The Triple Crown
It is often said that baseball’s most prestigious feat is the elusive perfect game. After all, only 20 have been pitched in all of baseball’s history–18 in the modern era. To retire 27 batters consecutively is certainly majestic, and it guarantees baseball immortality. Many perfect games have been thrown by notoriously dominant pitchers–Monte Ward, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, and Catfish Hunter, to name a few. Their reputation almost demanded one. However, for some pitchers, their perfect games are the only redeeming factor in an otherwise disappointing or mediocre career–perhaps Kenny Rogers or Dallas Braden.
I would like to argue that there is an even more illustrious feat in baseball; one that has not been accomplished since 1967: 43 years. The largest gap between baseball’s perfect games was 34 years. The feat that I speak of is baseball’s triple crown, in which a hitter must lead his league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs. It has only been done 16 times in baseball’s history, 13 in the modern era. The last man to win the triple crown was Carl Yastrzemski.
No one has ever pitched a perfect game twice. It is probably nearly statistically impossible. Two men have received the triple crown twice. The Cardinals’ Roger Hornsby in 1922 and 1925, and the Red Sox’s Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947. This is precisely what makes the triple crown even more impressive.
A perfect game does not guarantee a Cy Young Award. It is nearly unheard of for a player not to win the MVP if he has also won the triple crown. After all, MVP considerations are heavily affected by those same three statistics. To every rule and theory, there is always an exception, and Ted Williams is the exception to mine: In 1942 and 1947, he came in second place for MVP votes, losing to Joe Gordon and Joe Dimaggio, respectively.
A perfect game is one game; there are 161 others. To win a triple crown, the hitter has to be consistently superior in three outstandingly difficult categories. Every player who has won the triple crown in the modern era is currently immortalized in Cooperstown. Pitchers who throw a perfect game are perfect for 27 outs. Those who win the triple crown are spectacular 4,374 outs.
With a couple of legitimate Triple Crown contenders this season in Carlos Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera, I wanted to try and figure out why there has been such a disparity in Triple Crown winners since Yastrzemski last did it. I decided to look at and compare various eras within baseball’s modern era (since 1900) and I think I have come to a reasonable conclusion.
It surprises me that there were any triple crown players in the dead ball era (1901-1919), which was defined by small ball. Pitchers were allowed to use altered balls and trick pitches, and starting pitchers completed their games more than half the time. Then again, it doesn’t surprise me that the two men to hit for it were Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb.
The Lively Ball Era (1920-1941) followed in which a rubber-core ball was universally used, and trick pitches were prohibited. Pitcher’s completed their game less than half the time, and the average amount of runs scored per game was nearly ten. Also, in 1930, the National League’s batting average as a whole was over .300. Five men hit for the triple crown in this era: Roger Hornsby (twice), Chuck Klein, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Joe Medwick.
Then came the Integration Era (1942-1960), catalyzed by Jackie Robinson. Many players were involved in World War II, which some argued diluted the level of play. Two players hit for the triple crown: Ted Williams (twice) and Mickey Mantle. The changes in this era went beyond the game itself, but I’m assuming the pitching was able to adjust to the new rules established in the Lively Ball Era.
The Expansion Era (1961-1976) followed, which came with an enlarged strikezone, and predictably, a reduction in offensive output. Only Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski hit for the triple crown in this era, and no one has done it since. Perhaps the defining characteristics of the eras that follow offer some explanation.
The Free Agency Era (1977-1993) was characterized mainly by outrageous contracts. About one-third of teams used artificial turf which took emphasis off of the home run ball and resulted in more extra base hits.
The era that I have lived through–the Long Ball Era (1994-2005)–has been characterized by a remarkable increase in home runs. This is attributable to not only steroids, and parks more conducive to home runs.
I’m not sure what era baseball has transitioned into since 2005. Some say the steroids era (though testing was implemented in 2004, so that isn’t really valid). With no-hitters, and even perfect games, becoming more of a commodity, I’d like to call it the era of the pitcher, but this might just be a unique year.
It does not really make sense that no one has won the triple crown since 1967 if offensive production has sky-rocketed. I think that the use of steroids have had an obvious effect on the statistics. It’s no longer one person dominating the league for a year. Many players are capable of hitting copious amounts of home runs and RBIs and hitting for a high average. It seems like guys are continually beating each other out. At the end of the season, Carlos Gonzalez might be leading in batting average, Pujols in home runs, and Votto in RBIs–and the disparity might only be one or two points.
I would like to see one of these guys hit for the triple crown, especially now that baseball has transitioned out of the steroids era. It would not have felt right had someone hit for the triple crown in the steroid era because nearly nothing was pure. I see Pujols, Votto, Gonzalez, and Cabrera (the main AL contender) as pure baseball players that embody what baseball is supposed to be about. 2010 has been an amazing year for baseball. We have seen no-hitters, perfect games, a perfect game that should have been, and a triple crown would be the icing on perhaps the most exciting baseball season I have ever had the pleasure of watching.