Sports Nut

Lies, Damned Lies, and Triple Crown Statistics

To win baseball’s Triple Crown, a player must lead his league in 1) batting average, 2) runs batted in, and 3) home runs. Winning the crown is a rare feat. But it would be a far cooler feat if these stats were meaningful.

Let’s start with batting average. A .300 hitter hits in three out of 10 at-bats. Dandy, except walks don’t count as at-bats. You can be a .300 hitter, and your BA remains the same whether you walk 10 times all year or walk 130 times. This punishes players for taking walks, but the player who walks more makes far fewer outs. Offense is not just hitting. It’s also avoiding outs. With only 27 per game, each out is precious, and a walk is often as good as a hit.

So, in place of batting average, the Triple Crown should use on-base percentage. OBP measures both hits and walks. Two hits and two walks in 10 times at the plate? Your BA is .250, but your OBP is .400. It’s tough to stop praising .300 hitters and start praising .450 OBPs, but it’s important. Tony Gwynn led the National League in hitting from 1995 to 1997, but he was never higher than third in OBP. In ‘96, he wasn’t in the top 10. By contrast, Edgar Martinez of the Seattle Mariners led the American League in OBP in 1995, ‘97, ‘98, and ‘99, but led the league in BA only in ‘95. Unfortunate result: Gwynn’s the bigger star.

Next on the chopping block is RBI. The Triple Crown should reward individual performances, but RBI is a team-dependent stat. You can’t knock in runs when there’s nobody on base. Indeed, nearly every Triple Crown winner has played for a winning team and on an offense ranked in the top three. No fair! You shouldn’t lose out just by playing on a terrible squad. If we wanted to measure how fast you knock guys around the base paths, we could use OBP with runners on base. But this is flawed, too. There’s little statistical evidence that “clutch” players exist—that some guys hit disproportionately well in important situations. Good hitters hit well when men are on base. They also hit well when men aren’t on base. In fact, everyone hits better with runners on base (the pitcher’s in the stretch and can’t afford a walk, the first baseman leaves a gap by holding the runner on, etc.), but no one should hit disproportionately better than everyone else does. Look at it the other way: Why wasn’t he trying as hard when the bases were empty? Remember, every out is precious, not just ones with men on base.

Still, the Triple Crown should measure not just avoidance of outs (as with OBP), but also quality of hit production. Some players get walks and singles, and some hit doubles and homers. So let’s use slugging percentage (SLG) as our second crown component. SLG is total bases divided by at-bats. Hit a double and a single, then strike out three times, you’ve got a .600 SLG. (By the way, Babe Ruth holds the career [.690] and single-season [.847] records for SLG.) This stat nicely complements OBP, and in fact many people use the two in tandem. SLG plus OBP (known as “OPS” for “On Base Plus Slugging”) is a great, quick indicator of all-around batting prowess. OPS is used within baseball circles, and it has long been championed by stats-driven baseball writers like’s Rob Neyer. It has even begun to take hold among traditional sportswriters. By breaking OPS into its halves, we’ve got the two most important hitting stats represented in the Triple Crown. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Finally, we come to the big bear: home runs. In some ways, this stat is as flawed as RBI or BA, but it’s also the most recognized part of the game. And there’s something to be said for tradition. If we’re going to ditch home runs, why not ditch the Triple Crown itself? After all, it’s just a tradition, too. Besides, home runs are different. They leave nothing to chance. There’s a lot to be said for a player who changes the game with a single swing. There are stats we could replace HR with (“runs created,” or some other algorithm), but none share its brutal simplicity, and we want fans to easily intuit each stat in the Triple Crown. Now, you’re saying, don’t home runs overlap with SLG? Yes. But they also overlap with RBI. In fact, in the six seasons from 1995-2000, six players led a league in both HR and SLG, while five players did it in both HR and RBI. Seems comparable.

In those same six seasons of 1995-2000, using our new Triple Crown of OBP, SLG, and HR, we would have seen three Triple Crown winners: Mark McGwire in 1996 and ‘98 (his 70 HR season), and Larry Walker in ‘97. Those were three incredible performances, and they deserved to be recognized. The current Triple Crown has not been won since 1967 (since ‘37 in the NL). I say it’s not a bad thing to have an award that’s occasionally awarded.

The crown is not the rarest of baseball feats. It’s happened 16 times, compared to 16 perfect games and 11 unassisted triple plays. But while the most recent perfect game was in 1999, and an unassisted triple play happened in 2000, we have to go back to the Sgt. Pepper era to find Yaz and the last Triple Crown season. Face it, it’s been way too long for the Triple Crown. It’s time for a new one.