Last night, Miguel Cabrera became the first player since 1967 to win the triple crown: .330 batting average, 44 home runs, 139 RBIs. For a lot of baseball fans, however, the accomplishment didn't mean a whole lot. In those 45 years without a triple crown winner, baseball analysis has gotten much more sophisticated and nuanced. A high batting average might be the flashy portion of a mediocre on-base performance. Home runs are great, really important, but even better if accompanied by a lot of doubles. RBIs ... RBIs are a punchline. RBIs are the credit one player gets for another player's work. We're beyond the triple crown now.
Only there it is. And it belongs to a great baseball player. Flawed as the old statistics may be, the triple crown has had a way of going to players like Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig. Cabrera this year led the league in (among other things) total bases, Adjusted Batting Runs, and Situational Wins Added.
What makes this a perfect year for the imperfect crown, though, is that Cabrera wasn't a clear-cut MVP. This was also the season that Mike Trout burst onto the scene, giving us a classic old vs. new baseball debate. The old argued that the mystique of the triple crown was enough to secure the MVP for Cabrera, while the new argued that Mike Trout had had the better season by a variety of newfangled measures. He even won a sort of stathead triple crown.
If we're talking about who had the more productive season, there really isn't an argument. Trout put together one of the most spectacular offensive and defensive performances in the history of the game. It was a season that stands up to Cabrera's even by old-fashioned standards: .326 average, 30 homers, 49 steals, 129 runs scored, highlight-reel home-run-stealing catches in center field. If the Angels hadn't put Trout in the minors out of spring training, he might have gotten 100 ribbies, too.
Cabrera had a very good year—certainly not the best of his career—that happened to end with the lemons lining up in the slot machine for him. That's an accomplishment in its own right, but of a different order than Trout's. Leading the league even in three archaic statistical categories is no small feat, and the odds against his (or anyone's) pulling it off in the modern era, post-expansion, were steep. Cabrera's season was a neat oddity; Trout's, a supernova.
So it's fitting that Trout, who seems to have been grown in a mad sabermetrician's lab (a dash of Willie Mays, a pinch of Joe Morgan), gave us such a staggering season the same year that Cabrera won the game's most precious antique. The MVP debate is a snapshot of baseball at a crossroads—situated somewhere between a past that reckoned the best players to be the ones atop the leader boxes on the newspaper agate page and a future that embraces a more complete picture of player "value." Let's take a moment to salute Miguel Cabrera for doing an ancient thing in a modern time. It won't ever matter more than it does today.