A Case For Mike Trout to Win AL MVP

Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera have both had superb seasons, and perhaps the most spirited discussion in baseball right now involves which of them should win the American League's Most Valuable Player Award. The argument has split largely along the lines of sabermetricians (who mostly prefer Trout) and traditionalists (who mostly favor Cabrera). I'm here to make an argument for Trout that doesn't require any advanced statistics or weird acronyms like VORP and wOBA.

Let's start by acknowledging that they both had sensational seasons. Even in the sabermetric community, I don't think anyone's denying that Cabrera had a pretty special season. And you don't have to be a statistician to understand that Trout had a historic season. As a baseball fan, you have to appreciate both players. Personally, I feel Trout deserves the award, but I understand why some people lean towards Cabrera. Let's address some of the more common arguments for both players:

Cabrera plays for a playoff team, and Trout does not.

I'm sympathetic to this basic argument. It makes sense that the best player would play for a successful team, and that word "valuable" is just loaded in this direction. It's not a "Best Player" award or a "Player of the Year" honor — it is explicitly for the "Most Valuable" player in the American League. Some fans argue that the "value" clause actually excludes anyone whose team didn't make the playoffs, and that's going too far for me, but it's at least a factor that we should consider.

I don't believe this line of thinking should apply to this year's MVP race, however. Firstly because I view playoff participation as more of a tie-breaker for two closely matched candidates, and I believe Trout is clearly ahead. Second, Trout's team won more games (89-73) than Cabrera's (88-74). This argument basically says that Cabrera was more valuable because the White Sox went 4-11 down the stretch.

I might even argue that in a way, this point favors Trout, who played a harder schedule. The Tigers went 13-20 this season against the AL West. If Detroit played in the West and the Angels in the Central, this argument would support Trout instead. I'm not trying to play a "what if" game, but the whole idea of the "more valuable" argument revolves around playing for a winning team, and the Angels won more games than the Tigers — even though they played a tougher schedule. I just don't see how this point applies in Cabrera's favor.

Trout got on base in ways we don't notice.

It's 2012, and we all understand that batting average is an incomplete indicator of offensive performance. But it's still a hugely prominent stat, and many fans may not realize that Trout had a better on-base percentage (.399) than Cabrera (.393), despite tougher hitting conditions (pitcher's park, harder strength of schedule, fewer IBB).

Cabrera's batting average was slightly higher than Trout's, but Trout walked more often, both in absolute terms (67-66) and as a percentage of his plate appearances (10.5% - 9.5%). That difference becomes even larger if you consider intentional walks (17 for Cabrera, 4 for Trout). But Trout also added times on base through 6 HBP, and he reached first on a fielder's choice 24 times (compared to 6 GIDP). Cabrera got hit by 3 pitches and reached on fielder's choice 6 times (against 28 double plays). If you're focused on batting average, that's 22 hidden times on base for Trout: +1 BB, +3 HBP, +18 FC. Those numbers don't count in the Triple Crown, but they make a difference in the standings.

If you consider that fielder's choice puts a man on first, Trout's on-base advantage is about 35 points, .437 to .402. There's a big difference between two outs with no one on base, and one out with a man on first.

Cabrera won the Triple Crown.

Let's be honest: this is neat. I've never gotten to celebrate a batting Triple Crown before. Sure, I recognize that batting average, home runs, and runs batted in are three pretty random stats to throw together, not necessarily any more important than the imaginary triple crown of, say, on-base percentage, total bases, and runs scored. Or OPS, homers, and stolen bases, or any number of other combinations. But it's something we acknowledge, like hitting for the cycle or pitching a no-hitter. It's very hard to do, it indicates a terrific performance, and its rarity makes it special. If you don't get excited when a pitcher takes a perfect game into the fifth inning, or a hitter has a shot at the Triple Crown, you just don't like baseball.

Cabrera is the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. He is the only player in the last 45 years to lead his league in BA, HR, and RBI. On the other hand, Trout is the only player in the history of baseball with 30 HR, 45 SB, and 125 R. Cabrera did something very impressive, something that hadn't been done in a very long time. Trout did something very impressive, something that hadn't ever been done before.

I'm not trying to diminish the Triple Crown, or the excitement of watching whether Cabrera would hit that 44th homer and hold on to the top batting average. But we can all understand that Trout's accomplishment is actually more impressive in its own way, an unprecedented feat.

Trout's speed was just as valuable as Cabrera's power.

In 2012, Miguel Cabrera hit 40 doubles and 44 home runs, giving him 172 extra bases. He also stole 4 bases, bringing him to 176. Mike Trout hit 27 doubles, 8 triples, and 30 home runs, a total of 133 extra bases. He also stole 49 bases, bringing him to 182, six more than Cabrera.

There's more. Trout went first-to-third on a single 28 times, twice as often as Cabrera (14). Trout scored from second on a single 20 times, Cabrera 14. In fact, Trout took an extra base 65% of the time, compared to 44% for Cabrera, and altogether, Trout's base-running advantage (not counting SB) comes to 23 bases. Actually, it might be more, because I think Trout actually scored on a couple of plays where I only credited him going first-to-third. In any case, Cabrera scored 28% of the times he reached base, compared to 44% for Trout. Add Trout's base-running advantage to the tally in the paragraph above, and he's ahead by 29 bases.

Furthermore, Cabrera grounded into 28 double plays, most in the majors, while Trout hit into just 7. That's another 21 bases in Trout's favor. It's not apparent to me that Cabrera was the more valuable offensive player.

Altogether, Cabrera reached base 274 times, with extra-base hits and aggressive base-running accounting for an additional 208 bases advanced. Trout reached 255 times, with an additional 237 bases advanced. Cabrera made 491 outs, compared to 420 for Trout. Those outs include caught stealing, pick-offs, outs on base, and double plays. I added fielder's choice to the TOB totals in the chart below, but the outs on those plays still count in the final column.

Chart

Cabrera's ahead by 1 time on base, but behind by 71 outs and 29 bases advanced. He's the better offensive player only if you disregard base-running.

Cabrera led the majors in RBI. He's clutch.

Not only did Cabrera lead the AL in RBI (139), he led by a lot. Josh Hamilton was next (128), and no one else had over 110. Trout finished the season with just 83 RBI. Cabrera delivered in key situations, when a good play was most valuable. That's exactly what an MVP award is supposed to recognize.

The issue is that RBI are a function of runners on base. Cabrera batted third, and Trout led off. This season, Cabrera came to bat with a total of 444 runners on base, compared to just 306 for Trout. That's almost 50% more RBI opportunities for Cabrera. Of those 444 runners on base for Cabrera, 98 eventually scored (22%), though not necessarily on a Cabrera RBI. Trout came to the plate with just 306 runners on, and 55 of them eventually scored (18%). Cabrera's figure is better, but both are above the league average of 15%.

The other side of the coin is that RBI opportunities are often double play opportunities, as well. 146 times this season, Cabrera came to bat with a runner on first and less than two outs. He grounded into a double play 28 times, most in the majors. More significant for our "clutch" argument, that means he GIDPed a stunning 19% of the time it was possible. Trout, in contrast, hit into 7 DPs in 87 opportunities, just 8% of the time.

I promised no saber stats or weird acronyms, but win probability shows clearly that Trout was more valuable with runners on than Cabrera was. Miggy has those multi-run homers we all remember, with the RBI to prove them. But Trout's speed helped him avoid rally-killing double plays. Those don't impress themselves on our memories the way going yard does, but they make a big difference to the team, and Cabrera's 28 GIDP and 19% rate don't support the idea that he's a nonpareil clutch performer.

Cabrera saved his best stuff for September.

We're doing two in a row for Cabrera, because this is also a "clutch" argument. Cabrera was a monster in September and October, when the Tigers went 18-13 and passed Chicago for control of the AL Central. He batted .333 / .395 / .675, with 11 HR and 30 RBI. That's sensational, and I have no intention of claiming otherwise. Cabrera was a huge reason Detroit made the playoffs.

Of course, Trout didn't exactly choke at the end of the season. In September and October, he hit .289 / .400 / .500, with 5 HR and 7 SB. It's not the offensive equal of Cabrera's last month, but it's still awfully good. We rightly value end-of-season performance, but they all count the same in the standings, and if Cabrera had played in May like he did in September, and in September like he did in May, the Tigers probably still would have made the postseason. Actually, looking at the whole season, Trout, who wasn't called up until April 28, has been better on a per-game basis. Here's Trout's 161-game pace (the same as Cabrera):

149 R, 211 H, 75 XBH, 35 HR, 96 RBI, 57 SB, 78 BB, 365 TB, 8 GIDP

And here are Cabrera's 161-game totals:

109 R, 205 H, 84 XBH, 44 HR, 139 RBI, 4 SB, 66 BB, 377 TB, 28 GIDP

The only significant differences are RBI and GIDP, which are both a function of runners on base, plus stolen bases (+53 for Trout) and runs (+40 for Trout). Again, I'm not trying to argue for Trout based on a "what if" scenario; Cabrera played in 22 more games, and he deserves credit for what he accomplished in them. But their end-of-season counting stats were comparable — remember Trout's base-running — and Trout made more difference in the games he played. The Angels started 6-14 and dropped five straight before Trout joined the club. They went 83-59 with Trout, about double their previous winning percentage. I'd call that valuable. He kept them in the playoff race until the last couple weeks, basically saved their season.

Trout plays in a pitcher's park.

Comerica Park in Detroit is a pretty average park for hitters, whereas Angel Stadium of Anaheim — I hate that unwieldy name — is decidedly a pitcher's park. ESPN reports that the Tigers and their opponents scored 7.1% more runs than average when they played in Detroit, while the Angels and their opponents scored 18.8% fewer runs at the Big A. It's a lot harder to generate offensive production in Anaheim.

Comerica is not late-90s Coors Field, but park effects are an important consideration of each player's value. Trout actually hit a little better on the road (.332/.407/.544) than Cabrera (.327/.384/.529); he's ahead in average, OBP, and slugging.

If Cabrera played in Anaheim, and Trout in Detroit, Miggy probably wouldn't have won the Triple Crown. Trout's numbers signify more production in Anaheim than the same stats would have in Detroit (where they're easier to produce), and Cabrera's were slightly less valuable because opponents enjoyed the same park advantages he did.

Trout struck out too much.

Strikeouts are bad, and Trout struck out a lot more (139 times) than Cabrera (98). But there's seldom much difference between a strikeout and an out on a ball in play. Not to beat this into the ground, but Cabrera hit into 28 double plays; he actually would have been more valuable to the Tigers if all his outs were strikeouts. The Elias Sports Bureau keeps a stat called productive outs: advancing a runner with none out or driving in a run while making the second out of the inning. Cabrera had 23 productive outs in 2012, compared to 28 GIDP. Trout was credited with 13 productive outs and 7 GIDP.

Cabrera had more men on base for his at-bats, and those 23 productive outs mean he converted on 35% of his opportunities, compared to 31% for Trout, basically a difference of 1 base. What about just putting the ball into play, generating the possibility of an error? Trout reached base on an error 7 times in 2012, compared to 4 for Cabrera. The strikeouts simply aren't a big deal.

The elephant in the room: defense.

Everyone agrees that Mike Trout is a very good center fielder. He looks great, makes all the highlight shows, passes the eye test. He also passes the stats test; advanced defensive metrics rate him as one of the best outfielders in baseball. He has shown great range and will likely win a Gold Glove at one of the most important defensive positions in baseball. Trout's four home run robberies lead the majors.

Everyone agrees that Miguel Cabrera is a subpar third baseman. He's not a disaster, and third base is a challenging defensive position. But Cabrera is a below-average fielder, and third base is not center field. His fielding percentage (.966) actually was better than league average (.952), but his range and play-making were well below average.

If two players are of equal offensive value, but one is an average center fielder, and the other is an average third baseman, the CF is the more valuable player. If both are of equal offensive value, but one is a terrific center fielder, and the other is a poor third baseman, the CF is a significantly more valuable player. If you buy into sabermetric defensive analysis, the difference is probably worth about a dozen home runs. Given Trout's four robberies and many other fine defensive plays, combined with Cabrera's lackluster fielding, that strikes me as a conservative but reasonable estimate.

To keep Cabrera ahead of Trout, you probably have to agree with most or all of the following points:

* Effective base-running is not valuable.
* Fielding excellence is not valuable.
* Comerica Park and Angel Stadium are equally hitter-friendly.
* Driving in runs matters. Grounding into double plays does not.
* The MVP Award should primarily honor late-season performance, not a player's full body of work.

If you disagree with any of those, but still support Cabrera, I suppose you're a Tigers fan. Good luck against the A's. Otherwise, you'd have to be totally caught up on the playoff thing, but I don't see how you can apply that to this situation. Trout pretty clearly helped his team more, and in fact his team did win more games than Cabrera's.

Miguel Cabrera had a fantastic season. I didn't know if I'd ever see a Triple Crown winner. I'll be shocked if he doesn't win the AL MVP Award, and I'll be surprised if it's close. But Mike Trout had a historic year, even if you discount his being a rookie. As great as Cabrera was, Trout was even better, and he was the most valuable player in the American League.

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