AL MVP Rankings: What's the Latest on the Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout Battle?

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 24, 2012

AL MVP Rankings: What's the Latest on the Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout Battle?

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    Not a single division title or wild-card spot has been locked up in the American League yet, but it seems all anybody cares to talk about is the race for the AL MVP.

    What fans can agree on is that the AL MVP race is between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout at this point. What fans can't agree on are who should win the award and why. 

    The Cabrera vs. Trout argument is, in essence, an argument between the old school and the new school. For the old-school crowd, Cabrera is the MVP because he's single-handedly keeping the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central race while also being on the verge of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. For the new-school crowd, there are simply too many stats that prove that Trout is a better player than Cabrera, and it's not even close.

    At this juncture, there's nothing that can be said about the Cabrera vs. Trout dilemma that hasn't already been said before. The only question that really matters, of course, is which one of them has the edge in the AL MVP race heading into the final 10 days of the regular season.

    You'll find the answer in this week's rankings.

    Note: Stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

5. Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas Rangers

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    Last Week: No. 5

    Josh Hamilton hasn't budged in this week's rankings because he didn't get a chance to do anything last week. His health wouldn't allow it.

    Hamilton managed to collect a pair of plate appearances against the Angels last Tuesday before he had to bow out of the game with an apparent sinus problem. This prompted Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPNDallas.com to question Hamilton's mental toughness, but I for one find it hard to fault a guy for asking out of a game because he can't see. He would have done more harm than good had he stayed in the game, and he would have thus pointed out to us where the line between tough and stupid is located.

    The good news from ESPNDallas.com is that Hamilton is back in Texas' lineup for Monday's game against Oakland, but doctors still aren't sure what went wrong with him last week. That's more than a little unsettling.

    We'll see how Hamilton's vision holds up this week. If it's any consolation to him in the meantime, he'll be happy to know that his AL MVP candidacy is still looking good.

    Despite the fact he's played in 13 fewer games, Hamilton is tied with Miguel Cabrera for the major league lead in home runs with 42. He ranks second to Cabrera in RBI with 123 and third in the AL in OPS at .947.

    Per FanGraphs, Hamilton ranks fourth in the American League with a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .392. He ranks fifth in weighted runs created plus (wRC+) at 144. His isolated power (ISO) of .302 is tops in the American League.

    If all of this is complete gibberish to you, the rough translation is this: Hamilton is a really good offensive player regardless of whether you prefer old-school or new-school stats.

    Where Hamilton doesn't measure up so well in regards to the new-school stats is in WAR. FanGraphs has his WAR calculated at 4.9, which is only good for seventh in the American League. Among the players with higher WARs than his are Austin Jackson and (gasp!) Ben Zobrist.

    But as I've said in the past, Hamilton deserves a spot in these rankings anyway because he's been the best hitter on the best hitting team in baseball even despite the fact he was next to useless for over two months. 

    Just think what things would be like if he hadn't gone cold between the middle of May and the end of July. Hamilton would surely have numbers that would put Miguel Cabrera's to shame, and that's saying something.

4. Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees

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    Last Week: No. 4

    Not unlike Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano didn't do a whole lot over the past week to add to his AL MVP candidacy. The key difference between the two, obviously, is that Cano at least had a chance to add to his MVP candidacy.

    Over the last week, Cano collected just six hits in 28 at-bats, five of them singles, with two RBI and four runs scored. That's a .217 batting average, and Cano collected only two walks last week to earn an OBP of .267.

    This is sort of how things have been going for Cano lately. He's hitting just .235/.340/.395 in September and .270/.352/.448 since the All-Star break. He hit .313/.374/.578 before the break.

    For the season, Cano's triple-slash line is at .295/.365/.522. He has set a new career high with 30 home runs, but his other numbers don't stack up so well compared to numbers that we've seen him post in seasons past.

    Mind you, Cano is in the MVP discussion anyway because he's easily the best player on the AL's second-best team (record-wise). 

    Offensively, Cano rates as one of the more productive players in the American League. According to FanGraphs, Cano ranks 10th in the AL with a wOBA of .375, and he's tied for ninth in wRC+ at 136.

    Cano's overall value has just as much to do with his glove as it does his bat. He leads all AL second basemen in DRS (defensive runs saved), and he has a solid UZR of 6.1.

    It adds up to a WAR that FanGraphs has calculated at an even 6.0. That's good for third in the AL behind Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera.

    There's definitely a case to be made for Derek Jeter as the Yankees' most important player, but the honor of "best" Yankees player goes to Cano in a landslide.

3. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers

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    Last Week: No. 3

    Miguel Cabrera may be the best hitter in baseball, but the best all-around third baseman in the world plays for the Texas Rangers. 

    On a surface level, Adrian Beltre is having a typical Adrian Beltre season. Combined between 2010 and 2011, he hit .309/.350/.557 with an average of 30 home runs and 104 RBI. So far this year, he's hitting .313/.351/.554 with 34 home runs and 95 RBI. Ho hum.

    But if you've been paying attention over the last few weeks, you'll know that these numbers only tell about half the story. Since the middle of August, Beltre is hitting .357/.400/.798 with 15 homers and 30 RBI in only 34 games. 

    Most recently, we saw Beltre hit a clutch two-run homer against the Angels despite the fact he missed the previous game with an abdominal issue. It was the ultimate display of guts. 

    [Dodges thrown tomatoes]

    Beltre's recent hot stretch has elevated him into the discussion of the American League's elite players. He ranks sixth in the AL with a wOBA of .380, according to FanGraphs, and fourth in WAR at 5.8.

    His high WAR has much to do with his defense, which has been characteristically excellent this season. Beltre is right there with Mike Moustakas and Brett Lawrie as far as the advanced metrics are concerned, which is fine company to keep for a third baseman this season.

    Josh Hamilton is the best offensive player on the Rangers, but there's no question that Beltre is the best player on the Rangers. 

2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Detroit Tigers

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    Last Week: No. 2

    I realize that this is where things are going to start to get nasty, but let's all cool our heads for a moment and give Miguel Cabrera the credit he deserves. I know I have him at No. 2 on this list, but don't take that to mean that I'm unaware that Cabrera is having an incredible season.

    I mean, we're looking at a guy who could become the first player to win the Triple Crown in 45 years. He's already leading the American League in batting average at .331 and in RBI with 133, and he and Josh Hamilton are tied for the AL lead with 42 home runs.

    And yes, he's keeping the Tigers afloat pretty much all by himself at this point. He has an 1.187 OPS and nine home runs in September, and he still has 10 games left to add to his numbers. We are seeing an all-time great September performance.

    The advanced metrics love Cabrera, too. FanGraphs has him leading the AL in wOBA at .421, and he ranks second in the AL in both wRC+ and WAR.

    So it really doesn't matter whether you go by old-school stats or new-school stats. Both will tell you that Cabrera is having a truly excellent offensive season.

    Now then, let's discuss why he isn't the man to beat in the AL MVP race just yet.

    For starters, Cabrera's value rests entirely in what he can do with a bat in his hands. He provides zero value on the basepaths, and on defense he qualifies as a liability.

    Yes, he does have a halfway-decent .964 fielding percentage, but fielding percentage is close to irrelevant when it comes to determining a given player's defensive capabilities. What really matters is that Cabrera has a minus-9.4 UZR and a DRS of minus-4, according to FanGraphs. He hasn't been an absolute disaster at third base, but he's costing the Tigers runs by being out there on a daily basis.

    As for the whole Triple Crown thing, we should all stop short of saying that Cabrera should automatically win the MVP if he actually manages to lead the AL in batting average, homers and RBI. It's undoubtedly an amazing accomplishment, but we know now that a player's batting average and home run and RBI counts don't fully encapsulate his offensive value. You don't need to hit for a high average, hit the ball out of the ballpark and drive in runs in order to be an elite offensive player.

    I'll explain why it's not so simple on the next slide.

1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels

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    Last Week: No. 1

    The Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout debate boils down to a very simple question:

    Would you rather have a great hitter or a great player?

    I'll take the great player any day of the week. And this year, no player in baseball has been greater than Mike Trout.

    Trout can do it all. At the plate, he's a .323/.394/.554 hitter with 28 home runs, 78 RBI, a league-leading 46 stolen bases and 122 runs scored. He's on pace to finish with 30 home runs and 50 stolen bases, something that has only been done twice before.

    To date, nobody has ever finished with 30 home runs, 50 steals and a .320 batting average in a single season. Trout has a very legitimate chance to do just that. 

    Miguel Cabrera, meanwhile, is on track to do something that has been done 15 times before throughout MLB history. As ridiculous as this may sound, Trout is thus on pace to do something more historic than what Cabrera is on pace to do.

    Thus, there's a question of which one of them has actually been the better offensive player. And in my estimation, it boils down to more even than what Cabrera's Triple Crown numbers can suggest.

    Cabrera may be leading the AL in wOBA at .421, but Trout is right there with him at .418, according to FanGraphs. Presently, Trout has him beat in wRC+, 172 to 169. That has a lot to do with Trout's ability to generate runs with his legs, and that's something he can do better than any other player in baseball.

    Then there's the question of Trout's defensive value, which far exceeds that of Cabrera. Per FanGraphs, Trout leads all AL outfielders with a DRS of plus-25, and only Ichiro has a higher UZR. He's an elite defensive player, while Cabrera is at best an average defensive player.

    Trout's assorted skills add up to a WAR that FanGraphs has calculated at 9.5, which is far and away the best in MLB this year, not to mention already better than any WAR posted by a position player in all of 2011. 

    FanGraphs' calculation of Trout's WAR is actually pretty conservative. Baseball-Reference.com has Trout's WAR at 10.4, by far the highest in baseball. For that matter, Trout's WAR is already the 24th highest in MLB history. He's almost matched Ty Cobb's WAR from his 1911 season.

    I don't want to suggest that the MVP award should go to the player with the highest WAR year after year after year. If we start doing that, then the MVP award will become no different than the batting title or the home-run crown, and that's not how things should be.

    However, it's a stat that does go to show just how much more valuable than Cabrera Trout has really been this season, and it's not such a hard notion to wrap your head around if you take a moment to actually think about it.

    Offensively, Trout and Cabrera have both been excellent. Where the two players differ is that Trout has also been a force on the basepaths and on defense. In 2012, he's practically defined the word "valuable."

    Dare I mention the fact that his Angels have a better record than the Tigers despite the fact they were 6-14 before Trout came along?

Last Week's Rankings

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    5. Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas Rangers

    There was no movement this week, but that's only because I didn't think it would be fair to kick Hamilton out of the top five just because he had a health scare. 

     

    4. Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees

    Steady as she goes.

     

    3. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers

    Ditto.

     

    2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Detroit Tigers

    Let me make this clear: I have nothing against Miguel Cabrera. He's a stud.

     

    1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels

    ...Just not quite as studly as Mike Trout.

     

    Feel free to check out last week's rankings.


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