In 1966, Baltimore Orioles star Frank Robinson led the American League in batting average, home runs, and RBIs, capturing the 14th Triple Crown in major league history. The following season, Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox won the 15th. No one would have believed it at the time, but it would be 45 years until another member joined the club, when Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera accomplished the feat in 2012.
Miggy hit .330 to edge out the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout for the AL batting title; he drove in 139 runs, 11 more than perennial All-Star Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers; and he smacked 44 home runs, one ahead of New York Yankee Curtis Granderson. By topping all three categories, Cabrera put himself into an elite class. All but one of the previous 13 players to win the Triple Crown are in the Hall of Fame.
"It's very hard to win," Cabrera says of the Triple Crown. "Your average can drop 20 points in two weeks. When you're looking for home runs, that's when you start to swing longer [causing you to miss more often]. And RBIs? That's when the pressure is on. You know you have to drive those guys in to win games."
As if the task wasn't hard enough, baseball's evolution since Yaz's Triple Crown made winning it even more difficult. In the last few decades, hitters have become more specialized. Players are split between those who focus on lining base hits and others who swing for the fences. "Some guys hit for average," Cabrera says. "How do you win the Triple Crown with Tony Gwynn and Ichiro around winning batting titles?"
At the same time, power hitters have been going yard more often (with some numbers tainted by the spread of performance enhancing drugs). In the 1940s, a guy known for hitting for average, like Red Sox legend Ted Williams, could still compete for the home run title. When he won the Triple Crown in 1942 and '47 , Williams only needed 36 and 32 homers, respectively. After the strike-shortened '94 season through 2007, only once did the AL leader hit fewer than the 44 Cabrera hit in 2012.
Don't let Cabrera's cherubic face fool you. The 29-year-old is an imposing 6' 4", 240 pounds. He looks like he belongs in a Detroit Lions huddle as much as in the Tigers' dugout. His success lies in combining his strength with precision and finesse at the plate. He displayed his array of skills in the Tigers' Central Division clincher on October 1, the game when he all but captured the Crown . Miggy went 4-for-5, lining a ball past the second baseman, blasting an opposite–field home run, fighting off a breaking ball for a bloop single, and driving a grounder up the middle .
"All of his were pure hits, with maybe a few lucky bounces here or there," says Robinson, who now oversees MLB's Urban Youth Academies across the country. "He doesn't beat out infield hits or bunts. He just hits them where they aren't, plain and simple."
Cabrera has been hitting like this for a decade, from the time he helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series as a 20-year-old rookie in 2003. That's when experts labeled him the next big thing.
The experts were right. With the Marlins, and since joining the Tigers in 2007, he's been stellar. And over the years he inched closer and closer to the Crown. In 2010 he led the AL in RBIs, was second in average, and was third in homers. The next year he won the batting title, was sixth in RBIs, and was 10th in home runs.
He started 2012 a little slowly, finishing April with a .298 batting average. But consistency was the key. " You have to understand you're going to have good days and bad days," Cabrera says. "You've got to have balance. Stay in the same place everyday and play hard."
By the end of July, his average was up to .322. And in the stretch run to the playoffs, he pushed it up to a league-leading .330. With new teammate Prince Fielder batting behind him, opponents couldn't pitch around Cabrera, who saw more pitches to hit, allowing him to set career highs in home runs and RBIs.
Once the Crown was in sight, reporters swarmed Cabrera every day . "They always asked ' Are you going to win the Triple Crown?' I'd always respond, 'I don't know,' " Cabrera says with a laugh. "That became my favorite answer, 'I don't know.'"
The pressure of the Crown can't be planned for. "You don't go into spring training thinking that you'll win the Triple Crown," Robinson says. "It just sort of magically appears as the season goes along."
Like Robinson, whose 1966 Orioles were in a pennant chase, Cabrera and the Tigers' division title pursuit actually eased the Triple Crown pressure. "We were racing to the playoffs," Cabrera says. "Every situation mattered for my team . I was focusing on trying to win games."
He was able to reach both goals. Detroit went 8–2 over the final 10 games to clinch its second straight AL Central title, and Cabrera batted .339 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs in the season's final month to win the Triple Crown.
With an historic achievement in hand, you'd think Cabrera would be a lock for AL MVP. But a groundswell of support built around Los Angeles Angels rookie centerfielder Mike Trout. Some fans and analysts looking at advanced statistics felt Trout was the MVP. It started a debate about the importance of the Triple Crown.
Batting average, home runs, and RBIs are no longer the only measure of a hitter's value. RBIs are dependent on teammates getting on base. Batting average isn't the best measure of how a player helps his team since it doesn't account for walks or differentiate between a single and a home run.
Cabrera edged Trout in the Triple Crown categories, but Trout was a much better defensive player and baserunner. In a stat called "Wins Above Replacement" or WAR, which crunches together hitting, base running and defense, Trout led the league. According to Baseball Reference, having Trout gave the Angels 10.7 more wins on the season than if he hadn't been on the team at all. Cabrera contributed 6.9 wins to Detroit. If WAR is reliable, does the Triple Crown still represent the pinnacle of performance many believe it does?
"I think advanced metrics are valuable, but batting average should not be overlooked," Robinson says. "When a batter gets a hit, he helps his team by potentially driving in runs and putting himself on base for teammates to drive him in."
Even if the Triple Crown has lost a bit of its luster, it's still a phenomenal feat. Cabrera led his team to a pennant, won the MVP, and won the Hank Aaron Award as the AL's best hitter. And he did it while facing the scrutiny of the Crown's pursuit.
Cabrera felt relief when the season ended and pride when Robinson presented him with an actual crown for his accomplishment. He'll keep it as a reminder of his fantastic season.
"I want to put it in my house," Cabrera says, "and tell everyone, 'Look at my crown, you know how hard it was to win that?'"