As we approach the end of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, there are several races left to be decided. Yet of all the races that have captivated the nation, the greatest one of them all should not actually be a race.
I am speaking, of course, about the race between Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera and Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout for the American League Most Valuable Player award.
As Dave Cameron of Fangraphs wrote about the American League MVP debate, Cabrera's MVP candidacy this year really isn't that much better than it was two years ago, when everyone agreed Josh Hamilton deserved the award he ultimately got:
In reality, Cabrera’s 2010 and 2012 offensive performances are almost exactly equal no matter what kinds of metrics you use. In terms of something more accurate like batting runs above average, Cabrera was at +54.9 in 2010 and is at +54.3 this year. Even if you want to evaluate his performance strictly by RBIs, there is essentially no difference between this year and two years ago.
There seems to be two schools of thought out there right now about who should win, but when you really look at what both players have done this season, it is no contest.
Cabrera has two things going for him that a lot of "old-school voters" are going to love, assuming they both end up coming to fruition. The first one is the triple crown. In Major League Baseball history, traditionally, if a player leads the league in batting average, home runs and RBI, he is going to win the MVP award.
Since the Baseball Writers' Association of America has been voting for the MVP award since 1931, nine players have won a triple crown. Of those nine, five have won the award, including the last three players.
However, two of the three triple-crown stats do nothing to tell you about the value a player adds to his team. RBI is nothing more than an opportunity-based stat, so it is irrelevant. Batting average is a slightly better gauge of hitting prowess, but it hardly tells you what you need to know about value.
The other thing that Cabrera has going for him that will appeal to a certain sector of the voting populace is the Tigers appear more likely to make the playoffs than the Angels, which is a completely ridiculous way to vote for a regular-season award.
Stacking Cabrera's season up against Trout's, the true MVP becomes much, much clearer. This is not some silly "old school" vs. "new school" debate that is going to keep people arguing forever.
The simplest stat to look at is wins above replacement (WAR). I am in no way suggesting that it should be the only thing people look at to vote on awards, but it does tell you far more than what you can gauge from triple-crown stats.
Right now, Trout leads Cabrera in Fangraphs' WAR 9.5 to 6.9 and Baseball Reference's WAR 10.4 to 6.7. Again, that doesn't nearly tell the whole story, but it is far better than just looking at three offensive stats.
Looking deeper at offensive numbers, Cabrera holds the slightest of slight edges in weighted on-base average (wOBA), .420 to .418. But Trout has the edge in wRC+, 172 to 168.
Baserunning is no contest, as Trout is plus-6.1 (best in the American League), and Cabrera is minus-2.9, per Fangraphs.
Since there is not a lot of separation between the two in offensive numbers, defense becomes a critical factor in this race.
Cabrera shifted to third base after years of being a below-average defensive first baseman. The results have been, unsurprisingly, underwhelming. He has an Ultimate Zone Rating of minus-9.4 and has cost the Tigers five runs with his glove.
Trout has been one of the best defensive players in all of baseball while playing one of the most valuable defensive positions in the field. His UZR is 11.9, and he has saved 25 runs with the glove.
The fact that Trout is doing it at an up-the-middle position has to factor in extra heavily for the people voting on this award.
Nothing that Cabrera has done this season validates him winning the American League Most Valuable Player award. He has been spectacular and deserves to be commended for it, but he is not the best or most valuable player in baseball this season.
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