The tradition of the Triple Crown

Carl Yastrzemski’s batting helmet preserved in the Smithsonian. (credit: Courtesy of treasuresthouhast via Flickr) Carl Yastrzemski’s batting helmet preserved in the Smithsonian. (credit: Courtesy of treasuresthouhast via Flickr)

Forty-five years ago, the Boston Red Sox were in the midst of a tight pennant race with the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins to win the American League Championship Series. With the help of their left fielder Carl Yastrzemski and his .513 batting average, five home runs and 16 runs batted in (RBIs) over the last two weeks, the Red Sox claimed the American League pennant.

While they eventually ended up losing the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Yastrzemski’s final two weeks propelled him to win the Batting Triple Crown and to be voted as the Most Valuable Player (MVP).

Yastrzemski was the last player to lead his league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs at the end of the season. Now, in the midst of another tight pennant race, Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera has a chance at the Triple Crown. The difference is that most of baseball doesn’t really seem to care.

Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition. Zealous baseball historians have been fighting instant replay for years because it would take away the human element and add a technological one. When Commissioner Bud Selig instituted interleague play in 1997, old-time players and fans nearly revolted.

But baseball has finally entered the modern age with its expanded instant replay, its constant interleague play starting with Opening Day in 2013, and now its acceptance of new and improved statistics.

Many of baseball’s old statistics didn’t show a player’s true contributions: Batting average does not account for the added benefit of walks and sacrifices; RBIs are more related to one’s position in the batting order and the ability of the players before they get on base than to one’s ability to hit.

In the 45 years since Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown, all three parts have become less revered and relevant — the steroid era has made the home run lose much of its former luster. Cabrera is currently just one home run behind the Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, and is leading in both batting average and RBIs.

However, he is still a second thought in the MVP conversation behind the Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, a rookie who was in the minor leagues for the first month of the season.

Cabrera still has a chance at MVP, especially if the Angels miss the playoffs and the Tigers can hold off the Chicago White Sox to win the American League Central. The fact remains, however, that he will by no means be the unanimous choice. This is a sure sign of the times: Trout is an example of the new baseball player, while Cabrera exemplifies the old-school hitter.

Trout is the leader of the new wave of five-tool players like Washington Nationals rookie Bryce Harper who excel at the plate, on the base paths, and in the field. Cabrera is a better hitter than Trout, but Trout is a far better base runner and a Gold Glove-caliber fielder. In recent years the MVP award has rewarded the best all-around player rather than the best hitter, and this is where Cabrera is at a stark disadvantage.

Had he played 45 years ago, Cabrera would be celebrated and guaranteed MVP recognition. But today, with fans, journalists, and teams focused on the all-around contribution, he is viewed as a one-trick pony. Cabrera is arguably the league’s greatest hitter, but the game now focuses on all aspects, not just the glamorous ones.

The Triple Crown has become a relic of a former era of baseball, before “moneyball” and sabermetrics. While there will always be places in the league for players like Cabrera, he and the Triple Crown will not be viewed with the same admiration as they were back when Yastrzemski won. Instead, they will be stuck in the shadow of the 21-year-old rookie leadoff hitter who has more stolen bases than home runs and more runs than RBIs.