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The MVP Case for Miguel Cabrera

In his early look at the postseason awards [1] yesterday, Keith Law two Tigers among the top four on his AL MVP ballot, but neither of them were named Miguel Cabrera. While I agree with Keith that Jackson and Verlander are both having excellent seasons and are deserving of consideration, I do think there is a case to be made for Cabrera as a legitimate contender for American League MVP.

Let’s start with the obvious – no, he can’t match Mike Trout’s overall numbers right now. Trout has posted a higher batting average, higher on base percentage, and higher slugging percentage, he leads the league in stolen bases and stolen base efficiency, and he’s a fantastic defensive center fielder who adds a lot of value in the field. There isn’t a player in baseball who stack up next to Trout’s overall line, Cabrera included.

However, there are reasons to think that perhaps Cabrera has been somewhat more valuable this year than his overall batting line would suggest, and the opposite may very well be true of Trout. That reason? Performance in the clutch.

No, I’m not talking about RBIs, which I find just as useless as Keith does. Comparing the runs batted in totals between a leadoff hitter and a guy who bats third is silly, as we’d simply be rewarding Cabrera for where he hits in the line-up while punishing Trout for batting once a game with the bases empty, and hitting behind the weakest part of the Angels line-up the rest of the game. Whether Cabrera leads the league in RBIs or not should be irrelevant in the MVP discussion, or really in any discussion not involving a trivia contest.

But just because RBIs are a bad metric doesn’t mean that the idea that Cabrera has performed well in clutch situations is wrong. Using better metrics, we actually can confirm that he has, in fact, been a fantastic clutch hitter this year.

Using Leverage Index [2], we can quantify the relative impact any given plate appearance has on the outcome of a game, based on the score, inning, number of base runners, and how many outs there are at the time. At FanGraphs, we break every player’s plate appearances into three tiers, ranging from low leverage (game already decided) to high leverage (high chance of determining who wins and loses), and can evaluate how players have done in the “clutch” opportunities they’ve been given.

As it turns out, Cabrera has been a shining star in such situations this year.

Cabrera’s performance, by leverage:

Low Leverage: .332/.389/.613, .424 wOBA
Medium Leverage: .305/.365/.508, .369 wOBA
High Leverage: .417/.500/.833, .524 wOBA

In those 44 high leverage plate appearances, Cabrera has 15 hits, 11 of which have gone for extra bases. He’s also drawn seven walks, creating an even higher pressure situation for the pitcher, who now has to face Prince Fielder without first base being open. Cabrera’s .526 wOBA in high leverage situations easily paces the American League [3]. The fact that Alejandro de Aza and Alex Rios — neither exactly known as fearsome clutch hitters — are also in the top five should tell you something about the year-to-year variability of clutch performance, but we’re not trying to predict whether Cabrera can keep hitting like this in high pressure situations, we’re just noting that he has so far this year.

On the other end of the spectrum, the best hitter in low leverage situations in the American League [4]? None other than Mike Trout. In fact, Trout’s leverage splits are basically a mirror opposite of Cabrera’s.

Trout’s performance, by leverage:

Low Leverage: .376/.459/.700, .499 wOBA
Medium Leverage: .317/.369/.511, .394 wOBA
High Leverage: .276/.289/.517, .345 wOBA

Trout has been an absolute monster when the game is already determined one way or another, and just a little bit better than league average when the game is on the line. Now, you should not take these numbers to mean that Trout folds under pressure or that he lacks some personality trait that allows him to answer the call when necessary, as we’re just dealing with 38 plate appearances, and these splits will even out over a larger sample of data. I am not arguing that Cabrera has a clutch gene that Trout does not.

However, that’s not the question the MVP Award is asking. It is a retrospective question, asking who did more to help their team win in the past. And, while it is not a predictive measure that tells us anything about what will happen in the future, the reality is that Cabrera has been the best high leverage hitter in the American League this year, while Trout has produced a great majority of his offense in situations where the outcome was already fairly clear.

Clutch performance shouldn’t be the only factor in MVP voting, and we shouldn’t pretend that Trout’s performance in low and medium leverage situations hold no value. That Trout has trounced Cabrera in larger samples needs to be reflected in the voting, as does Trout’s elite base running and defense.

However, just looking at their raw batting lines overlooks the fact that Cabrera has an additional 83 plate appearances overall, and that Cabrera has done more with the important opportunities he’s been given. That difference in quantity of playing time and extreme greatness in the clutch should be enough to put Cabrera in the MVP conversation. When you adjust for the timing of when they’ve performed at their best, the gap shrinks enough that a vote for Cabrera isn’t as crazy as it might sound otherwise. Trout’s still the best candidate, but Cabrera’s as worthy as any other player on the ballot for second, and if he continues to scorch the ball for the last six weeks of the season, he might even end up as a legitimate selection for the top spot.