Trout Versus Cabrera: Offense Only, Context Included

This piece originally ran on Ocotber 4th. Given the attention that Trout and Cabrera are going to receive today, I figured it was probably worth running again.

The AL MVP debate continues to rage on, and at this point, most of the arguments have already been made on both sides. If you think the Triple Crown should always be rewarded with an MVP, you’re voting for Miguel Cabrera. If you think the winner of the award has to come from a playoff team, you’re voting for Miguel Cabrera. If you think that WAR is a decent measure of player value, you’re voting for Trout. At this point, both sides are basically just yelling at each other, and no one is changing their minds.

However, for those who are uncomfortable with any of those positions and might still be on the fence, I wanted to offer one more perspective on the issue. The reality is that the case for Cabrera requires the assumption that baserunning and defense are of marginal value, and that position players should really by evaluated by their hitting statistics. The case for Cabrera also wants you to take context into account, since Cabrera drove in so many more runs than Trout did, and wants Cabrera to receive credit for his accomplishments with men on base. Interestingly enough, we have a metric here on FanGraphs that measures only offense and credits hitters for their performances with men on base. At the risk of adding to the alphabet soup, I think it’s worth looking at this little-used metric that measures exactly what the Cabrera contingent wants us to measure.

This metric is called RE24. It’s been on the site for years, and is available as part of our Win Probability section. We don’t use it a lot, because in general we prefer to talk about players from a context-neutral perspective, but for the purpose of this discussion, it might just be the perfect metric.

RE24 is essentially the difference between the run expectancy when a hitter comes to the plate and when his at-bat ends. For example, September 16th, Cabrera came to the plate against Joe Smith with runners at first and second and two outs, a situation where the Tigers would be expected to score 0.33 runs on average. Cabrera hit a three run home run, so they actually scored three runs, and RE24 gives Cabrera credit for +2.67 runs, the gap between what they were expected to score and what they actually scored.

Unlike with context-neutral statistics like wRC+, RE24 takes the number of outs and number of baserunners into account. It does not assume that all home runs are equal, nor does it treat a strikeout with a man on third base and one out as just another out. The rewards for performing with men on base are higher, and the blame for failing in those same situations is steeper as well. This is a metric that essentially quantifies the total offensive value of a player based on the situations that he actually faced. This is not a theoretical metric. If you hit a three run home run, you get more credit than if you hit a solo home run. If you are consistently getting hits with two outs to drive in runs, you get more credit than if those hits come with no outs and the bases empty. And, of course, it’s only an offensive metric, so there’s no defensive component, no position adjustments, and no replacement level. This is just straight up offense, adjusted for the context of the situations that they faced.

Here’s the AL leaderboard for this season. If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll just reproduce the top five here.

1. Edwin Encarnacion: +55.84 runs
2. Mike Trout: +54.27
3. Prince Fielder: +50.59
4. Miguel Cabrera: +47.43
5. Josh Hamilton: 44.44

Offense only. Context Included. Trout is just barely behind Edwin Encarnacion for the league lead, and slightly ahead of Miguel Cabrera, who is actually second on on his own team.

I know these new-fangled “advanced” stats can be scary, but this isn’t some kind of black box where you just have to take our word for it. We have RE24 on each player’s Play Log, so you can see the exact amount of value that each player was credited with on every single offensive play they were involved in all year long. Here’s the top five plays from Cabrera’s play log, for instance:

9/16 vs Joe Smith, 2 on, 2 out, 3 run HR: +2.67 runs
9/18 vs Jesse Chavez, 3 on, 0 out, Grand Slam: +2.16 runs
9/29 vs Casey Fien, 2 on, 0 out, 3 run HR: +2.00 runs
4/8 vs Alfredo Aceves, 2 on, 0 out, 3 run HR: +1.99 runs
7/24 vs Joe Smith, 1 on, 2 outs, 2 run HR: +1.88 runs

There’s evidence of Cabrera’s monstrous clutch September in RE24, as his three most valuable outcomes all came in the last couple of weeks. In fact, Mike Trout only had one plate appearance all year where his RE24 was over +2 runs — a three run homer off Felix Hernandez in August — so Cabrera’s certainly had more big moments where his ability to drill the ball over the wall created runs for the Tigers offense.

So, why is Trout ahead of Cabrera? And, for that matter, why is Cabrera behind even his own teammate, Prince Fielder, as well as Encarnacion, who is not even in the MVP discussion?

It comes back to double plays. I noted a few weeks ago that Cabrera had hit into an AL leading 28 double plays. Turns out, a bunch of those were big-time rally killers. 12 of the 28 double plays Cabrera hit into lowered the run expectancy by at least one run; Trout only had two plate appearances all season where the run expectancy went down that much in a single play. Because RE24 is available for every play, and easily accessible from the play logs, it’s easy to put each player’s individual performances into groups, so we can see the distribution of their offensive events.

Player +1 and up 0 to +1 0 to -1 -1 and down
Trout 54 269 388 2
Cabrera 77 219 406 12

Cabrera had 23 more highly visible significant offensive plays that generated +1 runs or more than expected based on the situation he was placed in. Those plays are extremely valuable, and Cabrera was credited with 97 runs in those 77 plays. Meanwhile, Trout only created 66 runs in his 54 big plays, so we’re looking at a 31 run advantage for Cabrera in high visibility plays. This is what’s driving Cabrera’s narrative – everyone remembers these plays, and saw Cabrera come through in big situations more often than they saw Trout do the same.

However, Trout makes up the gap — and then some — in the other 600+ plays that matter as well. While he had 23 fewer big positive plays, he had 50 additional smaller positive plays, all of which contributed to the Angels offensive performance. He also had 28 fewer negative value plays, including 10 fewer that were extremely negative, thanks primarily to his ability to stay out of the double play.

You can go through each player’s play logs and see exactly where they earned and lost credit. There’s no replacement level here. We’re not dealing with defensive metrics that require some subjective inputs and can’t be easily replicated. This is just pure offense, and the total value of all the plays that both Trout and Cabrera were involved in.

And Trout still comes out on top. Ignore defense. Ignore things like going first to third on a single, or taking the extra base on a fly ball. Ignore WAR. Trout still wins. This is how amazing his season actually was. Even if you strip away the things that make Mike Trout special, he was still the best offensive performer in the American League this year, even while starting the season in the minors. This isn’t just the best performance of 2012 – it’s one of the best individual performances in the history of baseball.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.