On the American League leaderboards, one name shows up a lot: J.D. Martinez. Martinez is second in the league in batting average with a .335 mark, second in home runs with 38 and tops in RBI with 110.
That had me thinking, could Martinez win the Triple Crown? Of course, it should be noted that the Triple Crown doesn’t mean much in terms of total run production and value. Still, it is cool (and rare) to see a hitter accomplish the unthinkable: lead his respective league in average, home runs, and RBI all in one season. The Triple Crown is a remarkable feat, whether you enjoy using those statistics or not. (Spoiler: I don’t.)
There have only been 10 hitters to win the Triple Crown since RBI became an official stat in 1920 — Miguel Cabrera (2012), Carl Yastrzemski (1967), Frank Robinson (1966), Mickey Mantle (1956), Ted Williams (1947, 1942), Joe Medwick (1937), Lou Gehrig (1934), Jimmie Foxx (1933), Chuck Klein (1933) and Rogers Hornsby (1925, 1922). Clearly, only the greatest batters have been able to accomplish something as monumental as the Triple Crown, and it should still be celebrated when it happens, considering the rarity.
That’s why, even though Martinez is in second place in two of the three categories, I’m considering his odds to win the Triple Crown. He’s having a phenomenal year, yes, but could this phenomenal year become legendary?
Martinez is close to leading in all three categories. He holds the lead in RBI, is only three points behind teammate Mookie Betts for the batting title and is only one home run behind Khris Davis for the home run lead.
In order to calculate Martinez’s odds at being the leader in all those categories, I looked at those in similar positions to him on Aug. 24, which represents where we are in the season today. Simply, I looked at which players were in second place in average and homers and saw how often those won those respective categories. For RBI, I considered the leader on Aug. 24, took into account by how many RBI they were up, and saw their rates of winning.
Unfortunately, FanGraphs’ Splits Leaderboards tool only goes back to 2002, giving me only 32 data points to work with. So this is a very rough estimate, but that’s what it always was going to be anyway.
Starting with average, the leader in this statistic on Aug. 24 goes on to win the title approximately 60 percent of the time. Some batting average leads are bigger than others, however, and just about half of the leaders who ultimately lost their spot were overtaken by someone within 10 points of them.
In fact, 19 of the past 32 players who sat in second place in batting average at this point of the year were only behind the leader by 10 points or fewer, like Martinez. Four of them — 2016 DJ LeMahieu, 2005 Michael Young, 2003 Bill Mueller and 2002 Barry Bonds — went on to win their respective batting titles. Using this figure alone, this represents a 0.21 probability that Martinez, who is only three points behind Betts, would go on to win the batting average title.
But it’s important to note, however, that there were two more instances of players overtaking the Aug. 24 batting average leader who were fewer than 10 points behind. The only difference? They just weren’t in second place at the time. These players must be considered in Martinez’s odds, but they cannot be just thrown in the numerator of the previous equation, as you would have two unrelated numbers on either side of the fraction.
So, I’m going to estimate. I’ll be on the more conservative side and boost Martinez’s odds of winning the batting average title at an even 25 percent.
Odds to win batting average title: 25 percent
Batting average is a headache because it’s not a counting statistic. The leader is able to lose points on their average. Home runs (and RBI) are a lot easier to track, as once you hit a home run, you cannot lose it from your total. Therefore, each batter cannot hope that the player above them goes cold; they are still responsible for hitting the homers or driving in the runs necessary to overtake them.
Martinez is currently second in the league in home runs, and that does not bode well for his opportunity to finish as the leader. Of the 32 leaders in home runs on Aug. 24, 28 of them went on to lead the league in the stat by the end of the year. That’s an 88 percent success rate.
Luckily for Martinez, however, he’s only one home run behind the leader Davis. He doesn’t have a seemingly insurmountable lead, like Cody Bellinger did down 13 home runs to Giancarlo Stanton in 2017. (Stanton went on to win the NL home run crown, obviously, with 59 bombs.)
On the other side of the coin, though, even hitters who were close to the leader had trouble taking that top spot. Nineteen of the 32 second-place batters were within three home runs of the leader on Aug. 24. Just three went on to either tie for or win the top spot, good for a 0.16 probability.
The sample of those within just one home run is much smaller. This only happened five times, and only once did someone win, 2015 Nolan Arenado, who tied for the top spot.
Like with batting average, there was one other instance of a non-second placer within three home runs of the leader ultimately winning the category by the end of the year: 2011 Matt Kemp. Once again, I’ll estimate what this will mean for Martinez’s odds. I don’t think this is necessarily enough to truly move the needle, so I’ll bump his odds from 0.16 to 0.18.
Odds to win home run title: 18 percent
Runs Batted In
Finally, the one statistic where Martinez currently leads. . .and by a wide margin. Martinez has a 7 RBI lead over Davis, and this bodes very well for his ability to win the crown.
Only 18 of the past 32 RBI leaders on Aug. 24 went on to win their respective leagues, a decent 56 percent mark. Nonetheless, those with at least a 3 RBI lead over second place went on to capture the RBI crown 17 of 23 times, a much better 74 percent success rate. Those with leads as big as Martinez’s went on to win it 11 of 14 times, a 79 percent success rate.
Again, to estimate Martinez’s odds, I’ll be conservative on this one to keep the number fairly round. I’ll give him a 75 percent chance to win the RBI crown, but in reality, he should be able to win this fairly easily.
Odds to win RBI title: 75 percent
The Triple Crown
While J.D. Martinez may have the best odds to win the award since Cabrera won it in 2012, he still only has an approximately 3 percent chance, if you multiply all those individual probabilities together.
Yes, history would have been fun to see this year. But, in reality, 2018 will probably go down the same as the rest of the years. . .without any Triple Crown winners.
It’s hard to win the Triple Crown.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.