Friday, May 29, 2009

Yaz and the Triple Crown

As Bill over at The Daily Something so helpfully pointed out the other day, the slugging duo of Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell both turned 41 on Wednesday. The coincidence of their identical birthdays and their subsequent HOF-caliber careers is all very interesting (and likely worthy of its own post), but, even more, it allows for me to introduce this article I found in the 1997 Sporting News preview guide:
"Do you realize how long, how interminably long, it has been since anyone captured the Triple Crown?

'Flower Power' was the hippie craze. The Flying Nun and Gomer Pyle, USMC were the top-rated TV shows. And Mo Vaughn, Jeff Bagwell, and Frank Thomas, all with a great shot at winning the crown, were not yet born.

That's right. The last Triple Crown winner, Boston's Carl Yastrzemski, achieved the feat in 1967, forty-two years ago now. And to think, this article, written in 1997, was already lamenting the thirty year gap in Crown winners. But we were an optimistic bunch in '97, and there was a lot of hope for a Triple Crown in the near future. Yaz was one of the hopefuls himself:
"Yaz believes it's 'going to happen, there's no doubt about it. It's going to happen within the next couple of years,' he predicts.
Yastrzemski notes that expansion, thinner pitching staffs and the new, retro bandbox parks that are the late-century fad will continue to shoot batting averages higher and give players a better chance at finally reaching the Triple Crown."
Of course, it hasn't played out like that. Expansion and thinner pitching staffs may have played their parts in the offense explosion of the late-'90s (among other things), along with the "late-century fad" of "retro bandbox parks", but they never converged in the form of a Triple Crown. And, actually, they didn't change things all that much. From the 1997 article:
"Since Yaz won his crown, 31 players have captured two-thirds of the trifecta. But of those players, only Joe Torre in 1971 and Al Oliver in 1982 won batting titles.

'Winning the home run and RBI titles goes hand in hand many years. A lot of people have done that,' Yaz says. 'Getting that third part is the difficult part. But to be honest, I expected it to happen before now because there's so much talent out there.'"
Since 1997, the number of players who have captured two-thirds of the trifecta has increased to 43, and two of those players won a batting title: Todd Helton in 2000 and Matt Holliday in 2007. Helton batted .372 that year with 147 RBIs, but his 42 home runs were good enough for only 7th (Sosa paced the circuit with 50). Holliday led his league with a .340 average and 137 RBIs. His 36 home runs, however, placed him only in 4th (to Prince Fielder's 50). The two Rockies did go a short way to proving Yaz right:
"Thomas, Vaughn, Bagwell, Barry Bonds and Mike Piazza, Yaz says, are hitters who have proved they are capable of achieving the Triple Crown. He also likes the chances of any good hitter who plays in air-thin Colorado. But the player he predicts will win it next is Ken Griffey Jr."
Yaz also provided a little bit of context surrounding his quest for the Crown:
"'The big thing was just being involved in the pennant race that year,' Yaz says. 'When I was going for my 3,000th hit (in 1979), we weren't involved in the race and I went 10 or 11 at-bats trying to get that hit.

'But being in the pennant race, I was so focused that I didn't know I had won it until the next day. There wasn't any media attention on the Triple Crown. None whatsoever. It was the first time Boston had been in a pennant race in a long time, and everything and everyone was focused on it.'

Yaz hit .523 with five homers and 16 RBIs during the final two weeks. Over the last two days in a critical series against Minnesota, he went 7-for-8, including a three-run homer that won the game on the second-to-last day."
No media attention? To someone born of today's era like me, this just seems impossible to believe. Maybe the Triple Crown just wasn't as exciting at the time. Frank Robinson had won it the year before, and Mantle won it ten years before that (and Williams 9 years before that). That's not really all that rare. At the time, it was happening about as frequently as an NL All-Star victory today: rare, but inevitable.

Whatever the circumstances have been over the last 42 years, the result has been a Triple Crown-less league. Many people have speculated as to why this is - I personally believe that it has everything to do with batting specializations (ie, Ryan Howard-type power hitters vs. Ichiro-type contact hitters) - but, in the end, that's all it is: speculation. Either it will happen, or it won't. There's just too much going on on the baseball diamond to simply explain it away in either case.

In the end, I agree with Yaz. Eventually, it's going to happen (and, boy oh boy, can you expect a lot of press when it does).
"'Things are made to happen. Who ever thought that Pete Rose would break Ty Cobb's record? Who ever thought that Gehrig would have his consecutive-games streak broken by Cal Ripken? Those are tremendous feats by thise guys.

'So, yes, I expect another Triple Crown winner. As Ted Williams says, 'No one comes to the ballpark to see someone strike out. They come to see the home run.''"
I can't wait. Who will it be, though? The smart money is on Albert Pujols, but a player like Joe Mauer (if the current power streak proves to not be a fluke) could easily crack that too. Whoever it is, I want to see it.


jorgesaysno said...

In his prime, I really thought Todd Helton had a good shot to do it.

Ron Rollins said...

To add to the perspective of the drought, there were Triple Crown winners in back-to-back years, then nothing for 42.

What are the statistical odds of that? C'mon, you stat heads, you don't need a weekend. Lets get some numbers.

lar said...

Helton certainly had a great chance at the Crown in 2000. First, as I mentioned above, he already led the league in AVG and RBI and also happened to hit 42 HRs, 8 off the pace. Not too shabby at all. More impressively, though, he also led the league in OBP and SLG. So, of the 3 slash stats, he led the league in all of them. It's a shame so many home runs were hit that year, because that really was a fantastic performance. (I think I'll have to look for other Slash Crowns).

And, Ron, I wish I could tell you the answer to that. It is pretty remarkable.

Bill said...

Hey, thanks for the shout-out, lar.
I think the bigget culprit is the all-or-nothing power hitters. A guy like Pujols, who doesn't strike out, ever, can post a high BA and rack up a lot of RBI that way, and hit quite a few HR...but it's hard to hit as many HR as a big strong guy who doesn't care if he strikes out (and thus doesn't care what his batting average is), but will just swing as hard as he can at everything. There seem to be a lot more of those now than there were in the sixties. Especially in the NL, sadly.

Not that it couldn't happen, though. I'd love to see it. I'd give Pujols and Morneau the best shots (Morneau has shown that he can hit for a high average, doesn't strike out a ton, and has Span and Mauer getting on base for him to drive in), but I'd think the odds of any individual player ding it are pretty tiny.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

IbaƱez leads in HR and RBI and is 9th in BA. Morneau is 3rd in HR and RBI and 6th in BA. Out of those two, Morneau probably has the better shot for this season. But I still think Pujols is the best choice. For young players, Justin Upton. Out of the prospects, Jason Heyward and Matt Wieters. I wouldn't include catchers, usually, but in the AL, he can DH.

lar said...

Here are all the players who finished in the top 10 in the Triple Crown categories since Yaz in 1967:

1995...Dante Bichette......1st..1st...3rd
1978...Jim Rice............1st..1st...3rd
1972...Dick Allen..........1st..1st...3rd
2007...Matt Holliday.......4th..1st...1st
1993...Barry Bonds.........1st..1st...4th
1977...George Foster.......1st..1st...4th
1969...Willie McCovey......1st..1st...5th
2000...Todd Helton.........7th..1st...1st
1995...Albert Belle........1st..1st...8th
1968...Willie McCovey......1st..1st...8th
2006...Ryan Howard.........1st..1st...9th
1989...Kevin Mitchell......1st..1st...9th
1988...Jose Canseco........1st..1st...9th

A couple of other things:
* both Foster and Howard finished one spot higher in batting average among players with enough plate appearances. However, in each case, they were bumped down by someone who would have made the list if an appropriate number of hitless at-bats were added to their total (this is how BR does their rankings). Mike Schmidt, in 1986, and Reggie Jackson, in 1973, would each have finished 10th in batting average if not for this same rule.
* McCovey made this list two years in a row, immediately after Yaz's crown.
* As long as it's been since the NL's last Triple Crown (1937), this list is pretty NL heavy. 9 of the 13 names were all NLers at the time. Three of those were Colorado Rockies.

lar said...

Not a bad call on Morneau there, guys. He does have a lot of things working in his favor. The move to the new stadium next year might put a damper on things, though. Open-air in Minneapolis? That's gonna do something to the offense, right?

And, Bill, don't be so quick to discount the free swingers from the 50s and 60s. As a Twins fan, you should know that, for every Rod Carew, there was 2 or 3 Harmon Killebrews, right?

If I were to throw another non-Pujols name out there (he's the obvious candidate, of course), it would probably be... let me think here... David Wright, maybe? .300+ hitter, some power, good RBI opportunities. He'd have to cut down on his K's, though. Honestly, outside of Pujols, I have no clue who would do it.

Bill said...

There was Killebrew, of course, and Frank Howard, but I don't feel like there were as many of them as there are now (Howard, Dunn, Pena, Davis, Sizemore, etc.). I could be completely wrong.

Wright is a pretty good candidate. Or Longoria, I suppose (Longoria and Wright seem linked in my mind, which five years from now will probably sound silly one way or the other, like comparing Nomar to A-Rod and Jeter), though I don't know if he'll keep hitting for average like he has so far this year.