The Triple Trout

People seem to think that when you make a big deal out of just how extraordinary a season Mike Trout had with the Angels, that you are somehow downgrading what an extraordinary Triple Crown year Miguel Cabrera had with the Tigers.

It shouldn’t be like that. This isn’t a presidential debate. Big Bird isn’t at stake. Cabrera’s Triple Crown year is amazing, it is historic ... and it is also obvious. As I’ve written, everybody understands the Triple Crown numbers. We grew up with them. We have soaked in them. I know that there is a sense out there that Cabrera is not getting enough credit for doing this incredible thing, and while I don’t exactly buy that -- it seems to me that everybody either is talking about how amazing the Triple Crown was OR is complaining that nobody else is talking about it -- I guess it’s possible because there’s an MVP award at stake, and every vote for Mike Trout is a vote against Miggy.

If I’m wrong, I’ll be happy to admit it … but I’ll be surprised if Cabrera gets fewer than 80 percent of the first-place MVP votes. I think he will win, and he will win in a runaway, and all this chatter about the travesty of the MVP not going to the Triple Crown winner will have been pointless. We’ll check back in a month to see how it turns out.

Mike Trout’s year is amazing and historic, too. And as far as I can tell, not enough people are talking ABOUT THAT. For instance, one thing that people keep talking about is how amazing a year it is “for a 20-year-old.” But this is downgrading his brilliance. Trout’s season is amazing for any age, any time, at any point in the history of baseball.

For another, people like me keep referring to Trout’s defense as being the key to his great season. Trout’s defense has been, by all measurements I know of, otherworldly. But the guy had a historic OFFENSIVE year.

Mike Trout led the league in three categories that almost never go together: He led the league in runs scored, stolen bases and OPS+. Well, runs scored and stolen bases do go together ... but OPS+ changes the dynamic. Very few can also lead the league in that category. Adjusted OPS+ is a player's OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) adjusted for ballpark and how the league hit that year. It is a statistical effort to put the player’s season in context.

Take Carl Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown year. He hit .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBIs. Well, since 1967, 14 players have had years in which their numbers in each category are as good or better. Albert Pujols has done it three times, Barry Bonds twice, Todd Helton, Mo Vaughn, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez ...

But we know, instinctively, that there was something special about Yaz’s season. For many, it is that he won the Triple Crown. But I would say, more to the point (and the Triple Crown demonstrates this too), is that he was remarkable in context, remarkable when compared to the rest of the league in that era of the pitcher. So his 193 OPS+ is significantly better than Mo Vaughn's in 1996 (150 OPS+) or Vlad Guerrero’s 2000 (162 OPS+) and even a touch better than Albert Pujols’ 2009 (189 OPS+), even though Pujols had a slightly higher average, hit more homers and drove in more runs.

Put it this way: Every single Triple Crown winner also led his league in OPS+. Until this year ...

Yes, Mike Trout's OPS+ (171) is higher than that of the guy who won the Triple Crown (165). This happened because:

  1. Trout had a higher on-base percentage, which is the most important part of OPS (and probably the most telling single offensive stat in baseball).

  2. Trout finished third in the AL in slugging -- a not-insignificant 42 points behind Cabrera, but still an amazing slugging year.

  3. Cabrera played his home games in a generally neutral ballpark, one that might lean slightly toward hitters. Trout played his home games in one of the worst-hitting parks in baseball. You have to note this:

Cabrera on the road: .327/.384/.529, 16 homers, 64 RBIs, 43 runs.

Trout on the road: .332/.407/.544, 14 homers, 44 RBIs, 65 runs.

And this is with Trout playing 11 fewer road games than Cabrera. He out-hit Cabrera. He out-slugged him, too. Again, this might sound hostile toward Cabrera’s season, but that’s not how I mean it. The baseline is that Miguel Cabrera’s season is historic. I mean it to show you just how unimaginably great Trout’s season was.

So, getting back to the point. Trout led the league OPS+ -- first guy ever to beat a Triple Crown winner. But he also led the league in stolen bases and runs scored. Rare.

Here are the players who have won the Triple Trout:

2012: Mike Trout: 129 runs, 49 stolen bases, 171 OPS+.

1990: Rickey Henderson: 119 runs, 65 stolen bases, 189 OPS+.

1958: Willie Mays, 121 runs, 31 stolen bases, 165 OPS+.

1945: Snuffy Stirnweiss, 107 runs, 33 stolen bases, 145 OPS+.

1915: Ty Cobb, 144 runs, 96 stolen bases, 185 OIPS+.

1911: Ty Cobb, 147 runs, 83 stolen bases, 196 OPS+.

1909: Ty Cobb, 116 runs, 76 stolen bases, 193 OPS+.

1902: Honus Wagner, 105 runs, 42 stolen, bases, 162 OPS+.

Stirnweiss’ name stands out. His achievement was accomplished in a war year, with Ted Williams at war, with Joe DiMaggio at war, with Hank Greenberg at war, with Mickey Vernon at war and so on. When they returned, Stirnweiss -- a good player -- never again led the league in any of those categories, and never again finished in the top 10 in OPS+.

The other four -- Wagner, Cobb, Mays and Henderson -- are, of course, all-timers and leading the league in all three of those categories were transcendent moments in their careers. And now we list those seasons in order of Wins Above Replacement, which tries to take into account defense as well:

  1. Mike Trout, 2012, 10.7
  2. Ty Cobb, 1911, 10.6
  3. Willie Mays, 1958, 10.0
  4. Rickey Henderson, 1990, 9.8
  5. Ty Cobb, 1909, 9.5
  6. Ty Cobb, 1915, 9.3
  7. Snuffy Stirnweiss, 1945, 8.2
  8. Honus Wagner, 1902, 6.9

You might or might not buy the effectiveness of WAR, but you might admit that’s a pretty heady list to be at the top of.

When it comes to the MVP award -- and I say this now, after the voting is over -- I think it’s too easy to tilt the argument toward the player you want to win. I’m as guilty of this as the next guy. The Brilliant Tom Tango (more from him in our next post) thinks the problem with the MVP argument is a lack of honesty.

Did Mike Trout, all things considered, have a better year than Miguel Cabrera? Did the fact that he got on base more and score more runs despite playing in a tougher hitting environment, steal many more bases, and play demonstrably better defense more than make up for the fact that Cabrera hit more homers, drove in more runs and hit for a higher average? Others are more fervent about this than I am, but I still say unequivocally yes: I think they both had off-the-chart seasons, but Trout’s was better. Trout’s season is the best overall year in baseball the American League, I think, in about 20 years, or for just about as long as he has been alive.

The Barry Bonds years are a whole different category.

Now, if you disagree, make that argument in the comments. I'll post the best Miggy For MVP arguments. But, again, as Tango says, make the argument so that you will stand behind it next year and the year after that and the 25 years after that, when at some point the argument crushes YOUR MVP CHOICE. So saying that Cabrera’s team made the playoffs (when Trout’s team finished with the better record) won’t cut it here. Saying that Cabrera’s Triple Crown should guarantee him the MVP because it’s such a rare and cool feat won’t cut it here, either.

Make your best argument why Cabrera was the better player in 2012. And we will put it up there and see if people buy it.