Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown and the AL MVP award in 2012. That combination easily identifies that his was a special season, as no one had won a Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski did in 1967, and taking home the MVP award over uber-rookie Mike Trout only furthered the idea that his 2012 was a unique snowflake of a year.
Don't worry, you don't need to switch tabs or close out your window in order to avoid a discussion of who deserved the MVP award last year -- those arguments have been made, for both sides, and no one needs to relive that torture again regardless of whether you're Team Trout or Team Cabby. However, one thing that should be pointed out is that Cabrera's 2012, historically, wasn't all that great, despite the accolades. This isn't meant to bring Miguel Cabrera down even a single peg, mind you, because the best evidence at hand for that point of view is Miguel Cabrera's current season, in which he's obliterating his own lone MVP campaign.
I'm a little afraid, though, that we're not going to remember that in the future, because 2012 will always have that Triple Crown, and always have that MVP, but his 2013 campaign could very well have neither, despite being the far superior of the two. That's a potential problem, because there are an abundance of things to appreciate in his season, and we wouldn't want disappointment in a "failure" to measure up to cloud that appreciation.
Cabrera is hitting .366/.459/.692 in 109 games this season. All three of those slash stats lead the American League, as well as Major League Baseball as a whole. Cabrera's current .366 batting average would be a career-high, which is impressive sans context, but this is Cabrera: he's hit .328 since 2005, when he was all of 22 years old and still on the Marlins, who were, at that time, still referred to as residing in Florida. For the last nearly 1,400 games and 6,000 plate appearances, Cabrera has hit .328, tops in the majors since 2005, and this season's average makes that number look much smaller than it is.
If not for Chris Davis, Cabrera would be leading the majors in homers once again with 37 -- he hit 44 all of last year when he took home the Triple Crown. It's no wonder, then, with the significant uptick in long balls, that his league-leading .606 slugging from 2012 looks tiny when put up next to 2013's .692 mark that has a realistic shot of creeping to .700, should the warm weather remaining in the regular season help push Cabrera that much further. It should be pointed out that no one has managed to slug over .700 since Barry Bonds roamed the Earth nearly a decade ago, but here Cabrera is, eight points shy in mid-August with plenty of season left to reach that mark.
So, Cabrera's season is better, that's clear, but how much better? OPS+ adjusts for the context we need, such as park, league difficulty, and so on, and since it measures against a player's peers, we get to see how much better or worse they are to the competition of the time. Cabrera's 2012 produced a 164 OPS+ that was third in the majors, behind Buster Posey and Mike Trout. It's impressive, but not exactly what you would expect given the mythic reverence for a Triple Crown campaign -- in fact, Cabrera's 2012 OPS+ ranks just 395th all-time among qualifying seasons according to Baseball Reference's Play Index, right beside campaigns we won't remember for lack of hardware, such as Prince Fielder's or Lance Berkman's 2011 seasons, and behind things like Tim Salmon's 1995. You get the point -- it was great, yes, but it's not exactly legendary if not for leading the league in RBI.
His 2013, however, is looking like it could be deserving, unlike so many other things in this day and age, of the word epic. Cabrera's 207 OPS+ for this season is currently the 28th-best ever, and is flanked by the likes of Mantle, Mays, Cobb, Bonds, Foxx, Gehrig, and Ruth. No offense to Tim Salmon's best effort, but this is slightly better company.
In a lot of ways, Cabrera's 2012 and its MVP seemed like an apology for missing out in the past. He was one of the better players in history to never win an MVP award, seemingly doomed to the same club as players like Manny Ramirez, who dominated their leagues forever but never captured the voters. He was in the midst of a season that, if not for the Triple Crown, was far less notable than what he had produced in the previous two campaigns, but it ended up being the one that secured the trophy for him anyway. It was a lifetime achievement award of sorts, and while that probably offends some, that's pretty okay in the scheme of things: Cabrera deserves recognition, and hadn't received it to that point. The Triple Crown, if anything, was an excuse to right a wrong, to highlight a special talent.
The thing is, though, that Cabrera wasn't done achieving just yet. Consider Cabrera something of an artist, and his production his great works. If the preceding years were his Pietà (or David, if you're inclined), the work that put him on the map before he even turned 30, his 2013 season is his Sistine Chapel, the culmination of everything he's accomplished and learned, presented in an even more glorious manner than all he's produced before. Cabrera's 2013 very well might be the greatest thing he ever manages in a career that's already arguably Cooperstown-worthy, and we should stop to take a moment to admire and recognize that, whether it ends with hardware or a Triple Crown or not.