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Miguel Cabrera's place in Triple Crown history

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer
How does Miguel Cabrera compare to the 'Triple Crowners' who have gone before him? (AP)

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera has kept his appointment with history by winning the Triple Crown. And although we're still in the glow of Cabrera's achieving that feat for the first in 45 years, it's not to soon to put his amazing season in context.

Cabrera wins the Triple Crown

More specifically: Where does Cabrera's 2012 rank among other triple crown seasons? Stated another way, how do Cabrera's bestowals this season stack up against those of diety-like Triple-Crowners like Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb? We're going to explore those very questions.

To do this, we'll try to assess which Triple Crown winner had the best overall season. This isn't simply a matter of looking at the Triple Crown stats -- after all, those stats, particularly batting average and RBI, have significant flaws. Instead, we'll lean in part on a stat called "OPS+."

You're probably familiar with OPS, which is simply on-base percentage added to slugging percentage. OPS+ is OPS adjusted to reflect league conditions and the tendencies of a hitter's home park. It's scaled to 100, which means an OPS+ of 100 represents a league-average figure. Every point more than 100 means 1% better than the league average, and every point fewer than 100 means 1% worse than the league average (spoiler alert: we don't be dealing with any below-average figures for this one). For instance, a hitter with an OPS+ of 125 had a park-adjusted OPS that was 25% better than the league average. An OPS+ of 89, meanwhile, means the hitter has an OPS that was 11% worse than the league average. And so on.

Certainly, OPS+ isn't the final word on offensive value, but it's quite useful as one-shot, easily understandable metrics go, and it's far more illuminating than the Triple Crown stats. Plus, it allows us to compare hitters across eras, which is necessary in an exercise such as this one.

One final note … Cabrera is the 16th hitter in baseball history to win the Triple Crown. However, we're comparing him to just those who won the crown in the modern era (i.e., from 1900 onward). Paul Hines pulled it off in 1878, and Tip O'Neill did so in 1887. However, playing conditions and even the rules were so different in those "primordial soup" days that it's difficult to make credible comparisons. So we won't.

Now let's lay out some numbers …

YearPlayer, TeamLeaguePositionAVG/HR/RBIOPS+
2012Miguel Cabrera, TigersAL3B.330/44/139167
1967Carl Yastrzemski, Red SoxALLF.326/44/121193**
1966Frank Robinson, OriolesALRF.316/49/122198**
1956Mickey Mantle, YankeesALCF.353/52/130210**
1947Ted Williams, Red SoxALLF.343/32/114205**
1942Ted Williams, Red SoxALLF.356/36/157216**
1937Joe Medwick, CardinalsNL LF.374/31/154182**
1934Lou Gehrig, YankeesAL1B.363/49/165206**
1933Jimmie Foxx, AthleticsAL1B.356/48/163201**
1933Chuck Klein, PhilliesNLRF.368/28/120176*
1925Rogers Hornsby, CardinalsNL2B.403/39/143210**
1922Rogers Hornsby, CardinalsNL2B.401/42/152207**
1909Ty Cobb, TigersALCF.377/9/107193**
1901Nap Lajoie, AthleticsAL2B.426/14/125198*

(* - Led his league in OPS+; ** - Led all of majors in OPS+)

Why is position listed? It's listed because we're talking about the quality of each hitter's overall season, and that entails all facets of his value. So what position he played and how well he played it are essential considerations. Needless to say, if a Triple Crowner held down a more premium position, it helps his case.

As you can see by all those lofty OPS+'s, each triple-crown season is genuinely a great one. That's hardly surprising, of course. So in light of all these considerations, here's how I'd rank them from bottom to top …

14. Chuck Klein in 1933 - Not even the park-adjusted nature of OPS+ captures the extent to which the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia helped Klein. The lefty-swinging Klein took advantage of the Baker Bowl's right-field fence, which, down the line, was just 280 feet from home plate.

13. Williams in 1942 - There's no assailing the brilliance of Williams' season, but by '42 the baseball ranks were already being significantly thinned out by World War II military conscription. The competition simply wasn't up to its usual standards (although it wasn't quite as bad as generally believed). It wasn't even certain that there was going to be a 1942 season until FDR wrote his famous "green light letter" to Commissioner Landis that January.

12. Nap Lajoie in 1901 - Lajoie had great hands at second base and speed on the bases, and obviously he could hit a little bit. However, in these rankings he gets dinged because the upstart American League of 1901 wasn't as competitive as the more established National League.

11. Cabrera in 2012 - As you can see, his OPS+ lags the rest of the field, quite badly in most instances. In fact, he was the only "crowner" whose OPS+ neither led the majors nor his league. He plays a more important defensive position than many on this list, but he didn't play it particularly well. Cabrera achieved true greatness in 2012, but among the rarified company of Triple Crown winners, the standards are high.

10. Medwick in 1937 - As a right-handed masher who swung at (and hit) pretty much everything, Medwick was Vlad Guerrero before there was such a thing as Vlad Guerrero. Great season though it was, the numbers don't quite stack up to most others on this list.

9. Foxx in 1933 - The "Beast" abused the ball for two decades, and he may have been at his best in '33. The 30's were an offensive era like none we've ever seen, but, as you can see from his 201 OPS+, Foxx still towered above his peers.

8. Gehrig in 1934 - At age 31, Gehrig is the oldest player on this list. Even in his prime he was challenged by the diamond's least challenging position. The offensive numbers, however, speak for themselves and do so quite loudly.

7. Williams in 1947 - Competition was back to pre-war levels, and Williams authored a brilliant season. He wan an indifferent defender at best, though.

6. Hornsby in 1922 - The (arguable) greatest right-handed hitter in history manned the keystone adequately, so there's a boost for playing such a premium position. Hornsby also enjoyed a 33-game hit streak that season. Still, players in the pre-integrated era are getting a qualitative penalty because the artificially restricted talent pool meant the competition wasn't what it would be in later years.

5. Hornsby in 1925 - See Hornsby in 1922 and add a few drops of OPS+.

4. Cobb in 1909 - Nothing says "Deadball Era" quite like leading the league with nine home runs, all of them inside-the park. Cobb was a gifted center fielder, and that season he swiped 76 bases, in addition to putting up that OPS+ of 193.

3. Robinson in 1966 - The season after being traded from Cincinnati to Baltimore, Robinson lit the league afire. At age 30, Robinson was just average in the field and on the bases by that stage of his career, but an OPS+ just shy of 200 tells the story. If not for a late season injury in '67, he might have won back-to-back triple crowns.

2. Yaztrzemski in 1967 - While, for his career, he was better at home than on the road, he still gets points for being a left-handed hitter in Fenway. Yaz, of course, was widely regarded as the best defensive left fielder of his day. Those are astounding numbers given the state of offense in late 60s.

1. Mantle in 1956 - He achieved that OPS+ in the (mostly) integrated era, and he played an up-the-middle position and played it so very well. While he stole just 10 bases, Mantle, just 24 years old at the time, was an exceptional base-runner. Among Triple Crowners, no one excelled at all phases of the game against a highly competitive peer group quite like the Mick in '56.

Congratulations, Miguel Cabrera. In 2012, you walked -- and most of all hit -- among the baseball gods.

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