BY GENERAL CONSENSUS, there are two serious contenders for this year’s American League Most Valuable Player award: Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera and the Angels’ rookie sensation, Mike Trout. Today, senior editor Andrew Forbes is joined by the estimable Dave Jaffer, writer and digital media soothsayer. Dave’s written about basketball for The Barnstormer before, but the topic here is baseball.
Forbes – Dave, you’ve made no bones about backing Miggy for the MVP. Make your case:
Jaffer – To be fair, I’ve written about basketball, football, baseball, and tennis for you — and done so handsomely. And also, to be fairer, I don’t think it’s clear cut. If you’d asked me in August, I’d have said this was Trout’s award to lose.
Thing is, he lost it.
Trouty didn’t do so because he played bad baseball, mind you. Kid’s a gamer; he’s probably one of the best five position players in baseball at age 20, which ain’t hay. But let’s put something in perspective. As of right now, Miguel Cabrera has, this season, done something pretty remarkable. He has, as of right now (read “one game to go”), 205 hits, 40 doubles, 44 home runs, and 139 RBI. Know how many other times that’s been done in history? Three times. Twice by Lou Gehrig, and once by Babe Ruth.
That’s some historically relevant batting prowess, son.
Cabrera is, at this point, agonizingly close to a Triple Crown season, and we know how often those happen. Case in point: When Yaz did it in 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs were Stanley Cup champs (!), gas in the States cost 33 cents/gallon, and the legal minimum wage there was $1.40/hour (strangely enough, a movie cost $1.25 — somewhere there’s got to be a study about how the movies have cost us roughly one hour of minimum wage labor since… whenever). Seriously. Think about that for a second.
Miggy’s post All-Star Game splits (read: he didn’t pull a Juan-Gone and blow his wad before shit really mattered) are ridiculous. It’s not like he was sucking before the ASG, either, with 111 hits, 18 HR, 71 RBI, and a .938 OPS. But since the ASG, he’s gone absolutely thermal: 25 HR, 65 RBI, and a slash line of .327/.401/.658. For the arithmetic-impaired, that’s a 1.059 OPS, which is bona-fide ridiculous. This leads into the point that he’s been his best when his team needed him to be. With the Tigers battling for the postseason, he has been remarkable. His September slash line: .308/.378/1.032.
I get that it’s not all about hitting for everyone, but if sabermetrics has taught us anything, it’s that the game is all about the engineering of runs. Miggy engineers runs. He gets out of an at-bat what a poor college kid gets out of a toothpaste tube (with the help of a chip-clip, natch).
What about his team? I mean, it’s an accepted fact that voters tend to care about how the given candidate’s team does (along with other intangibles, such as those which saw Mo Vaughn edge Albert “Don’t Call Me Joey” Belle despite Belle having a better year for the best team in baseball).
Miggy’s Tiggys clinched their division, and are going to the postseason. Trout’s Angels, despite one of the biggest offseason spending sprees in MLB history, are getting punked by the likes of the magical Oakland A’s (the best story in sports this year by a million miles), and are currently running third in a four-team division.
Forbes – I’m not going to take anything away from Miguel Cabrera; he’s the best hitter in baseball, and yes, since the break he has been flat-out ridiculous. His Triple Crown bid is astonishing to watch. His four hits against Kansas City last night (October 1) looked like a supreme act of will. I hope he does it. There hasn’t been a Triple Crown in my lifetime, and this might be the only one in my kids’ lifetimes. That’s bonkers.
But, there’s a but: as things stand now, Cabrera is having a great season, but not actually as good as his previous two. Look it up. If he nabs the TC it’ll have as much to do with an offensive dip across the league; most batting champions manage a lot better than .331. I say all this a bit sheepishly, I’d like it known. I think Cabrera’s remarkable, and a Triple Crown is still a Triple Crown, and damned impressive no matter what.
But let’s not sneeze at Trout’s offensive numbers, either. His .324/.397/.561 line (good for a .958 OPS) is pretty damn solid, and his 129 runs scored leads all of baseball. Second most runs scored? Cabrera, with 20 fewer. Trout scores because he’s fast, like 49 swipes fast. Add those to his 30 dingers and you have the youngest man (boy?) ever to join the 30/30 club. In July alone, Trout crossed the plate 34 times. Nobody’s scored that many runs in a month since 1934.
To dispatch with the rest of his batting numbers: 83 RBI, 26 doubles, and 8 triples to go with all those homers and stolen bases.
But the real difference between Trout and Cabrera can be expressed in a single word. Dave already knows what that word is, and he was very careful not to say it, because he knows it hurts his case. I’m going to say it, because it’s a very important part of this game they call baseball, and without it you can’t keep your opponents from defeating you. Are you ready for that word? Very well. That word is: defense.
Mike Trout patrols center field like it’s a NORAD installation. Like he’s an F-16 interceptor and balls hit his way are enemy bogeys. He’s a zealot. He uses that aforementioned speed to get to balls he has no business reaching. His .992 fielding percentage reflects both his ability on routine balls and his willingness to stretch for balls others wouldn’t get anywhere near.
Cabrera used to be a decent third basemen. Then time and, uh, size made that an unlikely assignment, so he moved, like all good soldiers, across the diamond to first. Then the Tigers signed Prince Fielder, who sure as hell can’t play anywhere other than first, and Cabrera had to slide back across the diamond and become a third baseman again.
The results haven’t been ideal. There are a lot of numbers available to us now to gauge a player’s defensive prowess, all of them imperfect, but let’s use UZR (ultimate zone rating) for the sake of argument. Trout’s UZR is 13.3; Cabrera’s is -9.2. Or how about an old school metric like errors? Cabrera, in a full season at third, has 13. Trout? Four.
The sum of all these stats, for both players, is this: according to Fangraphs, Cabrera’s season has been good for a WAR of 7.1, while Trout’s year has rated a 10.3.
Traditionally, MVP awards aren’t given out on the basis of defence. They’re for big boppers, big offensive producers, and crowd favourites. Winning a Triple Crown would make it hard for the voters to go against Cabrera, and his efforts have put his team in the playoffs, whereas Trout’s Angels, despite an embarrassment of riches in the talent department, have missed the dance, though you could argue that without Trout’s play they wouldn’t even have been close. But beginning with Felix Hernandez’ 2009 Cy Young Award despite a lowly 13-12 record, the baseball writers have shown a new willingness to look beyond the old standard statistics and embrace novel measurements of a players’ worth. Maybe 2012 is the year they see beyond the glitz of a Triple Crown and consider a more well-rounded player to be the league’s most valuable.
Jaffer – All good points, and, like I said, I love Trout. I think he’s the best player in baseball, in all honesty. But I absolutely need to take issue with some of your points…
I purposely didn’t go to the well for certain statistics and arguments for three reasons:
(1) I have no case to make when it comes to defense/UZR/etc;
(2) I have no case when it comes to runs;
(3) Except I do and I needed you to make those arguments so I could counter them.
“[Trout] uses that aforementioned speed to get to balls he has no business reaching. His .988 fielding percentage reflects both his ability on routine balls and his willingness to stretch for balls others wouldn’t get anywhere near.”
“Or how about an old school metric like errors? Cabrera, in a full season at third, has 13. Trout? Four.”
Absolutely true, but deceptively so. I can’t and won’t compare Trout’s UZR with Miggy’s. I can’t. I’ll lose. And I don’t like losing.
Let’s start with the CF fielding percentage stat. Forbes is right — Trout’s .992 is impressive. So is Austin Jackson’s .997 (with 77 more total chances) and Curtis Granderson’s 1.000 (with 84 more TC). Jackson and Granderson have 1 error between the two of them by the way. And while Trout’s Range Factor, at 2.7, is better than the current and ex-Tiger CFs, it’s dwarfed by the likes of Denard Span at 2.91. And errors? Let’s be real. Third base is called “the hot corner.” Center field is called “center field.” Third base is probably the second hardest (after SS) position to field in baseball because of all the right-handed pull hitters. So yeah, Cabrera’s not a defensive god, but at .966, his fielding percentage is better than every third baseman in the AL that’s not Mike Moustakas (.001 better) and presumptive Gold Glove winner Adrian Beltre, the class of the position (.974, and with 8 errors — only 5 fewer than Miggy).
As for runs/steals, you’ve got me. Miggy doesn’t score as many runs or steal as many bases. However he’s scored over 100 runs largely due to his own run-making skills. Not to go all “You Didn’t Build That!” on you, but a lot of Trout’s run-scoring ability is based on the exploits of Pujols, Morales, and Trumbo. A lot of Miggy’s are based on the exploits of… Miggy, who, I might add, is not a leadoff hitter and does not need to affect his team’s run-making in the same way (and it’d be really weird if he tried). As for steals, I have no counter. Trout is fleet of foot, and Miggy likes a good buffet (though it merits mention that he lost 20 pounds in order to man the hot corner, a testament to his anything-for-the-team philosophy that I’m sure exists but I can’t prove).
Your go, Forbes.
Forbes – Easy to have a good fielding percentage when you don’t move for balls that require bending over.
Okay, full tell: I’d love to see a Triple Crown achieved in 2012. I’d love it, and while I make a case for Trout (a good case, I’d like to believe), I can’t see the voters looking past Cabrera’s presumptive achievement. If I had a goal here, it was to promote the idea that Miggy’s was not the only amazing season this year. Trout is wrapping up an amazing campaign, and If he receives a good number of first-place votes I’ll be happy, because it’ll signal a shift, even if slight, in the voting habits of the baseball establishment.
Thanks for doing this, Dave. Anything else to add?
Jaffer — Yes. I’m looking for a new job. I’m really good at arguing and making omelets. COME AT ME HEADHUNTERS.