It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Last year, Mike Trout was by far the best player in the American League, but lost the MVP Award based on silly things like not leading the league in RBI and playing in a competitive division. Those of us who pointed out how much better Trout was than Miguel Cabrera were often criticized for “only caring about stats,” except of course for the three stats MVP voters look at in defining value.
This was supposed to be the year those of us devoted to objective analysis of baseball got to be magnanimous. Cabrera hit the cover off the ball all year. He batted over .350 for most of the season, regularly hitting big home runs for a Detroit team that looked like the best in the American League. Even when Trout’s WAR caught up to Cabrera’s mid-season, we were willing to look past the numbers and see one candidate who provided value in many ways and another who changed the game so much with his bat as to make all other facets of the game irrelevant.
This was the year we were all supposed to agree that Miguel Cabrera was the MVP.
And then Mike Trout happened. In August, Trout batted .337/.500/.590, stole six bases, and played his typical excellent outfield defense. In September, Trout has hit .289/.454/.484 with four more steals and walks in 22% of his plate appearances. He started cranking doubles and homers and pitchers just stopped throwing him strikes. And a funny thing happened when Trout started walking a quarter of the time. The previously dreadful Angels started winning. In September, the Angels are 16-9.
Even without looking at WAR, it’s pretty clear that Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball again this season. He’s within nine points of Cabrera’s OBP and 80 points of his slugging, despite playing in a more challenging park for hitters. He’s stolen 33 bases in 40 tries and added eight more runs through non-steal baserunning. Cabrera’s tree trunk legs have taken four runs away from his team. Metrics are mixed on Trout’s defense, but he’s clearly an above average outfielder even when he’s not robbing a home run a month, while Cabrera is one of the game’s worst defensive infielders. I haven’t watched the Tigers enough to know whether Miggy plays in foul territory when Jose Iglesias is at short, but the numbers say he probably should.
I would be willing to overlook a small statistical advantage in deference to the Ruthian numbers Cabrera put up most of this season. But when Willie Mays is playing center field in Orange County, even Ruth takes a backseat.
Here we are, a month after I joined the masses in declaring that I would support Cabrera’s MVP candidacy this year, and I just don’t see a good argument for anyone but Trout. I’ll reserve my magnanimity for second place, where Josh Donaldson has been building a reasonable case, passing Cabrera in both versions of WAR by adding stellar defense and solid baserunning to his .305/.386/.506 batting line. Donaldson is the only great player on an A’s team likely to finish with a better record than Cabrera’s Tigers despite half the pitching talent. But Cabrera walloped the baseball for much of this season, and batting still counts.
My American League ballot:
1. Mike Trout, Angels
2. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
3. Josh Donaldson, A’s
4. Chris Davis, Orioles
5. Evan Longoria, Rays
6. Robinson Cano, Yankees
7. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
8. Adrian Beltre, Rangers
9. Manny Machado, Orioles
10. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
In the National League, as was the case last year, I think there will be more consensus between the traditional voter crowd and the objective analysis crowd. Andrew McCutchen has both numbers and narratives on his side, as he’s hit .318/.404/.506, while carrying the Pirates to a surprising and inspiring playoff run.
In my mind, McCutchen’s closest competitor comes from way down the WAR leaderboard. As he has for years, Yadier Molina brought value to the Cardinals in ways even the most advanced metrics have a hard time picking up. Molina’s eighth in fangraphs WAR at 5.2, but he’s less than two wins out of second, and I think it’s very possible that he’s added two wins to the Cardinals just in the way he’s handled young pitchers like Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. That’s before we get into things like pitch framing and blocking.
Russell Martin, another win down the leaderboard, has been similarly valuable in those same hidden ways, though it’s tough to make a case that he’s been better than Yadi. My ballot:
1. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
2. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
3. Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
4. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
5. Carlos Gomez, Brewers
6. Joey Votto, Reds
7. Russell Martin, Pirates
8. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
9. Freddie Freeman, Braves
10. Shin Soo-choo, Reds