The Big One: Trout vs Cabrera for AL MVP

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Exemplifying the polarization of old schoolers vs stat guys, Mike Trout vs Miguel Cabrera for the Most Valuable Player has become a territorial tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file baseball fan. What’s missed amid the visceral anger, grumpy tantrums, and condescending pomposity is that the MVP is not the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) Award; nor is it the Triple Crown Award. There are criteria for the voter to follow when selecting his MVP and they follow (taken directly from the Baseball Writers Association website):

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1.  Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2.  Number of games played.

3.  General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4.  Former winners are eligible.

5.  Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.

This leaves such room for interpretation that it’s inevitable that stat guys whose lives are based in WAR (baseball’s version of the military industrial complex) are going to ignore any dissenters as to other factors and look at WAR and WAR alone to make their decision. It’s also inevitable that the voters will do what they want regardless of said criteria and, as George A. King III did in 1999, will omit a deserved candidate (in this case Pedro Martinez) due to ludicrous partisanship disguised as an epiphany.

Murray Chass rants about what Chass rants about; Mike Francesa demands to “see” the number of catches Trout made to increase his defensive value past Cabrera’s offensive numbers; Jeff Passan shakes his head disapprovingly with a disconsolate, “I think that’s sad” that he thinks Cabrera’s going to win; Keith Law tweets in Latin.

Chaos ensues.

None of this helps. If anything, it forces the open-minded to pick a side among the entrenched with few understanding exactly what they’re advocating or why. The proper method to convince the undecided (or even the decided) is to provide a cogent, understandable, and palatable point-of-view without rancor, arrogance, or perception of force. The argument has to be shifted from where it is to where it should be.

So let’s examine the MVP race in the American League and decide who should win. I’ll play Abraham Lincoln to provide the foundation to end this destructive and pointless civil war.

WAR vs the Triple Crown

I listed the players in MLB history who have won the Triple Crown and whether or not they won the MVP here, along with the circumstances of their winning or losing the award.

The Triple Crown is not the deciding factor for the MVP. It is part of the decisionmaking process and has to be placed into proper context. The same can be said for WAR. WAR is a formula designed to evaluate how much better an individual player is than the baseline Triple A player that you can find anywhere for nothing—basically, a ham-and-egger—and it adds in defense, baserunning, and offense. Based on WAR, Trout (10.7) is the MVP over Cabrera (6.9). But it’s not that simple.

That the feat of winning the Triple Crown hasn’t been accomplished in 45 years does matter. Cabrera’s offensive slash line was .330/.393/.606 with an OPS of .999 (leading the majors), and an OPS+ of 165. Trout’s slash line was .326/.399/.564 with an OPS of .963 and an AL leading OPS+ of 171. Cabrera hit 44 homers; Trout 30. Cabrera isn’t a baserunner; Trout is a great baserunner who stole 49 bases in 54 attempts. Trout’s presence is seen as having saved the Angels’ disappointing season from an utter disaster as he arrived with the club at 6-14 and immediately provided a cleansing spark to a toxic atmosphere. Cabrera was the linchpin of the Tigers offense.

Calculating the OPS is also misleading because Cabrera’s walk total declined from 108 in 2011 to 66 in 2012 because he had Prince Fielder hitting behind him. Cabrera doesn’t strike out (98); Trout does (139). Cabrera is a double play machine (28 to lead the majors); Trout grounded into 7.

Where does the dissection stop and the diagnosis begin?

Because Cabrera had Fielder hitting behind him, his old-school offensive stats were bolstered as teams had to pitch to him, and hindered as his new-school stat of OPS was lowered because he walked 42 fewer times. Had he walked 20 more times in 2012, how much would that have increased his OPS and decreased his RBI/HR totals? We don’t know because, like WAR, it’s speculative.

Trout’s WAR was driven up by his defense and speed; Cabrera’s was dropped because he didn’t add anything on the bases and was a below average defender. Does that tally up to Cabrera being deprived of the award?

Defense, speed, credit, and punishment

Did Muhammad Ali become the legend he is because he was great at beating on a punching bag? No. It was because of his work in the ring. Taking points away from Cabrera because of his poor defense at third base is the same thing. He’s not a good third baseman and Trout is a great defensive center fielder. Is it fair to punish Cabrera because of what he can’t do? It’s like refusing a great novelist the Pulitzer because he’s not a poet; depriving an actor the Oscar because he can’t sing. Why should he have to justify what he can’t do and have it reduce the impressiveness of what he did do?

Cabrera was the epitome of the team player by accepting the shift to third base to accommodate Fielder and losing weight to improve his range. Not every star-level player of Cabrera’s caliber would do that. When he got hit in the face by a ground ball in spring training, the easiest thing for Cabrera to do would have been to toss his infielder’s glove on manager Jim Leyland’s desk and say he’s not going back there—and he could’ve done that and gotten away with it putting the team in an awful position right before the season started. But he didn’t. He moved to third to help the team and, defensive metrics aside, was actually far better than anyone could have expected given that he hadn’t played the position in five years.

Does he get credit for that?

Trout’s defense is absolutely a factor in the MVP voting, but calculating the runs he supposedly saved statistically is ignoring the number of runs the Tigers added by their addition of Fielder and Cabrera’s selflessness in moving to a position he wasn’t good at playing to accommodate that signing. Does WAR account for the team-oriented move? No. Because it can’t since it’s not a number in a calculator.

Much like depriving a pitcher of the MVP because he’s a pitcher, you cannot logically take away the MVP from Cabrera because Trout had a higher WAR due to his basestealing and defense when, at the plate, Cabrera was the bigger threat.

Team results

Where would the Tigers have been without Cabrera?

Where would the Angels have been without Trout?

The Tigers would have been in the situation where they had to find a third baseman and a middle of the lineup masher to replace what they would not have had without Cabrera. Could they have done that? And where would they have finished in the AL Central without Cabrera?

They could, I suppose, have traded for the available at the time Chase Headley or could have made the Mets an offer they couldn’t refuse for David Wright, but that would’ve gutted the system of the players they eventually used to land Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, effectively rendering their acquisitions as a net loss. The Tigers would not have made the playoffs without Cabrera, Sanchez, and Infante.

And the Angels?

They were 6-14 when Trout was recalled in what was labeled as a desperation move for a fractured and shocked team and the Angels went 81-58 with him in the lineup. Would they have righted the ship without him in time to end up at 89-73 and out of the playoffs? Given the star power of the club, their pitching, and willingness to make mid-season deals for the likes of Zack Greinke, it’s not much to expect that team—without Trout—to have righted their ship to the mediocre degree that they did. Trout is given the credit for the club getting straight, but they probably would’ve gotten straight anyway and finished in third place with Trout or anyone in center field.

The “value to the team” argument goes to Cabrera because his team made the playoffs and Trout’s didn’t and because the Tigers had no options at third base and the Angels did in center field.

The winner

This is a landmark case in the extreme wings of baseball. Extremities win on occasion, but for the most part, it’s nuance that rules not by force and not by transformative thinking, but by reason and reality. And by reason and reality, the AL MVP is the Triple Crown winner, Miguel Cabrera.

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2012 MLB Award Picks—Cy Young Award

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Let’s look at the award winners for 2012 starting with the Cy Young Award with my 2012 picks, who I picked in the preseason, and who I actually think is going to win regardless of who should win.

American League

1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

Verlander won the Cy Young Award and the MVP in 2011. His numbers in 2012 weren’t as dominating as they were in 2011 and the Tigers had a better team in 2012, so he’s not an MVP candidate this season, but he still did enough to outdo the competition for the CYA.

Verlander led the American League in innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games, and was at or near the top in advanced stats such as Adjusted ERA+ and Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

The WAR argument is a factor, but not the factor to set the stage for the MVP analysis between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout.

2. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Price led the AL in ERA and wins, but was far behind Verlander in innings pitched and strikeouts.

3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

If he hadn’t had two terrible games in September in which he allowed 7 earned runs in each, he would’ve been higher. In addition to those games, he allowed 6 earned runs in two other games; and 5 earned runs in three others. He was pitching for a bad team that couldn’t hit, pitched a perfect game, and threw 5 shutouts.

4. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels

Had he not gotten injured and missed three starts, the Angels might’ve made the playoffs. It wouldn’t have won him the award unless he’d thrown three shutouts, but he’d have had a better shot. He won 20 games and was third in ERA, but only logged 188 innings.

5. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

In his first year as a starter, it was Sale’s smooth transition to the rotation that led the White Sox to surprising contention.

***

My preseason pick was Price.

The winner will be Verlander.

National League

1. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

Which will win out? The story of Dickey and how he rose from a first round draft pick whose contract was yanked from under him because his elbow didn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, then to a 4-A journeyman, then to a knuckleballer, then to a sensation? Or will the fact that he is a knuckleballer and the perception of him using a trick pitch sway some voters away from his numbers to the concept of giving the award to a “real” pitcher (as ridiculous as that is).

When Jim Bouton was making a comeback as a knuckleballer in 1978, he pitched well against the Reds of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. The Reds quantified their inability to hit Bouton with head shakes at how slow his offerings were. Bouton’s friend Johnny Sain said something to the tune of, “You’ve discovered a new way to assess a pitcher’s performance—go and ask the opponent what they thought.”

How Dickey did it and debiting him for using a “trick pitch” is like refusing to give Gaylord Perry the Cy Young Award or Hall of Fame induction because he admittedly threw a spitball. Everyone knew it and he got away with it. It’s the same thing with Dickey except he’s not cheating.

Dickey won 20 games for a bad team and led the National League in strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts.

2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

I wouldn’t argue if Kershaw won the award. You can flip him and Dickey and both are viable candidates.

Kershaw led the NL in WAR for pitchers, was second in adjusted ERA+, led the league in ERA, was second in innings pitched and strikeouts. He was also pitching late in the season with a hip impingement injury that was initially thought to need surgery. (He won’t need the surgery.)

3. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

I am not punishing a great pitcher for being a closer. Saying he’s not a starter is similar to saying that a player like Derek Jeter isn’t a great player because he never hit the home runs that Alex Rodriguez hit. He’s not a slugger. That’s not what he does. It’s the same thing with Kimbrel and Mariano Rivera. Make them into a starter, and it won’t work. But they’re great closers.

Hitters are overmatched against Kimbrel. And yes, I’m aware you can make the same argument for Aroldis Chapman, but Chapman’s ERA was half-a-run higher than Kimbrel’s, but Kimbrel’s ERA+ was 399 compared to Chapman’s 282. For comparison, Rivera’s highest ERA+ in his career is 316; Eric Gagne won the 2003 NL CYA with an ERA+ of 337.

4. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

Cueto was second in WAR (just ahead of Dickey), third in ERA, first in adjusted ERA+, and third in wins.

5. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

Gonzalez won 21 games, but didn’t pitch 200 innings. He has a Bob Welch thing going on. Welch won 27 games in 1990 and won the Cy Young Award in the American League, but Dave Stewart had a far better year than Welch and Roger Clemens was better than both. Welch was the beneficiary of pitching for a great team with a great bullpen. Clemens was second, Stewart third. Dennis Eckersley had an ERA+ of 603 (that’s not a mistake) and walked 4 hitters (1 intentionally) in 73 innings that season. Welch had a good year, but it’s not as flashy as it looked when delving deeper into the truth. This is comparable to Gonzalez’s predicament.

***

My preseason pick was Tim Lincecum.

Kimbrel is going to win on points as Dickey, Gonzalez, and Kershaw split the vote among starters. I see some writers punishing Dickey for being a knuckleballer due to some silly self-enacted “rules” or biases just as George King of the New York Post deprived Pedro Martinez of a deserved MVP in 1999—link.

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And If Boras Did Ask For Cano’s Contract To Be Reworked?

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The overreaction was widespread and silly.

If Scott Boras did make the request, so what?

Boras is Robinson Cano‘s agent; his job is to get him as much money as possible and put his client in an advantageous situation to do so. If he did try and find a way for the Yankees to nullify the final two years of Cano’s contract—which are options held by the Yankees—what’s the problem?

There was a moderate uproar when the new broke that Boras had called Yankees GM Brian Cashman and checked into getting Cano’s contract options torn up for him to sign a new deal; never mind that the story came from our intrepid, hard-partying, pitchers can’t win the MVP believing, Yankees apologist masquerading as a reporter, George A. King III; if it was a credible reporter, the story wouldn’t be any more or less realistic or reasonable.

Why shouldn’t Boras ask?

Wouldn’t that benefit Cano? Isn’t that Boras’s madate?

The Yankees aren’t in the best situation with Cano even as they hold those two option years at $29 million; Cano cost himself money in the long-run by agreeing to that contract.

On the open market, he could make more money than the current top-tier free agents, but that’s the risk a player runs when he chooses to forego his first crack at free agency.

The problem the Yankees have with being the Yankees is that they’re known to have the money and motivation to keep their players regardless of the cost.

The players are aware (the Cano tagline is “are you not aware?”) that when it comes down to it, in spite of GM Brian Cashman’s desires to keep the payroll within reason, they’re going to eventually ante up and give the players the money they’re asking for—especially the players who are essentially irreplaceable like Cano.

You can make the case that the Yankees would be better-served to nullify the two remaining years on Cano’s contract and lock him up for the next 8-10 years before the price for his services skyrocket even further. If Boras is asking for $180-200 million for Prince Fielder—a first baseman who puts up massive power numbers and is a defensive liability who’s eventually going to have to DH—what’s he going to want for a second baseman like Cano who isn’t a threat to balloon to well over 300 lbs as he ages?

After 2013, with the likelihood that both Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will both be gone and Cano taking over as the face of a franchise, Boras is going to ask for $250 million.

Wouldn’t it be better to deal with it now and perhaps save some money in the process?

I’m not sure why it’s considered so anger-inducing and ludicrous for Boras to ask.

It’s his job and he’s great at it.

Sometimes he even gets a deranged amount of money for his clients as he did with Jayson Werth.

It was worth a shot.

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The AL/NL MVP Dichotomy

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On one side, you have a pitcher who has to deal with the dogmatism of the self-involved voters who feel as if they’re the interpreters and adjusters of stated rules.

On the other, you have a player who’s put up numbers that justify a Most Valuable Player season, but is on a team that is out of contention.

How’s this going to go?

Justin Verlander of the Tigers is a clear MVP candidate as well as the AL Cy Young Award winner.

Matt Kemp of the Dodgers is leading the National League in homers and RBI and is right behind Jose Reyes and Ryan Braun for the lead in batting average.

Of course stat people will scoff at the value of both RBI and average, but the Triple Crown is the Triple Crown—it still has meaning as a symbol even if the results aren’t showing up in the won/lost column for the Dodgers.

The Tigers pulled away from the NL Central pack with a 12 game winning streak, but before that their playoff hopes rested largely on the shoulders of Verlander and Miguel Cabrera; without Verlander, they would’ve been barely in contention, if at all.

This is a situation where Wins Above Replacement—in context—is a valuable stat.

Kemp’s WAR is 9.6; let’s say the Dodgers found someone who was serviceable in center field, they still would be well below the 79-77 record they’ve posted with a second half string of good play after an awful start.

Verlander’s WAR is 8.6 and the Tigers would have no chance of replicating even a quarter of what Verlander has meant to the team given the dearth of pitching available. If the Tigers were to lose Cabrera, they would’ve found someone—Carlos Beltran; Josh Willingham; Michael Cuddyer—to make up for some semblance of that lost offense. Such was not the case with Verlander.

The other MVP candidates in the National League like Albert Pujols are just as irreplaceable as Kemp; the Brewers strength has been on the mound and they have enough offense to function if Braun were injured; in fact, there’s an argument that Prince Fielder has been more valuable to the Brewers than Braun has.

In the American League, the same holds true for the Red Sox with Adrian Gonzalez and the Yankees with Curtis Granderson. Had either player gone down, the Red Sox could’ve plugged someone in at either first or third base and gotten by without Gonzalez; the Yankees would’ve gotten a corner outfield bat, shifted Brett Gardner to center and survived with the rest of the lineup picking up the slack.

So does it come down to the “best” player? The “most valuable”?

And are these arguments going to mirror one another in each league while, in some way, validating both?

I only hope that George King of the New York Post no longer has a vote. It was King who famously left Pedro Martinez off his 1999 ballot because he was supposedly convinced by people he respected the year before that pitchers didn’t deserve MVP votes (EUREKA!!!) and left the deserving winner off his ballot entirely depriving him of the award that went to Ivan Rodriguez. In a ludicrous bit of backpedaling and stupid “explanation”, King said that he thought then-Red Sox manager Jimy Williams was more valuable to the Red Sox than Martinez.

If he has a vote this season, one can only hope that King hasn’t been studiously watching the job done by Eric Wedge with the Mariners and deemed it more important than Verlander’s work; if that’s the case, then Verlander’s going to be left out in the cold just like Martinez was and it’ll be a case of idiocy all over again.

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Justin Verlander And MVP “Rules”

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I went into the reasons that Justin Verlander should be considered for the MVP last week but the story has now morphed into something other than his actual bonafides for the award; instead, it’s become “should he be eligible?” rather than “is he deserving?”

MLB has to take steps to rectify this situation by clarifying a pitcher’s eligibility for the award for those who vote. As I mentioned in the linked piece, there are writers who insist that the MVP is for everyday players and the Cy Young Award for pitchers.

I don’t agree with this assessment but it’s not really the fault of the voters if they’re applying what they see as right and wrong to their decisions when they vote. Because George King of the New York Post acted selfishly and unprofessionally in excluding Pedro Martinez from his 1999 ballot (and then offered foolish justifications for it that only made matters worse), it doesn’t make every voter so duplicitous.

In reality there’s little that can be done to sway the opinions of one whose belief systems are already in place, but MLB’s lack of criteria and rules of eligibility are rife with ambiguity to the point that writers are making up their own.

Verlander will still be left off many ballots because of self-imposed constraints, but said voters won’t be able to come up with the “I don’t think a pitcher should be eligible” in an effort to explain themselves and have it accepted as a foregone conclusion.

If they’re going to vote against the spirit of the awards, at least our collective intelligence won’t be insulted in the process.

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