Breaking Down the Highly Contested AL MVP Debate

Los Angeles outfielder Mike Trout hit 30 home runs and stole 49 bases, but it wasn't enough for the rookie to win the American League MVP award.

Los Angeles outfielder Mike Trout hit 30 home runs and stole 49 bases, but it wasn’t enough for the rookie to win the American League MVP award. PHOTO/ Keith Allison, Flickr Creative Commons

No recent issue better represents the philosophical divide present in baseball analysis than the American League Most Valuable Player race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout.

The two stars both posted astounding numbers. Both are phenomenal players who could have won the award unanimously in many years without the other around to complicate the issue.

These two candidates created arguments and discourse akin to the presidential election. Two sides held starkly contrasting views, and it was evident all along that neither party would sway its opinion. On one hand, a select group of numbers-driven analysts valued Trout, a sensational rookie for the Los Angeles Angels, while the other side consisted of old-school thinkers who won out. Out of 28 baseball writers eligible to vote, 22 awarded their first-place selected Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers third baseman, as the 2012 AL MVP.

Cabrera’s season meets and exceeds all the check points writers look for when deciding the MVP. A scorching September in which he hit .308 with 10 home runs and 27 RBIs led his Tigers to the playoffs. More importantly, he seized the deal by capturing the Triple Crown, leading the AL in batting average (.330), home runs (43) and RBIs (139).

The Boston Globe‘s Steve Silva was among several sports writers who took a victory lap following Cabrera’s win, which they all took as a sign of a revolt against the evil stat nerds who threaten to ruin baseball with their fancy calculators.

The voting members of the Baseball Writers Association got it right on Thursday when they gave the 2012 American League MVP to Miguel Cabrera, the game’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years and a throwback in an age of computer stuff.

How Important is the Triple Crown?

That “computer stuff” Silva so fondly references are numbers that transcend beyond the basic box score. Silva also used numbers to reach the conclusion that Cabrera deserved the prestigious honor. Fortunately for Cabrera, he led the league in the three basic statistics that many have identified as the three most valued categories to explore when evaluating hitters.

Unfortunately for Trout, the writers didn’t want to use their scary computer to delve further into the stat sheet. For starters, let’s look at the basic numbers that even mainstream fans can now appreciate. Batting average has always been the standard for hitters, but Moneyball revealed to the world that on-base percentage is just as, if not more imperative to gauging a batter’s worth.

Not only did Trout fall just .004 points below Cabrera’s average at .326, but his .399 on-base percentage trumped the slugger’s .393 mark. Baseball fans and analysts alike often perceive RBIs as the holy grail for judging a hitter’s effectiveness, but a batter depends on his teammates to produce runs. Hitting a grand slam takes the same skill level as hitting a solo home run, but the guy with the grand slam lucked out since the bases happened to be full during his at-bat.

Also, it depends on a player’s position in the batting order. Cabrera hit third, prime real estate to drive in runs for Detroit. Trout batted at the top of the order, where he led baseball with 128 runs. Put him in the heart of the order and he would have accumulated more than 83 RBIs.

Defense Wins Championships, but Apparently Not MVPs

Even the most adamant Cabrera supporters will concede the fact that Trout demolished Cabrera in terms of defense and baserunning. Trout might have been robbed of two awards this season, falling short of winning a Gold Glove for his stellar work manning center field. While his defense saved his team runs with exceptional plays like this, Cabrera’s spotty glove at third base hurt his squad.

FanGraphs calculates Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a defensive metric that determines how many runs a player saves or costs his team during the season. Trout posted an 11.4 UZR while Cabrera tallied a minus-10, the lowest rate among all starting third baseman.

Although Cabrera’s weighted runs created (wRC), a stat that aims to quantity a player’s overall offensive value by measuring how many runs he generates, shows that he produced 16 more runs than Trout, he loses that gain with the 21-run defensive swing. And then there is wRC+, which brings ballpark factors into the mix to offset differences between stadium dimensions and put everyone on an even playing field. The two superstars are tied in that category.

Trout often aided his team significantly on the base paths, where he stole 49 bases in 54 attempts. While Trout constantly implemented his lightning-quick speed to swipe bag, the burly Cabrera went station to station, making it much harder for his teammates to drive him home. FanGraphs determined that Trout’s baserunning provided his team with 12 additional runs and Cabrera cost his club 2.8 scores.

All About September Success

Read enough justifications for Cabrera and they will all sound the same. The top selling points after his Triple Crown continue to be his September production and the Tigers winning the AL Central while the Angels missed the playoffs.

Go ahead and punish Trout for the Angels falling short of a postseason bid, but they won 89 games this season while the Tigers won 88. Also, Trout missed most of April, which was no fault of his own since the Angels had yet to realize how awful Vernon Wells has become.

They can spew the clutch card all they want, but a win in September counts the same as a win in May. Until the MLB institutes a new rule that nets a team two W’s in the standings for every late-season victory, it all counts the same in determining who advances beyond the regular season.

Also, Trout registered a .380 on-base percentage during September, so he did not play all that poorly.

WAR – What is it Good for?

Mark Feinsand of the Daily News dropped a line that is repeated far too frequently, but still does not make a lick of sense.

I think Trout was the best overall player in the game this season, especially when you factor in his defense and baserunning. But that doesn’t mean I thought he was the most valuable.

Why? How is the best player not the most valuable? Chances are that only reason the award is named “Most Valuable Player” is because “Best Player” was too short and not catchy enough while “Most Outstanding Player” or “Best Overall Player” would have each yielded a silly acronym.

Now, bringing up Wins Above Replacement (WAR) might anger many sports writer who use the stat as the rallying point to direct their fury. WAR intends to compute how many wins a player adds to the team if they instead started a league-average player at the position. It’s not perfect and should not be cited as the main evidence behind a claim, but the fact that Trout’s 10.0 WAR is two wins ahead of the second-best leader (National League MVP Buster Posey) and 2.9 ahead of Cabrera’s WAR should raise some eyebrows.

Trout was the best player in baseball, and he therefore accrued the most value for his team. The 21-year-old will earn plenty of accolades before his career ends (another ridiculous argument used to rob him of winning), but that’s not an excuse to keep the award away from the rookie this time around.

Final Verdict: Cabrera was the best hitter in baseball, but not by as much as the Triple Crown numbers suggest. Trout’s far superior baserunning and defensive efforts make him the deserving AL MVP winner.

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