Last year, the AL MVP debate turned into something resembling a culture war, with Miguel Cabrera representing the traditional methods of player evaluation while Mike Trout was the darling of the sabermetric community. In the final tally, Cabrera won in a landslide, receiving 22 of the 28 first place votes, but Trout and Cabrera were #1 and #2 on 27 of the 28 ballots submitted, with Trout sliding to third on just one ballot. While there was disagreement over which of the two was more valuable, there was broad consensus that they represented a tier unto themselves, with everyone else looking up to their excellence.
Well, it’s happening again. If you pull up the leaderboard for American League hitters, there’s Mike Trout at #1 (+6.9 WAR), followed more closely than last year by Miguel Cabrera at #2 (+6.4 WAR). While Trout blew away the field by WAR last year, Cabrera’s having an even better season in 2013 than he did a year ago, while Trout is just a little shy of last year’s remarkable pace. This year, instead of the big gap in WAR being between Trout and Cabrera, the gap is between Trout/Cabrera and everyone else; Chris Davis, at +5.1 WAR, is a distant third.
Once again, though, Cabrera has the advantage in all of the things that WAR ignores but voters do not. The Tigers are 64-45, first place in the AL Central and likely headed to the postseason, while the Angels are 51-59, fourth place in the AL West and only headed for a list of the most expensive flops. For those who use a team’s place in the standings as part of their MVP calculation, the Tigers success and the Angels failure will almost certainly push the needle in Cabrera’s favor.
Then, of course, there are the RBIs. No single stat correlates better with MVP votes throughout history than runs batted in, and if there’s a big time RBI guy on a first place team, then you have a favorite to take home the award. Cabrera isn’t running away with the RBI crown like he did a year ago — thanks to the aforementioned Chris Davis, who currently leads with 102 — but he still blows Trout out of the water in a heads up RBI comparison, 99 to 67. If one still believes that RBIs are a useful metric, then it is not a difficult leap to favor Cabrera once again.
In fact, if the MVP voting were actually held today, I doubt Trout would get more than one or two first place votes, and maybe not even any. Last year, the numbers made a strong case for Trout, who hit nearly as well as Cabrera while playing center field, and stole 49 bases just for fun. This year, Trout hasn’t hit as well as Cabrera and has played a lot of left field, and he’s only stolen 23 bases with a lower success rate.
The defensive metrics don’t love Trout’s performance this year either, which is the primary reason his numbers are simply best-in-the-league rather than who-set-this-video-game-to-rookie-mode. On the one hand, critics of WAR can’t really downgrade Trout’s performance based on attacking the validity of single season defensive metrics, but on the other hand, Trout’s supporters don’t have as strong of a case that the defensive gap between the two is dramatic enough to offset Cabrera’s offensive advantage. Trout is unquestionably a better defender than Cabrera, and he has still played more center field than left field this year, but there have been fewer ridiculous home run saving catches and jaw dropping plays from the Angels outfielder this year.
So, instead of having the stats guys trumpeting his historically great season, we’re left with two players well within the range of any kind of measurement error. Both are having superlative seasons, but trying to argue that one season has been obviously better than the other is a difficult task, given their respective performances. And when the nerdy numbers have it as close, you can essentially bet that the traditional numbers will be used as a tie-breaker, leaving Trout without any real firm support barring a monster finish — or Cabrera collapse — down the stretch.
My guess is that if the voting was held today, Trout wouldn’t even finish second. Davis leads the league in home runs and RBIs, and the Orioles in a playoff race. Despite the fact that Cabrera has been significantly better and his team has a better record, Davis is probably the more real threat to Cabrera winning a second straight MVP award. If the Orioles end up winning a wild card spot and the Tigers miss the playoffs, then Davis might actually be the frontrunner at that point. Regardless of what Trout does in the season’s last two months, the Angels aren’t going anywhere, and he probably can’t improve his case much at all because of that.
So, for the second straight year, the best player in baseball has little chance of winning the MVP award. Despite the logical flaws associated with basing an individual award on team performance, Cabrera is certainly a worthy MVP candidate, and I won’t have a problem with him winning the award. Depending on how the Tigers and Orioles finish, we might even find ourselves on the side of advocating on Cabrera’s behalf, which would be a fun turn of events given last year’s accusations of an anti-Cabrera slant to our coverage.
At the end of the day, awards balloting isn’t really that important, and Mike Trout doesn’t need a trophy to cement himself as the premier player in the game today. I do wonder, however, how long it will take before the rest of the Angels are good enough to help Trout get officially recognized as the great player he already is.