What was ironic about the debate over whether the Angels' Mike Trout or the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera should win the American League Most Valuable Player award, which raged like wildfire for the last two months, is that for most of that time, it was moot. The Baseball Writers Association of America collected the votes on Oct. 4, the day after the regular season ended.
So, does the fact that we now know that Cabrera not only won the award but did so in a landslide really change anything?
Unlike in the recent presidential campaign, in which the two candidates and their supporters argued over who should be president for the next four years, a conversation rendered moot once one of the two candidates was elected, the debate over the AL MVP was over who was the most valuable player in the American League this past season. It's not about the future, it's about the past and the different ways that observers interpreted something that had already happened. That Cabrera won, picking up 22 of a possible 28 first-place votes to Trout's six, won't change the interpretations of their respective supporters of each players' value.
In fact, those 28 writers are a minuscule sample of even the BBWAA, which has more than 700 members, never mind the larger baseball media which includes broadcasters and the vast majority of on-line writers such as myself. That leaves plenty of room for those who disagree with that opinion to continue to do so.
Grousing over past BBWAA awards votes gone wrong is a time-honored tradition, and one I'm certainly not above. Last year, when the Brewers' Ryan Braun beat out the Dodgers' Matt Kemp for the National League MVP award, a decision that appeared to be based primarily on the performance of their respective teams, not their performances as individuals, I got up on my soap box. I won't do that again this year. I've said my piece about Mike Trout, and you've likely read similar things from countless other writers or heard them from plenty of television pundits and analysts. Trout might have deserved the MVP this year, but he'll have plenty of other opportunities to win it and not doing so doesn't diminish the season he just had.
Nor does my opinion that Trout should have won diminish the season that Cabrera just had, as so many have accused it of doing. Cabrera was the first hitter in 45 years to win the Triple Crown by leading his league in batting average, home runs and RBIs. That may not be the final word on player evaluation that it was once believed to be, but it's nonetheless a tremendous achievement. That and this MVP award are just the latest evidence of how great a hitter Cabrera has been consistently over the course of his career, and particularly in the last three years.
Two years ago, Cabrera led the league in on-base percentage (.420) and the majors in OPS+ (178) and RBIs (126). I thought he should have won the MVP award that year, going against what wins above replacement told me, because he was more consistent than eventual winner Josh Hamilton, who had three hot months, two relatively ordinary ones and one which he spent sidelined by broken ribs. Cabrera finished second that year, and has now finished in the top five in his league's MVP vote in each of the last four years and six times in his nine full major league seasons.
As I wrote earlier this year, 2012 wasn't Cabrera's best season, or even his second-best. How many players had a year in which they won the MVP and Triple Crown in what was no better than their third-best season? The answer is: None that aren't in the Hall of Fame, in part because every Triple Crown winner since the 1890s has been enshrined in Cooperstown, or was until Cabrera added his name to the list.
Trout may have had a better season, but now that the award has been handed out, the debate is a disservice to Cabrera, as well as to Buster Posey, who, oh by the way, won the National League MVP award with 27 of a possible 32 first-place votes.
The intense focus on the AL MVP award is also, to some degree, a disservice to the BBWAA voters, who should have given the AL Cy Young award to Justin Verlander as well, but got the six other awards "right," at least in my opinion. They also impressed by not holding Ryan Braun's overturned positive drug test against him, ranking him no worse than fourth place on all 32 NL MVP ballots.
In writing my Awards Watch column, I often paint the BBWAA electorate with a wide brush. There's good reason for that. There are recognizable voting trends among the writers that have allowed me to correctly predict where 50 of the 54 top-three vote-getters in each of the three major player awards would finish over the last three seasons (having the finalists this year certainly helped, but I've still gone 18-for-18 in predicting the winners of those awards). Still, when there are positive changes to those trends, they should be acknowledged. The 2009 and 2010 Cy Young votes fall in that category, and the lack of bias against Braun this year does as well.
The Trout vs. Cabrera argument may be a bore at this point, but it won't go away, nor would it have had Trout won. The fact of the matter is that this sort of debate is one of the things that makes baseball so much fun to follow. If every award had a clear and correct winner, how many fans would spend their time pouring over every extra base Mike Trout took, researching Miguel Cabrera's double-play rate, the strength of the lineups David Price and Justin Verlander faced, or the relative value of Buster Posey's defense and Ryan Braun's hitting?
Being a baseball fan is a year-round occupation in large part because of this sort of debate and the resulting research and analysis. It keeps the game alive in the cold winter months. Every fan debating Trout vs. Cabrera or Posey vs. Braun, Andrew McCutchen and Yadier Molina is reliving those players' seasons over and over again. I wouldn't have it any other way.