Now that Opening Day is behind us, it’s time to look into the 2021 Major League Baseball crystal ball.
Every diehard fan in every MLB city has hopes that his/her team has a very successful season, perhaps reaching the ever-expanding playoffs. Individual awards are out there for the players to pursue. You know: Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Cy Young Award and Manager of the Year honors, just to name a few.
But my question: will there be an all-but-forgotten offensive Triple Crown winner?
Throughout MLB’s long history, winning a Triple Crown is one accomplishment that has been especially difficult. A player wins the Triple Crown (an unofficial honor for which no actual award is given) by leading his league in the three major batting categories: batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Although another precise statistic (Slash Line) has been developed to measure a player’s worth, leading the league in these three categories leaves no doubt about the player’s well-rounded batting skills.
It’s all about consistency, power and production.
But you don’t hear much about the Triple Crown these days for at least two reasons:
*There has been only one Triple Crown winner (Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers in 2012) since 1967, when Carl Yastrzemski won the AL Triple Crown for the league-champion Red Sox.
*The runaway statistical minds (and baseball writers) have become more focused on the “slash line”.
In the 1990s, the slash line basically replaced the Triple Crown, as it more aptly describes a player’s offensive contributions. A player’s batting average is listed first, then on-base percentage (OBP) and finally slugging percentage. It takes a Moneyball kind of mind to figure it all out.
There is something special about winning a Triple Crown. Only 14 players, including Cabrera, have won the Triple Crown since MLB began in 1876.
During an interview with former Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds on the MLB Network in 2012, the late Frank Robinson, a Triple Crown winner for the Orioles in 1966, said, “It’s a very difficult thing to achieve. There are three categories competing against every hitter in your league.
“For me, the most difficult was batting average. I could hit home runs (49) and drive in runs (122), but the batting average was the toughest thing for me.
“There was a guy in our league who could hit pretty good – by the name of Tony Oliva. He had won the batting title the previous two years. We actually played against each other the final three games of the season. I was leading and our manager, Hank Bauer, wanted to take me out after the first game of a double-header. He told me, ‘you have him by a point or two. Do you want to play the second game?”
“ I told him ‘of course I do. I have played in 161 games and if I’m going to win it I am not going to win it sitting on the bench. I want to win out of the field.’”
Robby had the last two of his hits in the finale to finish with a .316 batting average while Oliva went hitless and finished with a .307 batting average. Both players are in the Hall of Fame, as are nine of the others, including two-time Triple Crown winners Rogers Hornsby, in 1922 and ’25, and Ted Williams in 1942 and ’47.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Ordonez nearly became the first player to win a Triple Crown in back-to-back seasons. In 2012, the Tigers’ The outfielder/designated hitter ended a 45-year Triple Crown drought by hitting .340 with 44 home runs and 139 RBIs. (He was awarded a Triple Crown Trophy by then-Commissioner Bud Selig (see photo) during the World Series).
The following season, Ordonez won the AL batting title with a .348 average and finished second behind Orioles slugger Chris Davis in home runs (53-48) and RBIs (138-130).
Red Sox outfielder J.D. Martinez came close to a Triple Crown in 2018, leading the AL in RBIs (130) and finishing second to teammate Mookie Betts in batting average (.348-.330) and second to Oakland’s Khris Davis in home runs (48-43).
The National League also had a potential Triple Crown winner during the 2018 season. Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich led the NL in batting average, but finished second in RBIs and third in home runs.
Could 2021 be the year for the next Triple Crown winner?
Don’t bet your house on it.
“The game has changed,” Robinson said more than eight years ago. “There are more pitching changes these days. That makes it almost impossible because you are facing the starting pitcher for five, maybe six innings, and then you are seeing different relievers from then on. That makes it awfully tough on hitters.”
Oh, how the game has changed.
There were 334 complete games pitched in the American League in 1966, compared to 27 in 2019, the final full season.
Not likely, but there might be a “Triple Crown” winner in 2021. Perhaps it will be called, “The Bill James Slash Line Trophy.”
In case you missed it, I am not a huge fan of the “slash line” I Googled “Who had the best MLB slash lines in 2019?” and never received the info I wanted.
Here are the Triple Crown winners so far…
2012 — Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers (AL): Miggy captured baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 years by batting .330 with 44 homers and 139 RBIs. Even during the offense-filled 1990s and early 2000s, no player managed to achieve what Cabrera did by leading the AL by four points of batting average, one homer and 11 RBIs. The effort propelled Cabrera to the first of two consecutive AL MVP Awards.
1967 — Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox (AL): In the year before 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher,” Yastrzemski won the second of his three batting titles (.326) while leading the league in homers (44) and RBIs (121) for the only time in his 23 seasons. All three numbers were career highs for the Hall of Famer, who also topped the AL in on-base percentage (.418), slugging (.622), runs (112), hits (189) and total bases (360) while earning a Gold Glove Award and the AL MVP Award.
1966 — Frank Robinson, Baltimore Orioles (AL): In December 1965, the Reds traded Robinson to the Orioles for three players ahead of his age-30 season. All Robinson did for his new club was hit .316 with 49 homers and 122 RBIs, while also leading the AL with a .410 OBP, a .637 slugging and 122 runs. Those efforts earned Robinson an MVP Award for the second time, giving him one in each league after he also won for Cincinnati in 1961. Robinson’s timing was impeccable, as this was the only time in 21 seasons he led his league in any of the three categories.
1956 — Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees (AL and MLB): Mantle took batting average (.353) and RBIs (130) by fairly narrow margins, but blew away the field in home runs. His 52 homers were 20 more than Vic Wertz’s 32 and nine more than NL leader Duke Snider’s 43. Not surprisingly, Mantle captured the first of back-to-back AL MVP Awards, and first of three for his career.
1942 and ’47 — Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox (AL and MLB in ’42; AL only in ’47): Williams is the only AL player, and one of two total, to take multiple Triple Crowns, but he might have won even more if not for World War II. A year after he became the last Major League player to bat at least .400, a 23-year-old Splendid Splinter hit .356 with 36 homers and 137 RBIs in 1942. He then sat out three full seasons to serve in the military, but he didn’t miss a beat when he returned in ’46, finishing a measly second in the AL in all three categories while winning the AL MVP Award. Williams then returned to Triple Crown glory the next year, batting .343 with 32 homers and 114 RBIs. In his six seasons, between 1941-49, he led the league in average four times, homers four times and RBIs three times.
1937 — Joe Medwick, St. Louis Cardinals (NL): It’s now been more than 80 years since Medwick won the NL’s last Triple Crown. The Hall of Fame left fielder set career highs with a .374 average, 31 homers and 154 RBIs, also leading the league in slugging (.641), runs (111), hits (237) and doubles (56). Though his homer total was actually tied for first with the Giants’ Mel Ott, Medwick drove in 39 more runs than any other NL player.
1934 — Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees (AL and MLB): A 31-year-old Gehrig won his only batting title, at .363, and he also topped the AL with a .465 OBP and a .706 slugging. In the power department, his 49 homers tied a career high, while his 166 RBIs marked one of seven seasons in which he eclipsed the 150 mark. Amazingly, the Iron Horse placed only fifth in a close AL MVP Award race, including second among Yankees.
1933 — Jimmie Foxx, Philadelphia Athletics (AL): Foxx was one of two players to grab a Triple Crown this year (more on that below) and earned a second straight AL MVP Award. The Hall of Famer had walloped 58 homers and driven in 169 runs the year before, coming up a batting title short despite a .364 mark. He got the job done in ’34 by hitting .356 with 48 homers and 163 RBIs, surpassing Babe Ruth by 14 long balls and Gehrig by 23 RBIs.
1933 — Chuck Klein, Philadelphia Phillies (NL): Not only did baseball have two Triple Crown winners in 1933, but so did the city of Philadelphia. Klein batted a robust .368, and while his 28 homers and 120 RBIs were well short of Foxx’s prodigious totals, they were good enough in the NL. Klein also took the league’s top spots in OBP (.422), slugging (.602), hits (223) and doubles (44), though he finished second in the NL MVP Award race after winning the year before. Amazingly, the Phillies traded him to the Cubs after the season.
1922 and ’25 — Rogers Hornsby, St. Louis Cardinals (NL and MLB in ’25; NL only in ’22): The only NL player to take multiple Crowns, Hornsby did so in the midst of an incredible run in St. Louis. From 1920-25, he led the league in average, OBP and slugging every year, batting at least .370 each time and topping .400 on three occasions. Hornsby’s two Crowns coincided with the only home run titles of his career, as he hit .401 with 42 homers and 152 RBIs in ’22 and .403 with 39 homers and 143 driven home in ’25. The latter year, he took the first of his two NL MVP Awards.
1912 — Heinie Zimmerman, Chicago Cubs (NL): .372, 14 homers, 104 RBIs *
1909 — Ty Cobb, Detroit Tigers (AL and MLB): .377, nine homers, 107 RBIs *
1901 — Nap Lajoie, Philadelphia Athletics (AL): .426, 14 homers, 125 RBIs *
1894 — Hugh Duffy, Boston Beaneaters (NL): .440, 18 homers, 145 RBIs *
1878 — Paul Hines, Providence Grays (NL): .358, four homers, 50 RBIs *
1887 — Tip O’Neill, St. Louis Browns (NL): .435, 14 homers, 123 RBIs *
1878 — Paul Hines, Providence Grays (NL): .358, four homers, 50 RBIs *
* RBIs were not an official statistic before 1920
(For further information, read this excellent piece).