Triple Crowns vs. Perfect Games

                I find the best way to protect my sanity in the era of the hot take is just to tune things out, especially the things said on podcasts, in Facebook posts, or anywhere that thoughts are restricted to short, unaccountable bursts. But sometimes it’s just impossible. Sometimes someone blurts a line that lets them live rent free in my brain no matter what I do. And the tenacity of a dumb comment is in no way related to how important the subject matter is.

                Case in point, I’ve been gnawing on a particularly irksome nugget from Buster Olney on Baseball Tonight for a while now. Discussing the possibility of a Triple Crown winner (meaning that one player leads his league in average, home runs, and RBI), Olney said that the milestone was a fluky, meaningless thing. Okay I thought, there’s a bit of truth to that. He lost me when he continued, saying that it was as meaningful to the quality of a player’s performance as the equally fluky emergence of a perfect game.

                I get where he was coming from to a limited extent. Leading the league in home runs is still meaningful, but the other two categories, batting average and RBI are deeply flawed statistics. Batting average is subject to massive fluctuation, and of course ignores the contributions of players who get on base in other ways. RBI are like wins for pitchers. They’re fun to keep track of, and the numbers have been around so long that they’re easy to compare with famous seasons from the past. But they’re both so dependent on situation that they say very little about the player’s individual accomplishment. (Except for the 1972 season where Steve Carlton won 27 games for a Phillies team that only managed 59 total wins. That’s nuts. I think those 27 wins said a lot.)

                That said, a player doesn’t dominate an entire league in those three categories without… well, dominating the league. Perfect games are phenomenal. They happen to great pitchers more often than mediocre ones. They represent one player putting his stamp on a game in a way that an offensive player just can’t manage. But they are random. I wondered though; how fluky they are. How do Triple Crown seasons compare to seasons in which a pitcher throws a perfect game? How do the careers of Triple Crown winners compare to the careers of pitchers who spin nine unblemished innings at least once?

                So, I thought it might be fun to compare. There have been only 12 hitting Triple Crown winners since 1920 (the Live Ball Era) and only 19 perfect games. This makes the data both manageable and fairly similar in sample size. I’m going to use WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as an admittedly flawed, but hopefully somewhat useful measure of a player’s overall value, his “overall contributions to his team”.

Table of Triple Crown winners in hitting:

PlayerYearSeason WARCareer WARHall of Fame?
Rogers Hornsby192210.0127.0Yes
Rogers Hornsby192510.2127.0Yes
Chuck Klein19337.543.6Yes
Jimmie Foxx19339.296.6Yes
Lou Gehrig193410.4112.4Yes
Joe Medwick19378.555.6Yes
Ted Williams194210.6123.1Yes
Ted Williams19479.9123.1Yes
Mickey Mantle195611.3110.3Yes
Frank Robinson19667.7107.3Yes
Carl Yastrzemski196712.596.4Yes
Miguel Cabrera20127.169.6Not Yet!

                My quick takeaways from this list?

  1. Only two players have won the Triple Crown more than once. Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams are also the number 9 and 11 leaders in career WAR for all time.
  2. A quick glance at these hitters’ career stats will show that for many of them, this wasn’t their most valuable season to their teams. That bit at least is pretty random.
  3. Two guys managed to win the Triple Crown in the same year. Totally meaningless, but cool huh?
  4. Every single one of these players is in the Hall of Fame except Miguel Cabrera, and he’s not eligible because he’s still playing. Sort of.
  5. What the hell am I supposed to do with that ‘Z’ in Yastrzemski pronunciation-wise?

Table of Perfect Game pitchers:

PlayerYearSeason WARCareer WARHall of Fame
Charlie Robertson19224.26.4No
Don Larsen19562.618.4No
Jim Bunning19645.559.4Yes
Sandy Koufax19658.148.9Yes
Catfish Hunter19680.440.9Yes
Len Barker19812.412.6No
Mike Witt19844.621.6No
Tom Browning19882.819.8No
Dennis Martinez19915.848.7No
Kenny Rogers19942.850.4No
David Wells19984.853.5No
David Cone19995.162.3No
Randy Johnson20048.4101.1Yes
Mark Buehrle20095.359.2No
Dallas Braden20102.55.0No
Roy Halladay20108.664.3Yes
Philip Humber2012-1.10.9No
Matt Cain20123.829.1Not eligible
Felix Hernandez20125.350.1Not eligible

                Quick Takeaways:

  1. No one is on this list twice
  2. Only two of these seasons were truly dominant campaigns: Johnson in 2004 and Koufax in 1965.
  3. Who knew that Jim Bunning, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, and Mark Buehrle all had higher career WAR than Sandy Koufax?
  4. Why is Catfish Hunter in the Hall of Fame?
  5. David Cone really should have gotten more consideration for the Hall than to be bumped in his first year of eligibility.
  6. The 1956 Yankees are the only team to have both a Triple Crown winner and a perfect game in the same season.
  7. Philip Humber had a negative WAR in 2012, meaning that despite his perfect game, the White Sox would have been better off with a AAA pitcher than they were with him.

Even a cursory glance at these tables gives the impression that perfect games are far less representative of a great season than a triple crown. They are even less linked to great careers. Randy Johnson is on the list with the ninth highest career WAR for a pitcher, but so isPhilip Humber (0.9!), along with five other pitchers whose career value is less than 20 games over replacement.

Overall, the average season WAR for a Triple Crown season was 9.6, compared to 4.3 for a season with a perfect game. Not quite the runaway I would have predicted when looking at Philip Humber’s season (sorry, man, but -1.1?) but still better than double. The career averages are similarly skewed. Triple Crown winners have an average of 99 wins above replacement in their careers, while perfect game pitchers logged an average of 39.6 WAR. This is about half the number required to get into the hall of fame.

So, I think my intuition of how ridiculous this statement was finds solid support in the numbers.

My gut: 1, Hot take: 0.

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