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October 1, 2012 at 8:55 AM

Mike Trout versus Miguel Cabrera is a legit MVP debate and should be celebrated as such

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Not too long ago, ESPN pundits Rob Parker and Keith Law had an unfortunate internet exchange over the legitimacy of the American League MVP debate coming down to a choice between Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers. Parker implied something about Trout being the choice of dweebs and nerds touting the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, while Law replied in-kind about how Trout was the “rational” pick for anybody with a brain.
I’ve met both guys and they are better than this, no matter what anybody on the internet who has never met them will have to say about that comment.
But I will say that both Parker and Law seem to have captured the general sentiment out there amongst fans and media who want to make this debate all about traditionalists versus sabermetric devotees. And that truly is unfortunate because I do think the case of Trout versus Cabrera makes for a great debate no matter which side you happen to fall into.
Unfortunately, as is becoming our great American way, be it in politics or sports, we’ve reached an internet age where the vast amounts of information at our disposal and instant ability to communicate with one another is used to hurl insults and get the last word in, rather than considering any point of view that may differ from out own. The people pre-disposed to only watch FOX News or MSNBC because it tells them exactly what they want to hear about the goodness of their favorite Republicans or Democrats will tend to be the ones quickest to choose sides in the Trout-Cabrera debate and then swear to the world that their choice is on the side of the angels.
That would be God’s angels, not Trout’s.
Anyway, as I said, it’s a shame. Because the Trout-Cabrera debate is part of what makes the Baseball Writers Association of America’s MVP Award potentially the best in all of sport. It is not an award for the Most Outstanding Player, or the Best Stat Guy or Best All-Around Athlete. It’s for the guy most valuable to his team.
Here are the actual guidelines given to voters on their ballots:
“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; and (5) members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.”
And that leaves it wide open to the interpretation of voters of all stripes who cover baseball for a living in cities across the country. And no matter how often we may try to quantify that value, the beauty of sport is that it is, by its very essence, unpredictable. Just when we think we have it all figured out and accounted for, the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics happen.
So, let’s take a look at this debate.
Photo Credit: AP


For me, it isn’t a question of Trout or Cabrera being legitimate contenders for the prize. You’d have to be truly in denial not to admit that both players have compiled some of the more impressive numbers put up by baseball players over the past decade, or even four decades.
Trout is doing things that have some people drawing comparisons to Mickey Mantle, and he’s just a rookie. Cabrera is drawing comparisons to Carl Yastrzemski because of his run at baseball’s Triple Crown for batting average, home runs and runs batted in.
Even if you don’t like the WAR stat — either version, Baseball Reference, or FanGraphs — it does kind of jump out at you that Trout is producing a total that has a 10.0 as its starting point as opposed to single digits like just about everybody else not named Barry Bonds over the past 15 years.
Trout has a whopping lead over Cabrera in that stat because of the thing we’ve yet to be able to measure as well as everybody would like — his defense. And nobody out there, even Cabrera himself, would argue that Cabrera is a better defender than Trout. If somebody was to come up to me and suggest that Trout is the best all-around ballplayer in baseball, I would find it tough to disagree. From what I’ve seen, he reminds me of Ichiro in his rookie year in 2001 — only with home run power.
And if Ichiro was good enough to win MVP that year — and I voted for him, so I think he was — then Trout is easily good enough to win it this season. You don’t have to be a “nerd” to hold that opinion.
For the record, I think the WAR stat is a great idea that is often misused. As I’ve said, we don’t have the formula for measuring defense down to a science that’s anywhere near as reliable as offensive stats — no matter what WAR proponents suggest — and until we do, the WAR stat in either BR or FanGraphs form will suffer when used as a short-term measurement.
If we know that Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is only reliable in a sample taken over two or three seasons, then having it as the defensive component of FanGraphs WAR makes that stat unreliable over the short-term. The lawyers would call this “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree” and get it tossed out of court. We don’t have to be that extremist in a baseball context, but we also have to admit that we don’t know, with absolute certainty, how big a WAR lead Trout actually has over Cabrera.
Proponents of the stat may say it has only a 15 percent margin for error. But again, this isn’t real science. They really don’t know. They are guessing. Again, the concept of WAR is a great one — getting an all-encompassing stat that can tell you how much better, or worse, any player is than running a typical, replacement-level AAAA scrub out there — but it isn’t nearly as complete as some would have you believe. And I cringe whenever I see it used by baseball fans to say that so-and-so is a 3.0-WAR player after half a season. Because maybe he’s just a 2.5 WAR player, or worse. Maybe he’s a 3.5 WAR guy, or better. We really don’t know.
And in the MVP vote, we don’t know how big a gap exists between Trout and Cabrera based on one season of combining their offensive and defensive stats (and baserunning stats, too).
But I’ll be willing to agree that Trout probably has a big lead. And that he looks like a once-in-a-generation player. My eyes already told me that and WAR helps paint the broad brushstrokes that confirm it. When one guy is jumping so far ahead of anybody else in the pack, you can leave the margin-for-error aside and give him that lead.
But for me, it’s a starting point for paring down candidates. Not an end to the discussion. Not yet, anyway and maybe never because of other factors that go into an MVP debate.
So, Trout is a legit MVP candidate based on his huge WAR lead. And a bunch of other stuff we can all see and judge for ourselves, but anybody wanting to use WAR to back him is, in my opinion, on solid footing because the lead is so huge over everybody else that the margin for error is not as big a factor as it could be.
But that doesn’t eliminate Cabrera from contention. Because as previously mentioned, this is an award for the player with the most value to his team, not the guy with the most value over a ficticious replacement level player.
Huge difference.
Unlike some, I don’t think Cabrera winning a Triple Crown should automatically garner him MVP. Like the WAR stat for Trout, I think the Triple Crown run merely legitimizes Cabrera’s MVP candidacy as a once-in-a-generation performer this year.
The stats used to look at Triple Crowns are becoming hopelessly outdated. Namely, the RBI stat, since we’ve figured out that compiling a big RBI total is largely dependent on opportunity and the luck of getting a bunch of guys on in front of you. As a leadoff man, Trout won’t get the RBI opportunities Cabrera does, which is why you never saw Ichiro putting up 100-RBI seasons in Seattle despite 200-plus hits every year.
The funny thing is, those touting the “value” of RBI from a traditionalist view often agree with the sabermetric view of what makes a great hitter. They just don’t know it. Being “a good RBI man” really just involves having a terrific on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) and being in the right spot in the batting order at the right time.
A good OPS man will always be a good RBI man if he bats cleanup and doesn’t play for the 2010 Seattle Mariners.
And in terms of OPS, nobody in the AL is better than Cabrera.
As for his defense, Cabrera’s supporters will tell you that he isn’t great, but has hardly been catastrophic at third base. And that his shift there helped the team acquire Prince Fielder to play first base. Without Fielder and Cabrera, the Tigers don’t make the playoffs this season, so there is definitely value in that.
Just as there is value in what a player does at a crucial point in the season.
Cabrera in the second half has an OPS of 1.059 — including 1.032 in September to help his Tigers finally overtake the White Sox for first place in the AL Central.
Trout has seen his OPS decline to .866 in August and .836 in September. Those are still excellent numbers, just not as elite as he’d put up earlier in the year. And those two months, unfortunately, coincide with the period in which the Angels did not capitalize on opportunities to make the playoffs. It’s unfair to blame that all on Trout. But it is fair for those considering an MVP vote to ask how much value a candidate delivered to his own team during the key playoff stretch run to any season.
Put it this way: the Angels were considered good enough by pundits to finish first or second in the AL West pre-season before Trout’s name even entered the equation (since he began the year in Class AAA). Instead, the Angels will likely finish third with Trout. How valuable were his contributions?
The Tigers were picked to win the AL Central with Cabrera. That’s almost certainly what they will now do. They’ll do it despite a slew of starting pitching injuries and some of baseball’s worst production from the Nos. 5 and 6 spots in the order. Given that, could they have won the division without Cabrera?
Or, does Trout’s superiority at defense and baserunning trump Cabrera’s vastly superior offensive display at a key point in the season?
There are legitimate arguments to be made for both players and you don’t have to belong to a traditionalist or sabermetric camp to go either way. It won’t disappoint me to see either player win as both are legit contenders.
What will disappoint me is if what has become another great baseball debate is lessened by those from either side refusing to consider the opinions of those who disagree with them. And who cheapen the process by resorting to trotting out tired labels to insult the other side. Hopefully, we all figure out by age 30 (maybe age 25 for some, 40 for others) that the ability to calculate math formulas doesn’t automatically make you the smartest guy in the room. And that the ability to push people around on a sports field doesn’t make you the strongest or manliest.
Life isn’t that black and white and neither is baseball.
There’s a reason the baseball MVP award tends to get this kind of attention all the time, whereas you never really hear about it this much in the NFL, NBA, or NHL.
It was designed that way on purpose. And it’s working.
Let’s leave the kid’s stuff behind and have a grown-up debate.

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