The discussion about who should be the Most Valuable Player in the American League has, for two years running, been less a baseball argument and more an etymological one, with the fourth-grade vocabulary word valuable being parsed as if it had been recently discovered scratched on a cave wall. All the hairsplitting does not change one simple baseball fact: The most valuable player in the American League this year is Mike Trout.
This is an article from the Oct. 7, 2013 issue
Trout has done all that a player can do to advance his team's interests. He has been the second-best hitter in the league, and the best offensive player when baserunning—including basestealing—is included. He has done this while playing 75% of his innings at a key defensive position, centerfield. His defensive performance in center has not been quite as impressive as it was a year ago, as measured by advanced metrics. He's played well enough, however, that his defense is a positive in building his MVP case. In addition, Trout will play almost as much as anyone this year—157 games with more than 700 plate appearances. Those contributions can be quantified, and when they are, they show that Trout has been worth nine wins to the Angels—he's made them nine games better than they would be without him.
Trout's performance is contrasted, in the MVP discussion, with that of Miguel Cabrera's. Cabrera has once again been the most devastating hitter in the game, leading the AL in batting, OBP, slugging, OPS, adjusted OPS and a list of other advanced measures of skill at the plate. No one in baseball does more damage with a bat in his hands. There is, however, more to value, and Cabrera—a poor defensive third baseman and a slow runner—doesn't add much else. His lack of range allows balls to get through for hits, which puts runs on the board for the Tigers' opponents. Those lost runs mean that Cabrera's overall performance has been worth about seven wins to the Tigers.
An award for batting performance only would belong to Cabrera. An award that considers everything a player does has to go to Trout. Trout's baserunning, his position and his defense more than make up Cabrera's edge in the batter's box. Trout's edges come in the sacred "little things," such as taking the extra base and racking up assists in the field.
Another confounding factor in the MVP debate is the trend toward preferring that individual awards go to players on playoff teams, as if champagne showers and the chance to win a World Series were not rewards themselves. This idea, which is fairly recent and tracks to the ongoing expansion of the postseason, ignores the limited effect that any one player has on a team's fortunes. The Tigers didn't win the AL Central just because they had Miguel Cabrera; they had Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson. They had a team around Cabrera that far outperformed the team around Trout. Cabrera gets rewarded for having better teammates by getting to play more baseball; making his better teammates a factor in MVP voting is pointless double-counting that turns the MVP award to something like the MVPWGET—Most Valuable Player with Good Enough Teammates—award.
Within even that category, Cabrera may not be the most valuable third baseman. Very quietly the Athletics' Josh Donaldson has put together a year that challenges that of the Tigers' slugger. Donaldson's .301/.384/.499 line is very impressive for someone playing half his game's at O.co Coliseum, one of the best pitchers' parks in baseball. Where he makes up ground, though, is in the field. Donaldson, a converted catcher, has been an excellent third baseman who has saved the A's about 10 runs with his glove. That gives him a net 25-run edge—more than two wins' worth of value—over Cabrera.
For the Orioles fans who have read this far and are now boiling mad, let's note that Chris Davis's breakout season was one of the game's best stories, but his performance at the plate didn't match that of either Cabrera or Trout. Both those players have 60 points or more of OBP on Davis, a gap Davis's extra power can't cover. When you consider defense and position, Davis, a first baseman, is behind those players and Donaldson. That's not cause for rioting; it's never an insult, never disrespect, to say that a player is one of the most valuable players in his league. But there can only be one Most Valuable Player. In the AL, in 2013, that player is Mike Trout.
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