Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Revisiting the Alternative Triple Crown

When Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown last year by leading the league in batting average, home runs and Runs Batted In, he became the first to do so since Red Sox outfielder Carl Yatrzemski in 1967.  It was also the first time the Triple Crown winner was broadly questioned by statistical analysts who now use different statistics to evaluate hitters.  It was clearly a memorable event from a historical perspective and traditional Tigers fans were understandably miffed that some seemed to be devaluing Cabrera's accomplishment.  Personally, I am a traditional enough fan to have enjoyed the feat when it happened, but there were also some things about it that bothered me.

Many regarded Cabrera's season as extraordinary because he won the Triple Crown, and it was a special season symbolically, but it wasn't a remarkable season for him.  He hit for a higher On-Base Percentage plus Slugging Average (OPS) and had more Batting Runs in both 2010 and 2011, two statistics which better measure a player's individual batting contribution that the Triple Crown statistics.  He missed out on the Triple Crown those years because other players happened to have great seasons in the triple crown categories at the same time.

Cabrera is off to an even better start this year and there is talk about another Triple Crown.  That would make him the first back-to-back triple crown winner in history which would be really cool.  Suppose though that he has a monster season which surpasses anything he has ever done this and doesn't win the Triple Crown?  He could bat 375 with 45 home runs and 160 RBI, and miss the crown because teammate Prince Fielder hits 46 homers.  Does his Triple Crown season remain special?

There is no perfect way to summarize a players batting performance, but the triple crown statistics have become outdated as the ultimate measures of success.  Most readers of this blog understand the limitations of the batting average/ home runs/ RBI trio.  For anyone who needs a refresher, I discussed them in an earlier post.  The Triple Crown idea is still appealing, but it would be more meaningful with a more modern trio of statistics. 

Some have proposed that the increasingly popular slash line metrics (batting average/ on-base percentage/ slugging average) be used as the new triple crown.  This trio provides a good summary of offensive production combining the ability to hit for average, to get on base and to hit for power.  I don't like this threesome much better than the traditional numbers for the triple crown though.  The problem with the slash line statistics is that they are all rate statistics which do not address playing time.

The Triple Crown should also exclude summary statistics such as OPS.  The purpose of the triple crown is to combine three different batter qualities, rather than have one number which mashes everything together.  I also don't want anything which includes estimates such as Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) even if it weren't a summary metric.  This is a good measure of batting talent, but I want something that traditional fans can actual count or calculate. 

What is needed is a trio which is comprehensive and relevant but simple enough so as not to turn away the masses.  I'll stay with the slash line theme, but I'll tweak it so that it incorporates playing time.  The counting statistic equivalents to BA/OBP/SLG are hits/times on base/ total bases which are three basic enough statistics.  To stay parallel with the traditional crown, I'll use one rate statistic and two counting metrics

I don't like using hits as a counting metric because it is biased in favor of players who rarely draw walks, which is generally not a positive attribute. While the hits leader is usually a very good batter, it's better to stick with batting average.  Since there is really nothing about accumulating times on base and total bases which can be considered negative, those can be left as counting statistics. 

So, that's my Alternative Triple Crown - batting average, times on base and total bases.  It addresses everything that a good hitter does - hit for average, get on base and hit for power.  Unlike the traditional crown, it does not fail to reward walks and extra base hits which are not homers.  It considers both excellence and playing time and it's simple.

It turns out  that Cabrera did not win the Alternative Triple Crown last year.  He finished first in batting average (.330) and Total Bases (377), but was second in Times On Base to (274 versus 284 for Fielder).   
This year, Cabrera is leading the league in all three categories with a .387 batting average, 114 Total Bases and 90 Times on Base.  

So, let the Alternative Triple Crown watch begin.


  1. It's always good to rehash and refresh the concept. Maybe MLB should just create some new trophies and issue more awards that way each fan can appreciate the ones that mean the most to them!

    And then we can watch for who will be the first guy to win the Triple Crown and the Alternative Triple Crown in one year, as well as any other new awards that get invented in the future!

  2. AnonymousMay 22, 2013

    Hi Lee: You probably already know this, but Miguel Cabrera's play on 5/19 is rated by ESPN's game score as the best hitting performance of the year: http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/topperformers
    His play on 5/4 is number three on the list. Not too shabby. Cheers, Kevin

  3. AnonymousMay 23, 2013

    Agree on BA and TB which certainly reflect hitting skill, but the TOB component is a little troubling to me. IBB for example add to the total, but has the batter 'earned' that base. In the case of Fielder last year, how many free passes (intentional and unintentional intentional) did he get because of who was batting behind him.

  4. That is a reasonable point. You could subtract IBB, but I think the ability to draw walks is a batting skill. Players are usually pretty consistent year to year in their walk rates regardless of who hits behind them. Fielder draws a lot of walks every year. If it's because pitchers won't pitch to him, he should still get credit for it because it helps his team.

    Also, in the case of counting stats, you are double penalizing a player if you ignore his walks (even intentional ones). Not only do you take away his time on base, but his TB total took a hit because he didn't get the opportunity to bat. Thus, I'm more willing to consider subtracting IBB with rate stats than counting stats.


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