DETROIT — Miguel Cabrera’s drive sailed high into the Detroit night – so high, in fact, that left fielder Alex Gordon had time to drift over to the fence and wait a couple seconds before reaching over and robbing the slugger of a home run.
That snapshot was a good example of why nobody has won baseball’s triple crown in 45 years. It takes a special blend of power, discipline, consistency – and yes, luck, if you believe in such a thing. But Cabrera is making perhaps the strongest bid since Carl Yastrzemski accomplished the feat in 1967.
With six games remaining, Detroit’s third baseman tops the American League in batting average and RBI and trails home run leader Josh Hamilton by only one.
“I heard a lot from the fans about the triple crown. I can’t repeat most of it, but I’m sure you can guess,” said Gordon, the Kansas City outfielder who did his part to slow Cabrera’s pursuit by taking that homer away Wednesday night.
Cabrera won his first batting title last year, hitting .344 to complete a “career triple crown” after winning home run and RBI titles in previous seasons. Now he’s trying to become the first player since Yastrzemski to sweep all three categories at the same time. Since 1967, the triple crown has been even more elusive in baseball than in horse racing.
Yastrzemski figures it’s only a matter of time before somebody new joins the club. Since 1967, other seemingly unapproachable marks have been surpassed.
“When Rose broke Cobb’s hit record, I never thought that would happen,” Yastrzemski said. “When Ripken broke Gehrig’s consecutive game record, I never thought that would happen either. So it’s going to happen.”
In 1967, Yastrzemski hit .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBI – a feat somewhat overshadowed at the time by a memorable pennant race in which his Boston Red Sox outlasted Detroit and Minnesota by a single game. Cabrera is in a similar spot. The Tigers are in a tense race with the Chicago White Sox atop the AL Central.
After Thursday’s 5-4 victory over Kansas City, Cabrera is hitting .326 with 42 homers and 133 RBI.
“I want to keep my game the same way,” Cabrera said recently. “I don’t want to put extra pressure because we’ve got a lot of pressure right now in our division. I think it’s going to be a big mistake if I put extra pressure on myself.”
Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby both won the Triple Crown twice. Frank Robinson did it the year before Yastrzemski, making the drought that followed even more striking.
According to STATS LLC., since Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown, a player has finished atop his league in two of the three categories 45 times. That makes some sense, since a good power hitter can rack up homers and RBIs simultaneously.
Sure enough, in 41 of those 45 Triple Crown near-misses, batting average was the spoiler. Stars like Johnny Bench, Mike Schmidt, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez have all led their leagues in homers and RBIs in the same season <0x2014> only to fall short of the batting title.
That’s what’s made Cabrera unique. Some power hitters strike out so much they can forget about a decent batting average. Cabrera is on pace to hit at least .320 for the seventh time in eight years <0x2014> but there may be a limit to how high his average can rise since he doesn’t have much speed. That makes his Triple Crown attempt that much more remarkable.
“It’s really a difficult thing to do, particularly for a guy like Cabrera,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “Cabrera doesn’t get any infield hits, so that’s a tough thing to do.”
Jeff Bagwell was the only recent player to finish in the top two in each Triple Crown category; in the strike-shortened 1994 season, he was first in RBIs and second in both average and homers. In 1992, Gary Sheffield led the National League in hitting but finished two behind in the home run race and nine back in RBIs.
“That’s the ultimate, to win the Triple Crown,” slugger Jim Thome said. “I think it would be good for baseball. I think it would be good for kids of our era to say that they watched a Triple Crown. If you’re a kid in Detroit, how could you not want to see a Triple Crown?”
Cabrera’s chase has helped start a divisive debate over whether he or Angels rookie Mike Trout should be the American League MVP. Trout has been an all-around force for Los Angeles <0x2014> at the plate, in the field and on the bases.
No matter who comes out on top in that vote, there’s no detracting from Cabrera’s terrific year. He was arrested at the start of spring training in 2011 and later pleaded no contest to drunken driving, but he earned praise from the organization for his work off the field in the aftermath of that ugly incident. He went on to win the batting title last year and helped the Tigers to a division championship.
When Detroit signed Prince Fielder in the offseason, Cabrera moved from first base to third and showed up at spring training looking a little slimmer. His home run and RBI totals in 2012 are both career highs, and while he doesn’t remind anyone of Brooks Robinson with the glove, he’s hardly the only Tiger with defensive issues.
He’s also Detroit’s nominee this year for the Roberto Clemente Award, which rewards the player “who best represents the game of baseball through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement.”
In July, Cabrera became the second Venezuela-born player to reach 300 homers.
“He’s the total package,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “There’s just none of them around that can do what he can do <0x2014> hit for an extremely high average, hit for an extreme amount of power and be a run producer.”
Cabrera has taken advantage of a big year from Detroit leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, who is hitting .303. Having a player like that ahead of him in the lineup has surely helped Cabrera’s RBI total.
Any number of hitters could still play spoiler to Cabrera’s Triple Crown chase. Trout and Joe Mauer were three points behind in average heading into Thursday night’s games. Hamilton was ahead in homers, and Edwin Encarnacion was even with Cabrera at 42. Adam Dunn had 41.
So the stage is set for quite a conclusion to the regular season, both because of the AL Central race and Cabrera’s own shot at history.
“It’s hard. A lot of attention right now. Here, even in Venezuela,” Cabrera said. “Try to stay out, don’t read the papers. Try not to think about it.”