The AL MVP Race: Still Over.

Hey guys (gender inclusive)? Guys. I hate to interrupt. But listen for a second. 

Look, I know that Miguel Cabrera is an awesome baseball player, and I know he had a huge game last night, and that he’s currently two homers back of Josh Hamilton from being in a position to win the first Triple Crown since 1967 (as I write this, he appears to be about five points up over Trout in the batting race, and six RsBI over Hamilton). That’d be a pretty amazing accomplishment, and I know that it’s gotta be tempting to go around touting his MVP credentials. 

Here’s the thing, though, guys: there’s no AL MVP discussion this year. That was canceled. I’m sorry, I thought you’d heard. It’s Mike Trout. They made the announcement, like, two months ago. I don’t know what rumors you’ve heard or whatever, but nope, that hasn’t changed. It’s still off.

The various Wins Above Replacement measures break it down like this (through Tuesday; they’ll tick a bit in Miggy’s favor when the numbers are updated tomorrow):

Miguel Cabrera 5.2 6.3 6.1
Mike Trout 8.0 9.3 10.2

WAR(P) shouldn’t be taken as gospel — any one of them, or even, I guess, in cases like this in which they all strongly point in one direction — but that’s a pretty huge difference. When three very different groups of smart people take smart approaches to trying to assign value to ballplayers and they all come out the same way by a huge margin, if you want to argue that the one they all agree is less valuable is actually more valuable, I think you’ve got a pretty steep hill to climb. 

And (as usual), if you take the numbers apart into their components, I think they make a ton of sense. You’ve got hitting, which is obviously Cabrera’s strongest (some might say only) quality. After the huge night last night, Cabrera’s hitting .333/.396/.612; Trout is hitting .328/.395/.559. Slight edge to Cabrera based on raw numbers (almost all on slugging percentage), but it turns out that the Big A has been playing as a pitcher’s park over the past several years, Comerica as a slight hitter’s park, while Trout has also had the cavernous Safeco and whatever-the-hell-they-call-the-Athletics-park-now to contend with. Accordingly, Trout came into Tuesday with the lead in OPS+, 169 to 165; I imagine they’re roughly tied today, or that Cabrera moved slightly ahead. (wRC+ probably tells this story better, but that includes other things I want to break out separately.) 

OPS+ doesn’t capture all of offense, though. It doesn’t tell you, for instance, that Cabrera has grounded into 28 double plays, leading the Majors by five, while Trout’s had just seven of those. Part of that is opportunity, of course, Trout being a leadoff hitter and all, but it has certainly impacted their values, and a lot of it is the vast difference in speed. That speed has value in other ways, of course. FanGraphs calculates that Trout’s baserunning in ways independent of all the stolen bases — advancing from first to third, avoiding running into outs, etc. — has been worth 6.1 runs to his team to date, while Cabrera’s has cost his team 2.9. Knowing what you know about their abilities — just about what they look like running the bases — doesn’t that sound right to you, or maybe even a little Miggy-friendly? It sure does to me. 

Then there are the steals. SB value is bound up in FanGraphs’ wOBA calculation, but extrapolating from the wOBA formula, it looks like Trout’s incredible 46steals at a 92% success rate has added about 9.5 runs, while Cabrera’s 4-for-5 has added a half run. Doesn’t that seem about right, too, intuitively? SBs get derided a lot (and rightly so, I think), but if you do it a lot and are almost never caught, you’re certainly creating more runs. This suggests that for about every five steals, factoring in those four CSes, Trout’s gotten the Angels an extra run they wouldn’t have had if he stayed put. I’d buy that. 

Then of course there’s defense. Cabrera has been less of a disaster than I thought he’d be at third base, but he’s been bad. The metrics disagree on how bad — BP says -3.4 runs, Baseball Reference -4, FanGraphs -9.4. They similarly agree that Trout has been phenomenal in the outfield, and disagree wildly on how much: BP +4.6, B-Ref +25(!), FG +13. Cabrera then gets a run and a half back, somewhat surprisingly, because CF and 3B are viewed as of equal importance, and Trout has spent more time at the less important LF than Cabrera has at the much less important DH and 1B. Taking the averages of the fielding metrics, because why not, Cabrera has cost his team 5.6 runs, Trout has given his 14.2. Even with the positional adjustment, that’s an 18.3-run advantage for Trout.

If you think Cabrera deserves the MVP, and think you can argue that the systems and I are way off on any one of those factors (not just that we can’t be 100% certain about the exact numbers, but that it’s seriously off for some reason), please do. Otherwise, that’s what we’ve got: they’ve been essentially equal with bats in their hands, and Trout has been much, much better in every other aspect. The baserunning, basestealing and defense alone adds up to about a 36-run advantage for Trout; I think the GIDPs could add another ten or more, but I’m frankly undecided about how to handle that, so I won’t (I don’t think it’s necessary). 36 runs is a huge number; WAR says, for example, that Prince Fielder, who has been really, really good, has been worth about that much over the course of the entire season vis-a-vis a random replacement-level player. So, basically: Mike Trout has been one whole Prince Fielder better than Miguel Cabrera. 

Well, almost. Of course, Cabrera has played all but one of his team’s games, while Trout (thanks mostly to his late call-up) has missed 22 of the Angels’. That certainly has value…but not even close to 36 runs of value, which would be 1.7 runs for each extra game played. Nobody’s ever done that, ever (the all-time single season runs created leader is Barry Bonds, whose 230 in 2001 came out to 1.5 per game played). Cabrera clearly gets a slight advantage with the bat, based almost entirely on playing time (as evidenced by the fact that B-Ref’s and FanGraphs’ batting runs for the two players are roughly even, despite including stolen bases). But they certainly don’t think Cabrera’s playing time has pushed him that far ahead. You can disagree, but you’ve got a lot of arguing and proving stuff to do. It’s very hard for me to see an argument that puts Cabrera ahead of Trout, or even particularly close.

So then what else is there? Winning the Triple Crown would be awesome, but it can’t be used to somehow increase Cabrera’s value. I assume for these purposes that most people reading this understand why the batting average and RBI themselves don’t actually add value, but worth noting: (a) per Baseball Reference (see here and here) the park-adjusted league batting average is .247 for Trout and .259 for Cabrera; and (b) the RBI, as usual, are mostly a function of opportunity — per this, while Cabrera’s having driven in 20.3% of the runners on base for him is good for 3rd in the AL, Trout’s 18.3% is 14th (and very close to 10th). Most of the difference is that Cabrera has batted with 136 more runners on base than Trout has, including 71 more in scoring position. Also worth noting, if you’re caring about those stats, is that Trout has scored 18 more runs in those 21 fewer games. 

And that’s about it. If you care about whether or not the MVP comes from a contending team (which you shouldn’t at all, but now is really not the time), that’s a push (Coolstandings gives both teams between a 21% and 23% chance of making the postseason; BPro gives the Tigers 21% and the Angels 29%). I can’t think of anything else (if you want to argue leadership or something like that, knock yourself out, you’re on your own). It all comes down to Cabrera having really pretty, and potentially historically interesting, raw batting numbers, and Tigers fans being very vocal and protective of their guys. That’s all there is. Trout’s still running away with this thing. 

So, again, sorry guys. I know we’re used to having these discussions at this time of year. And we’ve still got a lot of great talk out there for you to enjoy — the NL MVP is pretty wide open, for instance, and both Cy Youngs, and we’re still technically open for the NL ROY (it’s totally Harper’s, but we’ll hear you out). The AL MVP and ROY are closed up for the season, though. Nothing to see here. Hey, try again next year!

(Note: sorry for the lack of Cram Sessions, and for posting in general, here lately. This was intended to be a Cram Session, and it turned out I had too much to say about it. We’ll do better, I’m sure.)

(Note also: I don’t mean to say Trout actually has it locked up. I’m actually pretty afraid that Cabrera will steal it. But barring a catastrophic collapse by Trout, it’d be one of the worst snubs in history.)


About Bill

Bill is an employment lawyer and baseball geek. Also a comedy geek, and just a geek generally.