It was only three weeks ago–September 10th to be exact–that Mike Trout was the heavy favorite to be named the 2012 AL MVP. Trout had just stolen his 45th base, and the Angels still had a fighting chance to secure an AL wild card birth.
Meanwhile, Miguel Cabrera was still a relative dark horse in the MVP race as his prospects for the Triple Crown were still ominous at best. And his Tigers (who were losers of four straight and 3.0 back to the White Sox) seemed to be a long shot to win the AL Central.
But oh what a difference three weeks can make!
Tonight, after the regular season winds down to a close, the Tigers will have clinched the AL central pennant and Miguel Cabrera will likely lock up the AL’s first Triple Crown since 1967.
Meanwhile the Angels, who have collapsed down the stretch, will miss the playoffs, and Mike Trout’s September will go down as his least productive statistical month of 2012.
If there were ever a time to jump on the Miguel Cabrera for MVP bandwagon, it would be now.
So why is it, that in the face off overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I believe Mike Trout deserves to win this year’s MVP award? Because simply put, he’s been much more “valuable” than Miguel Cabrera.
Trout Wins the WAR
In the context of the MVP award, there isn’t a set formula for determining a player’s relative value.
In past decades, MVP voters have relied primarily on the only non-arbitrary measure of a player’s performance–their statistics. Additionally, these MVP voters would place a great degree of significance on the more recognizable offensive statistics such as batting average, home runs, runs batted in, and run scored.
The commonality between all of these statistics and the reason they have been (and continue to be) valued so highly by MVP voters is that they provide a substantive way of determining which players produce the highest amount of runs. And this actually makes a great deal of sense because runs are the ultimate barometer of success in the MLB. After all, the more runs a team scores, the more likely they are to win.
But that was then and this is now.
Today, we live in an era where statisticians have formulated a more accurate way to gauge a player’s value relative to other players in the league. In fact, there is a specific statistic known as “wins above replacement” (or “WAR”), which uses a complex formula to convert a player’s “value” into a distinct numerical figure, whereby the higher the figure, the more valuable the player. According to Alex Remington of Yahoo! Sports, a player’s WAR is “a single number that attempts to quantify a player’s worth by looking at his offense, [base-running], defense, defensive position, and the context of the year and league.”
More specifically, WAR assesses “how many wins….a player contribute[d] to his team’s win total above and beyond what they would have gotten from a ‘replacement value’ player, someone they could have picked up off the scrap heap for next to nothing.”
Steve Slowinski of fangraphs.com articulates the function of WAR by “look[ing] at a player and ask[ing]….if this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” Slowinski goes on to explain that a player’s WAR value is calculated by tabulating the amount of runs a player accounts for (produces offensively or saves defensively) and then dividing that figure by a factor of 10 (because 10 runs is meant to equal 1 win).
If you want to understand more about WAR, I suggest taking a look at either of the linked articles, but for the purposes of this article all you need to really understand is that the ultimate purpose of WAR is to, as accurately as possible, determine a player’s relative “worth” or “value.” Therefore, WAR would seemingly eliminate the need for MVP voters to arbitrarily approximate a player’s value on the basis of that player’s offensive counting statistics.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the respective WARs of Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera:
As of October 2nd, Mike Trout’s WAR was 10.7. In other words, if the Angels decided not to call up Mike Trout this past April and instead started Peter Bourjos (or some other average MLB backup Center Fielder) in Trout’s place, they would have lost roughly 11 more games during the regular season. For the Angels, this means going from a potential 90 win team to a team fighting to finish .500.
So exactly how good is a WAR of 10.7?
Well Trout’s 10.7 WAR is not only the highest figure of any MLB player in 2012, it’s also the highest WAR for an MLB position player in the last decade. It’s also worth noting that while Trout has the highest “offensive WAR” in the MLB (wins above replacement due to offensive statistics and baserunning), he also has the 7th highest defensive WAR, including the 3rd highest defensive WAR amongst outfielders.
To put it another way, Trout has been the best offensive outfielder and the 3rd best defensive outfielder.
But that’s only in 2012…
To truly put Trout’s season into perspective, consider the following:
- There have been only 7 outfielders since the end of the dead-ball era who have registered higher WARs in a single season than Trout: Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemsky, and Barry Bonds.
- Furthermore, Trout’s WAR of 10.7 puts him in the top 100 all time (82nd overall) and in the top 25 for position players.
Just think for a second about what that means: that of every season played by every non-pitcher who ever played the game of professional baseball–a game, which has been played since the late 1800s–Mike Trout’s 2012 season will stand as one of the top 25 single season performances of all time.
That’s how truly special Trout’s year has been.
And what about Cabrera?
Whereas Trout’s 10.7 WAR has him in the all-time top 100 for all players and the top 25 for positional players, Cabrera’s WAR of 6.8 puts him outside the top 1,000 for all players and outside the top 500 for position players.
But it’s not just that Cabrera hasn’t stood out historically. He hasn’t even stood out this year.
Cabrera’s 6.8 WAR is currently 9th overall in the MLB. And even more telling, he doesn’t even have the highest WAR among third-basemen. Rather, that designation goes to David Wright (6.9 WAR).
It’s also worth noting that another third-baseman, Adrian Beltre, has a WAR (6.6), which is nearly identical to that of Cabrera. Therefore, there are multiple players who play the same position as Miguel Cabrera who have each basically been as “valuable” as Cabrera.
Trout, on the other hand, has no equal. Trout’s closest comparable is Andrew McCutchen, who has a WAR that is 3.6 less than that of Trout’s. McCutchen, by the way, is considered by many baseball pundits to be the frontrunner for the NL MVP.
When WAR Is Not The Answer
But as much as I personally believe in using WAR to assess a player’s value in the context of the MVP race, I also realize that there are many who believe that (as ESPN’s Jayson Stark aptly put it) “WAR is just a bunch of sabermetric baloney.”
Instead, they point to palpable statistics–(i.e. statistics that don’t require a masters degree in finance to calculate). The most common arguments I hear are threefold:
- That Miguel Cabrera will (in all likelihood) win the Triple Crown;
- That the Tigers and not the Angels will make the postseason;
- That Miggy led the Tigers on their late season surge to the post-season whereas Mike Trout “choked” down the stretch (when it mattered most).
Now I admit, each of these points has some merit. But ultimately I am left unconvinced.
Without even using WAR as a rebuttal, I can dispel each of these three arguments with relative ease. I’ll take each of them in turn.
1) If Miguel Cabrera Wins the Triple Crown, He Should Win the MVP
Look, the Triple Crown is a big deal. There’s a reason it’s been 45 years since a person last won the award, and I’d be a fool not to draw a direct correlation between a Triple Crown and a player’s offensive dominance.
I even agree with Jayson Stark’s opinion that baseball embodies an almost mystical quality, which requires its fans to place heightened significance on “once in a lifetime” accomplishments, such as this.
But just like Stark, I too “missed the memo” that guarantees an MVP award to a player who leads the league in three specific statistical categories. After all, that would be too capricious and arbitrary, which just so happens to be the same common criticism of using WAR to determine the MVP.
Aside from just being “too arbitrary,” the Triple Crown leaves far too much out of the equation.
What about how many runs a player scores? Or how many bases they steal? What about a player’s range in the field? How many “would be extra-base hits” they stole away or how many “sure fire home-runs” they casually turned into nothing more than a long F-8.
And if it’s truly the mystique and allure of chasing down incredibly exclusive, arbitrary offensive records that you seek, Mike Trout is certainly not lacking:
- With 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases, Trout is only the 5th major leaguer to compile at least 30 home runs and at least 45 stolen bases.
- With one more stolen base, Trout will become only the 3rd ever member of the heralded 30-50 club (30 home runs, 50 stolen bases).
- Finally, as Jeff Moore points out, “the list of players who have hit at least….30 home runs….[with 45] stolen bases and at least  runs scored is exactly one”–Mike Trout.
Meanwhile, 15 players other than Cabrera have won the Triple Crown, and according to Moore, “there are 20 cases in baseball history of a player hitting at least .329 with at least 44 home runs, at least 137 runs batted in, and at least 109 runs (Cabrera’s current statistics).”
The bottom line is that while Cabrera might be having a special offensive season, Trout’s is every bit as special, albeit in different ways.
2) The Tigers Will Be Playing in the Postseason. The Angels Will be Watching it From a Couch.
I hate hate HATE the argument that since a player’s team happens to be a playoff team, they somehow are more deserving of the MVP (as opposed to a player whose team does not make the playoffs).
Personally, I think that if a player’s team legitimately competes for a playoff spot, that should be enough.
Well, the Angels are on the cusp of a 90-win season, so it’s not exactly like they shit the bed.
And just so we’re clear, the Tigers may be making the playoffs over the Angels, but no matter the outcome of tonight’s games, the Tigers are guaranteed to finish with a worse overall record than the Angels–and they play in a weaker division!
Jayson Stark also makes the astute point that: “[w]hen Mike Trout walked through the Angels’ clubhouse door for the first time on April 28, they were 6-14 and tied for the second-worst record in baseball. Since that day, they own the BEST record in the American League (82-57).”
So don’t try and sell me on the playoff argument because I’m just not buying it.
3) Cabrera Led His Team to the Playoffs.
This is the worst argument of all because it’s just plain wrong.
Granted, Miguel Cabrera is the best position player on the Tigers. And granted, the Tigers overcame a 2-game deficit late in September by going 8-4 over their last 12 games that month. But just being the best player for a team that wins doesn’t necessarily make him the cause (or even the catalyst) for that team’s winning ways.
Over the aforementioned 12-game stretch at the end of September, when the Tigers recaptured 1st place in the AL Central by gaining 5 games on the White Sox, Cabrera registered a cringe-inducing .182 batting average over 55 at bats. So saying that Miguel Cabrera was responsible for the Tigers late season surge has about much validity as saying that Alan Trammel or Lou Whittaker were responsible for the Tigers making the playoffs.
It’s just not true.
One thing that absolutely IS true is that Miguel Cabrera has been MVP-caliber this season. Most other seasons, there wouldn’t be any question as to whether or not he deserved the MVP award–it would just be a foregone conclusion.
But this is not just “any other year.”
As valuable as Cabrera has been this year, Mike Trout has been even better. As unique and special as Cabrera’s Triple Crown campaign has been, Mike Trout’s record setting campaign has been even more special and frankly even more exclusive. And that’s even before we bring Trout’s vastly superior defense into the conversation.
There’s an annoying Verizon commercial where people in a focus group are shown a number of graphs presented in different ways (i.e. a bar graph, a pie chart…), all leading to the same inextricable conclusion: that no matter “how you present it,” Verizon is available in more networks than any of its competitors.
That’s pretty much how I feel about the MVP debate this year.
Whether you are a sabermetric enthusiast who lives and dies by WAR, or you’re a baseball traditionalist who believes that WAR is nothing more than meaningless mumbo-jumbo, it really shouldn’t matter.
The simple truth is that Mike Trout is the most deserving candidate for AL MVP.