Triple Crown Winners and the MVP

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The reason the Triple Crown is getting such attention is that it’s so unknown to most everyone because it hasn’t happened since 1967 when Carl Yastrzemski won it leading the Red Sox to their “Impossible Dream” pennant. But now, with Tigers’ third baseman Miguel Cabrera on the verge of winning the Triple Crown in the American League, there’s an increasingly contentious debate as to whether leading the home runs, RBI, and batting average will justify Cabrera taking the Most Valuable Player over Angels’ center fielder Mike Trout.

Trout has the accumulation of numbers including great defense and stolen bases to go along with power for a 10.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Cabrera’s WAR has been reduced significantly because he’s a poor defensive third baseman. Discounting defense, Trout is still ahead by .9 wins per game over Cabrera when calculating offensive WAR.

So how is it going to be decided? Will it be based on the player with the big power numbers? The one with the higher WAR and better all-around game? Will the word “value” be taken literally and used out of convenience by the voter to achieve his ends of picking Cabrera or Trout and use a floating, elusive, and adaptive principle to counter disagreement? Will there be the “clutch” stats factored into the equation? Difficulty of opponent? Will it go macro by dissecting when they did their damage and against whom and a myriad of other reasons to do what one would prefer to do? A motivated supporter of either Trout or Cabrera can find a reason to do it. It’s not hard.

I wrote about Trout vs Cabrera recently here, but what’s interesting is examining how players who had previously won the Triple Crown were treated by the MVP voters. Let’s take a look at the Triple Crown winners, some of whom didn’t win the MVP.

(The MVP was called the “league award” before it became the MVP in 1931.)

1925: Triple Crown Winner—Rogers Hornsby, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals; won the MVP

Hornsby won the Triple Crown with 39 homers, 143 RBI, and a .403 BA. He had a 10.1 WAR and won the National League MVP. He also led the league in every major offensive category. His Cardinals team finished at 77-76.

Pirates’ right fielder Kiki Cuyler came in second in the voting and it was far closer than it should’ve been with Hornsby getting 91% of the votes and Cuyler 76%. Cuyler stole 41 bases, had 26 triples, and led the majors with 144 runs scored. Obviously the Pirates winning the pennant with a 95-58 record and pennant helped Cuyler’s case with many of the voters.

1933: Triple Crown Winner—Jimmie Foxx, 1B, Philadelphia Athletics; won the MVP

Foxx had 48 homers, 163 RBI, and batted .356. He also led the league in slugging, OPS, OPS+, and total bases. He had a WAR of 9.0. Foxx won the award relatively easily with 91%. Next was Lou Gehrig at 69%. The only player who warranted consideration based on the way his team finished was third place finisher, left fielder Heinie Manush of the pennant winning Washington Senators, and his numbers weren’t MVP-quality. He led the league in hits and triples.

The Senators didn’t have one significant star who “made” their 99-53 record. They finished 19 ½ games ahead of the A’s, but Foxx won the MVP anyway.

1933: Triple Crown Winner—Chuck Klein, RF, Philadelphia Phillies; did not win the MVP

Klein played for the Phillies who finished in last place in the National League with a record of 60-92. Klein led the league in every significant offensive category and had a 7.3 WAR. Klein had won the MVP in the National League in 1932, but finished in second place to New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell (there was no Cy Young Award then). The Giants won the National League pennant that season, Hubbell went 23-12 with a 1.66 ERA and an 8.5 WAR. Hubbell deserved the award.

1934: Triple Crown Winner—Lou Gehrig, 1B, New York Yankees; did not win the MVP

The Yankees finished second to the Tigers by seven games in the American League. Gehrig led the AL in everything from homers, to RBI, to batting average, to on-base, slugging, and total bases. He had a 10.1 WAR. But Tigers’ catcher Mickey Cochrane won the MVP based on the Tigers winning the pennant. There could be no other reason. The voting was close…but it was close between Cochrane and his teammate Charlie Gehringer. Gehringer should’ve won it over Cochrane. Gehrig came in a ludicrous fifth. You could try to make the argument of Gehringer over Gehrig. You’d be wrong, but given Gehringer playing second base well and Gehrig playing first base poorly, along with the Tigers winning the pennant, you could make the argument.

1937: Triple Crown Winner—Joe Medwick, LF, St. Louis Cardinals; won the MVP

Looking at Medwick’s numbers, he reminds me of Don Mattingly. He was a hacker who never walked, but never struck out either. In addition to the Triple Crown numbers, he led the National League in hits, runs, doubles, slugging, OPS, and OPS+. His WAR was 8.1.

The Cardinals finished in fourth place in the National League far behind the pennant-winning Giants. Gabby Hartnett came in second in the MVP voting, but Medwick deserved it and won it.

1942: Triple Crown Winner—Ted Williams, LF, Boston Red Sox; did not win the MVP

Williams led the AL in every offensive category by a lot. The Red Sox finished in second place in the AL behind the Yankees. Yankees’ second baseman Joe Gordon won the MVP. Williams’s WAR was 10.2 and Gordon’s was 7.8. The voting was close with Gordon accumulating 270 points to Williams’s 249. Of course Williams should’ve won. It’s doubtful anyone was paying attention to his shaky, uninterested defense back then, but the voters certainly knew that Williams had no use for the writers and perhaps that affected the voting more than Gordon’s Yankees winning the pennant with a far better team.

1947: Triple Crown Winner—Ted Williams, LF, Boston Red Sox; did not win the MVP

The Red Sox finished in third place, 14 games behind the pennant winning Yankees, but the absurdity of this MVP voting was stark. Joe DiMaggio won it with mediocre (for him) numbers of 20 homers and a .315/.391/.522 split. His WAR was 4.5.

Williams led the American League in every major offensive category and was again playing for a far inferior team. DiMaggio won the award by 1 point when he should have come in third behind Williams and Lou Boudreau.

1956: Triple Crown Winner—Mickey Mantle, CF, New York Yankees; won the MVP

The Yankees won the pennant by 9 games, Mantle led the American League in every major offensive category; he won the award unanimously and deserved it.

1966: Triple Crown Winner—Frank Robinson, RF, Baltimore Orioles; won the MVP

The Orioles won the pennant that year and Robinson won the AL MVP unanimously and deserved it. The interesting part of the Robinson’s 1966 season was how he’d been traded by the Reds the year before because Reds’ owner Bill DeWitt called the 30-year-old Robinson “an old 30.”

Challenging someone as cantankerous as Robinson—even now at age 77—is not a good idea. In truth, this trade in which Robinson was dealt for pitchers Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson might’ve been something the self-proclaimed experts who think they can study a stat sheet and know the ins-and-outs of baseball would pull and, in theory, it wasn’t a horrible idea.

Pappas has had his name sullied because he was traded for Robinson, but he was a very good pitcher who won 209 big league games. Simpson was 21 and had a big year in Triple A for the Angels in 1965 with 24 homers and 29 stolen bases, a .301 BA and .380 OBP (he was traded to the Orioles a week before they traded him to the Reds). Baldschun had been a useful reliever for the Phillies in the preceding years.

The pride of a man like Robinson was ignored and the trade and comments about why they made it set Robinson off on a mission to prove DeWitt wrong. And he did.

1967: Triple Crown Winner—Carl Yastrzemski, LF, Boston Red Sox; won the MVP

The only thing preventing Yastrzemski from winning the AL MVP unanimously was someone, somewhere who decided to vote for Cesar Tovar. Tovar had led the league in games, plate appearances, and at-bats. He batted .267 with a .325 OBP, 6 homers and 19 stolen bases. He was average defensively. Tovar was apparently voted for the MVP because of his attendance record.

Yastrzemski led the Red Sox to the World Series. The race went down to the wire with the White Sox, Twins, Tigers, and Red Sox all fighting until the end. Yastrzemski hit 9 homers in Sept./Oct. and had a .417/.504/.760 split in that last month-plus when it counted most.

For the most part, the rightful MVP has tended to win. There are mitigating circumstances when humans who rely on various biases and criteria are making the decisions. Some will be starstruck from the Triple Crown because it’s something many probably haven’t seen before. Others will lodge a “protest” vote against the stat people who are rolling their eyes and trying to bully the objectors of Trout’s candidacy using WAR as an end-of-story hammer without taking other aspects into account. Still others will try to use either the Tigers or Angels making the playoffs (or not) as the context of voting for or against either Trout or Cabrera.

When baseball awards are selected, there’s no list of reasons to vote or not vote for a candidate. All that can be done is to make a case and hope others agree. But I don’t see people making a case either way. I just see fighting, and all fighting is going to do is cause the factions to dig in and ignore any list of reasons, regardless of how logical and sensible they are. Being a hardline old-schooler or a condescending and arrogant stat person isn’t going to sway people to either side. That much I can guarantee.

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Cameron vs Puckett—*Wink Wink*

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Following his retirement, I saw it repeated ad nauseam that Mike Cameron has a higher career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) than Kirby Puckett.

What the implication of the “higher WAR” for Cameron suggests is anyone’s guess because they won’t come out and specifically say it.

I’m not grasping the random, silly comparison between two different players who have very little in common apart from both being center fielders.

But why pick on Puckett? Couldn’t they compare Cameron to a player with whom he has comparable stats according to Baseball-Reference’s comparison metric at the bottom of each player’s page?

Cameron’s comps are the likes of Jimmy Wynn (the Toy Cannon—great nickname), Tom Brunansky, Bobby Murcer, Chet Lemon, and Torii Hunter.

Puckett’s similar players are Don Mattingly, Cecil Cooper, Magglio Ordonez, Kiki Cuyler (the only Hall of Famer along with Puckett) and Tony Oliva.

The big problem that Puckett has is that he was elected to the Hall of Fame while probably being an “outside looking in” player had he retired of his own volition rather than because of glaucoma.

Was it sympathy? Was it a projection of what he “would” have done had he not had such a devastating career ending?

If they’re going down that road, the argument could be made that Mattingly should also be a Hall of Famer because of his injured back that robbed him of his power.

If Puckett is overrated, then so is Larry Walker who had similar home/road splits as Puckett did. And stat people push Walker for the Hall of Fame.

Walker hit .381 for his career at Coors Field. The next best number per ballpark was in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium where he had a slash line of .293/.373/.518.

After that was his other home park of Busch Stadium late in his career where he posted a .294/.391/.536.

Good but not all world or in the realm of ridiculous as his Coors Field numbers are.

The crux of the wink wink/nod nod argument is that Cameron’s career WAR was 46.7 and Puckett’s was 44.8.

Yes, I suppose technically Cameron had a “higher” WAR than Puckett, but since the people who reference WAR treat it as the end-all/be-all of analytical existence, wouldn’t it be prudent to mention that Cameron played in 5 more seasons than Puckett did to accumulate that total?

If you’d like to go by WAR, Cameron’s highest season WAR was 6.4 and his average, per season was 2.7.

Puckett’s highest WAR was 7.2 and his average was 3.7.

The aforementioned Walker had a career WAR of 67.3, but his numbers were severely bolstered by playing in the pinball machine of Coors Field in his prime. Plus there were suggestions that Walker’s power wasn’t all natural and, considering the era, everyone’s a suspect.

The only thing Puckett used in excess were cheeseburgers.

Here’s the reality, statistically and otherwise, with Cameron vs Puckett:

  • Cameron was an all-world defensive center fielder; Puckett won 6 Gold Gloves and his statistical defensive decline coincided with his burst of power in 1986. As a contemporary of Devon White and Gary Pettis, Puckett didn’t deserve the Gold Gloves.
  • Puckett batted .318 for his career with a .360 OBP and .477 slugging. Cameron’s slash line was .249/.338/.444.
  • Puckett hit 207 homers and stole 134 bases. Cameron had 278 homers and stole 297 bases.
  • Puckett averaged 88 strikeouts a season. Cameron averaged 158 strikeouts a season.
  • Puckett won 6 Silver Slugger Awards and batted above .314 eight times in his twelve year career. Cameron’s career high average was .273.
  • Puckett had a career OPS of .837. Cameron’s was .782. Puckett’s OPS+ (which accounts for ballpark factor) was 124. Cameron’s was 105.
  • In Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Puckett made a great catch in center field to rob Ron Gant of an extra base hit, went 3 for 4 at the plate and hit a game-winning homer to send the series to a decisive Game 7, which the Twins won.
  • Puckett won two World Series with the Twins and batted .309 with 5 post-season homers. Cameron batted .174 in 112 post season plate appearances with 1 home run.

What’s the comparison here?

There is none.

Puckett and Cameron not only shouldn’t be compared, they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.

So what’s the point?

I’m not sure because they won’t say it. All they’ll utter are interjections like “WOW!!!” followed by the indirect suggestion that Cameron was better than Puckett.

I think.

Are they saying that Cameron was better than Puckett? That Puckett was overrated and Cameron was underrated? And if they’re trying to say something to the tune of either argument, why not just come out and say it? Why does it have to be danced around like a clumsy, worn out ballerina with the kindasorta suggestion of what’s being said without it actually being said?

I don’t know.

This is why those who aren’t immersed in numbers can’t take seriously those who use statistics as the final arbiter of all discussions. They use them when they’re convenient to their argument, leave out context and then avoid saying what they’re trying to say to avoid the attacks of people like me who don’t want to hear such silliness.

But I said it anyway.

Puckett was better than Cameron. Period.

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