Sunday, August 29, 2010

Obligatory Triple Crown Post

With Pujols and Votto in pursuit, the triple crown is all the rage these days. Never missing a good opportunity to write a brainless post, here I am to weigh in on a topic on which more than enough has already been said.

The concern about Omar Infante leading the league in BA (I'm sorry, winning the "batting title") is amusing on a number of levels. It would be moot if the triple crown got with the times and was composed of OBA/HR/RBI. Of course, there are a number of different ways in which one could construct a "better" triple crown, but replacing BA with OBA might be one people would be receptive to. However, the triple crown as it has been historically defined is not going to be wiped from existence in any event.

The triple crown as currently constructed has been captured fourteen times by twelve different players (O'Neill, Lajoie, Cobb, Hornsby twice, Foxx, Klein, Gehrig, Medwick, Williams twice, Mantle, Robinson, and Yaz). This is what the honor roll of OBA/HR/RBI would look like:

Tip O'Neill: 1887 AA
Nap Lajoie: 1901 A
Ty Cobb: 1909 A
Gavvy Cravath: 1915 A
Babe Ruth: 1919 A, 1920 A, 1921 A, 1923 A, 1926 A
Rogers Hornsby: 1922 N, 1925 N
Chuck Klein: 1933 N
Lou Gehrig: 1934 A
Ted Williams: 1942 A, 1947 A, 1949 A
Frank Robinson: 1966 A
Carl Yastrzemski: 1967 A
Willie McCovey: 1969 N
Harmon Killebrew: 1969 A
Dick Allen: 1972 A
Mike Schmidt: 1981 N
Barry Bonds: 1993 N

OBA in place of BA would increase the frequency of triple crowns (23 rather than 14), but it would only increase the number of players who have done it from 12 to 16, since much of the change in frequency is due to Ruth. Ruth would gain five triple crowns, while Cravath, Williams, McCovey, Killebrew, Allen, Schmidt, and Bonds would each gain one. Jimmie Foxx, Joe Medwick, and Mickey Mantle would each lose theirs.

I've seen a number of people attempt to develop a "sabermetric" triple crown, and I offered a few of my own ideas on a couple of other sites. My most basic position on the matter is that I don't really care for the concept, because it elevates leadership in particular categories above the contribution suggested by the statistics themselves. By its very nature, any sort of triple crown construct is going to be rooted in trivia rather than value. Also, there is no way you are ever going to be able to replicate the attention that has been paid to the BA/HR/RBI crown throughout the years. That being said, there are a few basic principles I'd propose for designing a triple crown:

1. The triple crown is based on batting only, with no attention paid to baserunning or fielding. There wouldn't necessarily be anything wrong with considering those elements of the game, and it might make it more meaningful, but it wouldn't be true to the current construct.

2. The triple crown is one rate stat and two total stats, which places value on being in the lineup. It would make sense for a replacement to give similar consideration (rather than something rate-exclusive like BA/OBA/SLG).

3. The categories should be of roughly equal value. BA, HR, and RBI are held in similar esteem in traditional analysis (whether they should be or not). I've seen some people make proposals for a sabermetric triple crown that would use a relatively trivial metric (like baserunning runs) as one of the components. One could do that, but it wouldn't carry comparable cachet. BA/OBA/SLG would undeservedly put BA on equal footing with OBA and SLG.

4. There shouldn't be excessive overlap between the categories. The standard triple crown has a metric which ostensibly measures "production" (RBI), one which measures power (HR), and one which ostensibly measures the rate of overall hitting (BA). While there is overlap, particularly between HR and RBI, there is at least some independence. A BA/OBA/SLG crown would ignore that BA is a major component of OBA and SLG. Something like BA/ISO/walk rate would break the components out.

Keeping with the two totals/one rate construct, and limiting the metric choices to just those that are easily explained and/or already in use, I would offer Times on Base, Total Bases (or extra bases), and OPS--totals for on base and power, and an overall rate.

Even my own proposal illustrates my biggest objection to any triple crown construct--similarly to record based on hits, one component or another is going to favor players that don't draw a lot of walks. Even in 2001, when he hit 73 homers, Barry Bonds did not lead the league in total bases; Sosa and Luis Gonzalez each finished ahead of him. One could get around this by adding walks into TB to make "complete bases"--but that statistics used in conjunction with Times on Base would overvalue walks.

It's very tough to construct a triple crown that isn't rate-based that would recognize Barry Bonds' 2001-04 seasons, which was the best run of sustained offensive domination since Ruth. If those seasons don't earn a batter a triple crown of some sort, it only reinforces that the triple crown is about trivia, not value.


  1. I have thought about this same thing quite a bit lately. I think TOB and TB are the stats you'd want to use if you're going to have two counting stats. The problem I see with OPS is that it's a total value batting stat which kind of defeats the purpose of coming up with three categories. I don't really have a good alternative though.

    I've always liked to divide hitting into batting average, walk rate and power since there is not a lot of overlap. The three rate stats for that are easy - ba, bb%, iso. I can't really come up with two counting stats I'd want to use though. Hits, bb% and TB? TB is not quite right for describing power but I like it as a triple crown stat. bb% would be pretty hard to sell.


  2. I understand your point about OPS defeating the purpose, and don't really have a good rejoinder.

    The problem I have with using hits is the Barry Bonds/Ted Williams problem--you essentially make the very best seasons of all-time ineligible off the bat, because those guys walk too much to lead the league in hits.

    That's why I offer the suggestion of OBA as a replacement for BA; it's a way to maintain the historical essence of the TC but at least get walks into the picture, as they are for all intents and purposes completely ignored by the current categories.


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