Thursday, October 4, 2012

Let the Debate Begin


W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland


Saint Louis, MISSOURI--I am jumping right in on this one. Mike Trout will not win the American League Most Valuable Player Award... but he should.

Things you will not see in my argument: SABRmetrics like WAR, BABIP or UZR, all which favor Trout over Tigers third basemen Miguel Cabrera. While these mumbo-jumbo stats have merit, they are off-putting to the common baseball fan and, at the end of the day, that is the target audience for postseason awards to appease; MVPs are the people's champ in a given sport. So I will handicap my own argument by not using these figures and still put a convincing argument on the table as to why Trout had the better 2012.

First and foremost, we need to set the parameters on what the term "Most Valuable Player" means in this debate. Based on recent voting trends, the meaning changes year-to-year, depending on the quality of the teams represented by the candidates. Modern voters get into these staunch positions of "most valuable means most valuable to his team," but only when it is convenient. The minute the best player in the league comes from a team in third place in the division, the writers and analysts backtrack and contradict their own policies like a cut-rate politician. This is the only way to explain how Matt Kemp was snubbed last year. 

What voters really want to say is it awards the Most Outstanding Player, conditionally based on the fact that your team has won at least 85 games. And for argument's sake, we will go with that. Both the Angels and the Tigers satisfy the .525+ win percentage clause. Thus, Trout and Cabrera are on equal footing to be the best player in baseball by either definition of value.

We will now move on to the buzzword (phrase) of the 2012 season: Triple Crown. Cabrera and Trout each had historic offensive seasons; this much is undeniable. Cabrera's amalgamation of stats, however, happens to be affixed with a cute name that is easy for even the casual fan to identify with. Am I impressed that one man leads the league in three offensive categories? Honestly, that should be expected out of anyone in the MVP discussion. It is not Trout's fault that his more well-rounded statistical categories are not bundled into a fun phrase. Until they start awarding the runs, steals, and adjusted OPS leader the Golden Triangle, he is at a disadvantage to the media hype machine. 

Look to the Triple Crown namesake in a different sport and you have a perfect metaphor for my stance on the issue. The next thoroughbred horse to win the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont will not necessarily be one of the greatest race horses of all-time. Contemporary context is key. Inherently, any Triple Crown winner (baseball or even horse racing) requires one to be at or near their best, but also needs others around them to be not at their statistical peak. The Triple Crown is what I call an archaeological achievement; others around have to crumble and get brushed aside to appreciate the unremarkable as extraordinary.

Let's say Joe Mauer hits .333 this season and wins his fourth batting title. Now I know he did not and this part of the argument can be quickly dismissed, but hear me out. Cabrera then finishes the year as the home run leader and the RBI champ on a team loaded with offense, and the lineup protection of Prince Fielder. Is he still your Most Valuable Player? I do not believe the voters would say yes.

And that is what I have an issue with. It is proof of how much the Triple Crown feat clouds the judgment. I am not saying his Triple Crown was not earned; he put up monster numbers, even by his standards. I am saying that the Triple Crown has become this shield to protect his MVP candidacy from being scrutinized. That is an unfair reciprocal tolerance: that two out of three would likely mean no MVP for "Miggy," but accomplishing all three suddenly makes you the run-away candidate.  

Case and point: Ted Williams put up .343/43/159 and did not win the Triple Crown. He won the MVP in that 1949 season, but failed to win the award the two times he did lead in all three categories. Numbers need to be looked at independently of titles.

Furthermore, the 45 years separating Triple Crown winners is, in my opinion, being unfairly used in Cabrera's MVP push. His numbers need to stand alone. They do not earn bonus points because the likes have not been seen in decades. In actuality, Cabrera's numbers are seen relatively often. It is the linking of all three simultaneously that is the rarity.

There are seasons where .329/44/139 would not lead any of their respective categories. Without some sub-standard and injury-filled seasons by others (notably Bautista, Hamilton, and even Teixeira), Cabrera could have been buried in second place in all three. In no way is this Cabrera's fault -- or something he needs to apologize for -- but it does show that numbers are numbers, and fancy titles given to said numbers do not change their quantitative value. 

So if you must talk about the vast distance separating feats accomplished in 2012 and the golden age of baseball, talk about 30/30/.325. As in, Mike Trout was the first American League player in 90 years to hit more than 30 home runs, swipe more (way more) than 30 bases, and have a batting average above .325. If that does not get talked about, neither should 45 years since another assortment of stats.

Look at the last 25 seasons in the American League. Ten times the leader in home runs has also been the leader in runs batted in. My point is the offensive Triple Crown should not be as lauded because it is telling you what you already know. In a sport that prides itself on five-tool players, the Triple Crown casts a narrow net to find the best power hitter, period.

With two of its three categories seemingly redundant in their objectives -- RBI being tethered to HR -- then all the Triple Crown really needs is for one of these power hitters to stumble into a high average. Ironically, people trumpeting the Triple Crown are the same whacked-out SABR guys who want to do away with batting average altogether. Anyone else find that amusing? 

The feat was bound to happen because history shows getting two of the three is "easy" when you are in the middle of a potent offensive lineup on a division-winning team. Leading the league in RBI and HR and not winning the MVP happens with astounding frequency: in the last 25 AL seasons alone -- Teixeira (2009), Ortiz (2006), A. Rodriguez (2002), Belle (1995), and Fielder (1990 and 1991). 

This year, the only thing Cabrera did out of the ordinary was lead the league in batting average. That is it. His home run and RBI totals were the only new personal best he extended. Cabrera's batting average, doubles, runs, slugging percentage, and OPS have all been higher in his career. I am not saying that to knock him, but it does show that his "usual" figures are in another stratosphere. This was not unworldly for his high standards.

So he turns in another "typical" Cabrera season, but because of how his numbers fell relative to the rest of the league, he is hyped louder than ever. He has never won the MVP award, so how can you argue that his stock numbers put him over the top this year? 

As you move down the side-by-side comparisons and award check marks to the player with the statistical edge, batting average should be a tie. Yes, Cabrera's numbers were percentage points (.003) higher, but to say that Trout is not equally as tough an out is preposterous. Call Cabrera and Trout 1A and 1B, since neither can say they were emphatically superior from a contact hitter perspective. And if you do call that category a deadlock in your voting, it becomes a devastating blow to the Cabrera party -- seemingly negating his Triple Crown. 

This season did not see a chase for a momentous record; Cabrera did not need to stress or strain like a McGwire or Sosa in 1998. He was healthy and free to do everything he had already been doing for years. Whereas a record season pops up unexpectedly, long after Spring Training camps break and preseason predictions are in, this should have surprised no one. Cabrera has been a Triple Crown threat for a decade, in both leagues. This should not be as newsworthy as it has become. He leaves this regular season as a favorite to lead the AL in home runs and RBI (at least) again next year. We would be more surprised if his numbers were not up to a Triple Crown standard.

Now let's turn our focus away from why Cabrera is not MVP and why Trout is. We can get all the quantitative data out of the way first. 129 runs to Cabrera's 109, 48 steals to Cabrera's 8, 89 wins for the Angels (albeit not a playoff team, but a division with two representatives) to Cabrera's 88 wins for the Tigers (much, much weaker division). Trout had six triples to Cabrera's zero, bounced into 21 fewer double plays, and went first to third on a single twice as many times as Cabrera. We get it... Cabrera is hefty these days and Trout is lean and fast.

As you flip to defensive comparisons, it is not even close. Trout will likely win a Gold Glove for his work in centerfield (albeit a far-too-often offensive-minded award). I will not bore you with stats like runs saved and the like; we all have eyes. We know Cabrera moved back to third in order for Prince Fielder to find a home in Detroit. He was terms like "serviceable" and phrases like "better than expected" but he certainly did not add value to his team with his glove. 

This is where I will have some great umbrage in the voting. People are going to say it is "unfair" to hold speed and defense against Cabrera. Are these not key components to the sport -- especially when talking about a player's value to his team? Furthermore, how can you say such things as you hold Trout's RBI total (83) against him? 

During the course of the season, Mike Trout was up to bat with 284 runners on base. Compare that to Cabrera's 424 runners and suddenly the RBI comparison falls apart. The percentage of the runners they drove in is not that disparate (29% to 32% in favor of Cabrera). Almost makes you question who should get the check mark in the RBI category, too.

This leads me to my final argument and the creation of a new stat in baseball: achievement versus expectation (AVE). Miguel Cabrera is the commodity in this MVP race; he has looked every bit of a future Hall of Famer. Mike Trout is the rookie call-up. Their expectations--strictly from a managerial perspective--were vastly different. Cabrera was to hit in the middle of the Tigers lineup, hit home runs and knock guys in. He was to play enough defense to not force Jim Leyland's hand, i.e. moving him to full-time DH. Cabrera was also supposed to return his team to the playoffs in a very prominent, captain-esque role. On all accounts, Cabrera's AVE was 1.000 -- right where his manager wanted him to be. 

Now I am not 100% sure what Mike Scioscia thought he was going to get out of a rookie this season, but allow me to speculate. Trout was to hit lead-off, work some counts, take some walks, acclimate himself to Big League pitching. He was to get on base at all cost because his speed on the base paths is his biggest weapon. His glove is a close second and he was to make all the plays in captaining the outfield. Trout is not a corner infielder, catcher, or corner outfielder so 15 home runs would have been just fine. With huge acquisitions made by the Angels in the offseason, he was supposed to simply blend in with the guys in the clubhouse. Meaning, the veterans like Pujols, Weaver, Wilson, Hunter, Morales et. al. would be the leaders and he was pressure-free to "go play." 

What the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of California of the USA actually got was a man-child that shattered all expectations. Seeing that AVE is a stat that has existed for ten minutes, I am not comfortable enough to say that his achievement versus expectation is the highest of all-time, but it has to be close. On a team with some big names, he led the Angels with his .326 batting average and tied a guy named Albert Pujols for second in home runs... in 20 fewer games, from the lead-off spot! By whichever metric you want to define MVP, Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball in 2012 -- for his team, for your team, for my team, for any team he would have played for. 

He was never the anonymous guy in the clubhouse or the dugout. Never meant to be the best player or the leader of the Angels, he was both. At age 21, Trout carried a team on his back for month-long stretches. He kept a sinking ship afloat in the Wild Card race. His value to the Angels was unquestionably higher than that of Miguel Cabrera's to the Tigers. To many, Cabrera is not even the best player on his own team. They have this Justin Verlander fellow that people seem to think could have carried Detroit to the postseason by himself. And seeing as the AL Central is the worst division in baseball, it could have been possible. 

Understand that expectations are as important to voters as consistency; neither should factor into the MVP. This, and all postseason awards, put the microscope solely on annual accomplishments. Stringing together prior feats should be discounted. AVE is a tongue-and-cheek creation, merely bringing to the attention the shock value that a rookie, of all people, is legitimately in the discussion for MVP against a future Hall of Famer with a Triple Crown year. It is simply amazing. Regardless what either of these two players do with the remaining years of their career, this vote bonds them. 

The only concession I will make from Trout's camp is that he did play in 22 fewer games than Cabrera. That will be the only acceptable explanation I can receive from voters that see Cabrera above Trout. Timing is everything and although it does not officially weigh in the decision-making process, voters will see what Cabrera does in the playoffs. It will undoubtedly be a postseason appearance with some hits and/or heroics, which Trout will not be able to match. No Triple Crown winner was ever snubbed the MVP for any other reason than playoff appearance by the other candidate. Trout does not have his Angels playing in mid-October and the vote will reflect it.  

At its most rudimentary breakdown, the MVP should not be solely reliant on Power and Hitting. It should be power and hitting and running and defense. And if it is more about the latter, Mike Trout will need to move his Rookie-of-the-Year Award over in the trophy case; making room for the bigger hardware.  

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