By The Numbers: What About The Quadruple Crown?
With Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers headed to the World Series, the over/under for mentions that he won the Triple Crown is 4,287,583. I’m taking the over.
And while we’ve talked about whether or not Cabrera should win the MVP award (he shouldn’t) I have yet to hear anybody bring up one of the salient questions about the Triple Crown:
Why is RBI one of the categories? What makes RBI more important — or a better indication of a quality player — than runs scored? Sure, driving in runs is an important skill, but I don’t know why it is included as one of the hallowed Triple Crown numbers and runs isn’t.
Not that there’s anything new about this bias. RBI long have been more prominent in the public mind, and RBI men (typically power hitters) long have been more famous and better paid than the table setters.
Consider this: A total of 163 MVP awards have been handed out by the BBWAA since 1931 (Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell tied in 1979). Of those 163 MVPs, 21 have gone to pitchers; of the remaining 142, 18 have led their league in both runs and RBI during the season in question.
That leaves us with a field of 124 MVP winners. Of those, 20 have led their league in runs (but not RBI), and 36 have led the league in RBI (but not runs). Players who lead the league in RBI are much more likely to be named the MVP than players who lead the league in runs. Of course, this is a small sample, and there are other factors involved, but I’m guessing that any subjective study would show that RBI guys receive more support in MVP voting than guys who score a lot of runs.
In fact, most of the egregious MVP awards in history have been wrongly given to guys who drive in a lot of runs. George Bell in 1987, Andre Dawson in 1987, Jeff Burroughs in 1974, Don Mattingly in 1985, Justin Morneau in 2006, etc. Juan Gonzalez won two indefensible MVP awards thanks to the voters’ largesse toward RBI men.
I suppose this is a function of human powers of observation. A player can reach base, but he doesn’t turn into a run until somebody drives him in. The tension builds and the attention is focused on the batter, and when that batter does drive in a run he tends to get more credit than the guy who scored because that act is fresher in our minds and it was more recently in doubt.
But this leads to some faulty assumptions, among them that some players are predisposed to be successful in crucial moments, that some players have something in their DNA that helps them come through in the clutch.
Take Joe Carter. Joe Carter played in the major leagues from 1983-98, and he did some very impressive things. He hit 396 home runs. He hit a walk-off homer to win a World Series. He had 1445 RBI, including 10 seasons with 100 or more. That is a remarkable number. For example, contemporaries Darryl Strawberry and Andre Dawson combined for seven 100-RBI seasons.
All of this added up in the public’s mind to make Carter a clutch player, to give him the persona of somebody who came through in important situations. But the fact is that Carter was blessed to come to the plate with a lot of people on base. According to baseball-reference.com, he had 9154 plate appearances and had 6267 runners on base ahead of him during his career — 0.68 runners per plate appearance. Will Clark had an average of 0.64 runners per plate appearance, and he drove them in with more frequency than Carter did.
Clark, like Carter, had a reputation as a clutch hitter. But what about, say, Jeff Bagwell? Because of his woeful postseason performances, Bagwell did not have a reputation as a clutch hitter. Yet he also drove runners in more frequently than Carter. More importantly, Clark’s on-base percentage was 78 points higher than Carter’s, and Bagwell’s was 102 points higher. They were slightly more dangerous with men on base and much more dangerous with nobody on base.
Joe Carter was a good hitter with men on base. But his .306 on-base percentage made him woeful the rest of the time and a pretty mediocre offensive player overall.
The fact is that RBI — as well as runs — are largely team dependent. And I have yet to see any research that suggests RBI are somehow more indicative of a quality player than runs scored. Certainly, scoring a lot of runs requires more consistency, because a player can score a maximum of one run per plate appearance. Heck, Carter once drove in 115 runs while batting .232 overall with a .290 on-base percentage and .391 slugging percentage. That doesn’t make for a productive offensive player, regardless of how many RBI you have.
Which brings us back to Cabrera, who did indeed have a great year as a hitter. In addition to leading the AL in batting, homers, and RBI, he was second in runs. Yes, he fell just short of the magical Quadruple Crown.
Since 1876 and the beginning of what we now consider the major leagues, a Triple Crown has been won 17 times. On 10 of those occasions the player also led the league in runs: Tip O’Neill in 1887, Nap Lajoie in 1901, Ty Cobb in 1909, Rogers Hornsby in 1922, Joe Medwick in 1937, Ted Williams in 1942, Ted Williams in 1947, Mickey Mantle in 1956, Frank Robinson in 1966, and Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
So, what if we replaced RBI with runs as a Triple Crown category? In that case, the Triple Crown winners would include the 10 players above, plus Babe Ruth in 1924 and Ted Williams in 1941. (And Williams probably still would have been robbed of the MVP).
And then there’s the rare Quintuple Crown. Only twice in history has a player led his league in batting, home runs, RBI, runs, and walks: Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947 (and he didn’t win the MVP either year).
Cabrera’s feat is something to be celebrated. It hadn’t happened in 46 years. But there’s really no logical explanation for why a Triple Crown consists of batting, home runs, and RBI. It’s just another example of run scorers not receiving the credit they deserve.