Miguel Cabrera had a historically good season. He won baseball’s first Triple Crown since 1967. He led the league in home runs, hits, and RBIs. That’s absolutely nothing to sneeze at. He’s simply a fantastic baseball player, obviously one of the best in the game. But, in the 2012 season, he was not baseball’s most valuable player to his team. That honour has to go to Mike Trout.I want to emphasize, above all, that I think that Cabrera had an MVP-calibre year. I also want to say that I won’t be upset or scandalized or anything of the sort if Cabrera is awarded the MVP award. It’s quite likely that he will be, given baseball’s fondness for arbitrary milestones, such as winning three particular categories (as opposed to three other, arbitrarily selected categories). He’ll deserve it if he gets it. It was a fantastic year, one that people will remember. Nor will I be upset if Mike Trout does not receive the award. He’s practically a child. He’ll have plenty more opportunities.
But, I do believe that, by nearly any measure excepting an over-valuation of the Triple Crown Mike Trout is your 2012 American League most valuable player.
RBIs are a team stat
Here’s where it starts for me. All of the arguments come down to his winning of the Triple Crown, and this makes them all based heavily on the fact that he led the league in RBIs. I know a lot of people cling to RBIs as a highly important stat. Others deride it as nearly useless. I’m in the middle. I think RBIs tells us something, but what it tells us is historical information rather than information that can be used to evaluate the player that produces the stat.
Let me explain. An RBI is credited to a player when the outcome of his plate appearance leads to a run being scored (with some exceptions). This is interesting historical data. It tells us that, over the course of Miguel Cabrera’s season, his plate appearances resulted in 139 runs. Good for Miguel Cabrera.But is it great for Miguel Cabrera? Well, maybe. But an RBI is very complicated. It depends on a lot of extraneous factors that are completely independent of Miguel Cabrera’s abilities as a baseball player. For instance, let’s say Miguel Cabrera comes up to the plate and there is nobody on base. In this situation, there is only one possible outcome that can lead to him getting an RBI, a home run. Alternatively, we might imagine that Cabrera comes up to base with a very fast, very good baserunner on in front of him. This increases the likelihood of him getting an RBI, but is a factor of the baserunner’s ability in addition to Cabrera’s. Or, say we me move Cabrera around in the order. The on-base percentage of the guys in front of him has a role to play as well, and once again the RBI then reflects not only Cabrera’s ability, but that of the other players on the team.
The point here is not to diminish the significance of an RBI. I don’t think we need to go that far. The point is instead to recognize that an RBI does not measure what it seems to measure. That is, an RBI indicates something that goes well beyond an individual player’s effort or ability (excepting one RBI for each home run). As such, you cannot isolate the production of an RBI to the effort of one individual player. Though the player plays a crucial role in producing an RBI, it is the result of the team’s contribution, the combined work of the batters in front of the player who is credit with the RBI and the RBI-earner himself. In a way, it is a team stat, not an individual stat.
Home Runs and Batting Average
So that’s my problem with RBIs. It’s a problematic enough statistic that I discount it when evaluating the situation. On the other Tripe Crown stats, Cabrera clearly has an edge in home runs. Trout would probably have hit a few more if he had been called up earlier, but we can’t know that for sure. In any case, no matter how you slice it, Cabrera takes it in a walk. Cabrera hit home runs in approximately 27% of the games he played, Trout in about 22%. Calculating home runs per plate appearance, Cabrera scores 0.063, and Trout 0.046. Okay. Cabrera wins in terms of home runs. In terms of average, it’s pretty much a wash, though. Cabrera has a slight edge, hitting .330 to Trout’s .326.
Of course, batting average has its own problems. It tells us what percentage of at-bats resulted in hits, but what kind of hits are they? Who had more valuable hits? Well, the pro-RBI crowd will say that Cabrera’s produced more runs. But, remember, these guys play very different roles on their respective teams. Trout hits higher in the order. His role is to get on base and get into scoring position. Cabrera’s is to hit guys like Trout home. We know Cabrera did okay at his job, but what about Trout? Well, pretty darn well. I don’t have access to the numbers for how often Trout put himself into scoring position (does such a stat exist? It’d be useful here!) but we can see that he hit 65 extra-base hits. and stole 49. These are productive moves that are entirely consistent with his role on the team. This is not to say that Trout is doing better in his role than Cabrera does in his, but rather that they’re probably about equal. So, average, I think, is a wash.
So from our three Triple Crown stats, RBI’s can be reasonably discounted, average is about equal, and home runs go to Cabrera.
Let’s go further, though. What about defense? I won’t go into advanced metrics for defense, because you just don’t need to. Trout wins the eye test, and it is pretty clear that, even if we’re kind enough to say that Cabrera is not a liability at third base for the Tigers, he’s certainly not an asset. Trout, meanwhile, is among the the best defenders in the game. He caught balls that other players in his position just wouldn’t be able to get to. He’s fast, he has good hands, and it really, really helped the team. On the basepaths, it’s no contest. Trout’s 45 stolen bases led the league.
There are two more stats, though, that really hurt Cabrera’s case.
First of all there’s the fact that, since April 28, the day Trout was called up, the Angels have had the best record in baseball. That’s right. If it wasn’t for April, the Angels have a better record than the Nationals, the Yankees, the Orioles, the A’s, the Reds, or any team currently in the playoffs. Now, I admit, this one is a bit of a cheat; like the RBI stat, you can’t isolate this to Trout’s impact. There’s also the fact that Albert Pujols stunk for the first part of the season and came around late. But, it’s still interesting, nonetheless. And, to me, it discounts the wrongheaded notion that if his team does not make the playoffs, it should hurt the player’s claim to being the most valuable player. If the Angels didn’t make the playoffs, it was almost entirely in spite of Mike Trout.
(I’d also like to, at this point, note that the AL West produced two playoff teams this year, and the Angels were in the picture until nearly the very end. The Tigers, meanwhile, were the winners of the weakest division in the AL this season and had the worst record of any playoff team. And the Angels won more games than the Tigers, anyway! They came in third place in spite of winning EIGHTY-NINE games. It’s asinine to hold that against Trout.)
More damning, though, is this stat: Cabrera led the league in groundballs resulting in double plays. Again, this is a tricky stat. Cabrera’s naturally going to do this more often than Trout, because of where he hits in the order. (Mind you, if you’re going to argue that then we should bring runs back into the discussion, and Trout led the league in runs by a significant margin.) But Miguel Cabrera led the league at grounding into double plays, doing so four times as often as Trout did (28 to 7). These are plays that actively hurt his team’s chances, and do completely the opposite of what his role is as a run-producing hitter.
Now the other argument that is used to favour Cabrera an awful lot is the fact that he moved to third base to accommodate his team, as if this is some massive sacrifice on his part and shows that he is a team player. I don’t buy this for a bit. First of all, he’s actually hurting his team by making them defensively weak in one of the more difficult positions on the field. In that sense, he is not contributing value. That doesn’t count in his favour. Sorry. I don’t buy it.
Second of all, it penalizes Mike Trout for not having to be asked to move. The Angels use Mike Trout in centre field, a position he’s very adept at, and the Cabrera camp wants to penalize him for it? Sorry. It doesn’t count in this discussion. And how do you measure “sacrifice” or “commitment”? If we want to understand value, we need some kind of way to measure it. And we simply can’t measure these things. We don’t know what sacrifices Trout made for his team, and to assume that because Cabrera is more of a team player or a leader because he changed positions is just a convenient way to manufacture evidence for his case.
The Bottom Line
There’s an awful lot of sabermetric evidence to suggest that Trout’s the MVP. I’ve tried to build an argument here that doesn’t rely on terribly advanced statistics. Even if you want to get down to intangibles, for me, Trout’s a more exciting player to watch. He’s nearly as electrifying at the plate, and he is a heck of a lot more exciting in the field and on the base paths. There’s also a lot of strong, traditional evidence for Trout’s candidacy. The support for Cabrera comes mainly from the fact that he won the Triple Crown. Again, that is no mean feat. But, it is a somewhat arbitrary collection of three statistics. That’s not enough for me. Trout is your most valuable player, American League.
Of course, this doesn’t mean he will win the award for Most Valuable Player. I suspect Cabrera will, because baseball writers, who vote for the award, often like those kind of historic achievements. I understand. I love the romance of baseball, just as I am interested in the stats. You can like both, in spite of what a lot of the anti-sabermetrics crowd will suggest. If Cabrera wins, I’m fine with that. I really am. But even if Cabrera wins Most Valuable Player, that doesn’t make him the most valuable player of 2012. That’s Mike Trout.