Amidst one of the more talked about MVP races of the last decade, I decided to pose a poll to the other three members of the NW staff earlier in the week: Who are your top-5 MVP candidates?
The voting worked simplistically. The votes were tallied in reverse order of which spot each player appeared (i.e. a 1st-place vote equals 5 points; a 5th-place vote gives one point). Here are the results (with 1st-place votes in parenthesis):
1. Miguel Cabrera – 19 (3)
2. Mike Trout – 17 (1)
3. Adrian Beltre – 10
4. Robinson Cano – 5
5. Adam Jones – 3
Here are some brief explanations from the three staff writers as to why they each decided to choose Miguel Cabrera as their MVP. I will later get into detail as to why Mike Trout is my selection.
Eric Kauffman - Cabrera gets the nod from me for many reasons. But come on, how could you argue with a Triple Crown winner from the team that won the AL title when some left them for dead in June. Trout was truly amazing, but when you measure him on the whole of the team’s finish, he just couldn’t provide the overall impact that Cabrera did.
Tyler Owens - I weighed back and forth with putting Trout over Cabrera, but stuck with my gut on this one. Cabrera won the Triple Crown. It’s unbelievable to think that a player could win the Triple Crown and not be a shoe-in for the MVP, but Trout has been a thorn in the side of everyone all season, so why would he stop once the season ends? He’s making this choice very difficult for everyone. The MVP is supposed to be decided based upon which player is more valuable to his team, and I don’t think the Tigers would have made it to the playoffs if Cabrera was not with them.
Sarah Powers - I chose Cabrera because he provided steady offense and sustained his success across the regular season, which is a big part of how the Tigers were able to overtake the White Sox and win the AL Central when the Sox started to wane in the last six weeks of the season. Also, that pesky Triple Crown is not easy to come by or ignore. The only thing that may detract is his unsteady defense, but overall I feel he still provided an MVP worthy season for Detroit.
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There are a few classic arguments that get presented when deciding who the MVP should be, with classic being the operative word. Among these arguments are batting average, RBI, whether their team advanced to the playoffs, and how they played down the stretch. Since the inception of each baseball fan’s conscious as to what makes a great baseball player, well, great, we’ve been taught that’s someone who hits for a high batting average, mashes a lot of home runs, and drives home droves of runs. To that end, yes, Miguel Cabrera should win the MVP in the most hands-down sort of fashion conceivable (and, if you’re asking me, I don’t think it’s even a question; Miguel Cabrera will win the MVP in a landslide).
But along with father time, naturally, baseball has evolved. The players have evolved, the in-game strategies have evolved, even the way we statistically break the game down, and consume the information, has evolved. In many ways, I can see the Trout-Cabrera MVP discussion being the watershed moment in the transition from the traditional stats we’ve all known and fallen in love with into the next wave of modern information. And although it’s almost become a dirty word at this point among many mainstream media personnel, Sabermetrics is that new, modern tool.
To me, Mike Trout is the MVP, and it’s not even a particularly close race. He played in 20 fewer games than everyone in the American League, and still posted an historical Wins Above Replacement figure, which, according to Fangraphs (fWAR), finished at a robust 10.0. Miguel Cabrera generated 7.1 fWAR, 3rd in the American League behind the aforementioned Trout, and Robinson Cano (7.8 fWAR).
It’s not that I don’t consider the Triple Crown to be an impressive feat to accomplish; I do. After all, it hasn’t happened in 45 years, and it plays a lurid role behind the romanticism of baseball, and why fans who love baseball, really love baseball. But within this new-wave of statistics in the baseball lexicon, we’ve come to realize that batting average isn’t nearly as important as on-base percentage, and that RBI is a stat predicated on who’s on base in front of you, rather than what a player generates in one single at bat.
For instance, Miguel Cabrera was the cleanup hitter in Detroit, making it elementary that he’d have more runs batted in than Mike Trout, a leadoff hitter.
Now let’s get into some stats.
The surface numbers are what make this race nearly impossible for Mike Trout to win. Miguel Cabrera finished up with the most home runs in the AL (44), the most RBI (139) and the highest batting average (.330). Mike Trout, even if he had played the same allotted amount of games as Cabrera, wouldn’t have eclipsed him in home runs or RBI, as he finished with 30 and 83 in those two categories, respectively. So, yeah, if you need any explanation in Cabrera’s MVP legitimacy, look no further than this paragraph. However, if we’re looking at Sabermetrics, then offensively — Cabrera’s lone contribution on a baseball diamond — they show that he wasn’t any better than Trout.
In terms of wRC+, which is defined as “[an attempt] to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs,” Mike Trout finished at 166 (where 100 is league average); Cabrera also finished at 166.
In terms of wOBA, defined “to measure a hitter’s overall offensive value, based on the relative values of each distinct offensive event,” Trout finished at .409; Cabrera at .417.
They were precisely even in wRC+, and Cabrera was a whole eight one-thousanths of a point better than Trout in the wOBA department — virtually identical. By way of my batting order argument, this information leads one to believe that had Trout been batting in the 4-hole in Anaheim’s lineup over the course of the season, and had he played in as many games as Cabrera, he would have generated as many runs. That’s why RBI is an outdated statistic; it’s measured by opportunity, not skill.
According to Fangraphs, the DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) measurement is quantified by using UZR (Ultimate Zone Range). It’s used, as you yourself can probably deduce, to determine how many runs away from zero a player saved his team, or cost them. In the Trout vs. Cabrera discussion, this is the singularly-most glaring difference between the two players.
It’s said that the four priority positions on the diamond from a defensive standpoint are all up the middle, which is why you generally see teams trying to build around catching, shortstop, second base and center field. Trout occupies the latter. In 2012, Trout’s UZR was 11.4, meaning he saved his team 11+ runs roaming center field. This figure was 3rd in baseball, behind Michael Bourn‘s incredible 22.4, and Ben Revere‘s 16.4.
Cabrera, on the other hand, playing 3rd base, posted a UZR of -10.0, meaning he actually cost his team ten runs over the course of the season. That figure was 2nd-worst among all Major League 3rd basemen.
Between the two, the difference away from zero [(11.4 - (-10.0)] says Mike Trout was defensively a little over 21 runs better than Miguel Cabrera in 2012. (I know this isn’t a valid way to compare a center fielder to a 3rd basemen, but it’s still worth considering.)
I won’t get into too much detail on this one, because if you know Miguel Cabrera you know he’s a big, hulking offensive juggernaut who doesn’t need to rely on his speed to get base hits. And Trout, well, he’s just an outrageous baseball specimen who can literally do it all (perhaps minus have a good throwing arm) on the field.
However, in 2012, Trout led the American League with 49 stolen bases. Miguel Cabrera finished with just four.
But what does it all mean?
Well, I’ll be the first to tell you, I don’t look at Sabermetrics like they are some sort of Bible. I, like most others, use them as a tool to validate or disprove my own perceptions, what I see on the little television screen. I’m merely presenting this information for you to do with it as you please, but, if you’ve read this up until now, I hope that you can see just how much Mike Trout is worth, because I fear his 2012 season isn’t going to receive nearly the amount of credit it really deserves.
One thing I’ve heard a lot of watching ESPN and MLB Network, as it’s also been mentioned in a couple of the above MVP valuations from the NW staff, is that Miguel Cabrera should get extra credit on his MVP resume because his team made the playoffs.
I find that reasoning to be subjective in a discussion about which individual player is more valuable.
Take this into consideration: The Tigers played in the worst division in baseball, alongside teams like Minnesota (66-96), Cleveland (68-94) and Kansas City (72-90). Conversely, the Angels played in the strongest division in baseball, had more wins than Detroit, and played with Oakland (94-68), Texas (93-69) and Seattle (75-87; the best record of any last-place team in the Majors).
It’s conceivable to believe that, had the Angels played in the Central against all those rummies, they would have won the division without any problem.
2012 was an incredible year for individual performances, with Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera headlining a stellar class. But when discussing which player is most valuable, which player produces more contribution over the course of any one individual game, and over the course of a season, I find it hard to fathom why the media is force-feeding to its audiences an outdated foundation of information to justify why Miguel Cabrera is a better MVP selection than Mike Trout.
Baseball is more than carrying a piece of lumber to a pentagonal plate to crush a ball. There’s that, yeah, but there’s also catching the ball and running around the bases. If there was a most valuable hitter award, I’d give it to Cabrera. But most valuable player? That’s an easier choice.
Even as a Rangers fan, I hate that Mike Trout’s 2012 season is going to be wasted without an MVP trophy.