|Mike Trout didn't win AL MVP? Say it ain't so! (US Presswire)|
True confession: Although I disagree with the outcome, I'm existentially fine with the decision to give the American League MVP to Miguel Cabrera.
In a debate that has been noteworthy mostly for the vein-bulging stridency on both sides, I stump for Mike Trout but find Cabrera to be a reasonable and defensible choice. He authored a brilliant season at the plate (.330/.393/.606) and did so despite returning to a more challenging position in the field. He played 161 games, logged almost 700 plate appearances and was brilliantly consistent (his worst monthly OPS was .839). This is to say, I acknowledge and appreciate Cabera's compelling dossier, and I understand why he had widespread support.
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In the end, though, I think the decision to award the AL MVP to Cabrera was incorrect. Now I'm going to tell you, in detail both exhaustive and exhausting, why I believe that. In the service of trying to be persuasive, I'm going to frame my justifications by addressing the most common pro-Cabrera arguments that I've encountered, both on the Internet and in lesser corners of the world.
Come with me, won't you?
Commonly encountered argument #1: "Cabrera won the Triple Crown. That hasn't been done in 45 years."
Happily conceded. While I yield to no one in my distaste for the RBI as a defining indicator, I absolutely enjoyed watching Cabrera's advance on history. But Trout also made history of a vital kind. You see, one can make the case (as I have) that Trout had the most impressive rookie season in the annals of the game. At the very least, one can argue Trout had the greatest rookie campaign since Shoeless Joe Jackson way back in 1911. Cabrera's miracle hasn't happened since 1967, but we haven't seen the likes of Trout's -- if indeed it's not matchless -- in more than a century.
Commonly encountered argument #2: "The word is 'valuable.' How valuable could Trout be if his team didn't make the playoffs?"
Ah, the word "valuable" and its many baseball meanings! If you want to go by the leading dictionary definition of "valuable," then Cabrera should win because of his higher salary and career earnings and presumable net worth (A-Rod for MVP, this and every year!). Otherwise, I'd submit that we should think of "valuable" as "best." Radical idea, no?
But about that "making the playoffs" thing ... This isn't football, where you hand the ball off to Emmitt Smith 30 times a game, or basketball, where you can allot Michael Jordan 40 shots from the field in a single contest (I might have dated myself with those player choices). This is baseball, where the best hitter will come to the plate roughly 15 percent of the time per game and where the best fielder's control over whether the ball is hit to him begins and ends with the half-measure of positioning. In other words, it's a bit silly, in a team-centered sport like baseball, to penalize or reward a player for the faculties of the other 24 guys on the roster. Know who else would seem to agree? Those who crafted the BBWAA's official MVP ballot instructions …
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.
You'll note the "need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier" part. While I don't parse that as saying writers are forbidden to take such things into consideration, I do see it as saying it's not determinative or even important.
Beyond that, though, Trout's team was simply better than Cabrera's. The Angels had a better record than the Tigers by one game, and they had the better run differential. The Angels were five games over .500 against the AL Central, while the Tigers were seven games under .500 against the AL West. And that brings us to strength of schedule.
In 2012, the teams of the AL West were a combined 54 games over .500 against teams from outside the division and 28 games over .500 against Cabrera's AL Central. Additionally, the AL West had a winning mark against all comers -- the AL East, the AL Central and interleague opponents. The teams of the AL Central, meantime, were 52 games below .500 against opponents from outside the division. Also keep in mind that this is the era of the unbalanced schedule. As a consequence, Trout's Angels played just 66 games against teams with losing records (average opponents' winning percentage: .513), while Cabrera's Tigers played 88 games against teams with losing records (average opponents' winning percentage: .495).
There's simply no comparison on this front. The Tigers made the playoffs because they were able to fend off the middling White Sox. The Angels failed to make the playoffs because they weren't able to fend off the A's and Rangers, postseason clubs, both.
So if you invoke the "his team made the playoffs" argument in this instance, then what you're really doing is rewarding Cabrera for his refined taste in weak opponents.
Commonly encountered argument #3: "Cabrera had more RBI. End of story."
As long as we're leaning on flawed, team-dependent, context-riddled measures, why is the driving in of a run more important than the scoring of said run?
On that point, yes, Cabrera led the AL in RBI by a count of 11; but Trout, meanwhile, led the AL in runs scored by a count of 20. What I find more impressive than Cabrera's RBI total (again, a deeply flawed, misleading measure) is that he ranked second to only Josh Hamilton in RBI percentage -- the rate at which he drove in runners on base. Similarly, Trout also ranked second among AL qualifiers in terms of runs scored as a percentage of times on base.
Again, as long as we're turning to team-dependent counting stats, why RBI and not runs scored?
Commonly encountered argument #4: "Cabrera put up his numbers in the glare of a pennant race. Trout didn't."
That's only partly true: the Angels were also in a pennant race until the final days of the season.
While I generally reject the notion that high-level professional ballplayers wilt under pressure (most have been persisting under the crush of great expectations since pre-school), consider Trout's circumstances. He was a 20-year-old rookie whose previous exposure to the highest level (2011) was roundly disappointing. He was rostered onto a team that was, at the time, the most dismaying in all of baseball. Yet Trout, still within hailing distance of his teens, did more than anyone else to lift the 2012 Angels back into relevance. Did Cabrera, whose fortune is secure, really face more pressure than a previously overwhelmed rookie dropped into the middle of a team on the brink? There's no way to know, of course, but pressure means more than the standings.
Or it could just be that mental and physical outliers like Trout and Cabrera don't respond to pressure cues the way that we mortals do.
Commonly encountered argument #5: "Cabrera was more clutch than Trout."
While there's no definitive way to address the "clutch" factor, the best tool available says Trout was actually the more clutchy-clutch of the two. Win Probability Added (WPA) is simply the sum of the extent to which a player increased (or decreased) his team's chances of winning each game. Trout, it should be noted, paced all AL qualifiers with a WPA of 5.28 (or, 5.28 games' worth of increased odds of winning). Cabrera, meanwhile, ranked fifth in the AL with a WPA of 4.81.
Clutch is a descriptor applied in hindsight. It's not a repeatable skill. Clutch performances exist; clutch players, the evidence almost universally suggests, mostly don't. As for "clutchitude" in 2012, though, Trout has the edge. Also keep in mind that WPA is a "compiling" metric, so Cabrera's advantage in playing time is already reflected.
Commonly encountered argument #6: "The MVP is about hitting."
I don't recall seeing anyone explicitly say this, but the breezy dismissals of Trout's superiority in fielding and base-running mean it's out there in implicit, possibly gaseous form.
Cast another glance at those balloting instructions helpfully pictured above. You'll find this:
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
If you're a skeptic when it comes to advanced defensive metrics, then consider me a bit of a fellow traveler. After all, even the best ones are problematic in one-year samples and subject to observational bias. Still, take every defensive measure on the planet, mix in your personal observations and the opinions of informed, traditional observers … Does anyone anywhere care to argue that Trout isn't substantially better than Cabrera on defense? Applying a specific number to that superiority is, in my mind, a bridge too far, but the generalities still inform: Trout is much more valuable with the glove than Cabrera is. To state the blindingly obvious, that matters quite a bit when it comes to the "actual value of a player to his team."
Base-running, however, is a thing on which we have a better quantitative handle. We know that Trout stole 49 bases in 54 attempts and, in doing so, led the majors. Insofar as success rate is concerned, he ranked second to Desmond Jennings among qualifiers with at least 20 attempts. He also ranked second to Elvis Andrus, again among AL qualifiers, when it comes to taking the extra base as a percentage of opportunities presented. When it comes to chops on the bases, Trout has it all over Cabrera.
Although this is more of a hitting/running-hybrid observation, it's still both overlooked and important: Cabrera hit into 28 double plays to lead the majors, while Trout hit into just seven. On a percentage basis, Cabrera gifted the opposing pitcher a GIDP on 5.0 percent of possible occasions (again, to lead the majors), while Trout did so on a mere 1.6 percent of occasions (to rank 109th out of 135 qualifiers). That's notable and, like so many of the things that make Trout's case, it doesn't show up in the reductionist trinity of AVG/HR/RBI.
As for the other, more important aspect of offense, yes, you can indeed make the case that Trout, even in terms of hitting only, had the better season on a rate basis. Cabrera led the majors in OPS; but once park effects are taken into consideration, Trout's OPS comes out ahead -- in fact, he led the AL in park-adjusted OPS (or OPS+).
To put a finer point on it, let's take a look at the park factors of Comerica Park and Angel Stadium for right-handed batters over the last handful of seasons (Trout and Cabrera, of course, each bat righty).
Here's how to read the table below ... A figure of 100 means the park doesn't influence the stat in question to any meaningful degree; every point fewer than 100 means it decreases the stat in question by one percentage point; and every point more than 100 means it increases the stat in question by one percentage point. For instance, a right-handed home runs factor of 89 means the park of interest decreases righty home rates by 11 percent. A figure of 105 would mean that the park increases it by five percent.
Under each listed year and for each park, you'll see three numbers divided by slashes. The first figure is how the park affects singles by right-handed batters, the second is how the park affects doubles and triples by right-handed batters and third is how it affects home runs by right-handed batters (data courtesy of FanGraphs and Stat Corner) ...
As you can see, recent history suggests that, despite reputations to contrary, Trout's home yard is more challenging for right-handed batters like our two mashers of interest.
You see, handedness matters, and it's likely measures like OPS+, which lean on overall park factors not split along lefty-righty lines, Cabrera is being given too much credit. All evidence suggests Trout put up his numbers in the tougher environment.
"Trout's young, and his time will come. This is Cabrera's year."
I find this to be the most nonsensical of anti-Trout positions. The award is about the 2012 season and the contexts and boundaries of same. Player tenure shouldn't matter a whit. I'd assume this would be self-evident, but some have indeed marshaled this bit of "evidence" in support of Cabrera. It's not the Nobel or the Thalberg. It's the MVP.
And the MVP should've been Mike Trout.
Again, if you're looking for someone to impugn Cabrera's work in 2012 as being anything less than MVP-caliber, search elsewhere. Steady, dominating presence, thy name is Miguel Cabrera -- I'm happy to say it. And I certainly appreciate his appeal when it comes time to put name to ballot.
I just think (at marathon length, it would seem) that Trout was more deserving.