[For the record…when the Swami & the Guru give you their complete MLB Award Winners, it will be MUCH shorter than this article…]
The biggest debate in major league baseball right now is who is deserving of the American League MVP. Some have attempted to make it a debate between “old school” evaluators and the “new breed” of stat geeks, but I really believe that both schools of thought should end up showing the same answer and I will attempt to display that in this article.
Now I’m going to preface this with a statement: The two best players in major league baseball this year, in my opinion, are the two best players in the American League. So as we debate the merits of Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, please note that this is only a comparison of the two as the best player in baseball this year and not an attempt to demean either of their abilities or accomplishments. If you could give the other league’s MVP to the 2nd best player in baseball this year (league independent), I believe that these two would get the two awards.
No School like the Old School
I’ve seen it written that whether or not each team makes the playoffs is a significant factor in who should win the MVP. Well, it seems logical to look at the actual performance of the teams and compare them. The Tigers made the playoffs in by winning fewer games than the Angels while being in the weakest division in the American League. The weakest team in the AL West finished the season with more wins than 3 of the 5 teams in the AL Central. Cabrera played in virtually all of the games for the Tigers. The Angels had a record of 6-14 at the time Trout was called up from AAA. The Angels proceeded to then go 83-57 after Trout’s call up and move from last place to not being eliminated from the playoffs until 3 games left in the season. The Angels had the best record in the American League following Trout’s promotion.
There is no doubt that Miguel Cabrera is the better Home Run hitter. The only thing that I want to remind everyone is that Trout’s numbers are not for a full season. So whereas if they completed the same number of games Cabrera’s .276 home runs per game would be nearly a full .1 higher than Trout’s .188, the real disparity is .276 vs. .218 home runs per game. Keep in mind that Trout has a higher number of home runs per game than Prince Fielder. Additional food for thought… Josh Hamilton hit .292 home runs per game and was leading the HR race before Ocular Keratitis brought on by excessive caffeine intake sidelined him for nearly a week in late September.
When you compare a leadoff hitter to a middle of the order hitter I think the only fair way to deal with Runs and RBI is to combine them and compare (Even though both are flawed statistics, simply because they are dependent on teammates to make them happen).The opportunities are not the same for driving in or scoring runs, but the combination should make for a sound comparison. In this case (again, accounting for Trout’s late call-up) the two men ended up with an identical number of runs scored and batted in per game. Cabrera had 246 (1.54 RSBIpG) v 212 (1.54 RSBIpG).
Batting Average/On Base %:
Ok, so the emphasis of OB% is more new school than old school, but even old school guys will agree that if the #1 stolen base guy in all of baseball walks, it’s important. Basically the point of this one is that it’s pretty much a wash. You have Cabrera with a .330 average and a .393 on-base % and Trout has a .326 average and a .399 on-base %. The combination of those numbers says that both men are on base almost 40% of the time and that is crucial for you when you have Fielder and Pujols (respectively) coming up to with a chance to drive them in.
Obviously this is a one sided discussion. Cabrera was 4 for 5 on stolen bases this season. Mike Trout was 49 for 54. (FYI: It’s been determined that you need to be successful 70% of the time before base stealing is helpful for your team. Trout was successful 91% of the time). Clearly he is the more valuable player on the bases. Keep in mind that SB’s are not the only impact that speed has on the bases. Trout is a much larger distraction to pitchers than Cabrera. There’s no way to know how much of an impact Trout has had on his teammates in the Angels’ lineup (at least using old school methods), but the fact that Aybar, Hunter, and Pujols are the three guys that filled the two spots behind Trout in the lineup and they were hitting .216/.290/.225 when Trout was called up and they finished the year hitting .290/.314/.286 is a relevant discussion point. By no means can you attribute this all to Trout, but it would be pretty short sighted to ignore completely when looking at Trout’s impact.
What positions do old school scouts care about more than the others? The positions right up the middle of the field. Catchers, Pitchers, Shortstops, and Center Fielders are the most valuable commodities on the baseball field. A gold glove caliber player at those positions is very valuable. Find one that also hits for power, a high average, and steals bases? Scouts will climb all over each other to get their hands on that guy. Trout’s position and how well he plays that position gives a huge leg up over Cabrera.
I’ll get into this more in the “New School” section simply because there aren’t any Old School defensive measurements other than Gold Gloves. So I will keep this simple. There’s a good chance that Mike Trout could win a Gold Glove. And every scout will tell you that Trout covers more ground than most outfielders. Combine that with the fact that all fans have seen some of his home run robbing highlights and everyone agrees that he’s a very good outfielder. Scouts will also tell you quickly that the Tigers moved Cabrera away from 3B for a really good reason. He isn’t a good defensive third baseman. The only reason he is back there is that they needed Fielder’s bat in the lineup as well and couldn’t put him anywhere else. Defense matters and everyone knows that Trout is a substantially better defender than Cabrera.
Tangent – The Flawed Argument of Jim Leyland and other Old Schoolers
“I will not use the player’s name, but according to the sabermetrics there is a player that is better than Miguel Cabrera. So when the guy that gave me the sabermetrics told me that, I said, ‘Well, should we trade Miguel Cabrera for the player you’re talking about?’ He said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that.’ “And I said, ‘Well, then you don’t believe in sabermetrics. And neither do I.’ ” – Jim Leyland
With all apologies to one of the best managers of my lifetime, that is a very flawed argument. As a team that already has Cabrera, and also has Austin Jackson roaming in Center Field, you probably wouldn’t trade him for Trout. (Well, I would, but let’s not go there). The truth is that if you asked Mike Scioscia the same question, he would be just as quick to say that he would not trade Trout for Cabrera straight up right now. So that’s a wasted argument. Now, the question that you should ask baseball managers and general managers (anonymously so that they can’t be accused of slamming their own players) is if you had to build a team from scratch, who would you pick to start building around… Trout or Cabrera. I promise you that the answer would resoundingly be Trout. A 21 year old 5 tool player that can lead off, produce over 30 HR, over 90 RBI, over 125 Runs, nearly 50 SB, win a gold glove, can lock down one of your most important positions and hasn’t gotten to his prime yet is more valuable than a gifted Triple Crown winning 29 year old that is a defensive liability wherever you use him.
Winning the Triple Crown is a huge achievement that should absolutely be celebrated. However, multiple Triple Crown winners did NOT win the MVP, including Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. It is by no means a guarantee, mostly because the game is played on the field and not just in the batter’s box. Additionally, it isn’t like Cabrera had the best average in all of baseball (see Posey, Buster) so he was fortunate to be in the American League. And he only took the lead in HR’s when the aforementioned wacky medical condition of the month courtesy of Josh Hamilton appeared. And is 1 HR more than Curtis Granderson the difference between an MVP or not? I just don’t think so.
Now, you also have to realize that Mike Trout had a little piece of history of his own that NO ONE in the history of baseball had accomplished. No one had ever hit 30 HR’s, scored over 125 runs (129) and stolen over 45 bases (49) in the same season. EVER. And he’s a rookie that missed a month because he was in the minor leagues.
New School (Be warned…this may get stat geeky on you…)
I want to say something very clear here… New stats are not the only story that should be used when evaluating players. What they do is fill in the gaps in the story that your mind is telling you, but you just can’t quantify. When you feel like someone isn’t as good as an outfielder as they were (see: Andruw Jones when Atlanta didn’t re-sign him) but you don’t know how to prove it, the good nerds came up with UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating… see – http://www.fangraphs.com/library/index.php/defense/uzr/ for more information) which can tell you that this is, in fact the case. (Just know that A.J. went from 23.1 – which is really good – to never hitting double-digits again). When you needed to compare how valuable a position player is vs. a pitcher there was no way to really do it. But the good nerds developed WAR (Wins Above Replacement player… see – http://www.baseball-reference.com/about/war_explained.shtml for more information) to do just that. And for the sake of part of this discussion I will tap into their modified version, Offensive WAR – which ignores defense – as well. They also have come up with ways to measure how many runs your defense saves or costs your team and how many runs your base running generates or negates. These will also be used in the discussion here, but I will refrain from using ALL of the stats that could be used in this area. (You are welcome).
This isn’t a calculated statistic (via formula), it is a compiled statistic that just sheds some light on one of the Triple Crown categories. Most people will admit that Runs Batted in (RBI) is a flawed statistic because it is largely contingent on your teammates being in scoring position when you come to the plate. For instance, Billy Butler had 107 RBI for the Royals and Prince Fielder had 108 for the Tigers. But you can evaluate that Billy was more effective at driving in runs because he came up with 417 men on base to Fielder’s 456 opportunities. So while Miguel Cabrera led the league in RBI, the truth is that he also had the 6th most opportunities with 444 runners on base when he stepped up to the plate. By comparison, Josh Hamilton only had 383 runners on base. So Cabrera’s 61 additional opportunities translated into only 11 more RBI. Hamilton was actually the most effective player in baseball this year at driving in runs (as well as the player with the highest home runs per at bat – of those that qualify for the HR title). Mike Trout had the 130th most opportunities for RBI with 306 and was only 4% behind Cabrera as the team’s leadoff hitter.
Wins Above Replacement – Offense
Few will argue the defensive merits of Trout over Cabrera, so I will leave the defensive portion of WAR out of this discussion. The folks at Baseball-Reference have figured out how to measure each aspect of WAR so that you can try to evaluate that independently. To keep this short and sweet… Trout and Cabrera are the two highest rated hitters in baseball this year in oWAR. But Trout is over a FULL POINT higher than Cabrera, while Cabrera is tied with Andrew McCutchen for 2nd and only .4 ahead of Buster Posey. So even when you DON’T count defense, Trout’s legs and percentage of time on base along with his production make him more valuable than Miggy. And just as a side note… Miggy’s oWAR was actually better in 2011 than in 2012 and he was 5th in MVP voting last year.
Additional Stat Nerd point about this season: This is only the 2nd season since 1993 that the A.L. OPS (On base % + Slugging %) leader has been under 1.000, and it’s the first time that a Triple Crown winner has had an OPS below 1.000, which is a little bit of an indictment of overall offensive performance being a bit down this year.
Defense (using UZR) –
I think everyone will concede that Trout is the better defender before you factor in the spectacular plays, such has the four home runs he stole. (Which you can see on display here in the Angels Top 10 of the season: http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=25331661&topic_id=&c_id=ana&tcid=vpp_copy_25331661&v=3). Statistically speaking the gap is even more stark. Trout’s ability to cover his turf defensively translates into him being the #7 defensive outfielder (across all three positions) in all of the American League, and the 9th best defensive player at any position and it’s calculated that he saved 13 runs this season for the Angels which is 6th in the AL, despite missing 1 month of the season. Cabrera is the #14 (out of 15) ranked third baseman defensively and it’s calculated that he cost the Tigers 9 runs defensively this season.
Base running –
Again, not much of an argument here but it’s good to emphasize just how good Trout has been. Based on FanGraph’s Base Running Runs stat you can see that Trout produced almost 7 runs just by his baserunning in NON-steal situations and a total of nearly 10 runs produced in steal and non-steal situations. Cabrera? He cost the Tigers a minimum of 2 runs with his legs.
Ok, I could go on, but I already lost ¾ of folks about 2,000 words ago, so I’ll stop now. All of this is simply to say that Cabrera had a season for the ages and did something that I’ve never seen in my lifetime and I’m thrilled to have gotten to see it. But he simply isn’t the MOST VALUABLE PLAYER of the American League. He’s the BEST HITTER (but not by much over Trout and not the best offensive player as a whole). Trout is the Most Valuable Player, the Rookie of the Year, and the most exciting player in the American League. Not too shabby for a kid that just turned 21.
[Side Note: if ANY writer puts either of these two gentlemen below 2nd on their ballot, there should be an investigation. And if said writer is from the opposing candidate’s city, they should lose their vote immediately.]