On Miguel Cabrera, Value, and the Triple Crown

“In ’67, the triple crown was never even mentioned once.  We were so involved in the pennant race, I didn’t know I won the triple crown until the next day, when I read it in the paper.”
-Carl Yastrzemski to the Boston Herald, published September 26, 2012

“Is it too early to say that [Cabrera] has a legitimate shot at a Triple Crown this season hitting in front of Fielder? I don't think so.”
-Fox News sports article, published April 13, 2012

The Triple Crown has grown in stature over the years.  That’s not to say it wasn’t a big deal before, but reporters now are asking Carl Yastrzemski about someone else winning it faster than they ever asked him about winning it himself.  In 1942, when Ted Williams won it, no one even had a list of previous winners compiled.  An AP reporter had to research it for his story on Williams’ feat, and he still missed the most recent occurrence (Joe Medwick, whose Triple Crown just five years earlier escaped detection).

Back then, it was a cool thing.  It wasn’t necessarily the historic thing it’s become.  It didn’t yet carry the mythical ethos of the pantheon-dwellers -- Williams, Mantle, Yaz, Frank Robinson, etc -- who could once do what for so long escaped their modern counterparts.  When someone won it, it didn’t carry the weight of a whole generation of fans who grew up hearing about it and never seeing it.  It was just a cool thing.

I can see getting excited about it.  It’s an impressive feat.  It’s something we’ve waited for for a long time.  It's something only a handful of the greats have even done.

And yet, I have a hard time getting excited.  It was a great season, sure.  A wonderful season at the plate.  But the best season I’ve ever seen?  Not close.  Which means I’ve seen a lot of non-Triple-Crown seasons that were better, because this is the first Triple Crown of my lifetime.  You don’t even have to look that hard to find a better season.  There’s another one right in front of our noses.

I’m talking, of course, about Miguel Cabrera’s 2011 season.

I know that seems, at least on the surface, like a bit of a contrarian statement.  How could he have been better when he hit 14 fewer home runs and drove in 36 fewer runs and didn’t, I don’t know, win the first Triple Crown in four and a half decades?  I don’t mean it as a contrarian viewpoint, though.  I just think Cabrera hit better in 2011 than in 2012.

Let me explain myself.  First, we need to establish what we mean by “better”.

I grew up with a fairly traditional baseball upbringing.  I was the son of a catcher who was the son of a catcher, saved only from the tools of ignorance myself by a bad case of sinistrality (a condition my dad only fully forgave me for when my younger sister took up softball and inherited his old gear).  I learned the game from proud field generals who would rather hold their ground to a hard-charging runner than hit a home run, even if they dropped the ball in the process.

That’s not a bad way to learn the game.  It was a great way to learn it.  But part of that upbringing was growing up thinking that Rickey Henderson was Lou Brock-Lite, and that Ted Sizemore was the ideal #2 hitter, and that Tony Gwynn was the best hitter in the game.  Part of that was drafting Ozzie Smith for my first fantasy league in a three-team-deep league.

It’s not that those things are necessarily wrong.  I don’t remember or care what happened in that fantasy league, other than that I remember drafting my favourite player.  I don’t remember or care how many runs the Padres scored with Tony Gwynn anchoring their lineup, or how many games they won.  I remember that watching Tony Gwynn was unlike watching anyone else in baseball, because you felt like you knew you were going to see something happen.  He was going to put the ball in play, and the defense was going to scramble to field it.  When Tony won, it felt like he won because he could almost place the ball at the spot where it landed.  When the defense won, it felt like they got away with one.  It was exciting to someone who learned the game the way I did.

As far as baseball is a game of entertainment, maybe Tony Gwynn was the best hitter in the game.  Arguing for Tony Gwynn over Frank Thomas, or Barry Bonds, or Fred McGriff, or a handful of other guys as a hitter, though, isn’t really an argument of value or production.  It’s an argument of what “best” means to begin with.  He was better at some things, yeah.  Maybe better at the things that are most important to you.  At some point, though, it started to hit me that, whatever abstract ideals I might hold about what a hitter should be, the very concrete objective of all hitters is the same.  They hit as best they can to win games, and they do so by helping to score runs.

That’s something that’s hard to measure when your statistical upbringing comes mostly from Topps and Donruss.  How many runs is Gwynn’s AVG worth?  How many runs are Thomas’ walks and extra base hits worth?  I don’t know.  It doesn’t say on the back of the card.  We all know when we watch a game that getting on base is important, that making outs is bad, and that getting to second or third is better than getting to first.  How much better?  I don’t know.  And so the argument becomes about what best actually means, because the units of measurement are not helpful.

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