Thursday, October 4, 2012

The 2012 American League MVP Debate

Miguel Cabrera, leaving the game with the Triple Crown
As I mentioned yesterday, I watched the Tigers-Royals game last night to see the crowning of the first Triple Crown winner in the big leagues in forty-five years. It was pretty anticlimactic, though: after Miguel Cabrera went hitless in his first two appearances—and Mike Trout had narrowed the gap by three points in the batting race and it became obvious that, no matter how truly atrocious the Red Sox' pitching is, Curtis Granderson would not be able to pass Cabrera in the home run race—manager Jim Leyland lifted the Tigers' star third-baseman from the game, timing it so that the fans in Kansas City could give him a standing ovation for his season's efforts. Still, it's a damned impressive feat; the last player to lead his league in home runs, average and runs batted in was Carl Yastrzemski of Boston back in 1967. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, when Yaz won that title the Toronto Maple Leafs were the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Yeah, it was a long, long time ago. The Triple Crown has become a lot harder to win in the past few decades, too, because of all of the "specialty" hitters in baseball: the slap hitters that hit for a high average but no power; the sluggers who pound out fifty homers but struggle to stay above the "Mendoza Line" in batting average. This is not to say it was ever easy; I'm only pointing out that there were some observers (aren't there always?) who thought we might never see another Triple Crown winner at the Major League level.

But now another, quite heated debate has begun: should Miguel Cabrera be the American League's Most Valuable Player for 2012?

Mike Trout: not just an awesome bat
The short answer, in my opinion, is "no". Mike Trout of the Angels, likely Cabrera's closest competition for the MVP award although some people will again inexplicably vote for Josh Hamilton, had a far better season all-around in twenty-two fewer games than Cabrera. Trout, a rookie (!), finished second in the batting race which is what will keep his name in the hunt; however, it's everything else he did that should earn him the award. There is a very complicated formula called "Runs Created" which was initiated by the incomparable Bill James (author of The Baseball Abstract in the 1980s and the true "Father of Sabermetrics", a pseudo-science on which "Moneyball" is based) and has been tweaked and modified a few times since then. Briefly stated, "Runs Created" attempts to take every offensive contribution (and failing) of each player and turn it into a quantifiable result: namely, a total number of runs each player is "responsible" for over the course of a season. That number is usually further worked out to a figure called "RC27", or runs created per 27 outs. This season, Mike Trout is the runaway leader in this category, at nearly a full run a game better than Cabrera (who is, at least, second). Trout had 49 stolen bases and was only caught 5 times; he had 30 homers and 86 RBI as a leadoff hitter and, at 129, came up one short of being only the third rookie in history to score 130 runs in a season. Because Trout was called up late in April he only appeared in 139 games; his totals, projected over a full season, are absolutely mind-boggling: 149 runs, 210 hits, 31 doubles, 9 triples, 34 homers and 100 RBI as a rookie batting leadoff. He would also have had 56 stolen bases and been caught only 6 times. He strikes out once a game, which is a bit high, but he also walked more than Cabrera in fewer games and would have had 78 BB over a full season. Plus he was second in hitting at .326 so his OBP is incredible. But perhaps more important than all of that is this fact: when Trout came up to stay, the Angels were 8-14. In his time with them they went 83-59, which would project to 95-67 over a full season – or the best record in the American League (tied with the Yankees). And all we have talked about so far are the offensive numbers; Cabrera is a well-below-average third baseman (he did move there only this year, but then he wasn't exactly lights out at first base, either) while Trout is not only above average in centrefield but one of the best in the game already, at age 21. Sabermetrics also have stats to work out how many runs a players saves or costs his team with his defence; Trout saves his team about 25 runs per game compared to Cabrera.

Now, there is a school of thought—with which I have never agreed—that a player's stats are somehow diminished if his team does not make it to the postseason. (This is similar to the idiots who used to say that Curtis Joseph wasn't a very good goalie because he never won the Stanley Cup; Glenn Healy has his name on the Stanley Cup which should be an easy end to that argument every single time.) I think this is total crap even in normal circumstances, but let's look at these two teams specifically. The Angels last year had a record of 86-76 and missed the final Wild Card spot by 5 games. This year, they improved by three games (89-73) but still missed the playoffs; however, they had the sixth-best record in the American League and played an unbalanced schedule in a division that included the second- and third-best records. Contrast that with the Tigers, who last year won 95 games and took the division title quite handily. This year, with the addition of Prince Fielder and the Triple Crown heroics of Cabrera, the Tigers only won 88 games (or about 7% fewer than last year) and finished seventh in the American League, one place below the Angels. The only reason that the Tigers are alive to play more baseball this year is that their division is arguably the worst in all of Major League baseball, with three teams losing 90 games or more and finishing last, second-last and fourth-last in the American League. Even in a division this bad the Tigers still only won by three games and wouldn't have come close to qualifying for one of the two Wild Card spots had they not finished first in the Central. So the argument that Cabrera "led his team to the postseason" is a non-starter as far as I am concerned. It can be demonstrably shown that Trout meant far more to his team than Cabrera to his, at least in the 2012 season. Not only that, but to go with just the fact that Cabrera won the Triple Crown is ludicrous; I am taking nothing away from his amazing numbers when I say that he had to also be a bit lucky to win, as the two-time reigning home run champ (Jose Bautista) missed the last 72 games of the season (and was leading again when he got hurt), while Cabrera's batting average—as he defended his crown—would have put him fourth in last season's standings. He certainly took advantage of the openings presented to him—along with the presence of Prince Fielder batting right behind him in the order—and grabbed the elusive Triple Crown while the opportunity was there and, as a baseball fan, I am thrilled that he did. It shouldn't make him a lock for the MVP, though.

Jose Bautista delivering the goods
But then the people who vote on this sort of thing never really look at the big picture. Last season, Jose Bautista had absolutely amazing numbers in the Runs Created per Game area. (Ironically, Miguel Cabrera was not that far behind him with RC numbers that were 1 1/2 runs per game higher than this year's.) Bautista also led all of baseball in homers for the second year in a row, which put his name front and centre in the minds of the voters, and did it all while playing two completely different positions (right field and third base) for huge chunks of the season. When push came to shove, though, Bautista finished a distant third in the voting, which would have been tough enough to swallow but he lost to a starting pitcher, Justin Verlander of the Tigers. Pitchers already have their own award (the Cy Young) for which hitters cannot compete; I don't believe that pitchers—especially starters—should even be considered for the MVP as they appear in only a fraction of their team's games each season. However, that is a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that Verlander did win the MVP award and he did so despite the ridiculous numbers put up not only by Bautista but by Cabrera himself. It does seem to me, therefore, that the voters are of a mind to be swayed by the dazzling "traditional" stats and are not willing to delve any deeper to see who truly meant the most to his team each year.

So the bottom line is this: I fully expect the American League MVP for 2012 to be Miguel Cabrera, because the downside of "snubbing" a Triple Crown winner who is not American-born in favour of an American rookie who didn't make the playoffs and didn't finish first in any "fan friendly" offensive category, no matter how much more he meant to his team, is not something that MLB wishes upon itself right now. Would that be a miscarriage of justice? No, not at all. This award is truly objective and that's both its charm and its downfall.

But, to my mind, it would be wrong. My personal choice as MVP is Mike Trout.

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