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Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera: How the WAR Statistic Has Changed the AL MVP Race

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Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera: How the WAR Statistic Has Changed the AL MVP Race
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Mike Trout does a lot with the bat but it's his overall game that is so well captured by the WAR statistic. That should help him win the MVP.

A WAR is brewing in the American League MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, and it appears there's only one clear winner. That is, if you believe that one sabermetric statistic that has emerged in recent years should now make the call on who the league's best player is. Therein lies the debate.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is not a perfect statistic, but what it attempts to capture is, conceptually, the essence of what it takes to win baseball games. WAR brings the value of fielding, baserunning and all of the tangible aspects of the game of baseball into one aggregate statistic.

However, there is no clear formula for WAR. As a result, websites like Baseball Reference, ESPN and Fangraphs all calculate the statistic slightly different.

WAR is a cumulative, counting statistic that attempts to account for the sum of all the contributions one player makes that a lesser player (or rather, a somewhat theoretical composite of lesser players) would not have made.

In other words, how much better is a given player than a replacement or "4-A" player?

The 2012 AL MVP race has shaped up to be a thriller which pits two exceptional yet very different players. Miguel Cabrera is a classic, great hitter that reminds many of Manny Ramirez in his prime. Not a good fielder at all, but probably the best pure hitter in all of baseball.

Mike Trout is a rookie—one that is likely having the best overall season of any player in the game, which is made all the more incredible by the fact that he missed nearly the entire month of April. Trout can steal bases, play otherworldly defense in center field and also hit for power and average.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Mike Trout has made some unforgettable catches in 2012.

He's the quintessential five-tool player. The total package.

Trout is so good at fielding, baserunning and hitting that he helps his team win approximately 10 more games than an average "Quad-A" player would help his. Now, while Trout probably is the best overall player in the American League—and likely baseball—this season, he will go on to win the AL MVP largely thanks to one statistic.

The fact is, 10 years ago, there likely would not even be a debate about who would win this year's AL MVP. The way statistics and performance were analyzed, Cabrera would be the runaway winner. For God's sake, the man may win the Triple Crown!

The traditional Triple Crown is leading your league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in—a feat that has not been accomplished in 45 years and only three times in the last 65 seasons. There have been 13 Triple Crowns since 1901, accomplished by only 11 players, and every single one of those hitters is in the MLB Hall of Fame.

Thirteen winners—that's less than the number of perfect-game pitchers. Therefore, the prevailing feeling is that if Cabrera can win the AL Triple Crown, it will be a foregone conclusion that he does deserve to win the MVP.

That is the only differentiator between Cabrera and a Mike Trout MVP at this point. What if Cabrera leads the league in batting average and RBI yet falls one home run short of Josh Hamilton? Still, an absolutely unfathomably great season. Is he then not worthy because he won't officially have the Triple Crown?

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Over the past couple of years, some of the voters have definitely turned their attention to statistics like OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) because it is such a strong measurement of the great hitters. But sportswriters have traditionally relied on conventional statistics such as home runs, batting average and RBI—all categories in which Cabrera leads Trout.

OPS makes perfect sense to most baseball fans who are accustomed to crunching the numbers and evaluating top hitting talent, but it's not as easy for more casual fans to comprehend. If a player is over .800, then he's a good player. If a big leaguer is over .900, he's one of the better hitters in the game.

If a player is over 1.000 in OPS in the year 2012, then that player may be the best hitter in the game. Seems easy, but OPS is a turn-off to the fan who is less inclined to rely on the statistics.

WAR will likely catch on this season and in many years to follow. The reason is that WAR can account for all of the value of performance that a hitter or pitcher produces in a small, easy-to-digest number. It's likely a single-digit number or, in Trout's case, the lowest of double-digits.

It's important to note that WAR is not a rate stat, though it would be intriguing if we had the benefit of knowing what Trout would look like with approximately 30 more baseball games. This would include the games that he missed in April and the season's remaining slate of games.

That's also assuming that Trout would have only missed a small amount of time, naturally, due to minor injuries or routine days off.

Though WAR is imperfect, Trout's missed games are already accounted for. His contributions have been so superlative over the games that he has played, it ostensibly makes up for the time he has missed.

Plain and simple, he has helped his team win roughly three to four more games than Cabrera has helped his. Of course, there is no way that we will ever know what Trout's total impact would have been over all 162 games, and Cabrera will have played in approximately 23 more games than Trout.

Trout is playing sterling center field and stealing bases at an historic clip. When you combine his defense and speed with a stellar power/average bat, that value easily surpasses Cabrera's superiority with the bat. Because that's really all that Cabrera has.

Some would argue that there is something to be said about a batter's impact on the way that an opposing team, pitcher and catcher decide to approach a game simply because a hitter (like Cabrera or Ryan Braun) is in the lineup.

Whether Cabrera would go 0-for-4 or not is irrelevant. When that man is in the lineup, you take heed and do everything that you can to keep a pitch way out of his way. It may never come back.

So, what's next in the statistical revolution? How long will it be before WAR is replaced by something else in the same way that OPS has now been effectively replaced by WAR? Or is WAR here to stay for a long time? It's a valid question, given there's no agreed-upon formula.

What does generally appear agreed upon is that some time after the baseball season has concluded, Angels rookie Mike Trout will be awarded the American League MVP award unless Miguel Cabrera can pull off a feat only a few men have ever done.

Trout deserves it, no question. He can also thank a fantastic new statistic for encapsulating his total value of play so well.

 

A special thanks to Eric Ripps, who provided the inspiration for and helped to research this article.

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