American League MVP Race: Trout versus Cabrera


L.A. Angels outfielder Mike Trout (left) and Detroit Tigers infielder Miguel Cabrera are clearly the two front runners to earn this year’s American League MVP. Trout photo by: Lauren Flickr — Cabrera Photo by: WEBN-TV / Flickr

BY BRANDON J. SMITH, Couchsideshow.com blogger

Much has been bandied and ballyhooed about the AL MVP race lately. Will it be Mike Trout? Miguel Cabrera? Miguel Olivo? The race that some thought was over in August has revived a familiar narrative in September: The idea of September performance trumping everything else.

Cabrera in September has 1.261 OPS with 8 home runs through 17 games. Trout is merely hitting at a .726 OPS with 4 steals. Various fans and media members are pointing at these results and crafting this narrative that suddenly Cabrera is now the frontrunner, or about to pass Trout for the MVP.

Does this make sense?

Why does one hot week in September guarantee winning the MVP?

Oh wait, it doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t.

There’s no such thing as a benchmark for MVP, Mark McGwire finished second in the ’98 MVP voting to Sammy Sosa. If breaking the all-time home run record in a season (at the time) doesn’t automatically lock up the MVP, then I don’t know what does.

The proof here is in the narrative pudding, and it tastes terrible. Out of the blue it seemed like someone, somewhere needed to inject drama into this race, just so people could talk about again. Both the Angels and the Tigers teams are on the outside looking in regards to the playoff race, and it’s not as if Trout or Cabrera by themselves can overcome the flaws of the roster.

It’s strange that because Cabrera hits a few home runs, suddenly the conversation becomes, “IT’S OVER, TROUT IS FINISHED!” One game out of 162 does not enough influence to change the perception of an entire season.

My sense is that any pro-Cabrera argument will dance around the idea that defense doesn’t matter as much when conveniently applied to this discussion. There’s nothing Cabrera can do to improve defensively, he’s made some plays on occasion, but the lack of overall range just hurts his stats. Fangraphs Ultimate Zone rating (UZR) pegs him at -9.4, which mean that he’s 9 runs worse with his range than the average defender. It’s worth noting that UZR often requires three years of hard data to understand player trends, but Cabrera has never been considered a good defender even in his younger days.

Trout’s amazing home run saving catches only build up the myth and allure of his play, and UZR also reflects his elite speed and range. +11.9 runs in centerfield has him as one of the best defenders in the game, a good comparison is the Braves’ Michael Bourne, who comes in at +21.3, which is astounding.

None of these numbers are perfect or will ever be as precise as the simple result of batting average or OPS, but you get the idea that good defenders will be rated highly and not so good defenders won’t.

Cabrera supporters can cite his RBI totals, but in the context of recent MVP voting, this isn’t as important as some might think.

Since 2000, only two MVP winners have led their league in HR/RBI

• 2006: Ryan Howard

• 2007: Alex Rodriguez

So this idea that Cabrera leading the league in RBI simply doesn’t do it for me, the voting results and trends do not back up this idea that he’s suddenly locked it down. His current total of 130 isn’t even that impressive historically. Manny Ramirez finished third in the ’99 voting despite leading the league with 165 RBI and Miguel Tejada finished fifth in the ’04 voting with an AL best 150 RBI

If we’re going to be honest with ourselves about RBI, then let’s at least recognize that it’s far from the clinching factor in any MVP race.

I hope that Cabrera and Trout fans can both understand these differences, and still be able to have their heated arguments. As long as the facts are available for everyone to use, we can have an informed dialogue, and that’s the most important aspect here.

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