Settling The Mike Trout v Miguel Cabrera AL MVP Debate: One Has Clearly Been More “Valuable” Than The Other

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!

mike-trout-miguel-cabrera

Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera are the clear leaders for the AL MVP. But who stands out over the other? (Image credit: JULIAN H. GONZALEZ / Detroit Free Press)

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:

  1. That Miguel Cabrera will (in all likelihood) win the Triple Crown;
  2. That the Tigers and not the Angels will make the postseason;
  3. 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 [125] 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.

Want proof?

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.

mike-trout-mvp



About Andrew Schwartz

Andrew Schwartz is a Maryland native, who has also lived in Rochester (NY), New Orleans, and San Diego. Schwartz has a Bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester, a Law degree from Tulane University, and probably used Degree deodorant this morning. Despite playing in numerous fantasy football leagues for over a decade, Schwartz believes the television show "The League," would be much better if it excluded all fantasy sports references. While Schwartz's favorite sports movies are "Warrior," and "The Natural," he suggests that you watch the 1991 college football comedy "Necessary Roughness" at your earliest convenience. You can email Schwartz at drewcando1@gmail.com

Comments

  1. This is the most ludicrous MVP argument ever. Attempting to use the WAR is just as crazy. Since Beltre and Wright have a higher WAR than Cabrera, would you trade Cabrera for either player? NO.
    There has to be some common sense involved in these discussions, some eye tests. The last 2 months have been subpar for Trout. Did he hit a wall or did teams start to figure him out? If he would have played the 1st month his numbers would have dropped off sooner. Trout has had a great year but the MVP is a run away for Cabrera.

  2. Trout makes a lot of mind-blowing plays in the outfield, but flashiness doesn’t equate to all-around greatness. Currently, 72 outfielders have more assists than his paltry performance of 3 this season.
    As for your cherry-picked statistics, one can do the same and make Cabrera look MUCH better than Trout. The rookie has 40 more k’s in 22 less games than Cabrera. Cabrera is smashing Trout in OPS and SLG (to go along with trailing Cabrera in HRs, RBIs, and AVG.), while also leading the rookie in Total Bases.
    OH BY THE WAY – Trout only batted .257 during the month of September. Interestingly enough, your tiny sample size of 55 ABs for Cabrera ignores the fact that during the same stretch of tough September games, Cabrera batted .308.
    You gave us some nice facts, but as is often the case, you picked out the stats that would make your argument the best while purposely ignoring anything that swung the argument in Cabrera’s favor.
    Both guys have had great years and both could make great cases to be MVP – but automatically dismissing things like Triple Crowns and Playoff births is pretty weak sauce.

  3. Andrew Schwartz says:

    Thanks for your comments guys. I’ll try to take each of them one at a time:

    Chad,

    I respect the way you feel about WAR and I accept the fact that many baseball fans and analysts feel similarly. That’s why I included the second section of the article, which tried to analyze Trout and Cabrera’s accomplishments without lending any credence to WAR. As for the fact that Trout hasn’t had a great September, I appreciate that–I even mentioned it in the article. But frankly I think you’re looking into it too much. His BABIP has been much lower this past month than it has in previous months which indicates that the average dip may be nothing more than bad luck. Also, his peripheral statistics have remained in line with his seasonal averages to he actually has remained incredibly productive in September, despite his .257 average.

    Dr. Twitch,

    (I can’t believe I just addressed you as Dr. Twitch, but I kinda dig it), as to your comment that I cherry-picked the best stats, you’re right–to an extent. In fairness, you don’t win a debate by saying all the reasons the opposing side is better than your side. But that’s also why I placed so much emphasis on WAR in my article. The idea of WAR is that it is meant to aggregate all of a player’s counting and rate stats and combine it in a way that reflects a player’s value. In other words, WAR doesn’t allow you to pick and choose the stats you think are the most convenient.

    Regardless, both of you guys are in the Cabrera camp and I definitely respect that. He’s an awesome player and he’s been underrated for years. He’s certainly one of the greatest hitters I’ve ever seen in my lifetime and if I could choose any player to bat in the bottom of the 9th with the score tied and 2 outs, it would be Cabrera over Trout 10 times out of 10. But that’s not how you measure who is most deserving of the MVP, at least in my book…

  4. You missed many a run saving spectacular play by Miggy at third. Another measure of an MVP, thinking of the team in his willingness to move to third to make room for Prince at first. If Miggy were in a larger market, there wouldn’t be a debate, if he were a Yankee, or an Angel

  5. Tough to make an assessment based on speculation and theory. It’s always — if he was replaced by a player from the bench or a player from the minor league. What if the player was moving from right field to center ….as in Tory Hunter moving to center – a position he is comfortable playing. There is also the possibility that they trade for someone of equal or better abilities. Are all these potential possibilities take into consideration ….answer – no . So the results are flawed and the subsequent postulate that WAR is a reasonable factor in evaluating the performance of a player is proven untenable. It may help to desperately try and persuade someone based on false assumptions but the numbers fall short of supporting it.

  6. Schwartz, great article….to your point while trout is a plus (putting it mildly) in the field and on the basepaths, Cabrera is abysmal in both regards by any (modern or old fashioned) metric. As to the argument re trouts lack of assists, this is likely due to opposing base runners not running on what has always been evaluated as a plus arm in the outfield.

  7. Triple Crown. Maybe I am old school but I see Cabrera play 161 games a year and wins games in the 7-9th innings. Trout is a great talent but don’t let the cyber-bullies make this vote a joke. Sorry but its not a close call.

  8. AJ Kaufman says:

    It’s a very convincing stance, and I firmly believe the media/writers will vote for Trout because that is trending now, and they surely wont take the time — even though it’s their job — to make such an exhaustive case.

    I’d still go Cabrera due to the incredible season, team in the playoffs and that Trout missed 15% of 2012. The debate embodies the beauty of baseball. We don’t have MVP debates about the NFL or NBA.

  9. OMG, I cannot even believe what I’m reading here. As a baseball purist and a historian, certain amount of common sense has to prevail. Many of us suspect that Cabrera is suffering from what Ted Williams had to endure–he is not very popular with the writers. I never liked the writers having so much power. If you don’t have a good relationship with the press, you’ll suffer at the MVP and HOF voting time. That has always been the case and that’s BS. Various sources can’t even agree the the formula for WAR as Baseball Reference, Fangraphs etc all have different formulas. For example, look at Baseball Reference figures (http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/WAR_bat_season.shtml), you’ll see that it’s bee achieved 22 times before Trout, with Bonds in 2001/2002, Ripken in 1991 and Joe Morgan in 1975. So, since 1967 WAR of 10.7 has been achieved 5 times while only 1 triple crown with Cabrera this year. If you look at the actual formula for WAR, if you can find it, it is extremely arbitrary and subjective. Triple crown is a real, tangible achievement and not a sabermetric, made up stat that suppose to…suppose to do what? He has Trout beat in so many categories and puts the team on his shoulders and takes them into playoffs. Does this pass the smell test? My sense tells me that it stinks. If Cabrera doesn’t win the MVP, the award will become completely irrelevant and all credibility of the award will disappear.

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      Cabrera is unpopular with the writers. Bingo! These are some of the most petty, biased and petulant folks around (sportswriters; and I say this as a full time journalist myself), so yes, this is why I believe Trout wins, although Miggy deserves it?

      Heck, Ryan Braun nearly won the NL Triple Crown and no one is more valuable to their team, but he’ll likely finish 4th. Why? Media loathes him.

  10. Andrew Schwartz says:
  11. JacK Webb says:

    What does Miguel Cabrera have to do to get some respect.There is no doubt in my mind that Mike Trout is one of the best young players to burst upon the baseball scene in years. Trout had a phenomonal season leading the league in runs scored, stolen bases, and ops.+ There have been only 2 rookies to win the M.V.P award in baseball history and they both went to players who were on teams that made the playoffs. Fred Lynn in 1975 and Inchiro Suzuki 2001. Cabrera has been a very under appreciated player since he broke into the majors in 2003 with the Marlins. Cabrera has never been voted to the all – star game as a starter. In 2010 he finished 2nd in the M.V.P. voting to Josh Hamilton of the A.L. champion Texas Rangers despite Hamilton missing nearly 6 weeks because of a rib cage injury. Last year Cabrera lead the A.L. in batting.344 O.B.P. .448 and doubles 48 with 30 HR and 105 RBIs and didn’t even win the silver slugger award. So now this year he wins the batting title again, plus HR and RBIs slugging .606 O.P.S.999 and total bases 377 not to mention he had 205 hits and 40 doubles and at least half the people on here say he shouldn’t be the M.V.P. I hope he doesn’t because next year he will be back again with a vengence!!

  12. Still not super comfortable with a technique & measure that appears to have been devised to permit small market, small budget teams to stay competitive by maximizing their investment at each starting position, and then let that morph into a robotic computation that spits out an MVP yearly. While statistics yield tremendous insight in numerous fields and probably baseball first among sports, since the MVP voters are humans, we will be left with their decisions that are and should be largely based on, or at least influenced by their impressions from each candidate’s season. The three points that you challenge at the end of your article are just that they are sentiments based on notions that followers of baseball would largely conclude are “common baseball sense”, so your attempt to defeat those with deterministic evidence is somewhat irrational, especially as Doc Twitch called you out for cherry picking a sample size of 55 ABs while using WAR as the primary argument at the same time. But I am glad that you attempted to, since that easily leads me into my next concept – that of the capacity for a major leaguer who hits .182 over a stretch to still have significant capacity to affect a pennant race if they have power and a good eye for the strike zone, which leads back to two other more traditional measures, RBIs and On Base percentage. In other words, time those few hits carefully and draw a few walks and though you may not assist some of the games over that stretch you can certainly greatly help to win others. Considering that permits contrast between the run and the RBI. The league leaders in runs tend to be in the neighborhood of the league leaders in RBIs, say minus a dozen or two. But the runs’ potential impacts are somewhat diminished in that no matter how inaccessible a crevice in a ball park that Mike Trout or any other speedy baseball player finds in an at bat, they are still only permitted to circle the bases once. Compare that to the complete momentum shift possible with the grand slam or even a bases clearing double. RBIs can arrive in clumps, and that is a powerful phenomenon on the diamond. I do realize Mr. Trout is far from a slap single hitter too. I have to say that I think I concur that they both have had a season for the ages (too bad it had to be in the same league in the same year, other than the debate this permits). Players’ relative positions in the batting order will tend to affect that run/RBI ratio and even expectations for good results with plate appearances (1 & 2 are supposed to just get on base, and spots 3 through 5 are supposed to knock the first 2 spots in). Runs are somewhat equalized by the standard 90′ basepaths, but HRs and to a lesser extent RBIs are not uniformly distributed due to differing ball park geometries and weather conditions. I have to look up WAR definitions, but if the theoretical minor leaguer to be called up is behind all 32 x 3 starting MLB outfielders, that should be statistically a good bit further away in terms of performance than just 32 starting IF positions. I have to close with the notion that followers of what is largely a team sport should cast a wary eye to a statistic that attempts to assign wins to anyone other than a starting pitcher. If that approach were valid, we would not need sabermetrics, but just go straight to game winning RBIs. A similar WAR type statistic constructed for NFL QBs or even ranking NBA players’ performance over a season intuitively would make more sense, since “common sports sense” should have all of us agreeing that we all have been deceived by the illusion of a Tom Brady or a Michael Jordan singlehandedly winning a game. That illusion occurs in the ballpark too, but usually from the pitcher’s mound. Anticipating more than one MVP in Mike Trout’s future, but looking forward to seeing Miguel Cabrera (rightfully) capture this year’s award. Well written and supported analysis, but I remain completely unswayed.

  13. You can make any stat to justify a great season. I’m not convinced with the WAR since it is entirely subjective and measured against other “great seasons and players.” Measure the triple crown in the same way and it’s even more impressive. Only 13 modern Triple Crowns versus 22 for 10.7 WAR. Which one is harder and more exclusive? Look at Cabrera’s stat since Aug 1st and compare that to Trout’s. Also, which team is in the playoffs? Finally, I take issue with “he is the only player or the first player with XXX combination” argument to put his 30HR, 45+SB, 125+Run in some sort of “historic” level. Anyone with any kind of common sense will see that you can make up any combination that has 1 player in it. Is Trout’s combination any greater than Rickey Henderson’s, who by my count is the only person in history to have a 20+HR/80+SB/130+Run (twice–insane!), 20/80/145 (even more insane!), 25/80/130, 10/130/110 (puts Trout to shame kinda insane!), the only leadoff hitter I can see that led the lead in OBS, etc. Rickey Henderson’s highest WAR was 9.8 twice. What does this tell you about WAR? Basketball is rife with “the only person with XXX points, rebounds, and assists” argument. I can’t believe that baseball is beginning to engage in the same meaningless argument. This kind of arbitrary “look he’s the first person” or “the first rookie to” has no real meaning. Batting Triple Crown has always been hard to achieve because hitting with power AND average is the hardest thing to do. And history confirms that this is true. Is Trout the most valuable player or the best all around player? Is Trout’s achievement (Cal Ripken had a higher WAR, seriously?!) more historic than Cabrera doing something no player has done in 45 years? Absolutely not!

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