Trout or Cabrera: Who ya got?

The AL MVP will be announced tonight at 6 ET. It’s a 2-man race between the American League Rookie of the Year Mike Trout and the Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. No one knows who is going to win. It’s a fascinating debate for a number of reasons – most prominently because it is a debate between old school and new school. Sabermetricians vs the eye-test. Who will win out?

Imagine this conversation in 2011:

Guy 1: “In 2012, a player is going to win the 1st Triple Crown since 1967 but he is not going to win the MVP.”

Guy 2: “What have you been smoking?”

I’m pretty sure that is exactly how the conversation would have transpired last year. The Triple Crown is sacred and it hadn’t been accomplished since LBJ was in office. So, no matter when it happened, the next person to accomplish the almost impossible feat would be the unanimous choice for MVP.

Well, Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012 but he is far from a lock for the MVP thanks to Mike Trout’s historic rookie season. If either Cabrera or Trout had the same season in any other year, they would be the unanimous choice for MVP. They both did it in 2012 though and someone is going to have had an MVP caliber season without the hardware to show for it.

Also, if Trout were not a rookie or another veteran did what he did this season, Cabrera’s case would be stronger. But to come onto the scene and dominate in all aspects of the game like Trout did warrants attention.

First let’s examine their seasons using the older methodology – focusing primarily on AVG, HR and RBI along with how the player’s team finished the season. Cabrera hit .330 with 44 HR and 139 RBI  for a first place team that he continued to produce for down the stretch in a pennant race. Cabrera played in 161 games, led his team to the World Series (where they lost to the Giants) and oh yeah, he won the Triple Crown.

Trout hit .326 with 30 HR and 83 RBI for a third place team. He played stellar defense in CF and stole 49 SB becoming the most dangerous lead-off man in the league. He played 139 games (after being called up in late April) and his team did not make the playoffs. With the old school way of thinking, Cabrera has a pretty compelling argument.

Comparing the two using advanced metrics muddies the waters a little bit a lot. WAR (or wins above replacement) measures the amount of wins that player provides a team over a replacement player. It considers as many different factors as possible and attempts to be the most comprehensive assessment of overall player value.

Trout led the majors with a WAR of 10.7, meaning the Angels earned 10.7 more wins this season by having Trout on the team as opposed to another player. No other player in the league had a double-digit WAR. Closest was Robinson Cano (8.2) and Cabrera had a WAR of 6.9. Definitely respectable but according to WAR, there is a large gap between the value that Trout adds versus that of Cabrera.

Trout hit .326/.399/.564 and scored 129 runs. He had an OPS of .963 and an OPS+ of 171 (meaning his OPS adjusted for his ballpark is 71 points better than the league average of 100). Cabrera hit .330/.393/.606 with an OPS of .999 and an OPS+ of 165. A fantastic season but those numbers are very similar to Trout’s with the exception of SLG.

It doesn’t matter to me that Trout only played 139 games. It’s not his fault when his team decided to bring him up from the minors. It also doesn’t matter to me that Cabrera made the playoffs and Trout did not. Trout’s team, which finished third in its division, actually had a better record than Cabrera’s team, which won its division. Are we really going to penalize Trout for playing in a tougher division? If anything, it makes his season even more remarkable because he consistently played against better competition like the Rangers, A’s and Mariners. Meanwhile Cabrera got to consistently face the inferior Indians, Twins and Royals.

The MVP is an individual awards and no one player can singlehandedly carry a team to the World Series. Baseball is a team game with 25 players all playing a vital role in the team’s success. Neither the Angels nor the Tigers would have been able to accomplish what they did without Trout or Cabrera, but they also were not solely responsible for their teams’ outcome.

If you interpret the MVP as the best player in the league, which I do, then that is Mike Trout. Cabrera is an average fielder and lacks Trout’s speed. Trout is an impeccable defender at one of the most important positions on the field. His speed both in the field and on the basepaths speaks for itself. He came up 1 stolen base short of having just the third 30 HR, 50 SB season in MLB history. Talk about rare. While Cabrera adds immense value in one area of the game, Trout adds massive value in all aspects of the game (hitting, fielding and baserunning).

What Cabrera did at the plate this year was remarkable and there is no doubt in my mind that Cabrera is the best hitter in the league. Everyone feared him at the plate and we may never see another Triple Crown winner in our lifetime. However, Trout did almost as much at the plate and exceeded Cabrera by a wide margin in every other area of the game. This, in my opinion, makes Mike Trout the most valuable player in the league.

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