Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Measuring Value

It’s that time of year again – with just a few weeks left in the season, baseball writers are turning their focus to the postseason awards, and as usual, the MVP races are the ones that are going to get the most attention. In the NL, the conversation is mostly about finding ways to make sure that Ryan Braun doesn’t win his second straight trophy, with Buster Posey stepping up to provide BBWAA members the out that they so desperately want. Over in the AL, there hasn’t been as much discussion for most of the summer, as Mike Trout has been running laps around the rest of the contenders, making it hard to put together any kind of realistic argument for a non-Trout candidate.

However, Miguel Cabrera is having a monstrous September, hitting .373/.426/.797 over the last couple of weeks, and now that he’s taken the lead in both batting average and runs batted, the talk of a potential “triple crown” has breathed life into his candidacy. Jon Morosi went so far as to call the decision to give Cabrera the award “a formality” and say that it’s “obvious” that Cabrera is the right choice. Instead of engaging in a hyperbole-off, however, let’s actually investigate the actual differences between them this season and see whether the case for Cabrera actually stands up to logic and reason.

Thanks to the custom leaderboards, it’s easy to put Trout and Cabrera’s season lines right next to each other for easy comparison. So, let’s just go through and look at the actual differences between what they’ve done this year, starting with their overall performances at the plate in the basic counting statistics.

Plate Appearances: Cabrera, +60
Singles: Cabrera, +2
Doubles: Cabrera, +14
Triples: Trout, +6
Home Runs: Cabrera, +13
Walks + Hit By Pitch: Cabrera, +1
Ground Into Double Plays: Cabrera, +21
Total Bases: Cabrera, +64
Outs Made: Cabrera, +54

Because Trout got called up to the Majors at the end of April, Cabrera has played in 21 additional games, so most of the counting stats go in his favor. And, Morosi has a legitimate point when he talks about number of games played, as we can’t simply ignore the fact that Cabrera has played an additional three weeks worth of games, creating value for his team in the process.

However, that last category is the one that never gets mentioned, but is perhaps the one that speaks the loudest out of all of them. Cabrera’s additional playing time has earned him an additional 60 trips to the plate, but in those 60 extra plate appearances, he’s made 54 extra outs. If we’re going to depend on counting stats to measure the difference in value from a quantity standpoint, we cannot ignore the fact that Cabrera’s propensity for hitting into double plays — he leads the American League with 28 GIDPs — has had a significant negative impact on the Tigers offense. We cannot simply count up the number of additional positive benefits that the Tigers have gotten from Cabrera’s playing time advantage without also accounting for the negatives.

Of course, comparing double plays grounded into between a leadoff hitter and a clean-up guy isn’t apples for apples, since Cabrera comes up with men on base far more frequently. Cabrera is first in GIDPs in large part because he’s second in GIDP opportunities — only Robinson Cano, with 144 chances to hit into a double play this year, has had more GIDP opps — and Cabrera’s 138 GIDP opportunities is nearly double Trout’s 75, which is a natural byproduct of their positions in the batting order. We shouldn’t just hold Cabrera’s extra GIDP outs against him without adjusting for the context of his quantity of chances.

But, of course, that’s exactly what the argument for Cabrera wants you to do with RBIs. Ignore context, ignore opportunity, and just focus on the fact that Cabrera has driven in 52 more runs than Trout has. If you’re going to quote Cabrera’s RBI advantage, you must also quote his massive disadvantage in GIDPs – they are the fruit of the same tree. The more intellectually honest way to measure this value is through looking at both GIDPs and RBIs as a function of plate appearances where those results were made possible by the actions of the people batting in front of both players, but if you’re not going to do that with RBIs, then you have to count the full weight of Cabrera’s extra outs against him.

If you’d rather actually adjust for those opportunity differences, however, we should probably note that Cabrera has had 415 baserunners when he’s batted this year, compared to just 274 for Trout. Cabrera has driven in 52 additional runs while having an extra 141 guys on base because of where he hits in the line-up. If we look at runs driven in as a percentage of total men on base when both men hit, we see that Cabrera has driven in 31% of his total baserunners, while Trout is at 28% – both way above the league average of 15%, and a difference much smaller than raw RBI totals would lead you to believe.

There’s really two choices here – ignore opportunities and give Cabrera credit for driving in many more runs while also penalizing him for creating many more outs, or adjust for opportunity and realize that Cabrera hasn’t actually been that much better than Trout at bringing his teammates home once they get on base. And, of course, none of this accounts for anything that happens after the two of them leave the batters box, or the value of the extra runs that Trout creates with his legs.

Left out of the net difference table above were things like stolen bases and other runner advancements, but of course those have value, and even the staunchest Cabrera supporter should admit that Trout should get some credit for the value of his speed. So, let’s look at the net differences in things that have to do with baserunning.

Stolen Bases: Trout, +42
Caught Stealing: Trout, +3
Other Outs Made On Base: Cabrera, +2
First to Third on a Single: Trout, +13
Second to Home on a Single: Trout, +5

This is Trout in a landslide, as you’d expect. Not only has Trout put himself in scoring position far more often by stealing second base, he’s also scored more often when his teammates have gotten hits and he’s been on base. The fact that Trout has 18 additional runs scored despite playing in those 21 fewer games shows the magnitude of the difference that baserunning can make, and it’s of course silly to only consider runs created with the bat and ignore those with the legs. Trout has scored 45% of the times he’s been on base — easily the highest of any regular in the AL — compared to a league average of just 31% and Cabrera’s 28% total. Yes, some of that is having Albert Pujols hit behind him, but of course Prince Fielder hits behind Cabrera, mitigating the argument that run scored percentage is solely a function of the guy hitting behind you.

So, again, we see Cabrera’s offensive advantage dwindling here. We know that his RBI difference is mostly a function of the additional baserunners he’s been given through his line-up spot, while Trout’s runs scored difference is mostly about his speed on the bases. It’s disingenuous to measure one without the other, just like it’s disingenuous to ignore all the extra outs Cabrera has made because of his proclivity for hitting into double plays.

That’s why, despite Cabrera’s chance at the triple crown, any decent measure of total offensive production will say that Cabrera hasn’t produced any more runs for the Tigers than Trout has for the Angels despite the three week head start. If you just look at Trout and Cabrera’s Batting plus Baserunning in the value section, you’ll note that Trout’s offensive performance has been +57.6 runs better than an average offensive performer this year, while Cabrera checks in at +50.3 runs.

And, look, this isn’t voodoo magic that deals with theoretical replacement levels – this is simply the result of adding up all the positive and negative offensive events that both Trout and Cabrera have produced this year. Even with the 21 fewer games played, Trout has produced more runs this season. The only way to come to a different conclusion is to selectively choose the kinds of runs you want to measure. By objective metrics that include all aspects of offensive value, Mike Trout has been a better offensive performer than Cabrera this year.

If you think that the MVP should be only based on offensive performance with no consideration to defense or position played, then the evidence would lead you to believe that Trout has a narrow edge over Cabrera. Of course, position scarcity and defensive contributions absolutely should be a factor, and both of those point to Trout by laughably large margins, so the only way to make a case for Cabrera is to pretend that we shouldn’t measure those things. And, in actuality, to further that case, we actually have to obscure the truth.

Morosi makes the argument that Cabrera deserves credit for his defense because he was willing to make the move to third base to accommodate the acquisition of Prince Fielder. His hard work and selflessness in changing positions should be seen as a net positive in terms of defensive contribution, even if he is objectively bad at playing the position. However, there’s a pretty serious problem with this scenario – Cabrera didn’t have to move to third base for the Tigers to sign Prince Fielder. Instead, he could have simply agreed to become a designated hitter. Instead, Cabrera decided he didn’t want to retire his glove and become a hitter-only, so the Tigers were instead forced to move him to third base, since neither Cabrera nor Fielder was willing to take the DH role at this point in their career.

In reality, Cabrera’s switch to third base made room not for Fielder, but for Delmon Young to spend a majority of his time at DH, which freed up an outfield spot for the likes of Ryan Raburn, Don Kelly, Quinton Berry, and Andy Dirks. Had Cabrera been willing to actually take one for the team and DH, those are the guys who would have lost playing time, not Prince Fielder. Does anyone seriously want to argue that the Tigers are better off because Cabrera decided to become a bad defensive third baseman so that that group could get more playing time?

Look, even here at FanGraphs, we don’t think the MVP award should just be the WAR of the Year award. We’ve said repeatedly that WAR is a useful tool for identifying groups of players who have had similar years, and it takes a precision that WAR is not capable of providing to determine the differences between guys who are within the same overall range of value. The problem with the argument surrounding Trout and Cabrera is that they’re not in the overall same range of value. Mike Trout is a group unto himself this year – a fantastic defensive center fielder who also happens to be the best baserunner in baseball and who has hit nearly as well as anyone else alive.

You don’t have to buy into WAR as the be-all, end-all statistic to know that Trout has been the AL’s best player by a country mile this year. Simply look at all the facts, and not just the three that were treated as important 100 years ago. Morosi is right about one thing – whether Miguel Cabrera wins the triple crown or not should be irrelevant. The AL MVP is obvious. It’s just not Miguel Cabrera.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Pinstripe Wizard
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Pinstripe Wizard

What happens if Cabrera does win the Triple Crown? You could still make every argument you made here, which would push it over to Trout. However, the scarcity of the Triple Crown would almost assuredly sway voters in Cabrera’s direction.

chuckb
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Member
chuckb

Dave isn’t arguing who WILL win. He’s arguing who SHOULD win.

Pinstripe Wizard
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Member
Pinstripe Wizard

I understand what he’s arguing. I was just saying that if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, he could continue to make the case that Trout should win, but there would be little chance he would IMO.

David
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David

There is actual precedent for a triple crown winner (without the snarky quotes around it) not to win the MVP award. It happened to the best hitter born after 1900.

jscape2000
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“It happened to the best hitter born after 1900.”
And then it happened to Ted Williams twice!

NeverJamToday
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NeverJamToday

Ted Williams won the Triple Crown twice but finished second in the MVP voting each time. And I thought batting average and RBIs were overrated stats.

Pinstripe Wizard
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Member
Pinstripe Wizard

But the Triple Crown wasn’t as rare an occurence then. The rarity could make it seem more special than it really is.

John Ford-Griffindor
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John Ford-Griffindor

The media hated Teddy Ballgame.

jscape2000
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Lou Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934 but finished fifth.

bradsbeard
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bradsbeard

The Triple Crown is fun, but it’s kind of like hitting for the cycle. Accomplishing it doesn’t automatically prove you are the best player in baseball any more than hitting for the cycle proves you had a better night at the plate than the guy who hit a home run and three doubles or two home runs with a double and a walk. The fact that Cabrera might win the first Triple Crown in forever and STILL not be the best player in the AL this season just speaks volumes about how good Trout has been.

RickD
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RickD

“The Triple Crown is fun, but it’s like hitting for the cycle.”

Disagree completely. The Triple Crown isn’t predicated on filling arbitrary slots. If you had two batters, one of whom hit for the cycle and the other of whom hit four HRs, the latter would have contributed more to the Triple Crown than the former.

The cycle is an accomplishment that is decidedly sub-optimal. OTOH, a Triple Crown winner has gone most of the way to demonstrating that he’s the best hitter in the league that season.

And the media hated Ted Williams, which is why they voted for DiMaggio instead.

bradsbeard
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bradsbeard

Sure, the Triple Crown is a much greater and meaningful accomplishment then the cycle, but my point is that just accomplishing the Triple Crown does not guarantee you were the best player that season. Saying “this guy hit for the Triple Crown, so he has to be the MVP” even though other relevant stats suggests another player is better is kind of like saying “this guy hit for the cycle, so he has to have had the best hitting line of the game” when in fact another player homered three times on the night. Marvel at the rare accomplishment, but that doesn’t automatically make him more valuable.

alex
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alex

He want David Wright to win, hes trying to use subliminal messages by spelling RIGHT, WRIGHT

Johnny
Guest

Nice try, but this article is flawed.

Is a run in a 1-1 game the same as run in a 9-1 game? Where are the “clutch” numbers? There are none because Cabreras numbers are silly good in the late innings in close game.

Dismissing RBI’s because 1 guy bats 3rd and has more chances is rediculous. With that logic you cannot use Trouts baserunning ability in his favor. If he batted 3rd he would have far less opprotunities to steal, or go 1st to 3rd. Its harder to steal with (slower) runners on base.

Mike Trout is hitting 280 since Aug 1, Cabrera has been more consistant, hitting 300 every month. Does that not count either? What about the ballpark factors, O that’s right Comerica is a National Park. Anaheim is a bandbox. If your going to wright an article trying to be unbiased, than wright an unbiased article.

Babe
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Babe

Hmmm can’t tell if this is real or if I’m about to feed a troll.

First of all a run is a run and a hit is a hit. It does not matter what inning it is. Are you saying Miggy does not try as hard in the first inning of a scoreless game?

He did not dismiss RBI. Miggy drives in 31% while Trout drives in 28%. Pure RBI totals are irrelevant.

Don’t know where you heard Anaheim is a bandbox. It is, in fact, tougher to hit in than Comerica.

Lastly, it’s write not wright.

Jay Stevens
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Jay Stevens

Babe got the points about RBI and the ballparks — Comerica has actually been more hitter-friendly this year — but I do think the clutch question is legit. Not all runs are equal. Clutch hitting isn’t predictive — it appears to be mostly a matter of luck, not indicative of a player’s ability — but it does tell you how much a player actually contributed to his team.

That said, using RBIs or situational batting average, say, as a measurement of clutch is not very useful. But Fangraphs has its lovely win probability stats, and in those, Trout dominates Cabrera. Trout’s 5.57 WPA is the best in MLB, and his “Clutch” is 0.04. Cabrera clocks in at a 4.45 WPA and a horrendous -1.36 “Clutch.” Trout does more to contribute to his team’s wins, and performs better in high leverage situations.

Philip Zaroo
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A run is a run and a hit is a hit for people who can only think in terms of numbers. There are other factors, and you don’t have to be a stats-hater to realize that. Stats have a place, without question. They’re nowhere near absolute, though. A player’s every situational performance is an order of magnitude harder to quantify absolutely and accurately, but you damn well better believe a hit isn’t a hit isn’t a hit, unless all you care about his that singular number. Situations, and how players respond to them, do matter.

What I find most disturbing from this article, just in terms of being balanced, is completely ignoring that Trout had nearly 50 percent more strikeouts than Cabrera. Isn’t getting the ball in play important?

Chris
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Chris

This article is biased. I can do the same to Trout. Trout 46/50 stolen bags 92%. Cabrera 4/5 stolen bags 80%. Cabreras coaches just underutilize him in stealing if they sent him Cabrera would have 40 bags this year. To Trouts 46. Thats a far stretch for those that know Cabby but using math it is perfectly reasonable to say. Actually if you break down all of the running categories into percents the only category Trout leads in is going 1st to 3rd on a single. The rest the percentages are within a few percentage points. So the overwhelming Trout advantage is now just he has a higher WAR and goes 1st to 3rd better.

Doug
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Doug

One thing I believe you have wrong in your article. The Tigers werent forced by Cabrera to have him play third base. They wanted him to play third base so he can play third base also in 2013 when Victor Martinez comes back as the regular DH. If Miguel didnt play in the field a whole year, then it would be hard for him to play third in 2013

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