Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera became baseball's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years tonight as he finished the season leading the American League with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI. The last player to lead his league in all three categories was Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski who batted .326-44-121 in 1967. I was four years old and living in Red Sox-crazed Massachusetts that summer. I did not know what was going on at the time, but the 1967 season was my earliest memory of baseball and I could feel the excitement. I wrote about the Yaz experience earlier in the week.
As is often the case with the Tigers, I have been torn between my analytical and sentimental sides in following Cabrera's chase the last couple of weeks. The analyst in me says that the Triple Crown statistics are not the most relevant measures of hitting performance. Much progress has been made in those statistics being de-emphasized in recent years and I sometimes cringe when these traditional numbers get too much attention.
Other numbers tell me that this is not an extraordinary season for Cabrera. According to Baseball-Reference, his 167 OPS+ and 59 Batting Runs are not among the top 200 of all time, nor in the Tigers top ten. In fact, this isn't even Cabrera's best season. He was even better in 2010 and 2011 according to these more advanced measures.
So, I can't get as excited about this accomplishment as many other fans such as Kurt Mensching at Bless You Boys. However, I did grow up with traditional statistics and I understand that fans throughout history have viewed the game through Triple Crown numbers. Fans including myself have wondered for years whether this player or that player had a chance at the Triple Crown. I have witnessed many near misses including White Sox slugger Dick Allen in 1972, Reds outfielder George Foster in 1977, Jim Rice with the Red Sox in 1978 and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals in 2003. Many younger fans were beginning to think it would never happen in their lifetimes.
The Triple Crown may be just an arbitrary set of numbers, but it's difficult to achieve. It's an unusual player who is skilled enough in both hitting for average and power that he can lead the league in batting average and home runs which is what makes the feat remarkable. Cabrera certainly has that rare combination of skills, but it takes a little luck too. It's pretty hard for a power hitter to lead the league in batting average when a contact hitter like Tony Gwynn or Rod Carew decides to bat .370. There was no such player this year and no big hitter like Jose Bautista hitting 50 home runs.
Thus, Cabrera had his chance at history and seized it by becoming only the 16th player since 1887 to win the Triple Crown. It may not have been the greatest individual season in Tigers history, but it will go down as one of the most memorable. His historic accomplishment will surely be mentioned prominently on his Hall-of-Fame plaque some day and it's something Tigers fans will be talking about forever.