into pretty much every single one of his starts, and that's not so easy to do these days.
Every pitcher is on a pitch count when he takes the mound, and even the elites aren't always trusted to get out of jams of their making in the late innings. If the game is close and it's late in the afternoon/evening, a manager won't hesitate to go to his bullpen. It doesn't matter who wins anymore so long as the win is earned either way.
If we ever see a 30-win season again, the reaction to it should be largely similar to the reaction Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown season is getting, if not even more focused and more intense. A 30-win season would be a huge deal.
Things like Triple Crown seasons and 30-win seasons just aren't supposed to happen anymore. The game has long since moved on from the conditions that allowed such things to happen, and it will not be going back to the way things were.
For players to accomplish such things, they basically need to walk up to the status quo and punch it directly in the face.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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