J.D. Martinez has an Excellent Chance at the Triple Crown — but he’s not the AL MVP
The Great MVP Debate of 2012 has been settled — hasn’t it?
[Note: Story updated September 14 to reflect current statistics]
It’s mid-September, and as of this writing Boston’s J.D. Martinez comfortably leads the league in RBI. He’s tied for the HR lead with Oakland’s Khris Davis; a minor hot streak (coupled with a minor cold snap for teammate Mookie Betts) moves him to the head of the class in batting average.
With less than three weeks remaining in the season (and 12 of 18 remaining games at home, where he’s hitting .340 and slugging close to .700) the Red Sox masher has a real chance at the rarest hitting feat in baseball: The Triple Crown.
But does that make him MVP?
Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera in 2012 became the first player in 45 years to lead the league in batting average, home runs, and RBI in the same season. In what was anything but a foregone conclusion of a vote, Cabrera was recognized for his efforts with the American League MVP award. It was the most breathlessly analyzed, contentiously debated MVP race … well, perhaps ever.
We won’t re-hash the ballot here — there are likely hundreds of thousands of words devoted to the topic online. But it’s fair to say the Cabrera selection as most valuable was… controversial in many quarters. Advanced analytics made a persuasive case for Trout having produced not just the greatest rookie season in the history of baseball, but, when factoring in base running, defense, and park effects, arguably the best all-around season by an AL player in 20 years.
Traditional metrics, however, made an equally persuasive case for Cabrera in more blunt terms: Triple Crown.
Ultimately, the MVP debate wasn’t a debate about the merits of each player — not really. It quickly (and endlessly) degenerated into a proxy battle between “old school” observers of the game, and a younger generation of writers and fans who used contemporary statistical analysis to evaluate player performance. Cabrera vs Trout was really about what kind of fan you were, what kind of game you watched. After weeks of teeth gnashing and rending of garments on both sides, in the end it wasn’t a close vote as Cabrera outpaced Trout for the award by a comfortable margin. And there’s no way to begrudge the Cabrera pick: The guy hit for the Triple Crown, after all, and Triple Crowns earn MVPs.
Except when they don’t.
In the 45 years between Triple Crowns (Yastrzemski staked his claim in 1967), the achievement had been elevated (and relegated) to myth. But if one looks beyond the mythology attendant to the award (Gehrig! Williams! Mantle!), it’s pretty clear that the Triple Crown is one of those rare achievements that is at once extraordinary… and not quite as amazing as one would think.
Extraordinary, because it almost never happens: Fewer men have hit for a Triple Crown than have pitched a perfect game.
Extraordinary, because the level of difficulty in today’s game is much higher than it was decades ago. Today’s player pool is much larger — and the talent level much deeper — than it was back in the days of Cobb, Hornsby, and Foxx. Pitching and defense are highly specialized and finely calibrated, which in turn helps to mitigate extreme outliers in performance.
Extraordinary, because hitting for average and hitting for power are two different skillsets (think Minnesota teammates Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew). There are only a handful of players who have led the league in all three Triple Crown categories at various points over a career, let alone in a single season.[i]
Extraordinary, because at the end of the day, it is impossible to achieve the Triple Crown and not produce an extraordinary season: Triple Crowns always lead the league in slugging, usually lead the league in runs, on-base percentage, and adjusted OPS, and almost always lead all position players in WAR (Cabrera and 1912 titlist Heinie Zimmerman the two exceptions).
The feat is also not quite as amazing as we’ve been led to believe.
Not quite as amazing, because the Triple Crown categories are somewhat arbitrary. Home runs make perfect sense, but why RBI and not runs scored? Why batting average and not on-base or slugging percentage? The Triple Crown ignores base-running entirely.
Not quite as amazing, because today we have a much better understanding of how an offense works. The so-called “slash-line Triple Crown” (BA/OBP/SLG) is a much better barometer of hitting prowess. Adjusted production (OPS+), which measures a player’s offensive production relative to the league average while adjusting for park effects, is better still.[ii] We’ve known for decades now that the single most important skill for a hitter is the ability to avoid creating outs (hence, on-base percentage is the single most important offensive stat). We know RBIs are probably the least accurate way to measure player production, because they are so heavily reliant on external factors (i.e., RBI opportunities).
Not quite as amazing, because leading the league in those three arbitrary stats doesn’t give a complete picture of greatness. While 2012 will undoubtedly remain his signature season, Cabrera was significantly better the very next season (even though he finished second in HR and RBI to Baltimore’s Chris Davis). In fact, Cabrera’s Triple Crown year was arguably his weakest in a brilliant four-season stretch that saw him garner three batting titles while leading the league in on-base percentage three times, RBI and slugging twice, home runs, doubles, and MVP arguments.[iii]
Extraordinary, and not quite as amazing as one would think. In fact, the press played scant attention to baseball’s “Triple Crown” until the late 1940s; it doesn’t become the familiar mid-summer storyline we know today (“Can Player X Capture the Triple Crown?”) until Cleveland’s Al Rosen made a spirited but thwarted run at the achievement in 1953 (missing the honor by one point of batting average on the season’s final day).[iv]
That said, you earn the Triple Crown and odds are you were the most valuable player in your league.
Except, of course, when you’re not.
Triple Crown Seasons (since 1901)
There have been 15 Triple Crowns since 1900, with an MVP award in existence for 12 of them (there was no MVP award when Nap Lajoie , Ty Cobb , and Rogers Hornsby  paced their leagues in AVG/HR/RBI; Cobb produced a “quadruple crown” of sorts, also leading the league in stolen bases). Those 12 seasons produced seven MVPs, meaning Triple Crown titlists have been named most valuable 58% of the time. Not making the cut:
· 1912: Heinie Zimmerman. WAR rates Zimmerman the second-best player in the league, behind Wagner. As a hitter, he had no peers — his 169 OPS+ led the league by a significant margin. But Zimmerman’s Cubs placed third, 11.5 games behind the pennant-winning Giants, and Zimmerman was a non-factor in the MVP race. Zimmerman’s sixth-place showing on the MVP ballot is the worst of any Triple Crown hitter. He really deserved much better: His weak-hitting teammate Joe Tinker (.282/.331/.358) somehow placed fourth in the vote. Never underestimate the power of a good reputation.
· 1942, 1947: Ted Williams. Williams failed to capture MVP in both his Triple Crown seasons. He was robbed both times. The Joe Gordon victory in 1942 was simple theft; Joe DiMaggio’s 1947 award (by a single vote) was grand larceny. DiMaggio, battling injuries all season, accrued 4.8 WAR and a .315/.391/.515 line, with 20 HR and 97 RBI. Compare that to Williams’ line above. The 1947 vote was clearly among the worst of all time.[v]
· 1933: Chuck Klein. Klein finished a distant second to MVP winner Carl Hubbell, and that’s about right. WAR rates Hubbell as the most valuable player in the league. In a sense, it’s an “apples-to- oranges” comparison — but there’s no denying that Hubbell was a monster in 1933, leading the league in ERA and adjusted ERA, innings, WHIP and shutouts, while finishing second in strikeouts. He made a fine MVP choice. Hubbell’s line:
· 1934: Lou Gehrig. In addition to the Triple Crown categories, Gehrig also paced the circuit in WAR, OBP, SLG, OPS+, and total bases. He finished second in runs, hits, and walks. His most amazing (if not necessarily most important) stat: He smashed 49 home runs while striking out 31 times. Put another way, Gehrig was 50% more likely to hit a home run than to strike out.[vi] In one of the worst MVP votes of all time, he finished fifth on the ballot.
Which brings us back to the JD Martinez and his quest for the Triple Crown (and, by extension, the American League MVP Award). With the season winding down, the annual awards debates have begun in earnest. The consensus pick for AL MVP, at the moment, seems to be split between Martinez and teammate Mookie Betts, who are crafting a New England repeat of the 2012 vote. The debate this year is of a more muted, congenial variety — but sides are actively being chosen in Boston and beyond.
As noted, leading the league in BA, HR and RBI usually means you’re the best player in the league. At the very least, it almost always means you’re the best hitter in the league.
2018 AL Leaders, WAR
Martinez is having a wonderful season, but it’s far from certain he’s having the best season of any player at the plate: Even with his gaudy numbers across the traditional leaderboard, Martinez ranks third in OPS+ and batting runs; a distant third in OBP (trailing Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in all three categories). Due to his limitations as a baserunner and defender (more on this in a moment), WAR ranks Martinez the seventh-best all-around player in the league.
None of this is to suggest Martinez has been anything other than brilliant as a hitter: The man may very well hit for the Triple Crown, after all.
But it doesn’t make him the most valuable player. That would be Betts, who is at least the equal of Martinez at the plate,[vii] and in another league entirely as an all-around player. A superb outfielder, Betts rates as having saved his team 19 runs with the glove as compared to an average outfielder (despite missing several weeks due to injury); Martinez rates six runs worse than an average outfielder (even though he’s only suited up for 51 games in the outfield). This represents a 25-run gap in productivity — and that’s before we address base running: With his ability to steal bases and avoid hitting into double plays (only four GDP on the season, compared to 18 for Martinez), the speedy and efficient Betts has created six additional runs for his team on the base paths. Martinez–built for power, not speed–has cost the Red Sox four runs on the bases. Another 10-run gap between the two. Those 35 combined runs on the bases/in the field are reflected in the enormous WAR differential between the two (Betts 9.7; Martinez 5.8). No hitting prize — even one as shiny as the Triple Crown — can bridge that delta.
J.D. Martinez is having a season for the ages.
He is one of the best handful of hitters in baseball.
He may very well slug his way to the Triple Crown.
But the AL MVP is Mookie Betts.
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[i] “Career” Triple Crowns: Ruth, Aaron, DiMaggio, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Mize, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Andres Galarraga.
[ii] Offensive WAR (oWAR) and Weighted On-base Avg (wOBA) are better still.
[iii] Based on OPS+, Cabrera had the “worst” Triple Crown season — he’s the only player to lead the league in all three categories and fail to lead in adjusted production (Trout). He is also the only Triple Crown winner to post an OBP lower than .400. None of this denigrates an outstanding season.
[iv] Washington’s Mickey Vernon outpointed Rosen .337-.336 for the batting title; Rosen comfortably led the league in HR (43) and RBI (145) and claimed MVP honors.
[v] At a pre-season press conference announcing the terms of his 1947 contract ($60,000), Williams was uncharacteristically modest (or maybe just coy). “I just hope I can hit well enough to be worth the money they’re paying me.” Fair to say Williams lived up to his end of the deal.
[vi] Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, averaged 30 strikeouts a month in his 2014 MVP season. A different game.
[vii] Not convinced? Martinez may hit for the Triple Crown, but Betts may end up leading the league in slugging.