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Mike Trout and the Stretch Run

Let us acknowledge, with the 2012 regular season drawing to a close, that there’s been a fun debate surrounding the American League Most Valuable Player award. If not fun, then — at the very least — interesting. Let us acknowledge that there was a time at which it looked like voters would really, deeply, have to think. Let us now acknowledge that, with the Tigers probably going to the playoffs and the Angels probably not going to the playoffs, there’s probably going to be a little less thought, at least for some. It looked like we were going to have a rare contest between two guys not playing extra baseball, but now it’s looking like no such luck.

It’s all about Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, with Adrian Beltre being the subject of the occasional whisper. Pretty much everybody I’ve read has an opinion one way or the other; I suppose without an opinion, one probably wouldn’t be writing. Trout has many of the overall season numbers on his side, and the Cabrera argument wouldn’t have so much steam if it weren’t for his torrid offense down the stretch when the Tigers have needed it most. Cabrera, they say, has stepped up while Trout has stepped back, and these have been the most meaningful games. And that’s why Cabrera is deserving of consideration, at the very least.

I’m not here to settle the argument, and in fact I’m not sure the argument could ever be settled with words. I’m just here to present a few little numbers that I happened across in the course of my afternoon. As I recorded a podcast with Carson Cistulli, I mentioned that I still needed to write another post, and that I’d probably find a fun fact around which I’d wrap a few hundred words. These are some of those few hundred words, and the fun fact is to follow shortly.

Much of what has been written about Cabrera’s MVP candidacy has emphasized his stretch-run performance against Trout’s stretch-run performance. As a matter of fact, between August 1 and September 22, Cabrera posted a 1.151 OPS, helping the Tigers to climb into the division race. A funny thing has happened since the end of that run, though; Cabrera has posted a .603 OPS in nine games. The Tigers won six of those games, but Cabrera was of little aid, and now September is over. Which allows us to reflect on the month of September.

And in the month of September, Miguel Cabrera posted a lower WAR than Mike Trout. In the month that was supposed to make Cabrera the favorite in some people’s minds, by at least one measure he still couldn’t out-perform the other contender. We can’t think of WAR as being accurate to a decimal place so we can’t declare that Cabrera was therefore less valuable in September than Trout was, but this is a thing. This is something a lot of people probably didn’t expect to hear.

This is my favorite table of the moment. This is each full month that Mike Trout has been in the majors in 2012, and his WAR rank among American League position players. Again, yes, issues with WAR. Again, it stands to reason that WAR is capturing something, if not most of everything, so this table cannot be dismissed outright.

Month AL WAR Rank
May 1
June 1
July 1
August 1
September 2

By this measure, Mike Trout was the best player in May. He was the best player in June, July, and August, and he was the second-best player in September, behind Adrian Beltre. By WAR, Cabrera’s best month was August. By WAR, Trout’s August still beat Cabrera’s, and everyone else’s. Everybody has his or her own issues with some of the WAR inputs, but the strongest argument in Cabrera’s favor for the MVP is that Cabrera has been unquestionably the best player down the stretch, and that just isn’t clear. Cabrera hasn’t broken free of Trout down the stretch, and before the stretch, Trout was way better.

Perhaps the biggest lesson here is putting in perspective how different Trout is from Cabrera when they’re outside of the batter’s boxes. Cabrera posted a .452 wOBA in August and a .417 wOBA in September, while Trout posted wOBAs of .385 and .376, respectively. That’s a huge offensive advantage for Cabrera, and yet he still falls just short in WAR, because of everything else. In order for Cabrera and Trout to be similarly valuable, they have to be this different with the bat, and they just haven’t been, overall. They’ve only been this different with the bat for a little while.

Nobody’s mind is going to be made up by this post, and maybe that’s how it ought to be. Maybe nobody’s mind should ever be made up by one single thing. Maybe it doesn’t matter because none of us are voters and if you’re reading FanGraphs you’re probably already leaning strongly in Mike Trout’s direction. But it was Miguel Cabrera’s stretch run that was supposed to vault him in front of Mike Trout, because Cabrera has been a beast while Trout has been slumping, relative to himself. Trout’s still managed to post the higher WAR the whole time. I don’t know about you but that just strikes me as one hell of a fact.