Willie Horton

The Triple Crown is awarded for leading the league in average, homers, and RBI.  Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemki won the honor back-to-back in 1966 and 1967, and as a result it was something that seemed fairly common in my early years following the sport.  It has only been won once since then, by Miguel Cabrera in 2012.  One assumes the rarity of the achievement has increased in my lifetime due to expansion — we've gone from 16 teams to thirty, and that means a lot more players are chasing the crown.

We are now about 2/5th of the way through the season, and I’m wondering if anyone has a shot at the IBC triple crown.  There are only six hitters who qualify for the batting title who are currently above the .300 mark, so we’ll just take a look at them.  Here are their triple crown stats, and in parentheses is their league rank if in the category’s Top 10:

Player, Team                Average   Homers    RBI      Other
Willie Mays, Council Bluffs .373 (1)   14 (4)   49 (1)   42 runs (1)
Ken Harrelson, Iowa City    .338 (2)   13 (6)   43 (4)   39 runs (3)
Willie Horton, Davenport    .319 (3)   17 (1)   49 (1)   39 runs (3)
Matty Alou, Ames            .318 (4)    0 (x)   12 (x)   16 steals (4)
Pete Rose, Sioux City       .316 (5)    2 (x)   13 (x)   19 doubles (1)
Ken McMullen, Dubuque       .301 (6)   14 (4)   28 (x)   34 runs (10)

Willie Mays

Willie Mays has by far the best shot, given his current lead in batting average is a whopping 35 points.  The switch to a neutral park has clearly given his numbers a boost!  Also in Mays’ favor is the fact that his club, the Falcons, currently tops in the IBC with 340 runs, has a strong supporting cast that will help him continue to tally RBI.  We can rule out Alou and Rose from Triple Crown contention — they might act as spoilers, but there’s no chance for them to register in the power categories.  Ken McMullen is also relegated to a spoiler role — he’s already 20+ RBI off the pace (likely due to his team, the Golden Eagles, currently being 9th in runs).  That leaves Harrelson and Horton as the other serious contenders.  

Ken Harrelson

The Hawk is eleven years younger than Mays, and looking at the back of his baseball card is more of a 1-year wonder than I remembered.  This is probably since his best year, 1968, is the golden-oldie season that I know best.  He made his only all-star appearance that year, and it also was his only ‘black print’ season (he led the AL in RBI).  A factor in his favor is that he’s got Yastrzemski, who walked 119 times, ahead of him in the lineup.  This should help his RBI count, but the shift to a neutral park should be a slight drag on his batting average.  As such, it will be really tough for him to catch Mays in that category, but Harrelson's chance to lead the league in homers and RBIs is as good as anybody's.

Willie Horton

What about Horton?  He was just 25 in 1968 and never led the league in any category over a fine 18-year career.  He wasn’t hall-worthy by any stretch, but is one of just a handful of Tigers whose number has been retired, so that counts for something!  As with Harrelson, this was his best year and thus I have a heightened memory of The Wonder in his prime.  But he was also among a group of players whose primary position was DH in the mid-to-late 1970s, so my perception of his value is strongly discounted for his being an incomplete ballplayer.  Horton probably has the longest shot at winning the Triple Crown, given that the switch to a neutral park cut his ballpark homer chance by almost half, from 16 to 9.  But no one ever said it was going to be easy!

As far as Willie Mays’ chances are go, a major consideration has to be his age.  He’s 37, and if I was writing about a real season in progress I’d predict a big fade in the second-half.  But this is Willie Mays, after all, and I’m not sure this caliber of player is subject to the normal aging curves.  Let’s compare his real age-37 season to those of the other Triple Crown winners from this decade, Yaz and Frank, and the other five guys on the list above.  I guess it comes at no great shock that three of the eight had retired before they were as old as Mays — it’s quite an achievement to play into your late thirties!

Player            Average   Homers     RBI     Other
Willie Mays         .289       23       79     67 walks
Carl Yastrzenmski   .296       28      102     73 walks
Frank Robinson      .266       30       97     82 walks
Ken Harrelson       retired after age-29 season
Willie Horton       .221        8       36     39 walks
Matty Alou          retired after age-35 season
Pete Rose           .302        7       52     62 walks
Ken McMullen        
retired after age-35 season

Thirteen players have won baseball's Triple Crown.  Eleven were in their twenties, and the oldest, Lou Gehrig, was just 31 at the time.  For ballplayers, the difference between 31 and 37 is enormous — and while you can be good at 37, can you be at Triple Crown level?  I guess we’ll see.  

Here is a link to the Strat-O-Matic league file after 11 weeks of play, and the current standings.  Three clubs are 7-3 over the last ten: Ames, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines.  Meanwhile, Dubuque has gone stone cold, going 2-8.

1968IB-3-22-2019.lzp

6/23/68 Iowa Baseball Confederacy        Won   Lost    Pct     GB
Council Bluffs Falcons (A’s-Giants)      48     25    .658     —
Davenport Knights (Tigers-Cards)         43     27    .614    3.5
Ames Little Cyclones (Orioles-Pirates)   41     29    .586    5.5
Cedar Rapids Saints (Twins-Dodgers)      38     33    .535    9.0
Sioux City Crusaders (Indians-Reds)      36     37    .493   12.0
Iowa City Regals (Red Sox-Phillies)      35     37    .486   12.5
Waterloo Sailors (White Sox-Braves)      31     40    .437   16.0
Des Moines Scarlets (Yankees-Cubs)       31     41    .431   16.5
West Metro Maroons (Angels-Mets)         30     43    .411   18.0

Dubuque Golden Eagles (Senators-Astros)  25     46    .352   22.0

That’s all for this week.  We’ll look at the pitching version of the Triple Crown next time!

© John Kisner 2019