Hot MVP debates: Cabrera vs. Trout and Kershaw vs. McCutchen

Thursday August 29th, 2013

Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera are likely to be the top two finishers yet again in the AL MVP voting.
Paul Sancya/AP

Last year, Miguel Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown by leading his league in batting average, home runs and RBIs, but many, myself included, thought Mike Trout was the more valuable player. The result was a debate that raged for the better part of two months and was hardly resolved by Cabrera actually winning AL MVP honors in November. This year, Cabrera is chasing another Triple Crown, trailing the Orioles' Chris Davis by four home runs, but Trout is again having a monster all-around season that has many arguing that he again has been more valuable than Cabrera.

Another familiar debate is beginning to percolate in the National Leage as well. The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw looks to be the MVP frontrunner despite not being an everyday player, a handicap Cabrera's Tigers teammate Justin Verlander had to overcome in 2011 to become the first pitcher to win an MVP in nearly two decades.

Buckle up folks, we're going on these rides again.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Aug. 28. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

American League

1. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: .357/.448/.683, 43 HR, 130 RBI, 95 R

Last Three Weeks: .345/.427/.750, 10 HR, 28 RBI

2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2)

Season Stats: .332/.427/.574, 23 HR, 81 RBI, 91 R, 8 3B, 29 SB

Last Three Weeks: .327/.448/.527, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 10 R, 5 SB

The Trout-Cabrera debate is officially back on. All three of the major wins above replacement stats rank Trout, not Cabrera, as the best player in baseball to this point in the season, with Trout averaging a full-win more than Cabrera in the three metrics combined (see table). I was firmly and loudly in the Trout camp last year, and remain convinced that he deserved the 2012 AL MVP, but despite the recommendation of those advanced stats, I can't put Trout ahead of Cabrera this year. At least, not yet.

Trout vs. Cabrera
Mike Trout7.88.788.88.5
Miguel Cabrera7.07.317.67.3

bWAR ='s Wins Above Replacement; WARP = Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player; fWAR = Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement

Put simply, last year Trout got on base more often than Cabrera and trailed him by just 42 points in slugging, a difference that I thought was more than covered by Trout's tremendous advantages in the field and on the bases. This year, however, Trout trails Cabrera by 21 points of on-base percentage and 109 points of slugging, and I don't think that is a gap his speed and defense can close.

Here's a trick I like to use when comparing a speedster to a slugger: figure out the value added of his base stealing by incorporating it into his basic slash stats. We don't need to change batting average, so let's move on to on-base percentage. First, take Trout's times on base (249; 163 hits, 78 walks and eight hit by pitches) and subtract his caught stealing (four) and then recalculate his on-base percentage. The result is a .423 OBP. For slugging percentage, add his stolen bases (29) to his total bases (282) and then recaculate that. The result is a slash line of .332/.423/.605. That's ridiculously good, but it still falls 25 points of OBP and 78 points of slugging shy of Cabrera's non-adjusted numbers (Cabrera has three steals in as many chances so any change to his slash line would be minor). Cabrera may be a butcher at third, and Trout may not be as mediocre in center this season as the fielding metrics suggest, but that still seems like a huge chasm to bridge.

The way I see it, Trout's added value in the field closes the majority of that gap, but not all of it. I don't think that opinion does any disservice to Trout. This race is closer than it has any right to be given the season Cabrera is having.

3. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles (3)

Season Stats: .304/.385/.682, 47 HR, 120 RBI, 95 R

Last Three Weeks: .317/.447/.717, 6 HR, 14 RBI

Cabrera and Trout have rendered Davis an afterthought in this race. The only thing Davis has done better than Trout this season is hit home runs. That's a very valuable thing to be good at, and Davis is having an outstanding all-around season at the plate, but his only relevance here is as an obstacle to Cabrera's second consecutive Triple Crown.

CORCORAN: Can Davis catch Maris?

4. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees

Season Stats: .305/.385/.506, 24 HR, 85 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .408/.468/.592, 2 HR, 14 RBI

5. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers (5)

Season Stats: .329/.385/.544, 28 HR, 81 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .397/.513/.603, 2 HR, 11 RBI

Cano and Beltre are in a virtual tie here for also-ran status and just barely edge out the A's Josh Donaldson and the Twins' Joe Mauer for these two spots. Cano gets fourth place here because the advanced fielding metrics have been down on the 34-year-old Beltre this season. Mauer misses the list in part due to his deficit in playing time, exacerbated by a recent concussion. Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis, whom I ranked fourth three weeks ago, has fallen behind the rest of this pack after hitting a mere .243/.346/.357 in the interim.

Off the list: Jason Kipnis

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (3)

Season Stats: 13-8, 1.72 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 8.7 K/9 (197 K), 4.28 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 207 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-1, 0.61 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 3.44 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (1)

Season Stats: .323/.400/.508, 17 HR, 74 RBI, 27 SB

Last Three Weeks: .391/.488/.493, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 3 SB

Kershaw has faced 779 batters this season. Andrew McCutchen has come to the plate 555 times and had 280 chances in centerfield, meaning he has been involved in 835 batting events, or seven percent more than Kershaw. Has Kershaw been more than seven percent better than McCutchen this season? The answer for now is yes.

McCutchen is having an excellent season, but he's not leading the league in anything. Kershaw, meanwhile, is leading the majors in ERA, ERA+, WHIP and innings pitched (204). If he keeps up his pace, Kershaw would be the first qualified starting pitcher since current rotation-mate Zack Greinke in 2009 to post an ERA+ above 200, meaning his ERA, after being adjusted for his home ballpark, was less than half of the league average (ERA+= league ERA/adjusted player ERA). The only other pitchers to accomplish that this millennium were Roger Clemens in 2005 and Pedro Martinez in 2000, 2002 and 2003.

McCutchen's all-around play makes this close, but to my eye the momentum building behind Kershaw's MVP candidacy late last week (and I'd like to point out here that I had him on my list three weeks ago) has been entirely justified.

JAFFE: Kershaw making strong case for MVP and Cy Young honors

3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks (2)

Season Stats: .300/.401./551, 31 HR, 104 RBI, 16 SB

Last Three Weeks: .306/.457/.583, 5 HR, 14 RBI, 2 SB

Goldschmidt is having a stellar season but he isn't as close to McCutchen as this list might indicate. Goldschmidt leads the league in park-adjusted OPS+ at 159, but McCutchen isn't far behind at 156, and while both are very good fielders, fitting that description in centerfield is far more valuable that doing so at first base. Add in McCutchen's extra 11 steals at a higher percentage (Goldschmidt has been successful just 68 percent of the time) and the fact that OPS doesn't give proper extra weight to on-base percentage, in which the two player are effectively tied, and it's clear that McCutchen has been more valuable this season.

4. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (4)

Season Stats: .312/.435/.504, 20 HR, 61 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .239/.416/.463, 3 HR, 9 RBI

Votto leads the NL in plate appearances, but is just 26th in outs. He has made just one more out than McCutchen this season in 43 more trips to the plate and 18 fewer outs than Goldschmidt in 18 more PAs. Those outs include times grounding into double plays and caught stealing. Every time a player avoids an out, he increases his team's chance of scoring, and no one avoids outs better than Votto, who has led the NL in on-base percentage each of the last four years and the majors twice in that span. That's especially valuable in a Reds lineup in which the third-best on-base percentage is .325. Oh, and he just happens to be hitting .312 and slugging .504 and is tied with Goldschmidt for second place in the NL with 88 runs scored.

5. Matt Carpenter, 2B/3B, Cardinals

Season Stats: .314/.383/.476, 10 HR, 66 RBI, 100 R, 160 H, 43 2B

Last Three Weeks: .368/.414/.553, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 17 R, 28 H, 9 2B

Playing time is an underrated source of value, which is why I consider innings pitched heavily when ranking my Cy Young candidates, and why I kept Joe Mauer off the AL list above in part because of his relative lack of playing time. It's also why, after hanging out just beyond the top five most of the season, Carpenter finally cracks the NL list this week, in part due to the time missed by other candidates.

Through Wednesday, Carpenter had come to the plate 582 times compared to 481 times by the Brewers' Carlos Gomez (whose incredible play in centerfield unfortunately often results in time missed due to injury) 465 times by the Mets' David Wright (who is still on the disabled list with a hamstring injury) and 436 times by the Rockies' Carlos Gomez (who is also still on the DL with a sprained finger).

Carpenter also gets extra value points for his ability to play multiple positions. When the Cardinals' best option at second base heading into the season was Daniel Descalso, Carpenter filled that hole, and when the team's best alternative to a struggling David Freese at third base was rookie Kolten Wong, he slid over to his natural position at third to give Wong a chance to improve the team at second. Carpenter is also the only middle infielder on these lists other than Cano, and his slash stats compare well to Cano's, particularly when factoring in their home ballparks. Finally, Carpenter has been underrated this season because, at 27, he's not budding superstar, and as a leadoff hitter with doubles-power, his most impressive stats have been those listed to the left of the traditional Triple Crown stats, which is why I extended his line above to include that black ink.

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