Miguel Cabrera's Bad April Finally Reopens AL MVP Door

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Miguel Cabrera's Bad April Finally Reopens AL MVP Door
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No, Miguel Cabrera's poor April didn't kill his hopes of winning a third straight American League MVP. 

It just hurt them. Bad news for him. Good news for everyone else with eyes on winning the award.

Now, before we go any further, let's take a moment to speak optimistically about the 31-year-old Detroit Tigers slugger. Though April was a rotten month by his standards, at least he finished it better than he started it.

Cabrera wrapped up April by collecting two hits in five at-bats in a 5-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday afternoon. In doing so, he bumped a modest hitting streak up to seven games.

And as ESPN Stats & Info can vouch, they haven't all been one-fers:

In the process, Cabrera has raised his overall slash line from a putrid .206/.275/.333 to a considerably less putrid .277/.320/.415.

The fact that Cabrera is coming around might not be an accident.

For one, he's Miguel Cabrera.

Two, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan pointed out that Miggy seems to have adjusted to how pitchers were attacking him in his weakened, post-core surgery state. 

Three, it could be that Cabrera is getting closer and closer to bridging the gap between feeling "good" and feeling at "full strength" that he told Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi about in mid-April.

There's your daily dose of Cabrera optimism. He had us all worried there for a while, but he's starting to look more like a two-time defending MVP. Which is good, because a good Miguel Cabrera is a fun Miguel Cabrera.

The trouble is that history suggests that the damage might already be done as far as Cabrera's chances at a third straight MVP go. By both his own personal standards and other standards, MVPs typically don't start as slowly as he has.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Looking back at Cabrera's own history, he's been a perennial top-five MVP finisher every year since 2009, obviously winning the award in each of the last two seasons.

In none of those seasons did he get off to a slow start. Rather, he started the year off by murdering the ball (via FanGraphs):

Miguel Cabrera's Aprils, 2009-2014
Year PA HR RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ WAR
2009 88 4 14 .377 .455 .558 1.013 168 0.9
2010 110 5 25 .344 .427 .615 1.042 178 1.1
2011 119 7 19 .333 .454 .635 1.089 187 1.3
2012 95 7 20 .298 .368 .571 .939 147 0.7
2013 117 4 28 .363 .436 .559 .995 174 1.1
2014 100 2 15 .277 .320 .415 .735 99 0.4

Credit: FanGraphs

All the stats you need are up there, but I want to call attention to one in particular: wRC+.

That's Weighted Runs Created Plus. It's one of the more complex metrics, but it has a straightforward goal: to measure a player's offensive value in runs above or below average. With 100 set as the bar for average, anything above 100 is above average, and anything below 100 is below average.

In the last five Aprils, Cabrera has been not just an above-average offensive producer, but a way above-average offensive producer.

But this April? Nope. Just a tick below average.

Which is about as unusual as it sounds, for the record. The last time Cabrera finished a month with a wRC+ below 100 was August 2007

This is where we grant that there's a lot of season left. Cabrera has five months to re-establish himself as baseball's most dangerous hitter, which, to reiterate, is a process that has seemingly already begun.

Cabrera's personal history during his MVP contender days doesn't bode particularly well, though. Neither does the recent history of MVPs as a group.

Fellow MLB Lead Writer Jason Catania looked into the matter last year using the sOPS+ metric—which simply compares a player's OPS to league average—and found that it's been rare for MVP hitters to have slow Aprils. Out of all the MVPs since 2000, only Justin Morneau in 2006 got off to a slow start.

Repeating the experiment with wRC+ tells us the same thing:

Aprils of MVPs, 2000-2013
Year AL MVP April wRC+ NL MVP April wRC+
2000 Jason Giambi 154 Jeff Kent 113
2001 Ichiro Suzuki 112 Barry Bonds 169
2002 Miguel Tejada 117 Barry Bonds 255
2003 Alex Rodriguez 188 Barry Bonds 183
2004 Vladimir Guerrero 154 Barry Bonds 323
2005 Alex Rodriguez 155 Albert Pujols 156
2006 Justin Morneau 76 Ryan Howard 122
2007 Alex Rodriguez 226 Jimmy Rollins 145
2008 Dustin Pedroia 100 Albert Pujols 193
2009 Joe Mauer DNP Albert Pujols 190
2010 Josh Hamilton 120 Joey Votto 144
2011 Justin Verlander NA Ryan Braun 219
2012 Miguel Cabrera 147 Buster Posey 182
2013 Miguel Cabrera 174 Andrew McCutchen 102

Credit: FanGraphs

Cabrera's situation isn't hopeless. Morneau got hot enough in the last five months of 2006 to sway MVP voters. Dustin Pedroia and Andrew McCutchen were able to shrug off basically league-average Aprils. Joe Mauer, meanwhile, didn't even play in April when he won the award in 2009.

But these are the exceptions to the rule we're talking about. And while what history says isn't always gospel, it's better to have it working with you than against you.

That both Cabrera's history and the history of MVPs since 2000 say the door is open a crack isn't all Cabrera has working against him. There's also the matter of how many legit candidates have lined up to take the MVP from him in the early goings.

Credit: MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The list might as well start with rookie White Sox slugger Jose Abreu, who leads the AL in homers with 10 and RBI with 32. He'll be in good with the voters if he keeps that up, and they'd surely also appreciate Abreu if his heroics help keep the White Sox in contention all year long.

Then there's Jose Bautista. The Toronto Blue Jays slugger leads the AL in both OPS (1.065) and wRC+ (192). And while Toronto looks like a merely mediocre team, that didn't stop Bautista from being a top MVP contender in 2010 or 2011.

Oakland A's third baseman Josh Donaldson is worth a look too. His 143 wRC+ in the early going is right in line with the 148 wRC+ he posted in a 2013 season that saw him finish fourth in the AL MVP voting. Combined with his 1.4 WAR, that makes him the best player on the A's, who are currently the AL's best club.

And then there's Mike Trout, because of course there's Mike Trout.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Angels star's all-around dominance has made him Cabrera's only real competition in each of the last two AL MVP races. And while Cabrera endured a slow April, Trout's all-around dominance kept on keeping on (via FanGraphs):

Mike Trout's April
Split AVG OBP SLUG OPS wRC+ WAR
Trout .321 .403 .596 1.000 178 2.5
AL Rank T-7 10 3 2 2 1

Credit: FanGraphs

By OPS and wRC+, Trout is the second-best hitter in the AL. Add in his four stolen bases and what the advanced metrics say has been superb defense, and it's no wonder he's leading the league in WAR. By a lot, too, as nobody else in the AL has better than a 1.4 WAR.

As for the team around Trout, the Angels are only 14-13. But as FanGraphs' Dave Cameron noted in a Fox Sports article, their April record is misleading. With the AL's second-best run differential, the league's top offense and the league's fourth-best ERA, everything except their record says the Angels are a good team.

If that comes to be reflected in their record in the long run, Trout's MVP case isn't the only one that could be bolstered by it. Albert Pujols could be in the mix as well. With a .927 OPS and nine homers, he looks more like Albert Pujols than he has in some time.

I'll take a wild guess and say that these guys and any others out there who consider themselves in play for the AL MVP after the first month aren't about to sleep on Cabrera. He'd have to hit something like .340 or .350 with 35-40 more homers to finish with his typical numbers, but that's not out of the question if his recent hot streak is indeed him shaking the rust off.

Anything less than that, however, might not cut it. And if anything less than that happens, it'll be anybody's race.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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