Currently Albert Pujols and Joey Votto are locked in a battle for the coveted "triple crown" of hitters. The hitters triple crown, for those that don't know, refers to leading the league in home runs, RBI, and average in the same season. It has been 42 years since anyone has won it at all, (Carl Yastremski for Boston) and it's been 73 years since anyone has done it in the National League (Joe Medwick for the Cardinals). Overall, it's been won 16 times, 11 of those in the 45 years between 1922 and 1967, with the longest stretch without a winner being 10 years. So I got to thinking, what happened. Why did players stop winning the triple crown. Through research and consideration I came up with the following reasons.
Integration is a big part of the reason. If you don't count Ted Williams second triple crown in 1947, the year that integration technically occurred (but there were only two black players in the Majors) the triple crown has only been one three times. In fact, even when Yaz won the last one in 1967 integration hadn't fully taken hold. Ironically it was the same year that Boston, the last team to do so, actually fully integrated. Integration impacts the chances of winning the triple crown because it expands the player pool. (Incidentally the only African-American player to win the triple crown is Frank Robinson.) The impact of integration is easy to demonstrate, 8 winners in the 25 years before is a lot more than the the three winners in the 63 years since. Still, it doesn't tell the whole story. How come no one has won since 1967? There were three those three winners in 20 years.
When Ted Williams won in 1947 there were only eight teams in each League and 615 total players in the Majors. When Yaz won in 1967 there were only ten teams in each league, and a total of 776 players. This year there are 16 teams in the NL, and 14 in the AL, for a total of 1163. The Majors have almost doubled in size since Williams won his triple crown, and it has increased by more than 67 percent since Yaz won his. It's not just size of the players that have increased, it's the total number of players. Having more players makes it harder to finish first.
It's one of those things that doesn't get as much talk as it should, in that that it makes a lot of sense out of a lot of things. Integration had it's impact as is considered it's own "era" of baseball, but while internationalization has had at least the same impact, it's not really discussed very much. This year 315 players, nearly 28 percent of Major Leaguers, are foreign born players. And it's not just average players either. This year's All-Star game featured nine foreign born players among its 18 starters. Five of the six leaders in the three triple crown categories for the two leagues are foreign-born. In fact, both players threatening to win it this year are foreign born. Pujols is from the DR, and Votto is from Canada. Integration added about 1o million players to the player pool, roughly the same as the Dominican Republic alone.
In 1967 there were a total of 89 foreign born players. This year there are 315. Even that doesn't tell the whole story though, because Cuba and Puerto Rico have been delivering MLB players consistently. In 1957 there were 23 from those two countries. In 1967 there were 44, and in 2010 there are 44. When you take those two countries out of the equation, in 1957 2% of the league was foreign born not from Cuba or PR. In 1967 it was up to about 5%. In 2010 it is over 23%. That's a significant number. If you count the two nations who provide the most Major League Players, Dominican Republic (119) and Venezuela (76) you increase the population to draw players from by nearly 40 million. If you count the next two, Japan and Mexico, you basically add a population equivalent to the entire US population. As an aside this also explains the "drop" in African American players. There's an obvious corresponding drop in American players period, which corresponds inherently with the increase of the percentage of foreign born players. Pardon me for stating the obvious, but it seems to get lost.
Babe Ruth had a career batting average of .342, good for 10th all time, an often overlooked fact. He wasn't just a slugger, he was a pretty darned good hitter too! Several factors, smaller parks, changing pitching mounds and strike zones, perhaps changing balls, steroids etc have all combined to make hitters specialize. For a very long time there just weren't a lot of players who both hit for a high average and knock a lot of balls out of the park. In at least the last 30 years+ I can only find four players, A-Rod, Bonds, Manny and Andres Galarraga who have even won a "career triple crown" meaning they've led the league in all three categories at any point in their career. If Pujols can hold on to his RBI lead he'll be the fifth, and probably the first to do so without a little "extra help." Somewhat surprisingly, it's not just the double crown no one has won. In fact, since the respective triple crowns in each league there have been no players to lead in both Home Runs and BA in the same season. Finally, since integration, no player has hit 400 home runs and had a BA over .330. The closest is Guerrero who has a BA of .320, but has never led the league in any of the triple crown categories, indicating he hits both with power and average well, but neither well enough to lead the league. Again Pujols threatens to break that streak with just two more HR. He is an exception though. He's not a slugger. He's a very powerful line-drive hitter. In a very real sense, he's a specialist in the sense that he's a hitter, not a slugger, he just happens to hit a lot of his line-drives really, really hard.
Pitching used to be easier to hit. Since 1920, only 29 starting pitchers with more than 1000 IP have recorded a H/9 innings rate of fewer than 8. Of those 27 have played since the last time a triple crown was won. Only three players are in the top 50 all time in batting average. Hitting for average is just harder that it used to be, which is part of the reason you start getting specialization.
Taking all of this into consideration, I think Pujols could break the streak. He's the type of hitter that can do it because he has both power and average. There's also the fact that he's generally done his best hitting in August and September. This year has certainly been no exception. He's been hitting well over .400 for the month, and basically a HR every other game and an RBI per game. His OPS for the month is over 1.300. He's also got the "fitting" thing going for him, which really isn't a reason, but it would be appropriate somehow if there were a foreign born player who did it. Still, if he (or Votto) does it, because it is so hard to do now, it might be the be the most impressive triple crown ever.<!-- Site Meter --> <!-- Copyright (c)2009 Site Meter -->