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Why has nobody hit for the Triple Crown in the NL since 1937

Hint: Basically Coors Field and bad timing

MLB: AUG 25 Cardinals at Cubs Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Paul Goldschmidt has an uphill battle for the Triple Crown. He has built a decent lead in average, he’s got a pretty good shot at RBIs, but homers is going to be tough. Kyle Schwarber’s entire thing is homers. In fact he’s barely been an average player this year. It really didn’t help that Goldschmidt had a prime opportunity to pounce on some of these stats at Great American Ballpark against bad pitching, but he slumped hard. He’s had a couple games this year where I’ve thought “well here comes the slump” and as soon as that thought crosses my mind, he goes back to being 2022 Goldschmidt. Let’s hope he has a monster game on Friday.

But I was wondering: why hasn’t anyone hit for the Triple Crown since 1937? I get it. It’s hard. But it’s weirdly happened six times in the American League since then, including in 2012. All six times were from Hall of Famers: Ted Williams twice, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, and a future one in Miguel Cabrera. I mean that list alone should tell you how difficult it is.

The Triple Crown is an interesting set of stats. Two of them are considered “power” stats, whereby they seem to correlate with each other. If you are an RBI man, you’re probably a HR man and vice versa. Batting average is a different tool, the contact tool. Although hypothetically, average and RBIs can coexist too. Get a lot of hits, you’re bound to have runners in scoring position for a lot of them. Average and home runs though, not so much. But a high average, HR hitter? As rare as they are, none of those guys have stumbled into a Triple Crown. And why is it unique to the National League?

A few reasons that I came up with:

  1. The “Tony Gwynn” hitter

Sometimes a player comes along and basically makes it nearly impossible to achieve a Triple Crown. This is a player so absurdly consistent with hitting for a high average that he has a stranglehold on one third of the leaderboard. Unfortunately, this player typically has very little power. Tony Gwynn won eight batting titles between 1984 and 1997, including four straight years from 1994 to 1997. Bill Madlock won five batting titles between 1975 and 1983.

Roberto Clemente, who I honestly hadn’t realized didn’t hit for a ton of power (240 career homers, only three seasons above 20), won four batting titles from 1961 to 1967. Pete Rose won back-to-back ones in 1968 and 1969 and then again in 1973. From 1955 to 1997, a batting title was won by one of five people (the names above plus Tommy Davis and Richie Ashburn) 22 of the 42 years and when they won it, they had virtually no shot of actually getting both of the other two categories.

2. Rockies players who don’t have enough power

This may be the best reason why the National League hasn’t won. We have had to deal with Tony Gwynn and also Coors Field. The Rockies win a bunch of batting titles. And despite the park being very homer happy, they don’t actually seem to have huge home run hitters, which is kind of weird. At least not the type who are going to lead baseball in homers.

Since the Rockies inception, they have won 11 batting titles. That’s 29 years, 11 batting titles from one team. Nine different players, with the only repeat offender being Larry Walker, who did it three times. We’ll get back to Walker later. We’ll also get back to Todd Helton later, who did it once. Andres Gallaraga, who led the league in average in 1993, only hit 22 homers (though it wasn’t at Coors, but I don’t know what the park effects of Mile High Stadium were, which lasted just two seasons).

It is surprising no Rockies player has ever won the Triple Crown to be honest. In some of the same seasons a Rockies player led in average, they hit 49, 34, 37 and 36 homers. In the last decade, the Rockies leaders have lacked in power. DJ LeMahieu found power with the Yankees but wasn’t a home run hitter when he won in 2016. Both Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau were at one point HR hitters, but by the time they won a batting title, they were more in the “solid pop” category.

3. Coors Field leads to RBIs

Not only does Coors Field lead to a lot of high averages, basically the only place where a .300 average can still lead to you being a bad hitter, but you score a lot of runs there. A Rockies player has led in RBIs nine times since their inception. This is seven different players. Did you know Carlos Gonzalez led the NL in both average and RBIs, but was 8 off the lead in HRs because of Albert Pujols? Now you know.

Here is really why winning a Triple Crown in the Coors era is extremely difficult. A Rockies player led in one of the three categories - or multiple categories - in every season from 1993 to 2004 except for literally just two seasons. Since 2005, it’s a little better, but still: in 8 of the 16 seasons, a Rockies player has led in one of three categories. Unless a Rockies player does it, it’s very difficult to win a Triple Crown in the NL in the Coors Field era.

4. The Home Run Chase

For a period of about four years, the National League leader for home runs was simply absurd. Neither Mark McGwire nor Sammy Sosa really hit for average, and it just so happened to occur at the exact point where Larry Walker could have won a Triple Crown. Larry Walker had an absolutely insane run where he was a threat to win the Triple Crown every single year. Fate decided he was not going to win it.

From 1998 to 2001, he led in average three times. Todd Helton led in average the other time. He only hit 23 homers in 1998, but he hit 37 and 38 in two of his other batting title years - but that is simply not competing with the numbers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were putting up. Here’s the kicker: he batted .366 in 1997, led in HRs, and had 130 RBIs in 1997. Two problems: his teammate had more RBIs - Gallaraga with 140 - and Tony Gwynn was still playing. In 2000, Helton led in both RBIs and average - but Sosa hit 50 homers. Helton hit 49 homers in 2001, but “only” 42 in 2000. I don’t think fate wanted a Coors player to win because that would almost need to come with an asterisk. Pre-humidor Coors was simply not a fair playing field.

4. Bad timing

This obviously applies to both Walker and Helton not being able to put up the exact right numbers at the right time to win, but even more so. The National League had a few players who were high average hitters who hit homers, and naturally got RBIs. They are Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers. They were simply not able to get the lead in all three in the same year.

Albert Pujols won the batting title in 2003 and came in second in 2005 and 2008. He led in HRs in 2009 and 2010 and came in 2nd in 2004 and 2006. He led in RBIs once in 2010, and came in 2nd four times (2002, 2005, 2006, and 2009). He’s all over the place and could have easily won the Triple Crown if the timing worked just a little better. He’s not the only one.

Barry Bonds is a real weird one because he led in average in both 2002 and 2004, but didn’t lead homers despite having 40+ each year. Stranger still, Bonds led in RBIs exactly one time in his career and never came in 2nd place. It’s not the year you think: 1993. In the year Bonds hit 70 homers, he did not lead the league in RBIs. Sammy Sosa had 160 RBIs and you guessed it, a Rockies player was in 2nd with 146 RBIs. Bonds walked far too much to get enough RBIs.

Hank Aaron somehow never won the Triple Crown despite leading in average twice, leading in HRs four times, and leading in RBIs four times. Aaron came pretty close as well. He led in both RBIs and HRs in 1963 and 1966, but in 1966 he had his worst average to that point in his career (.279) and it would remain his worst average until 1972. In 1963, however, he was just 7 points off the leader in average. In 1956, he hit “just” 26 homers, but in 1959, he 39 homers and had 123 RBIs. That RBI total was greater than the 2nd place finisher when he won in 1966 and matched his 1967 total when he led the league in HRs. But two other Hall of Famers won in RBIs (Ernie Banks) and HRs (Eddie Matthews).

And then there’s Stan Musial. Stan Musial won seven batting titles and came in 2nd twice. He actually never led the league in HRs, which was his downfall, but he was one homer off the leader in 1948, which ended up being both Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner. What do you know, two more Hall of Famers. Turns out Hall of Famers lead hitting stats frequently. Who knew? Musial led in RBIs in his career twice.... and one of those years was 1948. So in 1948, Musial was literally one HR away from winning the Triple Crown.

In recent years, Christian Yelich had a real shot, winning two straight batting titles in a row in 2018 and 2019. He was one RBI away from being the RBI leader in 2018 and two homers behind the HR leader (which was Nolan Arenado actually). He was not as close in 2019, with Pete Alonso hitting 53 homers and Yelich not even reaching 100 RBIs (because the Brewers offense hasn’t really ever been that good outside of Yelich while he’s been there). But it is a little unlucky that he hit 44 homers in the year Alonso hit 53 and not the year Arenado hit 38. He would have been lucky to have the most RBIs though: while he was one off, Javier Baez’s 111 leading RBIs was the lowest since 1988.

So there you have it. From 1937 to about 1993, the National League were on a level playing field, but with better timing, the AL won five Triple Crowns. Tony Gwynn and Coors Field made it extremely difficult at this point, and still it feels like slightly better timing, and the National League could have had a winner. Here’s hoping the timing works out this time.