Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Mike Trout/Miguel Cabrera Redux
I wrote last year about Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera and the American League Most Valuable Player Award. So did pretty much everyone else, and I realize it became tiresome. Most frustratingly to advocates on both sides, almost nobody changed their minds. If you're a Tigers fan or you focus mostly on Triple Crown stats, you're not turning away from the first hitter to win a Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski. If you're an Angels fan or you've lost faith in RBI, you're firmly behind Trout.
With the 2013 regular season beginning, though, I wanted to take one more look at the comparison — not to persuade anyone, because if anything was going to change your mind about this, it would have happened months ago — but to justify and explain my own position to Cabrera's advocates. I'll do this in just three points, and without any weird sabermetrics. All my acronyms have been around for decades.
And for Trout fans, if you're looking for a concise way to explain why you think a Triple Crown winner wasn't MVP, I think there are three main arguments that come into play.
1. Park Factors
Anaheim is a pitcher's park. If you take out the homefield and just look at road games, Trout's batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage were all better than Cabrera's:
Most of Cabrera's batting advantage was an illusion created by playing half his games in a hitter-friendly park, as opposed to Trout, who played half his games at a ballpark that favors pitchers.
In 2012, Miguel Cabrera stole 4 bases. Mike Trout stole 49. When you consider taking an extra base as a runner, things like going first-to-third on a single, Trout has another 23 bases up on Cabrera. Beating the throw to first on a double play opportunity, Trout's advantage is 18-21 bases, depending on whether you count FC (+18) or GIDP (+21). Altogether, that's at least 86 bases Trout advanced that Cabrera didn't.
To even that out in the Triple Crown, you could turn 28 of Cabrera's homers into singles. His batting average stays the same, but now he only has 16 HR and his slugging average drops almost 50 points, from .606 to .561. Ignoring Trout's base-running is equivalent to ignoring Cabrera's last 28 home runs.
Cabrera is not a good defensive third baseman. If Detroit didn't also have Prince Fielder, he'd be playing first base or DH. He stepped up to the more challenging defensive position, which deserves credit, and he's not a disaster at third, but he is a below-average fielder. Mike Trout is a very good defensive outfielder, and in 2012 he was one of the best center fielders in baseball. Trout's 4 home run robberies led the majors.
* * *
Most of Cabrera's statistical advantage can be explained by park effects, with road numbers favoring Trout. Speed on offense gives Trout an outright lead: his base-running edge on Cabrera is roughly equivalent to 28 home runs. When you evaluate fielding, as well, Trout is light years ahead. Even if you consider just those four home runs he stole over the wall — and the defensive difference is much bigger than 4 HR — you have two players whose hitting is nearly equal in the context of their home ballparks, then take 32 home runs away from one of them.
The disagreement over which great player was the more worthy AL MVP was generally framed as sabermetrics vs. traditionalists, WAR vs. the Triple Crown. But supporting Mike Trout wasn't really about sabermetrics. You don't need any help from Bill James to understand basic stuff like home/road splits, speed on the basepaths, or fielding. Fans and managers understood those ideas a century ago. The real issue is that the Triple Crown looks at only three stats. You don't support Mike Trout because you only see the numbers; you support Trout because he's an old-school manager's dream: terrific fielder, exceptional base-runner, smart, gets on base. No one knows yet what Trout will do in his second full season, but last year, this was a player with almost no weaknesses.