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Trout-Cabrera MVP debate will be settled but NL race is also close

The Baseball Writers Association of America concludes its awards week Thursday night with the announcement of the winners of the Most Valuable Player awards in each league.

If there has been a theme to the awards thus far it has been the close vote. Bryce Harper beat the Diamondbacks' Wade Miley by seven points for National League Rookie of the Year, Melvin beat Showalter by eight points for AL Manager of the Year and David Price beat Justin Verlander for the AL Cy Young by a mere four points.

It wouldn't be surprising to see a similarly close vote for both of the MVP awards, for which the lists of finalists expands from three to five men. In the National League, which will be announced first, any of four men could be said to be a deserving winner.

Meanwhile, the American League award has been one of the most hotly debated in recent memory and could be as close or closer than the AL Cy Young vote. One thing's for sure, the BBWAA got it right by making the AL MVP the last award they announce this week. Once the winner (or winners) of that award is revealed, the Internet may burst into flames.

Here, then, is one last look at the five finalists the MVP award in each league along with my take on who will win and my gentle suggestion as to who should.

Note: League leading statistics are in bold, major league leading stats are in bold italics.

National League

Announcement: 6:17 p.m. ET

Finalists:

Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers

Season Stats: .319/.391/.595, 41 HR, 112 RBI, 108 R, 30 SB (81%), 159 OPS+, 6.8 bWAR

Braun, the defending NL MVP, was nearly as good in 2012 despite losing the protection of Prince Fielder hitting behind him. The impact of Fielder's departure is evident in Braun's 15 intentional walks (against two in 2011), but that masks an inferior plate approach, which might have been the result of knowing he didn't have Fielder behind him to pick up the slack. In 2011, Braun's strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio was 1.66. In 2012, it was 2.66. That less disciplined plate approach dropped his batting average (from .332), but the intentional passes kept his on-base percentage up and a healthier season goosed his home run total from 33 to a league-leading and career-high 41.

Braun, who the league in home runs, runs, total bases and OPS, was good enough to win this award in 2012, but it would be shocking if he did. Here's why: The top four contenders for the MVP in the National League are all effectively tied. Given that, Braun loses a series of tie-breakers that could drop him to third or fourth on the ballot.

First, he won the award last year when many thought Matt Kemp should have. Second, his Brewers won just 83 games, finishing a distant third place in the NL Central, 14 games behind the Reds and 13 games worse than in 2012. I don't believe that MVP voting should be tied to team performance -- player value is absolute -- but Braun won this award last year because his team out-performed Kemp's, and with the same voting body applying the same logic, he won't win it this year.

Finally, there's Braun's positive test for performance-enhancing drugs from last offseason. The test result was thrown out after Braun appealed, but for writers who still harbor doubts about what went on there and who are looking for an excuse to not vote for Braun, that saga provides one.

Chase Headley, 3B, Padres

Season Stats: .286/.376/.498, 31 HR, 115 RBI, 95 R, 17 SB (74%), 144 OPS+, 6.0 bWAR

The 28-year-old Headley's home-run stroke came out of nowhere this year. While his batting average, on-base percentage, doubles, triples and basestealing in 2012 largely replicated his 2011 or 2010 numbers, Headley's previous high in homers was 12 and he hit just four in an injury-shortened season in 2011.

Still he falls a bit short of the other four finalists here, and his team's losing record and fourth-place finish surely didn't help him with the old-school voters.

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates

Season Stats: .327/.400/.553, 31 HR, 96 RBI, 107 R, 20 SB (63%), 165 OPS+, 7.0 bWAR

McCutchen, a supremely talented player, made the leap in 2012, his age-25 season. He set career highs in runs, hits (a league-leading 194), home runs, RBIs, all three slash stats, OPS (.953), OPS+, total bases (328) and, proving that the league noticed, intentional walks (13). As late as August, he was actually running away with this award, hitting .370/.430/.625 through Aug. 8. However, he fell into an extended slump after that, hitting a mere .240/.341/.408 over the remainder of the year.

That the Pirates' season took a similar shape likely torpedoed McCutchen's chances in this voting. Pittsburgh was fighting for first place in the NL Central in July and a wild card spot in early August before finishing in fourth place, 18 games out in the NL Central and four games below .500. McCutchen was second in the league in wins above replacement and OPS+ and it's hard to find a reason to find a reason to leapfrog him over the man who led in those categories.

Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals

Season Stats: .315/.373/.501, 22 HR, 76 RBI, 65 R, 12 SB (80%), 137 OPS+, 6.7 bWAR

Molina is an interesting case. He clearly belongs in this group, but he also clearly turned in the weakest performance at the plate. That's relative, of course. For a catcher to put up the numbers he did in 2012 is tremendous, but what put Molina neck-and-neck-tattoo with the other four was the combination of a strong performance at the plate and his elite eyebrow tweezing, I mean defense.

Molina's Cardinals made the playoffs, and with Braun and McCutchen both contending with a stigma, be it Braun's overturned drug test and questionable win in last year's vote or the Pirates' collapse, the path could be clear for him to finish second in the voting. Like McCutchen, however, he just won't get past the last finalist on this list.

Buster Posey, C, Giants

Season Stats: .336/.408/.549, 24 HR, 103 RBI, 78 R, 172 OPS+, 7.2 bWAR

Posey wasn't clearly better than Braun, McCutchen or Molina, but he did lead the league in wins above replacement and the majors in OPS+. Braun and McCutchen have the aforementioned strikes against them, and Posey's numbers sparkle in a superficially apples-to-apples comparison with fellow catcher Molina.

Posey played his home games in a more extreme pitchers park than Molina, but his raw hitting stats are markedly superior. Molina is clearly the better backstop, but Posey is no slouch behind the plate. Is Molina really so much better than an already above-average defensive catcher that his glovework could overcome the difference between his performance beside it and Posey's? There might be one or two writers who feel confident that that is the case, but chances are most don't and Posey will win, and deserve, this award.

Who Should Win: Posey

Who Will Win: Posey

Expected finish: Posey, Molina, McCutchen, Braun, Headley

Announcement: 6:47 p.m. ET

This is a two-man race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, and everyone knows it. It would be shocking to see another player earn a first-place vote. That said, let's recognize the accomplishments of the other three finalists before getting to the meat of this race.

Finalists:

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers

Season Stats: .321/.359/.561, 36 HR, 102 RBI, 95 R, 137 OPS+, 6.7 bWAR

Adrian Beltre had a monster season for the Dodgers at the age of 25, but he followed it up by signing with the Mariners and looking very ordinary at the plate, so many wrote it off as a fluke walk-year spike. Since escaping Safeco Park in 2010, however, he has reemerged as a star, one who is actually building a longshot Hall of Fame case.

With the Mariners, Beltre hit .266/.317/.442 and averaged 21 home runs and 79 RBIs per season. In three seasons since he has hit .314/.353/.558 and averaged 32 home runs and 103 RBIs per season, making his first three All-Star teams, winning two Silver Sluggers, a pair of Gold Gloves and picking up MVP votes all three seasons.

Beltre's 2012 looked a lot like his 2010 season with the Red Sox, when he finished ninth in the MVP voting but should have finished higher. Now that people have readjusted to the idea of Beltre as one of the best players in the game, he's received his proper due in this year's voting, but he won't place ahead of Cabrera or Trout.

Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees

Season Stats: .313/.379/.550, 33 HR, 94 RBI, 105 R, 149 OPS+, 6.7 bWAR

Cano finished third in the MVP voting in 2010 and sixth in 2011. His 2012 season was better than either one, though not by much. Cano is quite simply the best second baseman in baseball. He won his second Gold Glove this year, his third straight Silver Slugger (fourth overall) and started the All-Star game for the third straight season. He also finished the season with nine straight multi-hit games, the longest such streak since 2007. Cano hit .615 over those nine games with 10 of his 39 hits going for extra bases, producing a 1.026 slugging percentage.

Cano did that while the Yankees were battling down to the wire to win the American League East and avoid the one-game wild-card playoff. Fortunately for him, it was at the conclusion of that streak, and before his dismal 3-for-40 performance in the playoffs that the votes were cast.

Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers

Season Stats: .285/.354/.577, 43 HR, 128 RBI, 103 R, 139 OPS+, 3.4 bWAR

Hamilton is a tremendously streaky hitter. When he won the AL MVP in 2010, he did it via a ridiculous three-month hot streak. He hit .410/.461/.723 with 22 home runs and 70 RBIs in June, July and August of that season, but just .281/.335/.500 in April and May and missed most of September due to broken ribs.

This year, Hamilton opened the season white hot, hitting .402/.457/.877 with 18 home runs and 41 RBIs through May 12, including one of the four greatest single-game performances of all-time when he hit four home runs and a double in five plate appearances against the Orioles on May 8. Over the next three months, however, he was awful, hitting .229/.299/.417 with 76 strikeouts from May 13 to Aug. 7 and routinely waving weakly at pitches well off the outside corner of the plate.

His final 47 games looked a lot like his overall season line above, but if Hamilton could win an MVP for three great months, he should also be able to lose one because of three terrible months. His counting stats are impressive, but Hamilton should come in last among these five finalists in the voting.

Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers

Season Stats:.330/.393/.606, 44 HR, 139 RBI, 109 R, 165 OPS+, 6.9 bWAR

Mike Trout, CF, Angels

Season Stats: .326/.399/.564, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 129 R, 49 SB (91%), 171 OPS+, 10.7 bWAR

The debate over Cabrera vs. Trout has become a third-rail topic like politics or religion. You just can't bring it up in polite company without knowing that you're surrounded by fellow travelers. That said, let's go over it one last time. Try to read the following with an open mind.

• Miguel Cabrera won the American League Triple Crown this year, becoming the first player in either league to lead his league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs since 1967, a span of 45 years.

• Mike Trout turned in what was arguably the greatest rookie season in major league history, not counting deadball-era pitchers, and what was clearly the greatest age-20 season by a hitter in major league history.

• Two players have won both the Rookie of the Year award and MVP award in the same season (Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki, a Hall of Famer in his prime, in 2001), so the rookie qualification above doesn't preclude Trout from becoming the third.

• Trout hit leadoff all season. Cabrera hit third all season. Neither had a single plate appearance at a different spot in the order.

• Trout's Angels missed the playoffs. Cabrera's Tigers won their division. However, the Angels won 89 games to the Tigers' 88 despite playing in a tougher division (not that I think any of that should matter when it comes to an individual award).

• A popular criticism of Trout is that his bat went silent over the season's final two months. He hit .287/.383/.500 over those two months with 12 home runs and hit .440/.517/.920 in the season's final two series when the Angels were making a last-ditch attempt to claim a wild-card spot.

• Despite its early reputation, Comerica Park is a friendlier hitting environment than Angel Stadium, particularly for a right-handed hitter.

• Trout had a higher on-base percentage than Cabrera and when you adjust their OPS for ballpark, which is what OPS+ does, Trout comes out ahead there as well.

• The Triple Crown would suggest that Cabrera was far and away the better hitter of the two, but looking at their slash stats makes it clear that Cabrera's only advantage at the plate was some extra power, some of which is corrected for when adjusting for ballpark. Cabrera was clearly the better hitter in 2012, but his advantage over Trout at the plate was not very large at all.

• Trout was the best basestealer in baseball in 2012, leading the majors with 49 steals with a tremendous 90.74 percent success rate. On only three occasions has a player ever stolen more bases at a higher success rate and the highest rate of those three, by Jerry Mumphrey in 1980, was less than one percentage point higher. Cabrera stole four bases in four attempts.

• Trout was the best defensive centerfielder in baseball in 2012 according to a variety of fielding metrics and the Fielding Bible, which names its top fielding team every fall. Cabrera was a sub-par defensive third baseman in 2012.

• Trout didn't make his 2012 debut until April 28 because he had the flu in spring training that cost him the chance to win a job out of camp. Still, he came to the plate 639 times on the season, just 60 fewer than Cabrera. Put another way, Trout had 92 percent as many plate appearances as Cabrera.

It is my belief, given how close their performance at the plate was, that Trout's fielding and basestealing, which were not just good but the best in baseball, more than compensate for that difference, plus Trout's slight deficit in playing time. That means that Trout was the league's most valuable player.

Advanced statistics such as wins above replacement which evaluates both players using the same methodology suggest I'm underestimating the degree to which Trout was more valuable than Cabrera. That is consistent across the three major wins above replacement statistics, Baseball-Reference's WAR, Baseball Prospectus's WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), and FanGraphs' WAR. In fact, all three rank Cabrera third in the league among hitters, behind both Trout and Cano. One might quibble with how those statistics quantify defense, but there's no denying Trout's vast superiority in the field over Cabrera, and at a more valuable defensive position as well. There's far less quibbling to be done about how those statistics evaluate hitting and baserunning.

One can make a clear argument for Trout's superiority without invoking wins above replacement statistics. If you disagree with the above, read what my former Baseball Prospectus colleague Nate Silver wrote on the topic today for the New York Times. He knows a thing or two about gleaning the reality of a situation from the numbers.

Who Should Win: Trout

Who Will Win: Cabrera

Cabrera will win because he won the Triple Crown, which measures two things: hitting for average and power. Never mind that Trout was just as good at hitting for average, hit for a ton of power in his own right and was vastly superior to Cabrera in two other key aspects of the game, fielding and basestealing.

Expected finish: Cabrera, Trout, Cano, Beltre, Hamilton

Close

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