The 2012 American League MVP has provided something of the perfect storm for those of us who get annoyed with awards voting.
Yesterday, our own Marc Normandin took on the task of tracking down some more egregious decisions in the history of the award over at Baseball Nation, since we were all anticipating a Miguel Cabrera win. And he's right to say that Cabrera over Trout is not the most ridiculous decision the BBWAA has ever come to. I mean, for God's sake, I love Dennis Eckersley, but he threw 80 innings that year. That's like a starter who gets injured in June being given the Cy Young.
Still, for all that Cabrera over Trout is not the worst decision, it is an excellent target for criticism because of how easy it is to attack. Every single thing about this decision is wrong, and while advanced statistics can provide a great deal of weight to any argument against Cabrera, they aren't needed to make it clear how completely obvious it is that Trout was the best-and, yes, most valuable-player in the American League this year.
Let's start in Miguel Cabrera's area of strength: at the plate. On the surface, Cabrera had a better offensive year than Trout. He had a higher average, higher OPS, higher RBI and HR totals, and if he walked slightly less, also struck out significantly less.
For those of you who don't want the more advanced statistical part of the argument, skip this paragraph and the next. For those who do, however, I'd point out that for all that, Cabrera and Trout had the same wRC+, leaving Cabrera ahead by just five runs in terms of value at the plate. This is easy enough to explain, since the two were only separated by 10 points of wOBA and Angel Stadium grades out as much more pitcher-friendly than Comerica.
It's also worth noting, though we'll get back to this later, that Cabrera faced much easier pitching. The Indians and Twins had the worst pitching staffs in the American League, with the Royals not far behind. The worst staff in the AL West, meanwhile, came out with the same ERA as the best staff in the AL Central, while the Mariners and Athletics trail only the Rays.
Even ignoring all that, though, it's hard to call Cabrera that much better that Trout offensively. Even just by OPS, Trout ends up relatively close to Cabrera, coming in 36 points shy at .963 compared to .999. But what of the rest of a player's game? Running the bases, for instance? As Keith Law pointed out so well yesterday on WEEI, "it takes about four singles" to get Cabrera home from first. Mike Trout? He runs with the best of them. 49 steals and only five times caught. I could tell you that the difference between Trout and Cabrera on the basepaths was about 15 runs' worth, but you don't need any advanced calculations to see how big of a difference there is between the two. Fourty-nine stolen bases.
Alright, let's say you're still not convinced. Maybe stolen bases aren't your thing, or you just can't get past the home run number. In that case, let's talk defense, because here is where Trout really makes his money. Mike Trout is an amazing defender. Top, top class at a tough position. He's fast, smart, and does crazy stuff like this often enough that we should probably tack on a few homers to his total at the plate out of fairness. He's not the best defensive player in the game, perhaps, but his name is up there with the best of them.
Miguel Cabrera, meanwhile, was not aven an average third baseman when he was five, six years younger down in Miami. The Marlins put up with it because it let them get some combination of Wes Helms, Mike Jacobs, and Aaron (ahem) Boone into the lineup at first base, and before that Carlos Delgado. But Cabrera was never cut out to play third even then, and frankly wasn't very good at first base when the Tigers put him there either. But that's what first base is for: big guys who can't necessarily field but can at least catch the ball when it's thrown to them and hopefully won't have to do much more.
Either way, though, when you take a bad fielding first baseman and add five more years to him, you're not going to get anything shy of a disaster, and that's what Cabrera was in the field. Sure, you can track down a few plays where he runs down a pop foul or dives to stop something an average third baseman would've been waiting for or even charging with time to spare, but on the whole he's pretty much a statue. If you hit it right at him he might make the play--no guarantees--but anywhere else and it's an adventure.
Now, simply put, a hit robbed is as good as a hit earned. There's probably some way to find the point where a run earned becomes less valuable for a team than a run prevented and vice versa based on how many they tend to score and allow, but generally speaking I think we can agree that if you keep the other team from scoring a run, it's as good as scoring one for yours. A 4-3 game and a 5-4 game are essentially the same monster. How many hits did Cabrera allow over what an average third baseman would? How many hits did Trout prevent compared to the average center fielder? Now even ignoring that Trout was robbing homers, if you take those hits and add/subtract them from their offensive totals, I'm willing to bet you all the money in my pocket against all the money in your pocket that Miguel Cabrera's advantage in OPS is going to flip noticeably in favor of Trout.
Of course, even when it's apparent that one player was better than the other player at baseball, there's still the age-old argument of one team making the playoffs and the other one not, but I think this year in particular the two players are on the perfect teams to point out why this just doesn't work. Because for once, the team that made it to the playoffs actually did so with a worse record than the team the other MVP candidate played for. The Angels went 89-73, the Tigers went 88-74.
The reason the Tigers ended up playing in October is because, plain-and-simple, they played in a bad division. The Angels played with two teams that breached the 90-win plateau, and even the Mariners had a good enough record to finish third in the AL Central. Detroit went 43-29 against their awful division and still couldn't get as many wins as the Angels did, even though the Angels managed to pull off a winning record even against AL West teams.
For the record, the Tigers went 13-20 against the West.
Anyone who gives Miguel Cabrera the bump for making the playoffs (even though that's more of a team thing than an individual one, and Cabrera had a lot more help than anyone who voted for him seems to want to admit) is essentially saying he's more deserving for playing on easy mode. He didn't put himself in the AL Central, this wasn't some sort of grand strategy on the part of the Tigers. He was simply lucky enough to be in a division where nobody knows how to pitch. The Indians and Royals had the worst ERAs in the American League, and the worst pitching staffs in the West were as good as the best in the Central, while the Athletics and Mariners ranked amongst the best.
Then there's the argument that Miguel Cabrera's late-season contributions are somehow worth more than Trout's early-season play. I don't have to tell you that a win in July is just as good as a win in September. They don't count differently. In fact, if a win in July convinces a potential rival that they don't want to invest in trades, it might even be worth more.
All that's left for Miggy, then, is the Triple Crown, and this I just don't get. Even if you're still a fan of the old stats like batting average and RBI, you have to acknowledge how completely arbitrary it is. What about walks? Stolen bases? Hell, why don't we talk about the triple crown of runs scored, triples, and first-to-thirds? Miguel Cabrera topped three categories for the first time in decades, but it's just three random categories. Even for the most old fashioned of fans, two of the three categories--batting average and RBI--are pretty sketch territory. Just about everyone admits by now that the former is less important than OBP, and the latter has a lot to do with who you're hitting behind.
Miguel Cabrera had a great season. He is a top player, and in most years it would not be such an obvious mistake to name him MVP. But in 2012 it's just too clear cut. Mike Trout was better in every single aspect of the game except in a straight up-and-down look at batting with every other part of their offensive contributions cut out and all considerations of competition ignored. He put up an fWAR 40% higher than Cabrera--such a massive difference that it can't be passed off as the fogginess of the metric--but none of that is even needed to see that Trout is better. Trout almost matched Cabrera offensively (or surpassed him if you value his speed properly), is in a whole different world defensively, and led his team to a better record than the Tigers despite playing much, much harder competition. This shouldn't have been a contest. The fact that it was, and even went the other way in a landslide is probably a reason to stop paying attention to BBWAA votes altogether.