Mike Trout should win the American League Most Valuable Player Award. His bat, glove and legs produced more runs for the Angels than any other player did for their team in 2012. And it wasn’t particularly close.
However, the decision to award Mike Trout the MVP over Miguel Cabrera is not as cut and dry as WAR-touters would have you believe. A three win bulge for Trout makes this an open and shut case to them. There are several factors that bring Cabrera back into the discussion. Unfortunately for us, many of them suck.
The Tigers made the playoffs! Fine, but the Angels won more games against much tougher competition.
Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown! Awesome, but ask the ghost of Ted Williams if the Triple Crown guarantees the MVP Award.
Miguel Cabrera has been so good for so long, he deserves an award! Players who are “so good for so long” get into the Hall of Fame. There’s no need to manufacture an MVP award they don’t deserve.
Give Trout the Rookie of the Year Award. If he’s not a fluke he can do it again next year! Yes, they will give him the ROY and no, that has nothing to do with the MVP award.
These invalid arguments may be the loudest on Cabrera’s side, and that’s a shame because there are some valid ones that we haven’t heard much of yet. I will state in advance that I don’t think these arguments cover the gap, but I do think they make it close enough that a Cabrera MVP Award would not be the miscarriage of justice that Fangraphs and other such sites will claim it is.
Trout’s massive production came in only 139 games. Cabrera compiled his Triple Crown over 161 games. Some would argue that this is an argument for Trout, since greater than or equal to production over a shorter time necessarily implies a greater rate of impact per game. However, showing up counts. It’s not Trout’s fault that he was left in the Minors to start the season, but he wasn’t there to help the Angels as they stumbled through April.
A player in the lineup can change the result in many ways. Most commonly, by the statistics we measure and discuss all the time. But what about a game where Cabrera goes 0-4 but works the pitcher over for 20 high stress pitches? Perhaps Prince Fielder could be the benificiary of a fat pitch in one of his plate appearances as a result. How many pitching changes were made in games this year just because Miguel Cabrera loomed in the on deck circle? How many fastballs were called because Mike Trout was leading off first base? A player of this quality influences the course of the game whether he is padding his WAR total or not.
The point being that a player can generate negative WAR in a game and still impact that same game in a very positive manner by doing things that WAR does not measure. A player who is not on the roster cannot.
Or imagine the Tigers play the Angels in a four game series. Cabrera hits four home runs in the series, one in each game. Trout stays in AAA for the first three games of the series and then comes up and hits two home runs and steals two bases in the final game. Trout’s overall value may be equal to or greater than Cabrera’s especially per game, but Cabrera’s ability to impact four results is superior to Trout’s ability to impact one result. Since each result is a discrete event, production tomorrow does nothing to address today’s game.
Cabrera was able to impact 161 games on Detroit’s schedule. That’s the most important point in his favor.
Mike Trout is an excellent defensive out fielder and Miguel Cabrera is a terrible defensive third baseman. This difference goes a long way to creating the WAR gap in Trout’s favor. And it should. Trout’s superior defensive ability can and should be used to differentiate these two players. However, once we dig into the reason Miguel Cabrera is playing third base, I think we can cut him a little bit more slack than raw comparison would dictate.
I am reminded of the excellent Red Sox teams of 2003-2008. The Red Sox won two World Series and a lot of games during this period; you might have seen the pink hats. As they did this, Manny Ramirez hit a ton in the middle of their lineup and was a putrid defensive player. Manny Ramirez may have been better served as a DH. But the Red Sox certainly would not have been better served, because they already had David Ortiz there. The Red Sox paired two of the best hitters of the generation and rode them to glory. Manny Ramirez’s ability to put a glove on his hand and stand in front of the Green Monster was essential to this plan. Yes, his poor play out there cost the Red Sox some runs and should count against him in our analysis of him as a player. But looking at the team overall, and what they accomplished and why, mitigates some of those negatives.
The Tigers, as the A’s are no doubt shaking about right now, have a similar pair of hitters. The only reason Prince Fielder is on the team is because Miguel Cabrera can put a glove on his hand and stand next to third base. When we look at all the runs that Miguel Cabrera’s poor defense cost the Tigers this year, we should also ask if the Tigers would have done it any other way. When a player would have been better off individually playing one position, but made a move which enabled the team as a whole to be better (or to pursue the course of action which the team envisioned would give them the best chance to win, regardless of outcome) we should not hold the totality of his negative defensive value against him.
Trout’s a better defensive player than Cabrera. That should go into the discussion. But if we just say Trout is+X and Cabrera is -Y, that’s not fair either.
As the races tightened in September, Miguel Cabrera had an insane month and Mike Trout had a good one. From September 1st to the day the Angels were eliminated from the playoffs, Trout hit .283/.397/.500. From September 1st until the day they clinched the Central, Cabrera hit .330/.395/.688 (and Fielder, on the team because of Cabrera’s flexibility, hit .308/.410/.567).
If we think of a baseball game, the late innings are more important than the early innings because there is less time to make up for any changes in the score. Leverage of the late innings is higher than leverage of the early innings, and this is why Mariano Rivera should pitch the late innings of the closest games. The same goes for a season. The games in September have higher leverage attached to them than those games in April because there is less time to make up any changes in the standings. So we do have to give Cabrera a little bump for his late season heroics. Not because of the result (see above) but because of the timing of his individual contribution.
I have read a lot arguments saying that production in April counts as much as production in September and that giving Cabrera credit for his strong finish isn’t warranted. To that I say bringing up April hurts Trout much more than September. I’ll give Cabrera some credit for producing so much in September, but in my mind that’s a much smaller bump than the other factors above.
We started out talking about a 10.4 WAR player versus a 7.2 WAR player. To keep the discussion in the same units of measure, I’d say this more like a debate bewteen a 10 WAR player and an 8 WAR player. I ding Trout a little bit for missing too much of the Angels schedule and I give Cabrera a little bit of a break for playing third base so poorly because it enables Prince Fielder to be a Tiger. I’d still vote for Trout, but it’s close enough to bring up the topic to the guy on the barstool next to yours.