The Other, Other Triple Crown

October 15, 2022
 
The race for the Triple Crown was a secondary story as the regular season approached its end. The man at the center of our attention – that bright star in that bright city – was playing out the last week’s string on a team that had achieved a comfortable distance from their divisional competitors, so we can permit some tolerance for letting the moment come and then pass without too much fanfare.
 
But it was a spectacular, riveting finish, a culmination of a season worthy of the ages, and before we get too far into the postseason, I thought I would take a moment to acknowledge his sublime effort.
 
Aaron Judge? Who’s talking about Aaron Judge?
 
I’m talking about someone else.
 
 
*            *            *
 
A long time ago, ruminating about Dwight Evans and statistical categories that maybe don’t get the recognition that they deserve, I came up with something called the "Musial Triple Crown."
 
Like it’s more famous elder, a player vying for the Musial Triple Crown has to lead his league in one rate metric, one statistic of individual ability, and one metric that reflects both individual effort and the contributions of his teammates:
 
Statistic
Triple Crown
Musial Triple Crown
Rate
BA
OBP
Individual
HR
Doubles
Individual/Team
RBI
Runs
 
This didn’t catch on.
 
Probably, this didn’t catch on because I named it after Stan Musial, who had a reputation. If I had been thinking with better, I would’ve named the alternative Triple Crown after Rogers Hornsby. Hornsby, after all, was a two-time winner, and he was man of whom nothing negative hath ever been spakethed.
 
More likely, it didn’t catch on because it had been a while since anyone had really contended for the award, and no one’s come too close since. I wrote that article in 2013, eighteen years after the last Musial winner, and no one won it that year. No one has won it since.
 
So the Stan Musial Triple Crown has laid kind of dormant.
 
Until this year.
 
*            *            *
 
You probably assume that I, having gone to the trouble of making up a fake baseball award, would be enough of a steward to periodically check up on it.
 
But – hand-to-God – I hadn’t given much through to the Musial Triple Crown until the last day of the regular season this year. And then - one day of unimportant games left on the schedule - I happened to look over at the NL leaderboards at Baseball-Reference.
 
I saw this:
 
 
On-Base %
Doubles
Runs Scored
1. Freeman, LAD - .405
1. Freeman, LAD - 46
1.(t) Freeman, Betts, LAD - 116
2. Goldschmidt, STL - .404
2. Olson, ATL - 43
3. Goldschmidt, STL - 106
3. Soto, WAS/SDP - .403
3. Three tied at 42
4. Nimmo, NYM - 102
 
 
This was amazing. Freddie Freeman entered the last day of the season leading all three of the Musial categories.
 
And: his margins were razor thin.
 
Freeman certainly had doubles locked up: Matt Olson was three back, but with the Braves clinching the NL East the night before, it was doubtful he was going to be chasing down Freeman on Game 162.
 
But Freeman’s lead in the other two categories was very close. In on-base percentage, he led Goldschmidt and Soto by a fraction of a fraction, so much so that a bad day for Freeman and a good day by either one of them would cost him the on-base title.
 
And even more compellingly: Freeman was tied in runs scored…with his teammate Mookie Betts. Betts…the runs-scoring machine who bats directly in front of Freeman in the Dodgers lineup.  
 
High drama. The table was set for a spectacular finish.
 
 
*            *            *
 
Taking a step back: how does the Musial Triple Crown compare to its more famous cousin?
 
For one thing, it’s a rarer occurrence.
 
Here are the major league winners of the Stan Musial Triple Crown:
 
Year (Lg)
Player
Team
OBP
2B
Runs
1873 (NA)
Ross Barnes
BOS
.465
31
125
1886 (NL)
Ross Barnes
CHC
.462
21
126
1887 (NL)
Dan Brouthers
DET
.426
36
153
1901 (AL)
Nap Lajoie
PHI
.463
48
145
1918 (NL)
Heinie Groh
CIN
.395
28
86
1921 (NL)
R. Hornsby
STL
.458
44
131
1922 (NL)
R. Hornsby
STL
.459
46
141
1948 (NL)
Stan Musial
STL
.450
46
135
1949 (AL)
Ted Williams
BOS
.490
39
150
1962 (NL)
Frank Robinson
CIN
.421
51
134
1989 (AL)
Wade Boggs
BOS
.430
51
113
1995 (AL)
Edgar Martinez
SEA
.479
52
121
 
That’s 12 seasons, and ten players.
 
The actual Triple Crown – the famous baseball one – has been awarded 17 times in the major leagues, to fifteen different players.
 
It’s rarer. Is it also better?
 
Well, doubles aren’t as impactful as homeruns: that category goes to the original TC, comfortably. The hidden value of forcing a pitcher to continue working from the stretch with a runner on second notwithstanding, I think we’d all agree that the homer is the bigger event.
 
But just as obviously: on-base average is a better marker of a hitter’s effectiveness than batting average. Aaron Judge didn’t win this year’s batting title, but his on-base percentage was the best in the majors by a wide margin.
 
And runs scored, if not as famous as their batted-in-bretheren, might be the better metrics of measure. Drawing walks or being fleet-of-foot has a negligible impact on a hitter’s RBI count, but it has a strong correlation to a hitter’s ability to score runs. Runs scored is - at least - the more holistic statistic: it has the potential to reveal the whole of a player better than RBI.
 
 
*            *            *
 
Edgar Martinez was the last Musial Triple Crown winner, back in 1995. Do you know who has come the closest to winning the Musial Triple Crown?
 
Right: Freddie Freeman. Of course.
 
During the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, Freeman led the NL in doubles and runs scored, and finished second in on-base percentage. He wasn’t that close: his on-base percentage of .462 trailed Juan Soto’s .490 mark. But that’s the closest we’ve seen since Martinez.
 
Here are the nine players who have won two legs of the Musial Triple Crown since Edgar Martinez in 1995:
 
Player
Lg
Year
Lead
Lead
Didn't Lead
Alex Rodriguez
AL
1996
2B (54)
Runs (141)
OBP (.414 - 8th)
Jason Giambi
AL
2001
2B (47)
OBP (.477)
Runs (109 - 6th)
Albert Pujols
NL
2003
2B (51)
Runs (137)
OBP (.439 - 2nd)
Grady Sizemore
AL
2006
2B (53)
Runs (134)
OBP (.375)
Dustin Pedroia
AL
2008
2B (54)
Runs (118)
OBP (.376)
Miguel Cabrera
AL
2011
2B (48)
OBP (.448)
Runs (111 - 4th)
Joey Votto
NL
2011
2B (40)
OBP (.416)
Runs (101 - 5th)
Matt Carpenter
NL
2013
2B (55)
Runs (126)
OBP (.392 - 7th)
Freddie Freeman
NL
2020
2B (23)
Runs (51)
OBP (.462 - 2nd)
 
Interestingly, all nine players led their leagues in doubles: no player led in on-base and runs scored but not doubles.
 
Like Freeman, Pujols had a season where he finished first in runs scored and doubles, but second in on-base percentage. Pujols wasn’t as close as Freeman, trailing Bonds .439 to .529.
 
But Freeman came the closest to snagging a Musial.
 
And he entered Game 162 barely ahead of the Juan Soto who had deprived him in 2020, barely ahead of  his statistical twin Paul Goldschmidt, and tied with his teammate Mookie Betts.
 
What would happen?
 
*            *            *
 
At the start of the last day’s games, the race for the on-base crown looked like this:
 
Player
OBP
Difference
Freeman
.40482955
--
Goldschmidt
.403698
0.00113155
Soto
.4030303
0.00179925
 
Razor-thin. A bad day from Freeman would open the door for Goldschmidt or Soto to swoop in and take the lead. What would each player do?
 
Paul Goldschmidt chickened out.
 
If anyone actually cared about the Musial Triple Crown – if baseball’s founding fathers had decided that on-base percentage and doubles and runs scored were way more compelling than batting average and dingers and RBI – then Paul Goldschmidt would be the goat of our story. He did what Ted Williams refused to do in 1941, what Brett and McRae and Carew refused to do in 1976. He rode the bench.
 
Of course, Goldschmidt didn’t really chicken out: the Cardinals were heading for the postseason, and he was getting a rest day. No one gives real trophies for leading the league in on-base average. His MVP candidacy won’t be affected one iota by this decision.
 
But in our parallel universe, Goldschimdt bowed out.
 
Tactically, it was probably a smart move. Think about it: if both men played, there were four outcomes:
 
1.       Freeman and Goldy both have good days. Title to Freeman.
2.       Freeman and Goldy have bad days. Title to Freeman.
3.       Freeman has a good day and Goldy has a bad day. Title to Freeman.
4.       Freeman has a bad day, Goldy has a good day. Title to Goldscmidt.
 
That’s a one-in-four chance for Goldschmidt, or 25%.
 
By staying on the bench, he makes it a coin-flip:
 
1.       Freeman has a good day. Title to Freeman.
2.       Freeman has a bad day. Title to Goldschmidt.
 
Smart guy, that Goldschmidt. Like a sabermetrician playing strat baseball, he figured the percentages and played them. We should all admire him for that.
 
Soto did play. And Soto failed.
 
Soto grounded out in his first at-bat, flied out to medium depth in his second at-bat, and struck out in his third at bat. Soto - the greatest on-base skills player since Bonds – failed to get on base.
 
And because Soto had fewer at-bats than Freeman this year, his on-base percentage was more vulnerable to a bad day than Freeman’s. That 0-for-3 day knocked him out of contention.
 
So the contest came down Freeman against himself in on-base percentage, and Freeman against Mookie Betts for runs scored. At the start of the day, the two Dodgers were tied with 116 runs scored.
 
In the first inning, Mookie flied out to center. Freeman, batting third, hit a hard grounder that found a gap.
 
That hit secured the on-base crown for Freeman: a one-for-three day would be enough to keep him ahead of Goldschmidt. Unfortunately, he was stranded at second when Will Smith grounded out.
 
In the third, Betts led off with a deep fly ball to center-right on the first pitch of the inning. Not deep enough: the winds (or the gods) kept it in the park. Batting third, Freeman also swung at the first pitch, and this time the gods were kind: homerun. Freeman was now ahead of Betts, 117 runs scored to 116.
 
In the bottom of the fifth, Betts walked. The next hitter, Trea Turner, decided to ramp up the pressure by hitting a homerun, driving in Betts and deadlocking the category again, 117 to 117.
 
Freeman nearly followed suit: his first out of the day was a long fly to center.
 
And that was all Mookie would get: with the Dodgers up 4-1, Dave Roberts decided to pull Betts from the game. Maybe Roberts knew what was at stake.
 
Freeman would get one last at-bat, and he would again deliver: an RBI single. Again, he’d be stranded on base, but it didn’t matter.
 
If the Musial Triple Crown was a thing, Freeman’s box score in Game 162 would be the stuff of legends: 3-for-4, a double, a HR, two RBI, and one big run scored. The moment arrived, and Freeman rose to it. His was the work of legends, if only we made legends from the likes of Stan Musial and Rogers Hornsby.
 
So congratulations on the Musial Triple Crown, Freddie Freeman. It was an excellent year, and a terrific finish.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
    
 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

RexLittle
For someone who traded Freeman even-up for Rougned Odor in his Strat league six seasons ago, this is painful to read.

7:43 PM Oct 26th
 
Manushfan
Mr Manush of course never came remotely close here-the OBP was going to be a problem even in the career year of '1928. Playing with Ruth and Gehrig in the same league well.....
12:26 PM Oct 24th
 
patrickbconnors
It looks like shinsplint is right: maybe you were looking at MLB-leaders, instead of merely league leaders? E.g., Albert Pujols *did* lead his league in both Runs Scored and OBP in 2009. (He lost out to Tejada in double by 1!) Really loved this article!!
10:19 AM Oct 18th
 
evanecurb
Freeman and Goldschmidt are very close in career accomplishments, play the same position, etc. It will be neat to see them go into the Hall of Fame together.
11:35 AM Oct 17th
 
shinsplint
Dave, isn't the Triple Crown the winner of the categories for the league? You are giving the Musial Triple Crown to the winner of the categories for both leagues, so naturally there would be fewer winners. For example, you show Boggs as winning the Musial in 1989. But if you had made it for a league winner, then he also won it in 1988.
9:04 AM Oct 17th
 
shinsplint
The winner of the Triple Crown probably correlates closer to being the MVP than the Musial Triple Crown, but that's partly because everyone celebrates the Triple Crown. But Musial and Williams won the MVP in the year they won the Musial. Since then, Robinson finished 4th, Boggs 21st, and Martinez 3rd. 21st for Boggs!
8:55 AM Oct 17th
 
TonyClifton
Interesting than when thinking of runs scored, I think of a Rickey Henderson type. But Freeman, Goldschmidt and Nimmo combined for only 23 SBs in 2023.
11:37 PM Oct 16th
 
bearbyz
Soto has a bad year. He lost the on-base crown by 2 percentage points.
5:49 PM Oct 15th
 
 
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