Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are locked in a duel for the American League Most Valuable Player. In a way, it’s a factional battle for the hearts and minds of the casual fan.
Some quarters look at the conventional batting stats of Cabrera and say that he’s the winner without question. If it’s not a homer or an RBI, then it’s unimportant. If he wins the batting title too? It’s over.
Others examine advanced stats and defensive metrics to give the nod to Trout. Neither side, in general, wants to hear what the other has to say in part because one is the grumpy old man who doesn’t care about OPS+, and defensive runs saved or lost; and the other is higher-educated, pompous, smug, and condescending and lacks the confidence in their argument to lay it out in terms that the old-schoolers are going to understand and accept, so they choose to be dismissive and blatantly arrogant. If it’s not quantifiable, it doesn’t matter and gut instincts from being around the game are claimed not to exist.
So here’s a checklist combining common sense, old-school stats, and new-school metrics to determine what the criteria for AL MVP should be.
Conventional Offensive Stats vs Advanced Offensive Stats
20 years ago, there would be no contest and Cabrera would win. He’s leading the league in batting, RBI, and slugging. He’s near the top of the league in home runs. As for advanced stats, at the plate, he leads the league in OPS and OPS+. Cabrera has an OPS of 1.003 and an OPS+ of 167. Trout has 27 homers and 47 stolen bases in 51 tries. He has a .949 OPS and also has an OPS+ of 167.
But what about BAbip (Batting Average on Balls in Play)? Trout has been very, very lucky with a .379 BAbip; Cabrera is at .330 (his career mark is .345). There’s no doubt that Trout’s speed is important to his high BAbip and his batting average, and Cabrera is slow. So where does that factor in? Should Trout’s luck count against him just as the defense and resulting higher WAR are counting for him?
It comes down to deciding how many points to deduct from Cabrera for his poor defense at third base and whether or not he should be punished for not being a good third baseman.
Trout is a defensive whiz in center field and saving his pitchers and team a large number of runs because of that. Cabrera was shifted to third base because they had nowhere else to put him in the field upon the signing of Prince Fielder. Cabrera has only played in 33 games in his career as a DH and his numbers—.242/.317/.414—are poor. Not every player is comfortable as a DH and if Cabrera was already feeling threatened by the Tigers bringing in another star in his stratosphere such as Fielder, the last thing they wanted to do was to make it worse by also telling him he’s not going to play the field at all and will be a permanent DH. Cabrera probably would’ve hit as a DH, but with his history of off-field problems, it’s understandable that the Tigers didn’t want to antagonize him.
The idea that the shift third base was a major issue missed the fact that Cabrera wasn’t any better at first base than he is at third. He should be a DH, but if he’s more comfortable hitting and keeps his head in the game better when he’s playing the field, so be it.
He didn’t take the move to third base lightly (so to speak) and showed up to spring training far leaner than he’s been in recent years. But he’s not a good defensive player. Could the Tigers have moved him to the outfield and found a better way to mitigate his deficiencies? Yes. Would that have made him a more agreeable choice to the voters who are weighing Trout’s defense so heavily? Possibly. If Cabrera is going to be punished for his poor defense, it should be attached to the caveat that he’s not good defensively period and using that as the final word is similar to punishing R.A. Dickey because he’s a knuckleballer as opposed to a conventional pitcher—it’s not fair.
The “value” argument AKA “Where would they be without him?”
Trout wasn’t recalled by the Angels until April 28th after they got off to a horrific start amid star-studded acquisitions such as Albert Pujols and preseason World Series predictions. The Angels are 77-54 with Trout in the lineup and 8-14 without him. The Tigers’ record is 82-72 and with Cabrera in the lineup, it’s 81-72. Both clubs have underachieved given the expectations lavished upon them before the season. Is the Tigers’ underachievement the fault of Cabrera? And did the Angels turnaround begin with the recall of Trout? How much does that count in the deliberation process?
I am not one who believes a pitcher should not win the MVP and supported Justin Verlander last season in large part because of the, “Where would they be without him?” argument. The Tigers won the division by 15 games, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of how they did it. Because they ripped off a 12 game winning streak in early September and their closest competitor in the division, the Indians, came apart in the second half, the Tigers were able to make a close race look like it wasn’t close. In truth, had they not had Verlander at the beginning of the season, they would’ve been behind in the division by double-digits. And the “any pitcher could’ve done X” in Verlander’s place is absurd. It was Verlander’s brilliance that kept a struggling team afloat early in the season, making him the most valuable player they had. Without him, they were a .500 team. With him, they made it to the ALCS. This is in addition to his numbers.
So who was more valuable to his team? Trout or Cabrera? And where would they have wound up without them?
The stat people call the concept of lineup protection a myth, but with Fielder behind him, Cabrera’s walks have dropped to 65 from 108 last season and 89 in 2010. Can it not be said that pitchers aren’t so willing to walk Cabrera because Fielder is behind him? He might not have as many homers if Fielder weren’t hitting behind him, but his OBP would definitely be significantly higher. Would that make his case stronger if he didn’t have that basher behind him? Or does it make it weaker because he has that basher behind him? Which is it?
WAR is an overused stat that doesn’t tell the whole story. If you discount the defensive aspect, Trout’s still ahead, but it’s not by as wide a margin. Cabrera has the eye-catching numbers; Trout has the accumulation of other stuff that many don’t pay attention to at first glance.
Trout’s argument is incremental. Will there be enough of a groundswell from his higher overall WAR, his great defense, speed, and that the Angels’ season was heading down the tubes before he arrived? Or will the power numbers that are more obvious on the part of Cabrera take precedence?
Will those who are vacillating be swayed by the forcefulness of the beliefs from the old-schoolers and the stat people? There are many who simply do what the crowd does; what the crowd tells them to do and, like sheep, are incapable of thinking on their own.
The final analysis
Each factional end would be better-served to refrain from the name-calling, eye-rolling, tantrums, sarcasm, and obnoxious dismissals that make the old-schoolers knuckles white with rage and cause the veins to bulge out of their necks like they’re having a heart attack. No one wants to hear that stuff any more than they want to be told, “That’s the way it’s always been,” as if that’s a legitimate reason.
Both players have a case for the MVP and if one side is trying to convince the other, perhaps they’d be better-served in looking at it from their point-of-view rather than just shutting their eyes, covering their ears, and throwing a tantrum in lieu of possibly admitting they’re wrong and accepting that there’s more than one way to hand out arbitrary award with no clear-cut process in formulating a conclusion that everyone will be happy with and accept.