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AL MVP Debate: We Did This Two Years Ago

While I wrote most of what I had to say about the AL MVP discussion a few days ago, I do have one more question I want to ask – what’s so different about Cabrera this season compared to 2010?

Most of the case for Cabrera’s candidacy rests upon the idea that he’s having an historic offensive performance, and that denying him the award would be some kind of historical injustice. But, if we look at his 2012 season and his 2010 season side by side, can we really make the case that this year is all that different from what he did two years ago?

Because he has almost identical amounts of plate appearances between the two seasons, it’s easy enough to just compare raw totals side by side, so we’ll start there.

Season PA 1B 2B 3B HR BB GDP
2010 648 96 45 1 38 89 17
2012 646 112 38 0 41 63 28

Cabrera has 16 more singles and three more home runs, but he has eight fewer non-HR extra base hits, so the overall net in total bases is just +11. In other words, while his batting average is slightly higher, he’s actually hitting for slightly less power this year than he did two years ago, which you can see in his seasonal rate statistics.

2010 0.328 0.420 0.622 0.429 169
2012 0.333 0.398 0.613 0.421 169

A five point increase in average and a nine point decrease in slugging are, for all intents and purposes, a tie. There’s no real meaningful difference in those numbers. The one area where there is a meaningful change is in his walk rate, as Cabrera has drawn 26 fewer walks this year than he did in 2010, which is the main driver of his 22 point drop in OBP. However, that’s swallowed up almost entirely by the change in offensive run environments over the last two years.

And, just so you don’t think we’re obscuring the issue by only looking at “sabermetric” stats like walks, doubles, and double plays grounded into, here’s a comparison based on his “run production” stats.

Season Runs RBI
2010 111 126
2012 102 130

In reality, Cabrera’s 2010 and 2012 offensive performances are almost exactly equal no matter what kinds of metrics you use. In terms of something more accurate like batting runs above average, Cabrera was at +54.9 in 2010 and is at +54.3 this year. Even if you want to evaluate his performance strictly by RBIs, there is essentially no difference between this year and two years ago.

And yet, in that race, Cabrera finished a distant second in the MVP voting behind Josh Hamilton. Hamilton, a center fielder who also had a tremendous season, received 22 of the 28 first place votes that year despite the fact that he only played in 133 games — 17 fewer than Cabrera — and had inferior home run and RBI totals to Cabrera. However, voters decided that Hamilton’s superior defensive value outweighed the extra quantity of playing time for Cabrera, and gave him the award in a vote that wasn’t even close. And I don’t recall much in the way of controversy surrounding that pick, as Hamilton was pretty clearly the AL’s best player that year.

In reality, the only real differences between the 2010 and 2012 races are Cabrera’s change in position — which WAR gives him credit for, by the way — and the relative win-loss records of the teams on which the contenders play for. Cabrera’s case might be billed as being about his amazing offensive performance, but he had this same offensive performance in 2010, and there wasn’t a strong push to give him the award then. A case for Cabrera as MVP this year, but not two years ago, essentially rests on one of these three arguments:

1. Cabrera’s defensive value has dramatically increased due to his move to third base, such that an equivalent offensive performance is now worthy of a first place vote.

2. Cabrera’s individual value has dramatically increased because the Tigers have a .530 winning percentage as a team this year, as opposed to the .500 winning percentage they had in 2010.

3. Trout’s 2012 season has been less valuable than Hamilton’s 2010 season, so while Cabrera was beat out by a stronger contender two years ago, that kind of candidate doesn’t exist this year.

You can’t make a case for Cabrera over Trout without leaning heavily on several of those as foundational beliefs.

There’s actually some evidence supporting point #1, as Cabrera’s total fielding rating compared to league average (UZR + Positional Adjustment) this year is just -8.1 compared to the -17.5 he put up in 2010, so WAR is giving him credit for an additional win of value with the glove because of the move to third base and how he’s played there this year. So, that’s an argument that actually has some teeth, but the problem is that you can’t simultaneously lean on that piece of data as a pillar of your argument while dismissing Trout’s value because of the unstable nature of single year defensive performance. If you go with argument #1 as a pillar of Cabrera’s foundation, you’re essentially also locking yourself out of #3, because any consideration of defensive value will elevate Trout’s 2012 season over Hamilton’s 2010. Point #1 and Point #3 are essentially mutually exclusive – you can’t argue both at the same time.

And point #2 is just kind of silly. The Tigers are on pace to finish with 86 wins and miss the playoffs, so it’s hard to see how that’s drastically better than the 81 wins and no playoffs that they achieved two years ago, especially considering that it’s easier to make the playoffs this year due to the addition of the second wild card. In both 2010 and 2012, the Tigers have the eighth best record in the American League. Basing his MVP case on team performance just doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

Again, as Paul said in his piece a few hours ago, none of this is meant to disparage Miguel Cabrera. Winning the Triple Crown would be a pretty neat historical accomplishment, and the fact that Cabrera has had so many seasons at this level speaks to his amazing consistency. The unfortunate reality for him, however, is that Josh Hamilton was clearly better in 2010, and Mike Trout has been clearly better in 2012. Two years ago, Cabrera had this exact same season, and everyone agreed that the guy doing it in center field was more valuable. There’s no reason to change our minds two years later.