How do you compare a Picasso to a Matisse? How do you compare a baby’s first words with their first steps? Shakespeare compared thee to a summer’s day, and suddenly a summer’s day came up short. Whenever two masterpieces are compared, one of them is diminished.
So apologies up front to both Messrs. Yastrzemski, circa 1967, and Cabrera, A.D. 2012. Both had career years in winning the Triple Crown. Both campaigns narrowly led their teams to playoff berths. And neither has anything to feel except proud and amazed at their accomplishment.
But because baseball and its records make such passionate fodder for the era-centric, we’ll try to place these two singular seasons side by side and see if either gleams brighter than the other.
There are many reasons the seasons cannot fairly stack up to each other: the game has changed, and not in a way that favors one or the other consistently. In 1967, strike zones were larger (though not as large as the 1968 “Year Of The Pitcher”) and mounds were higher, which both gave pitchers the edge. Which means advantage: Yastrzemski. In addition, in 2012, there are 30 teams versus 20 in 1967, which means talent is diluted, and a designated hitter in Cabrera’s league, which means pitchers are 1/9 more taxed each time through the lineup. Advantage: Yastrzemski again.
But one cannot underestimate the emergence of the pitching specialist. In 1967, Cy Young winner Mike McCormick pitched 14 complete games. Probable 2012 Cy Young winner David Price pitched a whopping total of two. Heck, Bob Gibson pitched three complete games in the 1967 World Series alone! It’s standard operating procedure for new pitchers to come in for eighth and ninth innings, and a fair number of teams even have seventh-inning specialists. So a fresh arm for the later innings means advantage: Cabrera.
You see how difficult comparing these two milestones really is?
But let’s assume all that is a wash at best, or incomparable at worst. Perhaps the most relevant way to compare two incomparable seasons is by comparing the factors that most affect each of the three Triple Crown statistics.
In RBIs, what is perhaps most relevant to the comparison is what kind of seasons the men batting in front of each winner enjoyed. After all, if the guys in front of you don’t get on base, you can’t knock ‘em in.
Both batters hit third in their lineups. For Yaz, the leadoff hitters were primarily Jose Tartabull, Reggie Smith and Mike Andrews. While I don’t have access to the hitters’ seasons by position only, the amalgamation of those three batters’ 1967 OBPs was an on-base percentage of .315. And the batters who split time in the Red Sox’ number two spot--Joe Foy, Mike Andrews (again), and Jerry Adair--collectively had a .324 OBP.
By comparison, Mr. Cabrera had Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry most often in the first position, but since Mr. Jackson played there for 137 games, we’ll weight his .377 OBP twice as much as Mr. Berry’s .330. So collectively, we’ll call it about .360. Batting second most often were Mr. Berry and Andy Dirks, and averaging those men out, we have a .350 OBP.
So Mr. Yastrzemski had batters on base in front of him far less often than Mr. Cabrera did. Hence, less opportunity to knock them in. But knock them in he did, which makes him the winner of the RBI comparison.
Which Triple Crown season is superior?
Let’s move to batting average. The most obviously relevant statistic here is who batted behind Yastrzemski and Cabrera. Why? Simply because if a batter is tearing up the circuit like our heroes did, pitchers will be more inclined to pitch around him or simply walk him.
Behind Mr. Cabrera was new Tiger cleanup hitter Prince Fielder, who had a career year in batting average, hitting .313 with a .412 OBP. No wonder Cabrera’s walks declined from 108 in 2011 to 66 in 2012. By comparison, Mr. Yastrzemski's cleanup hitters were predominantly Tony Conigliaro (until the tragic beaning that derailed the fine right fielder’s career), who batted .287 with a .341 OBP; and George Scott, who hit .303 with a .373 OBP. Averaging the two out, Yaz’s cleanup hitters batted .295 with a .357 OBP.
So Mr. Fielder had an edge in batting average, but a huge edge in OBP, which means he was far more feared as a home-run threat. Thus, pitchers had to pitch to Cabrera more than they had to pitch to Yastrzemski, or at least give him something more to hit. And that means once again, the edge goes to Yastrzemski.
Finally we come to home runs. Both gentlemen hit the exact same number: 44. So how do you compare them? Since there are so many factors which have changed between the two eras--the height of the mound we mentioned previously, the emergence of the pitching specialist, the dilution of talent--that I’m tempted to simply compare the impressiveness of the achievement in that year by comparing home run leaders’ totals in each era. In 2012, six major leaguers hit over 40 home runs. In 1967, there were just two. In 2012, 21 hitters had between 30 and 39 home runs. In 1967, there were just six. And I don’t think anyone can argue that home runs are easier to hit in 2012 for one simple reason: the outfield walls. Almost every park (with the exception of Yaz’s Fenway Park) has shorter dimensions from home plate to home run than they did in 1967. Just on that prima facie evidence alone, the edge has to go to Yastrzemski.
So all three categories go to Yastrzemski. But amazingly, Yaz’s remarkable season didn’t stop there. Though few outside Boston realize how stunning a year he had, it is very notable that Yaz led the league in runs, hits, and total bases as well. Oh, and he also won a Gold Glove. Though Mr. Cabrera ended up with a very serviceable glove at third base for the Tigers, of his many end-of-season awards, a Gold Glove won’t be one of them.
For stats-lovers, Mr. Yastrzemski also led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, adjusted OPS, runs created, runs created per game, extra-base hits, and times on base.
Finally, here’s an astonishing statistic: Miguel Cabrera grounded into 28 double plays in 2012, which coincidentally puts him 28th all-time in most double plays grounded into in a season. Mr. Yastrzemski, meanwhile, grounded into just five. You read that right. Carl Yastrzemski’s season was truly one of the most incredible in the history of professional baseball, even in professional sports.
So it appears that, by all the metrics I proposed herein, Mr. Yastrzemski wins hands down. When, then, does it feel so dirty to say that?
Because what Mr. Cabrera did was so remarkable in this era of specialist pitching that comparing his magical year to Mr. Yastrzemski’s season for the ages taints a flat-out marvelous accomplishment in baseball’s annals. It’s been 45 years since anyone won the Triple Crown. But with the bat in Mr. Cabrera’s extraordinarily capable hands, it may not be long until someone wins again...and then we’ll be forced to compare that Cabrera season to this one. Which will be like comparing one sunrise to another.
Come on. They’re all beautiful, aren’t they?