Brees, Unitas, Yaz and Cabrera: Comparing Great Performances Across Generations

Last week Miguel Cabrera earned baseball’s Triple Crown, the first one in 45 years, by leading the American League in home runs, runs batted in and batting average.  Within days of that feat Drew Brees broke an NFL record held by Johnny Unitas for 52 years ago.  Brees has thrown for a touchdown pass in 48 straight games.  Brees is an amazing quarterback, but Cabrera’s accomplishment is more impressive.

Football may be the most popular sport in America, but it is impossible to compare individual accomplishments across eras.  Professional football in 2012 does not resemble the game played from 1956-1960 when Unitas completed at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games.  NFL teams throw 55% more passes per game than they did in 1956 when Unitas began his streak.  Through the first five games of the 2012 season Brees has thrown 236 passes.  This is more than Bart Starr, Bobby Layne, John Brodie, Billy Wade, Eddie LeBaron, Zeke Bratkowski and three other starting quarterbacks attempted through the entire 1960 season.

The short pass has largely replaced the running play in short yardage situations as teams get close to the goal line.   During Brees’ streak 47% of his touchdown passes have been within 10 yards of the end zone compared to 37% for Unitas during his streak.  In addition, 29% of Brees’ touchdown passes have been from the 5 yard line or closer, compared to 22% for Unitas.

Cabrera’s feat displayed an amazing ability to hit for both power and average in an era of more and more specialization in sports.  One of the biggest changes that hitters confront today is that they must face fresh and talented set-up relievers and closers on a daily basis.  In 1967, when Carl Yastrzemski last won the Triple Crown, the typical team had 39 complete games from their starting pitchers and teams generally used a four-man rotation.  Today the average team has four complete games per season.  Hitters today face pitchers who are better rested and more specialized.  A hitter typically will face, within the same game, both right-handed and left-handed pitchers who throw a wider selection of pitches than an individual would be able to master.

There are rule changes in baseball that also make comparisons difficult (but interesting) across eras.  When Yaz won the Triple Crown baseball was in the midst of a pitchers’ era; only four batters in the American League hit better than .300 and the following year Yaz repeated as the leading hitter at .301 with the second place hitter at .290.  Then the mound was lowered and hitters have gained on pitchers for most of the past 40 years.

Nonetheless, Cabrera’s accomplishment may not be repeated by another baseball player for decades.  Brees’ streak will probably continue throughout this season.  It is also likely that other top quarterbacks will challenge his record in the next decade as NFL teams rely more and more on the pass and record books continue to be rewritten every few years.

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