When Miguel Cabrera official won the batting Triple Crown on the last day of the season, he likely booted Mike Trout out of the lead position for AL MVP. Triple Crowns are interesting, and rare, and there's nothing writers like more than a good narrative.
What's the problem, you might ask. What does it matter to me, a Diamondbacks fan? Admittedly, it probably doesn't matter in the particular. In the universal, however, it's an important discussion to consider, because this argument is probably the clearest reduction in the overarching baseball argument of the past 10 to 15 years. Do we coolly consider the numbers, or do we consider the context?
The answer, of course, is that we should do both.
The particular arguments for Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera
2012 was supposed the year of Bryce Harper, but hype has a way of disappointing. I don't doubt that Harper will eventually become a great player, but this year was for Trout, who had a historically great season for a rookie. We don't know how his career will progress, but this year has been out of this world.
Trout is only the 16th rookie to qualify for a batting title and have an OPS over .900. Some of the company he finds himself in: Albert Pujols, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, and Johnny Mize. His 30 home runs would put him 5th on this list of 16. His first full year is better than Mickey Mantle's first year, and is a similar prototype of plus defense, power, and great running. If his 2012 was so great, what will he be like next year, or every year until his likely peak 6 to 10 years in the future?1
MVP isn't a "most likely to be president," award, though. It doesn't care about projecting a player's production into the future, so most of the comps only provide context for why he has been great for rookies. The good thing for Trout is that he's also been better than the rest of the majors this year. He's the leader in fWAR with 10, and has a full 2 wins up on the next closest.2 He has the highest wRC+ in the majors, which is a metric that tries to measure on a weighted scale how good a player is at creating runs.3 Trout has a wRC+ of 175, so he's nearly 75% at creating runs this year than the average baseball player.
In other words, Mike Trout has been so good this year he could win both the NL and AL MVPs.
Miguel Cabrera hasn't a slouch year, either, otherwise he wouldn't be in this discussion. The hitting Triple Crown of batting average, RBIs, and home runs is nothing to dismiss, as you're probably a pretty good player if you win any of those categories. To win all three, however, puts you in a historical category of only 14 other players, such as Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Mantle, Najoie, Foxx, Gehrig, Frank Robinson, and Carl Yastrzemski.
It feels 'right' to award the MVP trophy to someone in such prestige company, but historically that hasn't been true. Only 5 times has the Triple Crown winner also been the MVP. And once you ignore the historical context of the Triple Crown, it becomes much more difficult to argue for Cabrera.
Cabrera is only third AL fWAR at 7.1 (nearly a full 3 wins lower than Trout). He's second in wRC+ at 166, but he still sits behind Trout. He's behind Trout in wOBA4, but he did lead the league in OPS (the more traditional number for power + average). So really the only way Cabrera leads Trout is in more traditional categories.
On defense Cabrera really falls behind. Both centerfield and third are difficult positions to play for different reasons, but one of the players excelled, while the other did not. To measure this I'm going to have to switch to bWAR, which weights things differently and is not based off wOBA, but it does split out defensive WAR rather neatly. Cabrera had a -0.2 in dWAR, while Trout was worth 2.2 wins on defense. So if Cabrera had even been a competent defender then they'd be nearly even, right? Nope! Even if you just look at bWAR's offensive number, Trout scores higher (8.6 versus 7.5).
By the numbers that actual measure a player's value, Trout is clearly not only leading Cabrera, but also the league. And he did it as a rookie. Of course, not everyone defines value in the same way.
The universal arguments about Trout and Cabrera
An annual saw that is brought out for the award season emphasizes "most valuable" in the MVP award, not "best player." If we ignore the logical inconsistency of this argument, since it should follow that the best player is the most valuable by definition, we have to understand what they mean. Almost always this is used to justify a player who maybe didn't have the best year but is still pretty great. More importantly, though, is that this lesser player has to make the playoffs.
The last time an AL MVP won without his team going to the playoffs would be 1991,5 which is also before the Wild Card. In fact, there have only been 3 players since 1980 to win without their team going to the playoffs.6 In the modern game "value" either means driving your team to the postseason is either an important part of the package, or a mighty coincidence.
I don't think its a coincidence, because so many writers, and fans, scream from the mountaintops every October that this is their belief. If this player doesn't play so great, then the team doesn't make the playoffs, is the line. It should follow, then, that a team without a great player would be even worse. A player's value does not get lessened because his teammates are idiots. A better measure of value is to ask "if I put this player on any team, does his value stay the same, and does that team get better?"
I think you can make a case for both Trout and Cabrera that they would help any team, so if they can both pass that hurdle then you're back to which one is more purely valuable in 2012 as a baseball player. It's still Trout, if you forgot the numbers section above already.
Another adage in baseball talk is about a player "putting a team on their back" as a means of expressing a player's superior value. In other words, these players perform their best when it matters, and help the team win or stay close even when everyone else is tripping over their own shoes. It's the same argument that is often used against Alex Rodriguez, where people insinuate that he only builds his counting stats in blowouts. If this argument were true about Cabrera, then it should be easily seen this year. Luckily for me, the Tiger did not start the season so hot.
Going into June the Tigers were below .500 by a few games. The White Sox were inexplicably up on the division, and I think people were looking around wondering how a team everyone thought would run away with the weak AL Central was struggling so mightily. If Cabrera was carrying that team during its lackluster first two months, his numbers would should that, right? The only problem with this narrative is April and May were Cabrera's worst months, and he didn't really turn it on until July through September. He surged the same time his team surged.
For the sake of fairness, let's look at the Angels. Their worst month was April, a month where Trout only had 12 PA. Obviously we can't discuss this7, so let's look at the next worst month of August. That was also Trout's worst month. So again, as the team did, so did the player.
You can make one of two conclusions here. Either these players are so good that they obviously power the surges and by extension cause the slumps. Or the team is a dynamic system where players are affected by the team's performance as much they are by their teammates, and the team is affected by individual players. I'd lean more towards the latter, but if you accept the former argument there still isn't a difference between Trout and Cabrera this year. Both surged and slumped with their teams.
The last point to be made about the universal argument of this year's AL MVP vote is the manner in which both players are qualified. Trout has very measurable value, value that is largely his and is appreciably better than anyone else in all of MLB, not just the Junior Circuit. Cabrera's value is only in three categories, 1 and 1/2 of which don't even make much sense in measuring a player's worth.
Why the Triple Crown is interesting, but not much more than interesting
Batting average has a certain element of luck to it, as should be well known by this point. Over the long term, however, a player generally hits for a known average. Cabrera does have a very good approach that lends itself to a higher average. His career average is .312, and this is the second straight year he's won the batting average title. Even though he had a lower BABIP this year than his career number, there is still a certain degree of luck involved with batting average. It assumes all hits are the same, regardless of defensive placement or talent. Look at last night's AL Wild Card game: the Rangers put the left handed shift of Jim Thome, and he went the other way and put the ball where the third baseman might normally have been. He certainly had the talent and experience to make the adjustment, but it was also at least partially fueled by the Rangers defensive choice.
Power, or home runs, is pretty straightforward as a measure of value, so we don't need to overanalyze this part of the Triple Crown.
The RBI segment, however, deserves the painful shredding it is about to receive. Historically, it is an interesting category, and it does impart a small amount of wisdom on a player's ability. I doubt we could find an RBI champion who was a total bum, so you have to be doing something right to win it. It just doesn't have much credibility on its own because it is so highly derivative of other events. RBI should be considered with the following model: RBI = m *(batting average) + teammate offensive ability.
Batting average should be obvious, but what is the m? It's not so simple to say that a player with high batting average will get be able to also get a hit regardless of the base situation, because a pitcher will pitch differently with bases loaded or a man on third with no outs then he will with no one on. In other words, m is a kind of randomness associated with the defense and pitching that reacts to the baserunning situation, but it also is a randomness about the batter. Some batters are better at runner in scoring position (RISP) situations, some are worse. The reason is this random m. (For the stat nerds, yes I set it up as a linear regression, but I'm not suggesting its literally linear, it's just an illustration).
RBIs aren't just affected by a player's own ability, or how he and the pitcher react to RISP, but also by how good a batter's teammates are at getting on base, staying on base, and advancing the bases. If you're sitting at the top of the lineup, like Mike Trout, you're probably not going to see as many people in front of you on base. Yet we're supposed to accept that this is Trout's fault. Or when players do get on, we're supposed to accept that this is fully Cabrera's ability when he drives them in. It is partially his ability, but not fully.
Numbers, Context, and You
The final test for the Triple Crown argument is simply whether Cabrera would be a good candidate if he had not won the arbitrary categories? Josh Hamilton almost beat him in HR and RBI, Trout almost caught up in BA. Cabrera probably would get votes, but Robinson Cano, who had a better year than Cabrera, just not as good as Trout, would have probably taken his spot in the discussion.
This ultimately is the problem with the debate. Cabrera is not being qualified based on this year's performance, within the context of his league. He's being compared across time to some sort of qualitative argument. Trout was clearly the best this year, and the only way you could remove him from the discussion is to make the assumption that he wasn't going to perform this year. It's a lot easier, and probably more likely, to assume there was a distinct possibility that Hamilton would win the home run contest, given that he was only 1 behind Cabrera to end the year. If that happens, Cabrera would get votes but not the award.
If you only consider the numbers, the ones designed to strip away as much luck and other factors as possible, then Trout wins this handily. He was the better batter, better defender, and better baserunner. If you add the context he still comes out on top, because not only is the Triple Crown not a great measure of ultimate value, but both players were so obviously tied up in their teams performance that you can't fall back to the old postseason argument.
Perhaps the most important idea of the sabermetric revolution is not fancy new numbers, but the demand for a more methodical approach. Its not something that expressed often, but it is the assumption that sabermetrics stands upon. The qualitative arguments aren't bad because they're qualitative and not numbers driven. They are bad because they are not particularly methodical. The numbers get the glory, but don't think for a second that context doesn't matter to a sabermetrician's argument.
1 The BABIP for Trout in 2012 .381, which is concerning.
2 Buster Posey being the next closest.
3 100 is considered average, but it's a weighted system that can change on the year a little.
4 wOBA weights each of the hits differently, as extra base hits don't increase in value on a linear scale.
5 1994 was a strike shortened year. The winner, Frank Thomas, likely would have been in the playoffs as the White Sox were on pace for a 96 win season.
6 Before 1980 we see more non-postseason MVPs, which might be a historical quirk.
7 Maybe the Angels would be in the playoffs if Trout had started in center on Day 1.
7 Maybe the Angels would be in the playoffs if Trout had started in center on Day 1.