The American League MVP race between Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout is one of the most divisive debates in sports right now, and both players are extremely deserving of the award.
The contentious nature of the argument has arisen because Cabrera appears to be the league’s most impressive player when using traditional statistics, but Trout looks like the better player when evaluated by sabermetrics.
Cabrera’s season has been highlighted by the first hitting Triple Crown since 1967, while Trout has been the more impressive all-around player due to his fielding and base-running ability.
There are valid and convincing arguments for both players, but these are the points voters will focus on.
The Triple Crown
Cabrera’s Triple Crown-winning campaign should be a large part of the discussion for the AL MVP. This accomplishment means the Tigers star led the AL in home run, batting average and RBI this season.
RBI are one of the most debated statistics in baseball, as the importance of this measure is viewed as significantly less important in advanced statistical analysis.
But Detroit manager Jim Leyland feels that disregarding RBI is not an effective way to evaluate players. He said the following on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption:
And I've been saying this all along, if you watched every manager during the course of the season after a game they lost, I guarantee you a common denominator or a common fact is, well we got them out there but we couldn't knock them in; we couldn't get a big hit with a man in scoring position; we couldn't get a guy in from third with less than two outs.
Leyland feels that RBI contribute significantly more to winning games than those who advocate the WAR system of evaluating players tend to believe. Cabrera’s ability to come up with hits in important situations was a major part of what made him so valuable to the Tigers this season.
Fielding and Base-running
The WAR system is designed to take into account everything a player does on the field, whether it is at the plate, on defense or on the base path.
WAR stands for “wins above replacement,” and is calculated using a complex formula that is neither uniform nor agreed upon. ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield best explained how it is used to evaluate players. He notes that Carl Yastrzemski had a 10.0 WAR in 1968 and writes, “So if you had a lineup of replacement-level players in 1968 and replaced one of them with Yaz, that team would go from roughly 50 wins to about 60.”
This season, Trout had a 10.7 WAR to lead all major league players, while Cabrera had just a 6.9 WAR. Those who support Cabrera as the MVP will decry that the formula is flawed and not an adequate way to measure a player’s value.
The WAR system is certainly not perfect, but it is a valuable way to compare players. A significant part of Trout’s marked advantage in this statistic is his ability to field and run the bases at a high level.
The young center fielder is a significantly better defensive player, and much more dangerous on the basepath by any measure. Even the WAR system's most fervent detractors will concede this. Trout's all-around contribution should not be forgotten in the debate.
Cabrera is Still Playing
This stacks the cards against Trout, even though the Angels had a better overall record on the season. The Tigers certainly had an easier path to the postseason in the AL Central, but they would not have made it without Cabrera.
He had his highest home runs and RBI totals of the season in September, and contributed to his team’s postseason birth significantly more than any other individual player.
While it is difficult to argue that Trout could have done more to help his team make the postseason, there is a bottom line with MVP voters. With two candidates who are both deserving of the award, the deciding factor will end up being that Cabrera took his team to the postseason while Trout did not.