The Triple Crown is the long-heralded award given to the player who leads his league in all of home runs, RBIs and batting average. Keen readers will already be well acquainted with the common issues and discussion points so there’s little sense in rehashing the sabermetric community’s qualms with the Triple Crown. Ultimately, it’s meaningless. It’s an award that credits a player for leading his league in three highly correlated categories. Each home run you hit drives your batting average and RBI count up. Thus, even if those three categories were the best indicators of performance, it still isn’t a merit award. Despite all this, the award remains treasured. Among those treasured performances there is one especially unique season authored by Tip O’Neill.
It would be difficult to try to answer who had the best Triple Crown season. Just what exactly is “best”? Baseball fans and analysts cannot just answer this question. Does “best” consider added value? Capitalized value? The opportunity cost of acquisition? Non-quantifiables and clubhouse impacts? Let’s forget about the player’s contract, acquisition and even clubhouse impact. Let’s just focus on some raw numbers. Nothing much beyond what the Triple Crown already offers. Just bleeding out a little from the existing statistical trio.
But before getting into how those numbers make Tip O’Neill’s 1887 season admissible in the conversation of the best Triple Crown season ever, there are some interesting pieces to take from the data of all Triple Crown seasons. The most obvious takeaway is that no player has ever won the Triple Crown without also leading the league in slugging percentage. It’s the quadruple crown, likely a byproduct of the batting average and home run prerequisites.
Another takeaway, WAR and OPS+ generally agree or correlate, although there are a few outliers. The two are not intended to measure the same thing. Moreover, they’re difficult to compare as WAR is cumulative and OPS+ is an average. Yet they should (and do) reflect some general resemblance as they both illustrate a player’s value or production in some way. The two values’ comparison should be statistically valid because winning the Triple Crown mandates significant playing time. The OPS+/WAR outliers are 1967 Carl Yastrzemski, 1878 Paul Hines, and 1887 Tip O’Neill.
Yastrzemski was the only player whose WAR deemed his OPS+ (193) light, dishing out a disproportionate 12.5 WAR, the most ever achieved in a Triple Crown season, even on a per-game basis.
OPS+ says WAR undervalues Paul Hines and Tip O’Neill. Here, we arrive at the fascinating 1887 case. A Canadian, O’Neill’s OPS+ leads the group at 213 despite having the second-worst WAR. This is where things get interesting. While his WAR pales in comparison to other award winners, in 1887, he led MLB in not only WAR but nearly every other offensive category. While it’s far from unheard of, not all Triple Crown winners have stood out in that way amongst their colleagues. His strikeouts per game are also the second-fewest among Triple Crown seasons and, for what it’s worth, his batting average is the highest. There’s good reason to discredit that low WAR. Not only did he play the second-fewest games of any winner, but O’Neill also played in less than 90% of his team’s games. With only two playing fewer than 95%, that’s the least of any Triple Crown winner. When you prorate WAR he receives a bit of a boost up to 11th. Considering O’Neill sat out a greater percentage of games than anyone else who won the prestigious cumulative Triple Crown award his performance can compete directly with the classic campaigns of Mickey Mantle in 1956 and Rogers Hornsby in 1925.
Forget Miguel Cabrera ending a 45 year Triple Crown drought, Tip O’Neill’s 1887 Triple Crown season may contextually be the best Triple Crown ever. Even though the Woodstock Wonder was surrounded by a power-packed lineup, easily padding his RBI count (yet still falling over 40 RBIs shy of the eventual league-leader Sam Thompson), he was a key cog in the American Association Champion Browns’ lineup. Playing all of his 124 games in left field, O’Neill led the Major Leagues in runs, hits, doubles, all three slash stats, OPS+, and total bases.
Now for the strange: I’ve already discussed his lacking WAR, however, despite his dominance, he couldn’t even manage to lead his team in WAR. That honour went to pitcher Bob Caruthers. Charlie Comisky’s Browns were a driving force no matter who the team’s star was, leading the American Association in all offensive categories less triples (6th) and walks (2nd). Only about half of Triple Crown seasons play a role in a competitive team, further highlighting Tip.
Ultimately, what makes O’Neill’s season standout is the amalgamation of unique statistical feats and trivial bits. There’s the extraordinary batting average, minuscule strikeout rate, a single-season OPS+ that ties Jeff Bagwell’s 1994 number for the 24th highest ever recorded and an OPS that ranks 26th all time. No Triple Crown season beats those ranks in both categories. Only twice was his OPS matched in a Triple Crown season, and never was his OPS+. Both Rogers Hornsby’s Triple Crowns in 1922 and ‘25 sat at (1922) or above (1925) O’Neill’s 1887 1.181 OPS. We’re talking about an all-time top 30 season by OPS and OPS+ and top one or two among Triple Crown seasons.
O’Neill’s season doesn’t even have to be statistically relevant to be significant. Outside of his Triple Crown season, the Ontarian only ever led his league in any offensive category in the years bookending 1887. RBIs in 1886 and hits in ‘88. Otherwise, he was just another productive ballplayer throughout his 10 year Major League career. For a single season, Tip O’Neill decided he was going to cement his place in history. After that, he simply picked up and moved on.
Today, Tip O’Neill is immortalized with the Canada Baseball Tip O’Neill Award, given to the player “judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to the highest ideals of the game of baseball”. Also, former Speaker of the House (1977 – 1987), Thomas O’Neill was known as Tip after receiving the title in childhood in recognition of the Browns’ left fielder.
Here’s to Tip O’Neill, who’s unforgettable Triple Crown season came straight out of left field.
All data sourced from Baseball-Reference.com.