Johan Santana currently leads all pitchers in ERA (2.77), wins (18), and strikeouts (237). If the 2004 Cy Young Award winner can maintain his position, he will be the first pitcher in over 20 years to capture the Major League Triple Crown. The last MLB Triple Crown winner? Dwight Gooden in 1985 for the New York Mets when he racked up 24 victories and 268 Ks along with the lowest single-season ERA (1.53) since 1968.
Randy Johnson was the last pitcher to lead his league in all three categories. The Big Unit struck out 334 batters while winning 24 games and fashioning a 2.32 ERA for Arizona in 2002. The American League's most recent Triple Crown winner was Pedro Martinez (2.07, 23, 313) of the Boston Red Sox in 1999.
There have been only seven pitchers (covering 12 different seasons) who have won MLB's Triple Crown of pitching.
MLB TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS - PITCHING
Year Pitcher Team ERA W SO
1913 Walter Johnson WAS (AL) 1.09 36 243
1915 Grover Alexander PHI (NL) 1.22 31 241
1917 Grover Alexander PHI (NL) 1.86 30 201
1918 Walter Johnson WAS (AL) 1.27 23 162
1924 Dazzy Vance BRO (NL) 2.16 28 262
1930 Lefty Grove PHI (AL) 2.54 28 209
1931 Lefty Grove PHI (AL) 2.06 31 175
1945 Hal Newhouser DET (AL) 1.81 25 212
1963 Sandy Koufax LAD (NL) 1.88 25 306
1965 Sandy Koufax LAD (NL) 2.04 26 382
1966 Sandy Koufax LAD (NL) 1.73 27 317
1985 Dwight Gooden NYM (NL) 1.53 24 268
As shown, Sandy Koufax performed this feat a record three times. Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Lefty Grove have two MLB Triple Crowns to their credit. Of note, Alexander led the N.L. in all three areas four times, including three consecutive seasons (1915-17).
Interestingly, five of the above pitchers also won their league's Most Valuable Player award - Johnson (1913), Dazzy Vance (1924), Grove (1931), Hal Newhouser (1945), and Koufax (1963). No N.L. MVP was named in Alexander's Triple Crown seasons and no A.L. award was presented in 1918.
The number of MVPs should bode well for Santana's chances. The operative word here is "should." The reality is that Johan will find it difficult to garner enough support among writers to finish first, irrespective of whether he leads the majors in wins, ERA, and Ks, much less WHIP (0.98), W-L % (.783), K/9 (9.67), and K/100P (7.27). Unfortunately, too many voters will either undervalue his contributions or leave him off their ballot because he doesn't play everyday. For validation, look no further than the fact that Roger Clemens (1986) is the only starting pitcher in the past 37 years to win the MVP award. I mean, when Willie McGee beats out Gooden in 1985 in a landslide, you know the odds are stacked in favor of position players and against pitchers.
The Twins are 26-6 in Santana's 32 starts. Minnesota is 62-55 in the games in which its ace hasn't pitched (including 11-5 when fellow southpaw Francisco Liriano has started). I would argue that Santana has been more valuable than teammates Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and deserves to be given serious consideration for the A.L. MVP.
Topping the big leagues in ERA, wins, and Ks isn't quite as rare as leading in batting average, HR, and RBI but it is an impressive feat nonetheless. The fact that wins and RBI are team dependent may reduce the significance of the Triple Crown of pitching and batting in the eyes of modern-day statheads for sure. That said, I place credence on almost any list that produces such revered names as those who have led both leagues in the Triple Crown categories.
MLB TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS - HITTING
Year Batter Team AVG HR RBI
1909 Ty Cobb DET (AL) .377 9 107
1925 Rogers Hornsby STL (NL) .403 39 143
1934 Lou Gehrig NYY (AL) .363 49 165
1942 Ted Williams BOS (AL) .356 36 137
1956 Mickey Mantle NYY (AL) .353 52 130
If nothing else, Santana will join a rather exclusive group of pitchers who have won multiple Cy Young Awards. The list includes Roger Clemens (7); Randy Johnson (5); Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux (4 each); Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, Jim Palmer, and Tom Seaver (3 each); Bob Gibson, Tom Glavine, Denny McLain, Gaylord Perry, and Bret Saberhagen (2 each). Winning a third CYA down the road would elevate Santana into a group that ranks among the top 15 or 20 pitchers in the history of the game.
But first things first. It may not be Smooth when it comes down to the actual voting but Santana ranks as this year's #1 hit single in the A.L. in my book.