In Defense of Mike Trout

Miguel Cabrera had a fine season. A great season, really – even a historical one. But he wasn’t the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 2012. That was Mike Trout.

There are two broad lines of argument people can draw from in rationalizing an MVP choice (a regular-season award): team success and individual achievement. Let’s explore each.

1. Team Success

To begin, team success is an unfair barometer for an individual’s value. Baseball is a sport with a 25 man roster, 9 guys in the everyday lineup, and an entire half of the game that a position player has little involvement in (even on offense, a player gets just 3-5 at-bats a game). The notion that any single player controls his team’s destiny is quite detached from reality. A player can thus have tremendous value on a terrible team. Indeed, the history of the award is filled with examples of divergence between individual accomplishment and team success. Andre Dawson’s 1987 MVP campaign on the last-place Cubs is perhaps the most famous. More recent MVP cases include Alex Rodriguez’s 2003 (last place), and Albert Pujols’ 2008 (fourth). In the last ten years, 14/20 MVPs – an underwhelming 70% – have come from first place teams, while only two – 10% – were from teams that held the league’s best record. Even voters agree that an MVP is not simply “the best player on the best team.” To extrapolate, a team’s win-loss record is not the ultimate indicator of individual value.

The reason I discuss this is because some people have suggested Cabrera deserves the award because his Detroit Tigers made the playoffs, while Trout’s Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (ugh) did not. I have demonstrated the flawed logic underlying this claim. But even if we were to accept the ‘team success reflects individual value’ argument, this line of logic is utterly specious as it applies to Cabrera vis-à-vis Trout. The Angels had a better record than the Tigers (89-73 to 88-74), won by a bigger margin (overall run differential of +68 to +56), and competed in a better division – significant given the unbalanced schedule. The AL West had a combined winning % of .542 (351-297). The Central? .468 (379-431). The 1st place Tigers would have placed 4th in the West with their record, while the 3rd place Angels would have won the Central with theirs. Notably, the Tigers were just 13-20 against the West, while the Angels were 25-20 against the Central (the teams were split, 5-5, in head-to-head matchups).

A corollary of the “Tigers made the playoffs” argument is the “Cabrera came up big when it mattered” narrative. This doesn’t hold water either, from a team perspective (I explore the individual aspect of this argument in the next section). From September 1st on, the Tigers were a strong 18-13. But the Angels were actually better, at 19-11. Over the last 15 games, when the Tigers caught the White Sox, they went 10-5, while the Angels finished 9-6 in fading from the playoff picture. The only real difference then involved the performance of the teams ahead of them, with the White Sox fading (4-11 in their final 15*) as the Oakland Athletics soared (10-5). Add the fact that Trout was in the minors when the Angels scuffled in April (starting 6-14), and they were overall a much better team with Trout in the lineup (81-58, .583) than the Tigers with Cabrera (87-74, .540). Look, the Tigers should be commended for feasting on the Central (43-29), but their winning an inferior division with a worse record doesn’t make them a better team. Regardless, team success shouldn’t be significantly factored into an MVP selection, if at all.

*Ironically, the Tigers didn’t play the White Sox once in this span, but the Angels did – and won all three of their match-ups.

2. Individual Achievement

Okay, let’s get to the meat of it. I’m going to break down the individual comparisons into three categories: offense, defense, and other. Pretty self-explanatory.*

*One note: The words ‘Triple Crown’ will not be mentioned until the ‘other’ category. I’m invoking only stats when I discuss offense – not historical significance or labels or anything else.

a. Offense

Cabrera and Trout finished 1-2 in the AL in batting, .330-.326. Cabrera was 2nd in hits (205), while Trout was 9th (182). These are negligible differences, especially since On-Base Percentage (which factors walks, hit by pitches, and sacrifice flies into the equation) reverses their order: Trout and Cabrera were 3-4 there, .399-.393. Both men were thus near the top of the league in terms of getting on base, setting aside the means.

The power numbers are where Cabrera has major advantages. He led the league in slugging (based on total bases over at-bats), .606, and in OPS (on-base + slugging), .999. He was also 1st in HRs (44), RBI (139), extra base hits (84), and total bases (377). Looking at advanced statistics, he was 1st in runs created (139), and 3rd in isolated power (.277). Remarkable. In comparison, Trout finished 3rd in slugging percentage (.564), and 2nd in OPS (.963). He was 13th in HRs (30), 23rd in RBI (83), 15th in extra base hits (65), and 6th in total bases (315). And again, returning to advanced statistics, he was 2nd in runs created (138), and 8th in isolated power (.283). Trout’s numbers are strong, but they obviously don’t match up.

However, there’s more to the story.

1) Cabrera batted third for the Tigers, while Trout was the Angels’ lead-off guy. Consider this. Trout led Cabrera in runs scored (129-109, 1-2 in the league), stolen bases (49-4, Trout was 1st there, and 5th in success rate), going from first to third (63%-29%), and scoring from 2nd base (68%-63%). He grounded into 7 double plays, Cabrera 28 (most in the league). Overall, Trout’s baserunning alone added 12 runs, best in the league, while Cabrera’s cost the Tigers 4. In short, you could make the case that Trout was every bit as good a lead-off guy as Cabrera was a heart-of-the-order guy. That’s in addition to Trout’s strong power numbers.

2) Sophisticated statistics suggest the two are even closer.* This is a huge simplification, but most of the following essentially measure the team’s place before and after the batter stepped to the plate, adjusted for the ballpark. In other words, given the batter’s performance, was the team more likely to score or win? Looking at Adjusted Batting Runs, Cabrera leads Trout, 57-55 (1-2 in the league). In Adjusted Batting Wins, it’s Cabrera again, 5.6-5.4 (1-2). But the two are tied in Situational Wins Added, 6.0 (1-1). And many other categories favor Trout, including Offensive Win Percentage (.786-.745, 1-2), Adjusted OPS+ (171-165, 1-2), Base-Out Runs Added (53.85-47.13, 2-5), Wins Probability Added (5.3-4.8), and Base-Out Wins Added (5.4-4.5, 2-5). In the cumulative Offensive WAR (wins above replacement), Trout beats Cabrera handily, 8.6-7.4 (1-2).

*Baseball-Reference outlines how each metric is put together. You might question their validity, but traditional numbers have their own obvious flaws (more on this later). The fact remains that many of the advanced statistics have become widely disseminated and respected in the industry. Moreover, none of them suggest that Cabrera didn’t have an amazing offensive year.

3) Trout’s spectacular power numbers (again, from the 1-spot) are even more impressive given the fact he played in 22 fewer games than Cabrera (139-161 games, 639-697 plate appearances, 559-622 at-bats). Balance the at-bats, and the categories that currently favor Cabrera the most – HR, hits, extra base hits, total bases – tighten considerably. Now, I’m not suggesting that Cabrera should be penalized for playing 161 games. But it reinforces my broad argument in this section:

Trout’s offensive output is a lot closer to Cabrera’s than you might think. By many measures, Trout’s offensive efficiency outpaced Cabrera’s.

b. Defense

A defensive comparison between two different positions is admittedly difficult (if you don’t know that Trout is a center fielder and Cabrera is a 3rd baseman, I have no idea why you’ve read this far). There is also less agreement regarding the utility of advanced defensive metrics. But is there anyone who thinks Miguel Cabrera is a better defensive player than Mike Trout? Limitations of isolated data points aside, did you see this play? How about this one, or this one? Sorry. Okay, I’ll go ahead and humor you. Let’s compare Trout and Cabrera’s defensive years.

Cabrera committed 13 errors, 4th in the AL at his position. He was 3rd in fielding percentage (.966) and 4th in range factor (2.52). Trout committed 2 errors, tied for 5th at his position. He was 5th in fielding percentage (.993), and 4th in range factor (2.70). In terms of peer standing then, it might seem as if Cabrera was as good a defensive player as Trout was. But this is a huge mischaracterization. Consider the difference in range factors, a statistic that 1) has nothing to do with position, and 2) dictates the amount of chances any player would have in the first place. In other words, while Cabrera handled his chances fine, Trout created more chances by getting to a lot more balls (that he wasn’t expected to) than Cabrera did.

Building on that, Baseball Info Solutions has a statistic called “Defensive Runs Saved,” in which they review every play on video to consider whether a player made or missed a play that an average player at his position would have made (including plays specific to positions, such as bunts and double plays for infielders, and throws for outfielders). By that metric, Trout saved 27 runs (2nd best for all players in the AL), while Cabrera was a -4. 27 to -4. Overall, Trout’s Defensive WAR was 2.2, 3rd best at his position in all of baseball (and 7th overall), while Cabrera’s was a 0.2 (tied for worst at his position). Again, Trout did this in fewer games, and thus, with fewer opportunities.

By almost all measures then (at least those that indicate range), Trout had one of the best defensive years of any position player in the league. Cabrera had a below average year at third base.

c. Other

If Mike Trout had nearly as good an offensive year as Miguel Cabrera (if not downright better), and had a substantially better defensive year (Trout beats Cabrera in overall WAR, 10.7-6.9; they finished 1-4 in the league), then how can Cabrera be more valuable to his team than Trout was to his? Let’s explore some of the ‘other’ explanations out there.

Cabrera gave up first base (his natural position) for Prince Fielder.

I’ve actually heard this line of logic, which doesn’t really deserve a response (I’m convinced the lowest forms of life are found on sports talk radio). But I’ll provide one anyway. Does the fact that Cabrera is a good teammate make up for his atrocious defensive play? This should have as much bearing on MVP talk as the price of tea in China. You play where you play.

Trout isn’t even the best defensive center fielder on his own team.

True, Trout occasionally moves over to left field in late-game situations for Peter Bourjos. Bourjos boasts a range factor for 2.98 (2nd best for his position), and despite playing approximately just 40% of the innings that Trout did, was 9 Total Zone fielding runs above average (to Trout’s 13). But so what if Bourjos happens to be the best defensive center fielder in baseball? Trout was still superb when he did play center, and he was superb when he was shifted over to left field. Bourjos or no Bourjos, Trout’s overall defensive year far eclipses that of Cabrera’s (-9 in the Total Zone stat).

Cabrera came up big down the stretch.

Cabrera hit .333 from September 1st on, with 11 HR, 30 RBI, 0 SB, and 23 runs scored. His OBP was over .378, his slugging over .654. In contrast, Trout hit .289, with 5 HR, 9 RBI, 7 SB, and 23 runs scored. His OBP was over .380, his slugging above .455. Yes, Cabrera was a better offensive player than Trout down the stretch. But the only way this argument gains traction in the MVP race is if team success is accounted for. In other words, “Cabrera willed the Tigers into the playoffs.” As I’ve already discussed though, individual value exists irrespective of team success.* The other fundamental problem is this: games don’t count more in September and October than they do in May or June.

*Besides, even if you account for team success, the Angels were as good as the Tigers down the stretch. And if you say this only demonstrates Cabrera’s greater value (since the Angels won without Trout at his best), this is too small of a sample size to make that claim. Looking at the overall population – that is, the entire season – easily refutes this. Again, the Angels were 6-14 at the beginning of the year without Trout, second worst in all of baseball. They played .580 baseball the rest of the way.

Cabrera is the first Triple Crown winner since 1967.

Ultimately, for Cabrera apologists, this is what it comes down to. Do I think it’s awesome that Cabrera won the Triple Crown? Certainly. But just because someone won the Triple Crown doesn’t mean they should be guaranteed the MVP award. In fact, since the latter came into existence in 1931, four of the nine subsequent Triple Crown winners were not voted MVP (Chuck Klein in 1933, Lou Gehrig in 1934, Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947). So the correlation isn’t there. Moreover, the historical feat is insufficient to demonstrate that Cabrera should win the award.

After all, the Triple Crown is an artificial label. Cabrera won batting .330, with 44 HR and 139 RBI. Impressive numbers in those traditional metrics, but is that a better year than Barry Bonds’ 2001 (.328, 73, 137), Sammy Sosa’s 2001 (.328, 64, 160), A-Rod’s 2007 (.314, 54, 156), Jimmie Foxx’s 1938 (.349, 50, 175), and other non-Triple Crown campaigns? On the merits of those three categories, it would be hard to argue that was the case. Look, Cabrera had an amazing (offensive) year. But not only is the Crown a random thing, it’s also comprised of three statistics that have been widely attacked as fundamentally flawed*.

*To whet your appetite, RBI doesn’t account for percentage and opportunity. It suggests that a man who gets 2 RBI but leaves 5 on base in a game is as efficient (or valuable) as a man who had 2 RBI and left none on base. Also, how is batting average more important than on-base percentage? If a man walks or gets hits by a pitch, doesn’t he end up on first, just the same as if he had singled?

Given all this, is Cabrera’s feat any more impressive than Mike Trout being the youngest player ever to have 30 HR and 30 SB in a single year? Being the first player in the history of baseball to hit 30 HR, have 48 SB, and score at least 129 runs? How about Trout having the highest WAR in ten years, and the 9th highest WAR per game in a single season ever? By the way, that latter list now reads, in order, Ruth, Hornsby, Ruth, Ruth, Bonds, Ruth, Brett, Mantle, Trout, Bonds. The point is, Cabrera made history. But so did Trout, and on an arguably grander scale. Just because there’s no easy label affixed to what Trout accomplished doesn’t mean his feats should be diminished in any way.

Conclusion

Let’s review the various arguments for Miguel Cabrera as MVP.

Cabrera’s team made the playoffs; Trout’s didn’t.

First, it doesn’t matter. Second, the Angels were the better regular season team. You might as well give the MVP to the unbalanced schedule, or to geography.

Cabrera had a better offensive year.

Depending on what indicators you use, not by much, or not at all.

Trout’s case is based solely on unproven advanced statistics.

Categorically untrue. Besides, traditional measures have their own problems. Saying, “Argue Trout’s case without using WAR” makes about as much sense as me saying, “Argue Cabrera’s case without using RBI.” If anything, RBI statistics are less fair and more nonsensical. Given that no statistic is comprehensive, and all have their own flaws, why wouldn’t we use all the tools at our disposal?

Cabrera had a better defensive year.

No one is suggesting this, not even the Cabrera family.

Cabrera won the Triple Crown.

Cool, but this literally means next to nothing.

I rest my case. Mike Trout, 2012 American League Most Valuable Player.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com, fangraphs, and baseball-reference.com, unless otherwise indicated. I also invite you to examine the works by Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron (and again), Andrew SchwartzESPN’s Stats and Info, and ESPN’s David Schonfield. Finally, full disclosure, I am a die-hard Angels fan, as irrelevant as that is in the case for Trout.

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