Don’t Look Now, But….

Most baseball fans know that Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers did something last year that no ballplayer has since 1967. He won the batting Triple Crown, which means he lead his league in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and runs-batted-in (RBI), with 139. Oddly enough his teammate Justin Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown – leading in wins, ERA and strikeouts – in 2011. This is not talked about nearly as much and for good reason, the pitching version is a lot easier to manage, a lot more commonplace.

The hitting trifecta is extremely hard to pull off, but in the past hitters managed it now and then. In fact, the year before Carl Yastrzemski last turned the trick in 1967 with the Red Sox, Frank Robinson also managed it with the Orioles in his first season in the American League, odd. Nobody has won it in the National League since Joe “Ducky” Medwick with the Cards in 1937, a drought of 75 years and counting.

The fact nobody won it for 45 years drew a lot of commentary as to the reasons why, whether somebody would ever do it again, who it would likely be and yadda, yadda. A few players have come close recently – Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Cabrera himself a few other times. One of the theories put forth about the drought was general, but made sense – that, as any field improves and grows stronger, it becomes harder and harder for one individual to dominate it – this could certainly hold true in baseball. Cabrera winning it last year may mean the drought was just a statistical anomaly, they happen all the time.

To me, the really hard part of winning the Triple Crown is the batting average aspect. Lots of guys have lead the league in both home runs and RBI, the two go together. But hitting for a really high average while also hitting with great power is tough, it takes both consistency and strength. Usually home run-hitting comes with a lot of strikeouts, which drive the batting average down. Great home run hitters often walk a lot too though, which drives the average up because walks don’t count as at-bats. Cabrera is very much in this latter mould, walking more often than Justin Bieber tweets.

Anyway, don’t look now, but Miggie is continuing where he left off and threatening to do it again this year, only more so. It’s still early, but he’s leading the league in batting average by a mile (.391) and RBI with 55, which puts him on a pace to possibly break the all-time record of 191 RBI in a season, held by Hack Wilson for 83 years. And with 6 home runs in his last 4 games, he now has 14, one shy of the lead. 

Nobody has ever won the Triple Crown back-to-back, in fact only two guys have ever won the Triple Crown twice, period. Ted Williams did it in 1942 and 1947, while missing out in 1949 by an eyelash. Ted easily led in homers with 43 and tied his teammate Vern Stephens in RBI with 159. He lost the batting title by less than one percentage point to George Kell though – they both hit .343, but Kell was a shade higher. Most agree Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived.

The other two-time winner was Rogers Hornsby, way back in 1922 and 1925. He was the best-hitting second baseman ever and probably the biggest horse’s ass to ever play the game, a real piece of work who was so hard to get along with his wife once considered suicide rather than spend another off-season in his company. I guess she never heard of divorce. Or matricide, by the mattress-side, as Lorenz Hart once put it.

As a fan of history, especially history in our time, I’m following this story big-time and pulling hard for Cabrera to do it. If he does, it would be phenomenal, just amazing. He would be the first to win two in a row and also the first Latino two-time winner. Miggie would find himself among the game’s immortals and it’s no fluke, he’s been a truly great hitter for about 10 years now.

It’s very much a long-shot, but there are reasons to like his chances. As mentioned, he doesn’t strike out that much and walks a lot, which will help. He’s off to a very hot start in the most difficult, batting average department, so he can afford to drop quite a few points and still outdistance the competition. He wasn’t hitting so many homers early on, but has really heated up with the bombs and this could easily continue as the weather does the same, assuming it ever does. Apart from his own terrific ability, there are other factors in his favour.

The Houston Astros are playing in the AL for the first time this year and are woefully weak – somewhere between a Triple-A club and a major-league one – they’re maybe baseball’s first AAAA team, with a total payroll less than that of several individual superstars. Hitters have been feasting on their obligingly generous pitchers, but Cabrera’s Tigers have played them quite a few times so far, so he’s already reaped some of this gravy. 

The Tigers themselves play in a good hitter’s park, and have a strong batting line-up, even apart from Cabrera. The two hitters ahead of him – Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter – both get on base a fair bit, affording Cabrera lots of RBI opportunities, plus Jackson can really motor. And the hitters behind him in the order – Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Matt Tulasosopo, Jhonny Peralta – are all dangerous enough to discourage pitching around Cabrera too much or walking him intentionally, though teams have started trying this with mixed results.

The Triple Crown watch provides a riveting, day-to-day baseball story to follow in itself, while also offering a much-needed diversion for Jays fans from the Chinese water-torture of the team’s, ahem, moribund start and (mostly) continuing floppola. Speaking of stat watches and the Jays, catcher J.P. Arencibia may be on his way to the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio ever in baseball history, with 55 whiffs so far and 2 – count ’em – 2 walks. This gives him an on-base-percentage of .244; not just bad, but ridiculous. While following Cabrera’s heroics from a distance, we can also count down the days until Arencibia draws his third walk of the season, say in late-July, right around the time Brett Lawrie nudges his average over the Mendoza Line and his tattoos melt off. Way to go J.P., awesome, Brett!!

I don’t often find myself saying this, but Cabrera’s high-wire hitting act shows that, while not necessarily happening where you live, sometimes the good old days are now.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

1 thought on “Don’t Look Now, But….

  1. Nice column. Also interesting to note that, unlike Hornsby, Miggy is a stand-up guy as far as I know, very understated and quiet. But post-season…? I went to Detroit for a World Series game last year …it was hard to think that this was the triple crown winner. And yet, as you say, here he goes again for round 2.

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