Which of the three Triple-Crown categories is least impressive?
Home Runs will always be impressive, both for sheer crowd-pleasing spectacle and as an always relevant and useful statistic. The Dead Ball era has been dead for nearly a hundred years now, and it ain’t coming back.
Batting Average has lost some of its luster over the years as on-base percentage has increasingly gained traction as a measure of a hitter’s ability to avoid outs. But when a player like Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs wins numerous batting titles, we understand that we are watching special players.
I submit, therefore, that Runs Batted In is the least impressive of the three Triple-Crown categories. I’m certainly not the first person to make this statement, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. But I would like to use the career of a specific Hall of Fame player to illustrate my point. That player, of course, as you can see from the title of this post, is Mickey Mantle.
Now, as you very likely already know, Mickey Mantle was a fabulous run producer. Among the statistics in which he led the A.L. during his 18-year career are the following: Offensive WAR: 10 times; Home Runs: 4 times; Runs Scored: 5 times; Runs Created: 7 times; Walks: 5 times; Adjusted OPS+: 8 times; and Total Bases: 3 times.
The Mick also drove in 1,509 runs in his career, good for 51st place all-time as of this writing, but he ranked a more impressive 20th all-time upon his retirement.
We should be able to expect, then, that he drove in over a hundred runs several times over the course of his career. After all, he hit in the middle of Yankee lineups thick with offensive punch, teams that were wildly successful primarily due to their ability to generate more runs than most other teams in their league.
Yet a check of Mantle’s career stats reveals that, surprisingly, he topped 100 RBI in a season just four times in his career. By way of contrast, his center field rivals in New York City at the time, Willie Mays and Duke Snider, enjoyed ten and six 100 RBI seasons, respectively.
This raises the following question: How many times did Mickey Mantle lead his league in Runs Batted In?
If you are aware that Mantle won the 1956 Triple Crown, then you are by definition aware that he led the league in RBI at least once. Well, you may be surprised to learn that 1956 was the only year in his career that he actually did lead the A.L. in RBI.
There is a very logical reason why Mantle enjoyed so few 100 RBI seasons.
To drive in lots of runs, one needs, of course, lots of runners on base to drive in. As it turns out, the Yankees from around 1957 through at least 1964, had a series of low to mediocre on-base percentage players hitting ahead of Mantle in the lead-off and #2 slots in their lineups.
Here are the primary culprits:
1) Bobby Richardson, career on-base percentage: .299. (played steadily from ’57-’66)
2) Tony Kubek, career on-base percentage: .303 (played from ’57-’65.)
3) Gil McDougald, career on-base percentage: .356 (played from ’51-’60.)
4) Hector Lopez, career on-base percentage: .330 (played w/ Yanks from ’59-’66.)
5) Clete Boyer, career on-base percentage: .299 (played w / Yanks from ’59-’66.)
6) Phil Linz, career on-base percentage: .295 (played w / Yanks from ’62-’65.)
Folks, as you can see, with the exception of Gil McDougald, that’s one lowly bunch of on-base percentages. But taking a closer look at Gil McDougald, after 1957 his on-base percentages during his final three seasons were .329 / .309 / .337. Those numbers mesh well with the rest of his teammates listed above.
This serves to illustrate my original point that RBI totals are often misleading because a player can’t drive in teammates who are unable to consistently get on base.
The RBI stat survives today, however, as one of baseball’s “masculine” stats. The so-called run producers are, by definition, supposed to have gaudy RBI totals by season’s end to justify their enormous paychecks. Runs Batted In will probably remain popular as stats go, but it should be kept in proper perspective.
After all, if Mickey Mantle couldn’t find a way to annually lead the league in this stat, how much credence should we put into it in the first place?
Now here’s a final aside that might really surprise you.
Although Mays, Mantle and Snider combined for twenty, 100+ RBI seasons in their careers, these three Hall of Famers produced JUST TWO RBI titles between them, Snider in ’55 and Mantle in ’56. Willie Mays never led the league in RBI.