Monday, September 24, 2012

Mike Trout vs Miguel Cabrera: The AL MVP

As the baseball season finally winds down, the last week and a half of the season should be quite exciting. There are teams battling for playoff spots and playoff positioning, and both MVP awards are still up in the air. The final 10 games or so will play a major part in deciding the 10 playoff teams and both MVPs, so despite the NFL being a lot more fun to watch, don't forget about baseball. This is the time of the year it's the best.

Anyway, the biggest debate seems to be about Mike Trout vs Miguel Cabrera for the AL MVP. First, I need to make a point. To me, how your team does over the course of the season should mean basically nothing in the MVP voting. Baseball is more of a team game than any sport there is. In basketball, a player like LeBron James could potentially turn the league's worst team into a playoff team all by himself, or turn one of the league's best teams into the league's worst team simply by leaving. (Sorry Cleveland) Basketball is an individual sport at the NBA level; players work together at times but generally the best player on the team takes the majority of the shots, and therefore has the greatest outcome on the game. The only player in baseball that can possibly impact the game in that same way is a dominating starting pitcher; but even guys like Justin Verlander and King Felix only play, at best, about 20% of the team's games.

If you were to place baseball's best player in any given season onto the league's worst team in the same season, not one of those teams would make the playoffs. Think about that for a moment: sports writers, the ones who vote for the MVP, have basically decided that the team you play for matters a great deal in post-season awards. That is ridiculous in a sport that relies so much on so many different teammates succeeding. Joe Mauer, Trevor Plouffe and Josh Willingham are all having great seasons this year. The Twins are one of the worst teams in baseball, because the team is full of junk in other places.

Last season Dodgers' outfielder Matt Kemp nearly won the triple crown, when he posted a WAR* of 7.8. His Dodgers failed to make the playoffs, though, and Ryan Braun helped "carry" the Brewers to the post-season, so he won the MVP award. His WAR was 7.7, so he was very similar to Kemp, and most people felt since the Brewers made the playoffs Braun was more deserving. The only issue is that if you were to put Kemp on the Brewers and Braun on the Dodgers, based on WAR, both teams records would have stayed exactly the same. But Kemp would've undoubtedly won the award if the players teams were switched. I don't like that.

*I understand WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is not the be all end all of player value. If you're unsure what it is, it's basically just how many wins that player is worth over the course of a season, compared to an average player readily available in AAA, or a "replacement player". The defensive issues aren't perfect, I'll admit that, but it is considerably better than any other stat available because it actually factors in defense.

It was important to make that point, because it needs to be emphasized that what happens over the next week and a half really should have no bearing on the outcome of the AL MVP. Sports writers will undoubtedly be waiting to see if Cabrera wins the triple crown or if the Angels or Tigers make the playoffs before casting their votes; they will continue to be blinded by "tradition" instead of simply using common sense.

Miguel Cabrera has had a great season. Nobody in their right mind would argue otherwise. If the season ended today, Miggy would be the first triple crown winner since 1967. His WAR is a very good 6.8. He's hitting .331/.396/.614 with 42 home runs and 133 RBI.** Despite Cabrera's monster offensive season, though, the Tigers have failed to secure a playoff birth despite being heavy preseason favorites to win the division after adding Prince Fielder. That obviously is not Cabrera's fault, but since voters seem to care about wins, it might become an issue. More so if he doesn't hold onto the triple crown. Cabrera's defense at third base has been poor, as expected, but he's been so great offensively nobody seems to care. Defense may not be equally as important as offense, as some suggest, but it's certainly still important. Cabrera is one of the league's worst defensive third baseman, and when paired with other terrible defensive players in Detroit, it's easy to see why they haven't quite lived up to expectations.

**Quick rant: Can we please stop writing and saying "RBIs" for the sake of everyone? Runs Batted In is already plural; RBI. By calling it RBIs you're saying Runs Batted Ins.

However, despite Cabrera's potential triple crown, he's not deserving of the MVP award, and it's really not close. And that's not a knock on Cabrera, because 20-year-old phenom Mike Trout has put together one of the greatest all-around seasons in baseball history. Trout didn't get called up until the end of April, but his WAR is a ridiculous 10.4. For comparison's sake, in 1967 when Yaz won the triple crown, his WAR would've been 12.0, considerably higher than Trout's and almost double what Cabrera has put up this season in his triple crown trek. Trout's hit ..323/.394/.554 in 130 games, adding 28 home runs, 78 RBI and he's stolen 46 of 50 bases. Offensively, his numbers don't quite match up to Cabrera's, but center field is a weaker offensive position than third base. That's important, because if we are to truly find the "most valuable" player, we need to compare players at the same position. Trout also plays outstanding defense while Cabrera's defense, as mentioned above, is poor. 

In other words, as good of a season as Miguel Cabrera's had, Trout has been worth 4 more wins this season; when factoring in that Trout didn't even play in April, it makes one realize just how good of a season Mr. Trout has had. The gap in WAR is so large that even a continued slump from Trout over the final 10 games won't be enough to allow Miggy to catch him. WAR might not be perfect, but it's definitely a far better tool to use than RBI and HR and team wins to determine a players "value" in today's MLB. And despite being 100% sure that Mike Trout deserves to win this award, probably unanimously, I'm about as sure that Cabrera will actually win the award unless he struggles badly in these final 10 games. 

Miguel Cabrera is a great player who, one day, may be deserving of an MVP award. He's the best hitter on the planet in my opinion. But simply put, Mike Trout was considerably better and should be the AL MVP this season when it's all said and done. Which is why he won't be.