The 2012 American League Most Valuable Player debate is like most arguments these days. There are reasonable, rational people who agree with you, and then there are the people on the other side of the debate who are morons.
If you think Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera is the AL MVP, then anybody who supports Angels centerfielder Mike Trout is an egghead math geek who doesn't understand baseball.
If you think Trout is the AL MVP, then anybody who supports Cabrera is stuck in the 1970s and doesn't understand how to measure a player's value. Or put another way: A moron.
I suspect Cabrera will win the award. I don't know that for sure. I also don't know who would get my vote. I'm mostly just thankful I don't have a vote. I give people enough reasons to call me a moron. They don't need another.
And yet ... well, I feel an impulse to explain why Cabrera is a sensible choice. He is not the only choice -- you can make a strong and compelling argument for Trout. But the people who vote for Cabrera are not morons. This is a lot closer than either side wants to admit.
The argument for Trout seems more complicated, but it really isn't. It seems complicated because some Cabrera fans have latched onto WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as the reason. These people cannot stand any stat that was invented after 1943. They are donating heavily to the WAR Is Not The Answer super-PAC and writing long screeds on WARWhatIsItGoodFor.com and screaming at random passersby that if RBIs were good enough for Babe Ruth and Hack Wilson then goshdarnit they ought to be good enough for these young whippersnappers today.
According to baseball-reference.com, Trout's WAR was 10.7, far above Cabrera's 6.9. In fact, Cabrera was fourth in the AL, behind Trout, Robinson Cano and Justin Verlander.
But the argument for Trout is not really about WAR. That is just a stat that explains the argument. The argument is that Trout is a far more valuable defensive player and baserunner than Cabrera, and this makes up for any gap in their hitting numbers. Also, Cabrera's home ballpark in Detroit was a hitters' park this year (it produced .071 runs per game more than the average park) while Trout's park in Anaheim was a pitchers' park (it took away .198 runs per game).
Trout fans are angry that a flawed stat like RBIs is part of this discussion at all. They are furious that Cabrera might win the MVP simply because he led the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs, which are not the three most important statistics in the game, no matter what your grandfather taught you. As I type this, the anger over this is causing at least three sabermetricians to cut somebody off on the highway and give them the finger.
We all have our little biases in these debates. I have mine. I have seen Cabrera up close much more and I know and like him personally, so that's a bias. I also enjoy watching great defense and base-stealing as much as I enjoy anything in baseball. (For a while there, it seemed like nobody wanted to steal bases anymore, and this genuinely depressed me. The depression got worse when I realized how stupid it is to get depressed over a lack of stolen bases.)
I also appreciate advanced stats, think RBIs are overrated and believe that some very bright people who violently oppose new stats are being anti-intellectual. We discover newer, better ways to evaluate the human body, the economy and the solar system every day. I think it is reasonable to assume we can do the same with baseball.
So those are my biases. I want to point them out, and I don't want to be accused of being anti-stats. I'm not even pro-Cabrera. I just think there is an argument for Cabrera that some Trout supporters seem to be missing.
OK, here we go.
1. Cabrera plays third base.
This is a pretty simple argument, but it is important, because if you are going to make a big deal about Trout's defense compared to Cabrera's, you have to look at their positions. Of course most baseball fans know Cabrera plays third, but I think subconsciously, they still think of him as a first baseman and they penalize him for it.
Why does this matter so much? According to baseball-reference.com, the average American League centerfielder had a .267 batting average, .328 on base percentage and .429 slugging percentage.
Third basemen: .261 batting average, .320 on-base percentage, .420 slugging percentage.
To sum up: the typical American League team could expect better hitting production from its centerfielder than from its third baseman. That means that if we're grading their production for their position, we should grade Cabrera on a curve.
Let's look at Cabrera's 2012 numbers compared to the average American League third baseman:
Now, look at Trout as measured against the average AL centerfielder:
So you can see, Cabrera was a better hitter, relative to his position, than Trout. This is especially true when you look at slugging percentage.
And yes, Trout was much better defensively than Cabrera. No argument there. The point is that what Cabrera did at third base was extremely unusual -- and incredibly valuable. Most teams can find a spare outfielder, but third baseman are hard to find. And this brings me to . . .
2. Cabrera played 154 games at third base, and just nine at first base or designated hitter. Trout played 109 games in centerfield and 47 in leftfield.
Hey, if you're going to give Trout all this credit for playing center, you have to acknowledge that he only did it for two-thirds of the season. This is not Trout's fault. He is not the one who put Peter Bourjos in centerfield for a third of the season. But we can only judge him on what he did on the field, and the fact is, for 47 games he had the easiest fielding job this side of first base.
3. Cabrera was competent at third.
This really surprised me. I didn't think he could do it. But he did. He made up for limited range with exceptional instincts and soft hands. I'm sure he cost his team a few more runs than the average third baseman, and most stats back that up. But he was competent over there. And yes, Trout saved his team some runs with his glove. Nobody is arguing that Cabrera was as good of a defensive player as Trout, just that the gap is not as enormous as it might seem.
4. The ballpark effects are not particularly relevant to this discussion.
Ballpark effects are not the same for every hitter. Some parks play better for lefties than righties. Some are better suited to guys who hit line-drives in the gaps and others reward fly-ball hitters with a short fence. Some hitters simply feel more comfortable at home, or see the ball well against certain backgrounds.
It is true that Anaheim was a pitcher's park for most of baseball. But Trout actually had a higher slugging percentage at home (.586) than on the road (.544). His batting average and on-base percentage were better on the road, but his OPS was .976 at home and .951 on the road.
Cabrera's numbers were weighted toward home games (1.094 OPS vs. .913) but this gap was unusual in his career -- so unusual that I think it was a statistical fluke. His road OPS in 2010 was 1.015 and in 2011 it was 1.055. He has not built his Hall of Fame career on a huge home-park advantage.
6. If luck was on anybody's side, it was Trout's.
Stats aficionados often cite Batting Average on Balls In Play, also known as BABIP, when they try to isolate the luck factor. Batters can (sort of) control if they hit the ball but not so much what happens after they hit it, unless they hit it over the fence. It's just not that easy to hit 'em where they ain't. Sometimes, guys hit 'em where they ain't because they get lucky.
If a player has an unusually high BABIP, it can mean he was a bit luckier than most. Not always. But sometimes.
The major-league BABIP in 2012 was .297. Cabrera's was .345, which is right around his career BABIP of .347. He was not especially lucky this year.
Trout's BABIP was .383. That was the second-highest number in baseball, behind his teammate Torii Hunter. Trout struck out 139 times, 41 more than Cabrera, despite playing fewer games. (Trout struck out once every 4.6 plate appearances; Cabrera struck out once every 7.1 plate appearances.)
Perhaps Trout's BABIP is high simply because he runs so well. He had high BABIP numbers in the minors, so that is very possible. But it is also possible that he got a little lucky, too. And maybe that shouldn't even matter, but I find it interesting that the same people who tout BABIP are the ones who dismiss Cabrera.
7. Leadership matters.
I'm not saying it's matters as much as most of the good stats we have. The people who value leadership in these discussions tend to seriously overvalue it. But it does matter at least a little, right?
Cabrera volunteered to switch positions so the Tigers could sign Prince Fielder to play first base. He did so at considerable risk. He could have embarrassed himself at third (again, I thought that might happen, and I wasn't alone). If he had failed at third, he probably would have moved to designated hitter, and Cabrera HATES being a designated hitter. He did it to help the team.
When your best player does something like that, in any sport, it helps. We can debate how much it helps. But it does help.
8. The last month matters.
On Sept. 1, the Tigers were 71-61, one game behind the White Sox in the AL Central, and a half-game behind the Rays for the final wild-card spot. The Angels were 71-62, one game behind the Rays.
From that point on, Trout hit .284, with a .400 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage.
Cabrera hit .318, with a .379 on-base percentage and a .673 slugging percentage.
Trout's numbers were very good. Cabrera's were extraordinary.
Does that fully explain the Angels' fade and the Tigers' rise? Of course not. Do all games count equally in the standings? Sure. But I do think those games with the season on the line bring a different level of pressure. If voters give Cabrera some extra credit for his final month, I think that is reasonable.
9. Cabrera played a lot more, period.
Again, this is not Trout's fault. The Angels should have had him in the lineup on Opening Day. They botched it. But this means he did not contribute in as many games as Cabrera did, and the statistical reality is that when you play fewer games, you have a better chance of putting up incredible numbers. You don't have time to regress to the mean. This is why a basketball player can score 50 points in one game but not 500 in 10.
Circumstances change, opponents adjust, the player gets tired -- so much can happen over time. And baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of repetitive excellence. The game beats on everybody, every day. It's hard to fight that for an entire season.
(In Trout's case, he also happened to miss the coldest month of the season, with the worst conditions for hitters. Yes, even for the Angels, who played three games in Minnesota, three in New York and another in Cleveland before Trout showed up.)
Trout joined the Angels on April 28. His season numbers were .326/.399/.564.
And here were Cabrera's numbers from April 28 to the end of the season: .335/.397/.615.
Mike Trout had a wonderful year, and he will probably have many more wonderful years. He has a strong case for MVP. But Miguel Cabrera had a wonderful year, and by any reasonable measurement, he also has a strong MVP case. If people can't see that ... well, I don't want to call them morons. But they are missing the point.