Miguel Cabrera is batting .326, he has hit 42 home runs, and has 133 RBIs. These numbers are particularly significant this season as they give him a legitimate chance at being the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Cabrera leads the American League in both batting average and RBIs, but trails Josh Hamilton by one home run. So Cabrera sounds like a lock to be named MVP right? Well, no. Another contender has reared its head in the form of rookie Mike Trout. Trout actually has a better wRC+ than Cabrera (169 to 164), and leads all of baseball with a WAR of 9.5, almost three wins more than Cabrera. Viewing the statistics used to describe each player’s performance, it would be easy to bill this as an argument between old-school and new-school; sabermetric statistics versus the old guard of batting average, home runs, and RBIs. However, the MVP award is given to the player that provided the most value to their team throughout the entirety of the season. Not who has the highest WAR, and not who leads the league in home runs. So, this is less of an issue between “old” and “new” statistics, and more of an issue about where value comes from.
Before I go any further, I must clarify one thing. Often when debating who should win an MVP award in any sport, there is an idea that a player’s value has a high correlation to the team’s overall success. To me, that logic is inherently flawed. Why should a player be punished for factors outside of his immediate control? Sure, one could argue that the team’s performance is within the player’s control because he is a member of said team, and therefore contributes to their winning percentage. Fair enough, but winning percentage is also influenced by the other 24 players on the team. If Babe Ruth is your right fielder, but the rest of the team is made up of Yuniesky Betancourt clones, the team is still going to be terrible. So whether or not the Tigers or the Angels make the playoffs is irrelevant to this discussion.
Okay, getting back on topic, let’s look at a side-by-side comparison of Trout (Player A) and Cabrera (Player B), (data via Fangraphs, as of 9/28/12):
They are about even in walk rate and OBP. Cabrera has an obvious edge in the power numbers. He has more home runs, even if you adjust for his extra plate appearances, and he has a better slugging percentage, as well as a better ISO. Trout makes up that ground by having almost 12 times the amount of stolen bases that Cabrera has, despite only being thrown out four times. All this ends up being about equal in terms of wOBA and wRC+.
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One number that jumps off the page is Trout’s BABIP. Normally this would be an indication that regression is due; however, it is not rare to see a player with impressive speed maintain a high BABIP, and Trout definitely has impressive speed. Trout has posted an infield hit percentage of 11.8% (league average is 6.5%), which, given his skillset, indicates that his speed allows him to beat out balls that would otherwise be converted to an out. Whether or not you believe Trout can sustain a .374 BABIP next season, there is nothing in the data from this season that suggests it was significantly luck based. It is likely to regress, but it should not regress all that much.
Since both players have provided similar overall offensive value this season, it makes sense to look at offense relative to position and defense as the deciding factors. Cabrera converted to third base this season, and by just about all accounts has played the position at a below-average level. That being said, collectively AL third basemen posted a wOBA of .312; Cabrera’s was .415. Trout on the other hand spent the majority of his time playing centerfield, and playing it well. For those of you who like UZR, he was 13 runs above average. For those of you who don’t, you will be hard pressed to find a scout who doesn’t believe in Trout’s glove. Oh, and then there’s this. Hurting Trout’s case is his fellow AL centerfielders, who collectively put up a .331 wOBA, much higher than the collective rate for third basemen.
So the debate really comes down to what you think is most valuable. Cabrera’s power and overall offensive ability relative to his peers at third base is definitely valuable, but he is hurt by his sub-par defense. Trout has less power than Cabrera, but still has an ISO of .227, and makes up for any gap in power with his speed. Unlike Cabrera though, he plays excellent defense at a premium position, which also provides value. Cabrera has had a great season, and there is certainly a case to be made for him as MVP, but when all things are considered I believe Trout’s combination of offense and defense in centerfield makes him the most deserving candidate for the MVP award.
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