Is Miguel Cabrera headed for the best Triple Crown encore season ever?
Miguel Cabrera went 4-for-4 with three home runs and five RBIs in the Tigers’ 11-8 loss to the Rangers on Sunday night. With that performance he pulled within one home run of the American League leaders (Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds, Edwin Encarnacion and Robinson Cano each have 12), and took a commanding lead in RBIs (47 to Davis’s 40) and batting average (.387 to James Loney’s .356). Thus, a year after winning the first Triple Crown in 45 years, Cabrera is essentially back at it.
Actually, he’s doing even better than that. Sunday night’s loss was Detroit’s 42nd game of the year. Last year, Cabrera’s line after the Tigers’ 42nd game was .304/.362/.488 with eight home runs and 34 RBIs and he wasn’t close to the lead in any of the Triple Crown categories. This year, after 42 games, he’s hitting .387/.457/.659 with 11 home runs and 47 RBIs and is only one home run away from sitting atop all three categories. Cabrera leads the majors in batting average and RBIs as well as in OPS, OPS+, total bases and hits and also leads the AL in runs scored.
No player in major league history has ever won the Triple Crown in consecutive seasons, but Cabrera’s hot start begs the questions, who came closest, and which past Triple Crown winner had the best follow-up season?
None of the 16 Triple Crown winners has led his league in even two categories the next season and none has ever led the league in home runs the next year, either. Ted Williams (after his first of two Crown wins in 1942) didn’t even play the following season because of military service and Nap Lajoie played just 87 games the year after winning the Crown in 1901 because he was ensnared in a legal dispute with the owner of his former team. Cardinals outfielder Joe Medwick, the last National League player to wear the Crown, was the only one to lead his league in RBIs the next season (with 122 in 1938).
Though no Triple Crown winner came particularly close to repeating his rare feat right away (Williams and Rogers Hornsby both won the crown twice), that doesn’t mean that none of them had great encore seasons. The best was likely Mickey Mantle’s 1957 in which he hit .365/.512/.665 with 34 home runs 94 RBIs, 121 runs scored, 315 total bases, 16 stolen bases in 19 attempts and 146 walks against just 75 strikeouts. Mantle won his second consecutive MVP that season, but he only led the league (and the majors) in walks and runs (and Wins Above Replacement!) because Ted Williams hit .388/.526/.731 that season and Senators leftfielder Roy Sievers hit 42 home runs and drove in 114.
Here are the other 16 follow-up seasons by Triple Crown winners ranked by Baseball-References WAR (bold indicates league leader, bold italics indicates major league leader):
Cabrera likely won’t be able to compete with the top three seasons above because of the additional contributions Mantle, Cobb and Yastrzemski made with their legs and their gloves. Still, his current pace would leave him with 42 home runs and an astonishing 181 RBIs. His projected bWAR of 8.9 would be even better if not for the -2.3 he is on pace for defensively. His 194 OPS+ would rank third on the list above and he is also on pace for 258 hits and 131 runs scored. All of which means that even without leading the league in all three categories, this may yet prove to be by far the closest thing we’ve ever had to a repeat Triple Crown winner.