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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Your American League MVP Checklist

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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?

Defense

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?

Context

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.

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