It’s old news that Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp are having career years. With the season roughly one-fifth complete, each man is hitting around .400, Hamilton a few days removed from a four home run night, Kemp already hearing “MVP” chants in Los Angeles. It’s no bold statement that Kemp and Hamilton each have a shot at being baseball’s first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Hamilton would win the award if the season ended today, and Kemp is trailing in the National League only for RBIs.
It would be wonderful for Hamilton and Kemp, their teams, and for baseball if either man made a run at the Triple Crown. And as it stands, Hamilton and Kemp have a shot at something rarer.
There have been 16 Triple Crown winners in baseball history from Paul Hines in 1878 to Yaz. Meanwhile, there have been just six seasons where a player hit .350 with 50 home runs: Mickey Mantle in 1956, Jimmie Foxx in 1932, Hack Wilson in 1930, and Babe Ruth in 1920, 1921, and 1927. For what it’s worth, Mantle’s the only Triple Crown winner among this bunch.
A full list of the .350, 50 homer seasons is as follows:
Some men came close. Jeff Bagwell was hitting .368 and on-pace for 55 home runs when the 1994 strike began. Larry Walker batted .366 with 49 home runs in 1997 for the Colorado Rockies. Barry Bonds hit .370 with 46 homers in 2002 and .362 with 45 homers in 2004, averaging over 200 walks those years. The walks limited Bonds to just 773 at-bats between those two seasons and with even 50 more at-bats instead of walks either year, he’d have likely gotten his 50 home runs.
Other men have been limited by their ballparks or eras. It’s a reason five of the six .350, 50 homer seasons occurred in the offensive golden age of the 1920s and ’30s. Imagine Willie Mays in Fenway Park of those days or Ken Griffey Jr. in the Baker Bowl, the Philadelphia Phillies’ bandbox of a park then. Playing his 1993 season on the 1930 Phillies, Griffey’s numbers project via the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com to .354 with 53 home runs. Griffey tops .350 and 50 homers for his converted 1994 season as well. Similar projections can be made placing any number of all-time greats on the Rockies or Texas Rangers of the late 1990s, a comparable hitting era.
So much of offensive success in baseball is a product of run environment and ballpark effects, which makes the seasons that Hamilton and Kemp are having all the more impressive. Pitchers hold a slight advantage so far, with teams averaging 4.19 runs a game, as opposed to 5.55 in 1930 or 5.08 in 1999. Four runs a game isn’t a pitching renaissance, but it’s far from offensive conditions that would favor hitters amassing stupefying numbers. Even so, Kemp is currently on-pace to hit .385 with 63 home runs, Hamilton .406 with 76 homers.
Is some leveling off to be expected? Absolutely. Both men have averaged about 50 points lower in OPS in the second halves of their seasons. Hamilton has a checkered injury and personal history. Kemp plays home games in Dodger Stadium, a ballpark that does hitters few favors. And baseball history is seemingly littered with men who flirted with .400 for much of a season only to wind up hitting .337. There’s a reason, maybe several, that more men don’t hit the milestones we speak of here. It will be interesting to see how Hamilton and Kemp wind up.