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Trout’s It, but Don’t Shout It

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.

Games Played

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.

Roster Creation

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.


1 thelarmis   ~  Oct 5, 2012 12:58 pm

tremendous article, jon!

let trout and cabrera votes cancel each other out and give the award to Robbie! ; )

2 OldYanksFan   ~  Oct 5, 2012 1:02 pm

Trout also leads in OPS+, RC+ and wOBA.

3 Jon DeRosa   ~  Oct 5, 2012 1:20 pm

[1] Had Trout not been in the equation, I think we'd be writing furiously (and futiley) to get Cano the award over Miguel Cabrera.

[2] Trout's excellence can be expressed in many ways.

4 rbj   ~  Oct 5, 2012 2:06 pm

Tigers 3B man the past three years was Brandon Inge, who fielded .955, .977, and .964 from 2009 - 2011. Miguel at first those years fielded .995, .990 and .991 (and yes I'm just using fielding % because I don't know what are the good defensive metrics, and I'm just doing a quick back of the envelope thing). His fielding % at third this year was .966. So the Tigers didn't really lose anything defensively at third (aside from some range I will bet) which gaining much more defensively.

To me, MVP does not necessarily mean best overall player because then pitchers, who are in maybe 33 at best games should never ever win. I consider it to be a part scientific and part artistic award, so I do factor in intangibles. Miguel selflessly helped his team improve offensively at third while maintaining production at first. Playing well down the stretch counts, and being able to take advantage of Chicago's gagging counts. No one took advantage of the Yankees stumble in 2000. Plus, triple crown. I give it to Cabrera.

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Oct 5, 2012 2:23 pm

[4] Yes, that's exactly the type of argument that does not deserve the eye roll associated with most of the pro-Cabrera sentiments.

In reference to the defensive side of the equation, you're right it's hard to quantify exactly how many runs Cabrera cost the Tigers at third. Inge profiles as a good fielder though (fangraphs has him a plus defender 8 years in a row, sometimes a big plus), so fielding % is probably not the way to go. Cabrera is awful according to every system and every scout. According to those measures between Inge and Cabrera, the Tigers lost anywhere from 1 to 3 wins in that exchange.

6 Jon DeRosa   ~  Oct 5, 2012 2:36 pm

Another important note: that's a tiger trout.

7 rbj   ~  Oct 5, 2012 3:32 pm

[5] Yeah, it was just a quicky eyeballing of defense. A three win loss defensively that's offset by how many gained offensively?

Anyway, a great debate to have during the off season.

8 Jon DeRosa   ~  Oct 5, 2012 4:06 pm

[7] I guess the macro view to see if Cabrera helped the Tigers is to add up the value they got from 1B, 3B and DH and see if there was a way to improve that by moving Cabrera off 3B.

9 kenboyer made me cry   ~  Oct 5, 2012 5:35 pm

Angling for Trout is sporting, but the Triple Corona inspiring. I'm done weighing in on this. The modernists are adamant, and probably correct. To me baseball is art not science.

10 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 5, 2012 8:34 pm

9) I agree but don't think the vote for Trout is science over art. I think the artistry of his base running and his fielding--oh, those home run robbing highlights--is what tipped it in Trout's favor.

11 kenboyer made me cry   ~  Oct 5, 2012 9:27 pm

[10] Yeah, I can see that.

12 Jon DeRosa   ~  Oct 5, 2012 9:39 pm

[9] It's a game, a sport, an athletic competition. Neither art nor science. It's fans' interface with the game that makes it art or science. So for any fan it can be any of those things or all of those things. It's one of the reasons it's so popular.

But it's kind of funny that the crowd you are calling the "science" crowd is advocating the all-around player, with blazing speed and flash and excitement and spectacular plays. And the "art" crowd in your formulation wants the award to go to the big bat who does nothing else.

13 kenboyer made me cry   ~  Oct 5, 2012 11:14 pm

[12] All that, i agree with you. Baseball provides the easiest (and usually the most cliched) life metaphors. Maybe people are too lazy or just unwilling to visualize or wrap their heads around how the additional metrics flesh out in performance.

That being said, the game and it's effect is an individual condition. So you really can't complain what the writers determine. One can feel the system is unfair, and how the key holders are selected; but that's another issue.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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