It may be time for a new Triple Crown.
And Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is still the main contender.
Per the traditional categories, Goldschmidt led the National League in home runs (34) and RBIs (119) but is 11th in batting average (.304) among qualified hitters, entering Friday.
But batting average, home runs and RBIs simply aren’t very good measures. Average is dependent on opposing defenses and speed. RBIs are a product of where hitters bat in the lineup. Home runs have value, but not all parks are created equal.
So what would we replace it with?
Here’s a starting point using advanced offensive stats:
(1) Weighted Runs Above Average: Measures the number of offensive runs a player contributes above that of an average player. This is the primary offensive component in the Wins Above Replacement stat.
(2) Isolated power: Takes into account all extra-base hits, not just home runs.
(3) Percentage of base runners scored: This is a concession to those who want to see runs driven in, but doesn’t penalize batters who come up with fewer runners on base.
It may sound like a revolutionary trio, but consider the frontrunner: Goldschmidt. (Again).
He’s first in wRAA and ISO among qualified hitters. He’s fourth in base runners scored, three percentage points away from the leader, St. Louis’ Allen Craig.
It’s actually more of a race this way – and more representative.
The changing crown
Changing the Triple Crown categories to reflect our better understanding of baseball may not seem popular – but there is precedent.
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary lists three definitions for “Triple Crown”: (1) the standard average, home runs and RBIs trio (2) the pitching Triple Crown of wins, strikeouts and ERA (an argument for another day) and this: “The distinction of leading the league in batting average, runs and hits. The term was applied to Ty Cobb’s efforts in the early 20th century.”
Cobb won this rarely acknowledged Triple Crown in 1909, 1911 and 1915. But the alternate definition makes a ton of sense as home runs had yet to emerge as a significant part of the game.
RBIs also didn’t become an official statistic until 1920, leading to several after-the-fact Triple Crown winners: Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1909, via the standard definition), Paul Hines (1878) and Hugh Duffy (1894).
A Foggy origin
In seeking to dismantle the argument for the importance of the current Triple Crown, it first became important to figure out how batting average, home runs and RBIs became the three defining statistics for a hitter.
After initial study yielded little, Newsday reached out to the research wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which sent over a collection from their “Triple Crown” file. That set of clips, press releases and e-mails made clear the modern definition of a batting Triple Crown has been around since at least the 1930s.
But in all the articles the Hall of Fame sent, there was never a clear history offered.
The most likely scenario involves a newspaper using the term for the first time to describe some league leader and that expression slowly finding its way into popular culture.
“The ‘Triple Crown’ appellation really didn’t come into vogue until the 1940s when, with the passage of time and the increasing focus on statistics, the difficulty of the feat became apparent,” Dick Kaegel wrote in a December 1991 article for Baseball Digest.
The Triple Crown wasn’t even a tangible award until January 1967 when The National Brewing Co. created a trophy for Frank Robinson, who led the American League in the necessary categories in 1966, that was recognized officially by the commissioner’s office.