No hitter has won baseball’s Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. You probably knew that already.
Here, though, is an even more telling piece of information about one of the hardest achievements in professional sports: Until Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera recently held the American League lead in batting average, home runs and RBI, only one player since Yaz — Dick Allen in 1972 — had been atop all three categories in the month of September, according to STATS LLC.
Let that marinate for a moment: Cabrera is only the second person in nearly a half-century to be in Triple Crown position during the season’s final month.
“It’s so hard,” said Al Kaline, the Hall of Famer who challenged Yastrzemski for the ’67 batting title before finishing third. “You think about power … Back when I played, there were big, strong power guys who didn’t hit for average — pull hitters, (Harmon) Killebrews, guys of that nature.
“To see Miguel … I don’t even want to classify him as a power hitter. He’s a great hitter who can hit for power. He’s not a power hitter who happened to have a good year batting average-wise.”
Cabrera leads the AL in batting average (.326) and RBI (133), and he’s hit 42 home runs — only one behind Josh Hamilton. He’s within orbit of an historic achievement that scarcely has been sniffed for two generations. The attempt itself is noteworthy. So, too, is the respect and downright awe that exists for Cabrera among his peers in the major leagues.
Of Cabrera’s chances at the AL Most Valuable Player award this year, Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson said, “If he finishes anywhere close to (the Triple Crown), it’s hands down. If anyone hasn’t done something in ‘X’ amount of years, there shouldn’t be an argument. There’s a reason why it’s been so difficult to do.”
Cabrera is on pace for his fourth straight year hitting .320 or better, his sixth straight of 30 or more home runs, and his ninth straight of at least 100 RBI. To those of us who watch Cabrera, his pursuit of a Triple Crown is significant and exhilarating. To those who stand on the field beside him — teammates and opponents — the bigger surprise is he hasn’t done it already.
“With Miguel, he almost does this every year,” Royals left fielder Alex Gordon said this week.
“Is it really a surprise that he’s putting up these numbers? No. It’s pretty special when you’re going for a Triple Crown, but his numbers are always like this.
“I want to say it’s a matter of time before he gets it.”
Considering the history Cabrera is up against, Gordon’s last statement is preposterous. But it may also be correct — even during an era in which the feat would appear more difficult than ever. If the Steroid Era came and went without a Triple Crown winner, how remarkable would it be to see one in this period of comparatively diminished offense?
“I think relief pitching has a lot to do with it, I really do,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, when asked why baseball has waited so long for another Triple Crown winner. “Some games, these guys go two at-bats against a starter, one against a reliever, one against a specialist, maybe another against a closer or setup guy.
“It’s really a difficult thing to do, particularly for a guy like Cabrera. Cabrera doesn’t get any infield hits. It’s just a difficult thing to do.”
Cabrera’s performance Wednesday against Kansas City illustrated just how hard the task remains. He punished the ball three times: a scalded grounder that Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie deflected for an out, a line shot to straightaway center field, and a towering fly that Gordon caught with a leaping, over-the-wall catch. End result: 0-for-4.
(Remember this if Cabrera misses the Triple Crown by one home run — a possibility brought to Gordon’s attention, with unprintable color, by fans seated in the left-field corner at Comerica Park.)
Cabrera is a combined 1-for-11 over his past three games. Bad luck? Good pitching? Anxious swings? Maybe some of all three.
As Kaline said, it’s hard.
“They’re pitching me backwards now — starting off-speed for strikes,” Cabrera said. “I’m an aggressive hitter. That’s not what I want early in the count. I want to be aggressive, try to put the ball in play. That’s what I’ve been doing the whole year.”
Cabrera, who’s also engaged in a fierce MVP battle with Mike Trout, said he feels no more pressure at the plate than normal. Off the field, though, he admits to feeling a little uncomfortable about the media’s interest in his pursuit.
“The attention I have right now, I don’t expect that,” he said. “That’s too much. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to talk too much about numbers. It kind of bothers me a little bit. My goal is to win games. It doesn’t matter if I go 0-for-4, 0-for-5.”
To that end, the Tigers have won four straight games. They lead Chicago in the American League Central by 1-1/2 games.
Asked which mattered more — the Triple Crown or a division title — Cabrera smiled.
“Division title,” he said. “Easy answer. I’ve got a good feeling we’re going to win.”