Wait, baseball? What in the name of Ryan Howard's broken toe is going on here?
I know, I know, we'll get back to the football later this week. But this whole fiery discourse going on about the American League MVP race is as interesting a discussion as I can remember around the postseason awards. In case you're still adjusting to the light after being under that rock for so long, 21-year-old Angels outfielder Mike Trout and 29-year-old Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera are neck and neck in public opinion voting for this award. The main point of contention centers around the fact that Cabrera is currently in a position to win the AL Triple Crown (highest BA, HR, RBI in the league), a feat that hasn't been done in decades, while Trout's more balanced all-around game has him in position to garner the highest WAR of any player since Barry Bonds' 2004 season in which he hit 45 homers and had a .600 OBP. I should preface by saying that I would take Trout, but I wanted to offer a few points about the issue, centered around the definition of the Most Valuable Player.
First, the facts: I don't want to try to misrepresent these guys' seasons by cherry-picking stats, so I'm going to throw out a smattering of them and will use only those statistics in this discussion, so they're on even footing.
137 G, 630 PA, 30 HR, 129 R, 83 RBI, 48 SB, .325 BA, .398 OBP, .564 SLG, 13.3 UZR
175 wRC+ (weighted runs created -- ballpark adjusted), 5.61 WPA (win probability added), 10.3 WAR
LA Angels: 89-71 (out of playoffs), 47.8 total WAR
159 G, 692 PA, 44 HR, 109 R, 137 RBI, 4 SB, .329 BA, .393 OBP, .608 SLG, -9.2 UZR
166 wRC+, 4.40 WPA, 7.1 WAR
Detroit Tigers: 87-73 (in playoffs), 46.2 total WAR
Let's ease into this: I think we can all agree that both Trout and Cabrera are, in fact, players, by whatever definition Major League Baseball chooses. I can't comment on their social lives, however.
When you look at the word "most" in the MVP acronym, Cabrera supporters can actually make a compelling case. You see, Cabrera is likely to end the season with the most hits per at-bat, the most home runs, and the most RBI in the league, and just because he happened to have better overall statistics in each of the two previous years should not affect his candidacy this season. If the entire league hit .200 with 10 homers and 30 RBI for the season but one guy went .220 with 15 and 40, you have to give him the MVP award, right? He was the MOST valuable player! So the fact that offense was down this year (as it has been for a few years, mind you) really doesn't enter into the discussion. What does enter into the discussion is that the Triple Crown hasn't been accomplished since 1967, when Carl Yastrzemski hit .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBI, numbers that Cabrera beats. Cabrera has been, without a doubt, the best hitter in the American League this year. But there's more to baseball than just hitting. That's what the Silver Slugger is for, which Cabrera should win going away.
Now let's get to the word "valuable." This is the word that Trout supporters seem to be focusing on. Despite appearing in 22 fewer games (and accruing 60 fewer plate appearances), Trout clearly has an advantage in total "value" provided to the team, as defined by Wins Above Replacement. This comes from his dominant advantage in baserunning and defense (44 more steals, 22.5 difference in UZR). The way WAR sees it, a run via home run is just as valuable as one gained via baserunning efficiency or one saved through above-average defense.
Perhaps WAR gives too nebulous a picture, though. Well, as it turns out, Trout furthers his case with other advanced metrics. His Weighted Runs Created Plus, a Bill-James-inspired stat measuring overall offensive value while also accounting for home ballpark and league averages, is actually higher than Cabrera's, and that's before you take into account his defensive advantage. Trout's Win Probability Added, which basically sums the change in the team's chance of winning the game for every play he makes, and is a reasonable proxy for performance adjusted for clutch-ness, is also significantly higher than Cabrera's.
One of the crutch arguments that Cabrera supporters use to convey his value is that Trout should be less strongly considered because his team will not make the playoffs. However, as you'll note, the Angels actually have a better record than the Tigers, and play in a more challenging division, so the fact that the AL Central happens to be weaker than the AL West shouldn't affect either player's candidacy. I prefer to consider value by the percentage of a team's production that the player accounted for, as a player's value should take into account how critical his performance is to the team's overall success. In this case, I'll use the percentage of the team's WAR that the player produced himself. Trout produced 21.5% of his team's WAR, while Cabrera produced just 15.4% (you can blame Justin Verlander, Austin Jackson, and Prince Fielder for that).
Lastly, I just wanted to bring up the idea of using runs scored and RBI as measuring sticks for value. Trout's runs scored are heavily inflated (and his RBI deflated) by his leadoff position in the batting order, as at least 1/4 of his plate appearances are guaranteed to occur with no runners on, while he has more opportunities to be on base and score runs than Cabrera. I'm not going to totally trash the RBI statistic, as a run produced is a run produced, but it's important to note that a .200/.200/.200 hitter (a guy who hits a single once out of every five times and that's it) could easily produce a higher RBI total than a .300/.400/.500 hitter (like Trout) by virtue of his plate appearances happening to have many more runners on base at the time. This sort of thing is mostly random (except for the batting order consideration) and probably shouldn't be used as a metric of a player's ability level (here's looking at you, Ryan Howard).
In the end, while I'm really excited about the prospect of Cabrera, who has been as consistently great of a hitter as there has been in the league the last several years, accomplishing the Triple Crown. I love to see that kind of stuff happen. But what Trout is doing in terms of five-tool production is unprecedented, and while this shouldn't enter into the conversation, the fact that he's barely 21 will certainly help his candidacy. Cabrera will get his share of the record books with a Silver Slugger and a Triple Crown, but Trout has been the Most Valuable Player and deserves the hardware to show for it.