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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mike Trout Is The 2012 AL MVP Any Way You Look At It

WAR, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing; at least within the confines of this article. While they aren't the end-all, be-all, I am a major proponent of advanced baseball stats because I believe they greatly enhance the understanding of many components of the game. Not everyone agrees, and traditionalists prefer more time-honored metrics like batting average, home runs, and RBIs in lieu of WAR, UZR, and other acronymic gauges. The 2012 American League MVP, which has already become the most hotly debated baseball topic in recent memory, is hurtling the two sides of the baseball stat spectrum to their Antietam and promises to last well after the final vote is announced tomorrow.

Los Angles Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout is my MVP pick over Detroit Tigers’ third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who won the Triple Crown in 2012. Trout’s remarkable production as a hitter and defender gave him overwhelming stats (advanced and otherwise), solidifying his status as the most valuable player in the AL to stat heads like myself. I have argued with many Cabrera supporters, and no matter how many times I boxed them about the ears with my statistical artillery, I am fairly certain I failed to change even one mind- a blow to my ego and to common sense. With that in mind, I decided the best strategy is that if you can’t beat them, join them. Using only standard baseball stats and refuting popular narrative, I will show that even by traditional standards, Mike Trout should be your 2012 AL MVP.

Myth 1: Cabrera should be MVP because he won the Triple Crown: Winning baseball’s Triple Crown is a rare feat, having been accomplished just 13 times prior to Cabrera’s monster season. But the rarity of the feat is not synonymous with the MVP award. Ted Williams’ two Triple Crowns resulted in two second place MVP finishes. The same fate befell Chuck Klein in 1933. Poor Lou Gehrig only finished fifth in the MVP race when he had his Triple Crown in 1934. In fact, only six of the 10 players with Triple Crowns during seasons with an MVP award actually took home the hardware; hardly the sure thing Cabrera supporters make it out to be.

For those who believe Cabrera deserves the MVP because of the rarity of his achievement, consider that Trout was the FIRST player in major league history to have 30 home runs, 45 stolen bases, and 125 runs scored in the same season. Those are not unimportant numbers. They are the mainstream, old-time baseball stats embraced by so many Cabrera supporters. By the logic of scarcity, if Trout’s achievement had never been done before, isn't that even more deserving of MVP than the relatively common Triple Crown (14 times)?

Myth 2: The Tigers made the playoffs and the Angels didn't  thus giving the edge to Cabrera: The Tigers may have played in October while the Angels were busy on the back nine, but it’s also not that simple. The Tigers won the AL Central, but their 88 victories came in a weaker division and were one less than the Angels’ total of 89. Detroit feasted on the lowly Royals, Indians and Twins, who posted three of the five worst team ERAs in the American League. Their record against these teams was 31-23- a full one third of all their games! By comparison, every team in the AL West had an ERA in the top half of the league.

The Tigers’ record would have been good enough for just fourth place in the AL West, but the Angels’ win total would have won them the Central Division. For those believing that a player’s impact on their team’s won/loss record should help determine the MVP, consider that the Angels were 81-58 with Trout playing, while the Tigers were 87-74 with Cabrera; an approximate 6 games difference in the standings over a full season.

Myth 3: Cabrera single-handedly dragged the Tigers into the playoffs: You can’t take anything away from Cabrera when it comes to his performance down the stretch, as in 57 games after August 1st he hit .361 with 19 home runs and 54 RBIs. However, it is pure myth that he was the sole hero of the Tigers post-season bid. Big Prince Fielder practically matched Cabrera’s production over the same two-plus months of the season, hitting .337 with 14 home runs. Gritty Andy Dirks hit .317.

The most valuable Detroit player(s) from August 1st may not have even been a hitter. Justin Verlander was 6-1 with a 2.67 ERA, while Max Scherzer was also 6-1 with a 2.08 ERA. In games started by other pitchers during that span the Tigers were a mediocre 22-22.

The Tigers also benefited greatly from their final 13 games of the season, which came against the Twins, Royals, and Indians; three of the four worst teams in the American League. None of this is meant to discredit Cabrera, but rather is proof that casting him in the role of a savior is more window dressing for his MVP candidacy than actual reality.

Myth 4: Trout slumped down the stretch, which should preclude him from winning: Baseball is a game of streaks, both hot and cold, but the ability to bounce back determines a player’s value. Trout hitting .257 for the month of September has been cited as a slump that carried him out of MVP consideration, but such an assertion is shortsighted. Despite his lower batting average, the Angels tore through their September schedule, going 18-9. Trout played in all 27 September games, hitting five home runs, walking 20 times, scoring 21 runs and stealing six bases. 95% of major league players would kill to endure such a “slump.” Clearly Trout’s September production didn't derail the Angels, and he actually helped them to their best record for any month. It also can’t hurt to mention that 19 of those September games came against the A’s, Rangers, Tigers, and White Sox; all contending teams fighting to get into the playoffs.

Myth 5: Defense is too hard to measure to count… Third base is a much harder position to play than outfield… The award for good defenders is the Gold Glove… Defense has nothing to do with who should be MVP: The easiest way to address the question of defense being appropriate criteria is by going straight to the guidelines given to the voters. They state- “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.” 

I won’t violate the terms of this article that I set disallowing the use of advanced stats, but I challenge anyone to say with a straight face that Cabrera is anywhere near the quality of a defensive player as Trout. Cabrera surprised many by being somewhat adequate when he was moved to the hot corner this season, but Trout was truly electric, patrolling the outfield like a hyperactive Frisbee dog. His defensive value must be part of the MVP discussion.

Even if you don’t understand or value advanced baseball stats, it’s hard to contest that many of the most common arguments being made in favor of Cabrera’s MVP candidacy don’t hold much water when explored in more depth. In baseball, if an elaborate narrative is needed to bear out what the numbers don’t, it may be a good idea to reevaluate your position. Miguel Cabrera had a terrific season; one for the ages, but he is not the 2012 American League MVP. The logical choice is Mike Trout, by Sabermetric or traditional standards, or any other way you may choose to look at it.


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