MVP (The Aftermath)

One of the themes of late has been that the baseball writers, among others, are becoming more and more sabermetric in their thinking. This was why some people thought -- key word being “thought” -- that the American League MVP vote was going to be close between Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and WAR winner Mike Trout.

I never thought the vote was going to be close ... I’m not bragging about this or even humblebragging. I just felt confident going back to September that if Cabrera won the Triple Crown he would run away with the MVP voting. He won the Triple Crown. And he ran away with the vote -- 22 first place vote to 6 for Trout. It really could not have gone any other way.

The reason some people think that the voting has changed is because two years ago, Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award despite a 13-12 record. This was widely viewed as a breakthrough moment for the Baseball Writers -- for good and for bad. A Cy Young winner with only 13 victories? What was happening? Had the world gone mad? Had the BBWAA gone futuristic?

The thing is, you look back at that specific vote and you realize that there really wasn’t another particularly good candidate. There was only one 20-game winner in the American League, C.C. Sabathia, and his ERA was almost a full run higher than King Felix, and he pitched 12 fewer innings, and he had 35 fewer strikeouts, and so on. Picking him over Hernandez would have been just weird (though three voters did anyway).

David Price was more viable with his 19-7 record and 2.72 ERA, but even that was almost a half run higher than Hernandez, and he pitched 40 fewer innings, and you really couldn’t make a great argument that HE pitched better than King Felix (though four voters did anyway). Plus, Price didn’t win 20, and once you get below 20 wins, the win totals don’t matter as much anyway.

The point is -- while many people looked at it as a breakthrough, well, I’m really not sure that it was. Last year, both Cy Young winners won 20-plus games (though there was a good statistical argument for 19-game winner Roy Halladay over 21-game winner Clayton Kershaw). This year, both Cy Young winners won 20-plus games (though there was a good statistical argument for 17-game winner Justin Verlander over 20-game winner David Price and 14-game winner Kershaw over 20-game winner Dickey).

The point is: I don’t think the tide really has shifted all that much. Yes, there are a few more sabermetrically inclined people in the BBWAA, which is great, but I think the strong majority leans traditional.

There were a lot of reasons people voted for Miguel Cabrera.  And as I have said many times, he had an amazing year. Say that again: He had an amazing year. He had an MVP year that stands up well with other MVPs through the years. The Triple Crown was a remarkable achievement. The guy hit .330 with 44 homers and 139 RBIs and that's just plain awesome.

But I will say that one thing that seems to happen when it comes to the MVP is that many people first pick the PLAYER they want to vote for MVP and then pick the REASONS after that. With Cabrera, it became apparent to some people after a while that just repeating, again and again, that he won the Triple Crown wasn’t quite getting the job done.* After all, we live in the Moneyball era when many people realize that batting average and RBIs are not exactly the first stats you should go to when trying to measure a player’s value. Plus, even the most staunch Triple Crown advocate might admit that it tells you nothing at all about a player’s defense, his base running, his ability to score runs, his ability to avoid hitting into double plays and about 5,000 other things.

*Admittedly, others never did reached this point and kept repeating, “If you win the Triple Crown, you win the MVP.” They repeat it still.

So, best I could tell, there were four other major arguments made for Cabrera (and I’m not even including the “He led his team to the playoffs” argument since Trout’s Angels had a better record). But it seemed to me that all of the four of these “arguments” were not just flawed, they were pat. The arguments were made to confirm Cabrera, not to separate him. Here’s what I mean:

Argument 1: Cabrera moved to third base to help the team, which is at the heart of “value.”

OK, two things. One, I have no idea if Miguel Cabrera moved to third base against his will. In my memory, Miguel Cabrera WAS a third baseman when he came to Detroit. And after being so utterly useless there for two-plus weeks the Tigers had no choice but to move him to first base. I imagine THAT was the move he didn’t want to make. Moving back to third -- the position he played most in the minors, the position he came up with, the position he seemed interested in playing when he came to Detroit? I don’t get the hardship here.

But the second thing is this: If I’m making the Cabrera for MVP argument, I’m probably not bringing up defense. Mike Trout is a lot better defensive player than Cabrera. A lot better. Even Cabrera’s staunchest supporters are just impressed that he fought third base to a draw. Meanwhile Trout was a marvel in the outfield. Cabrera’s willingness to go to third if he really did not want to go is admirable, I suppose, and if you want to give him some points for that then give him some points. But please give Mike Trout many more points since he was a significantly better defensively.

Argument 2: Cabrera was better in August and September.

Three things this time. First is, yes, Cabrera was better than Trout offensively those two months. He hit .344/.411/.670 to Trout’s .287/.383/.500. That’s better. Trout did score more runs, however. He stole 18 bases to Cabrera’s 0. He was still the much, much better defensive player. Was Miguel Cabrera really the better PLAYER the last two months of the season, or just the better hitter? I mean, if the MVP is only about who hits the ball in August and September, well, Prince Fielder’s .337/.453/.607 should have put him pretty close to Cabrera's level as an MVP candidate.

Which leads to the second thing: Isn’t it interesting that Fielder and Cabrera both went cuckoo at the plate the last two months of the season. I wonder why. Maybe it’s because they are both extraordinary pressure hitters who rise to the occasion when it matters most, when backs are against walls, when time is up, when chips are down, when fat ladies sing. Maybe it’s because they have some sort of inner strength that others lack, some sort of clutch hitter gene that triggers when the team needs them the most.

Or -- and I’m just spitballing here -- part of it could be that the Tigers played Cleveland (last in league in ERA), Minnesota (second-last in league in ERA) and Kansas City (11th in league in ERA) 28 times in the last two months. I suppose that is at least possible. Meanwhile Trout played Oakland (2nd in ERA) and Seattle (third in ERA) 21 times, just those two teams. 

Look, it’s never as simple as saying that ballpark factors or strength of schedule or anything like that makes all the difference. They don't make all the difference. Cabrera hit good pitchers and bad all year -- the guy's a masher. But it seems impossible to me that people would divvy up the season like that -- making games after August 1 sacrosanct -- without taking that little tidbit into consideration.

And there’s the third thing. Take a look at July:

Mike Trout: .392/.455/.804
Miguel Cabrera: .344/.409/.677

Do you see it? Yep: Miguel Cabrera was almost exactly the same in July as he was in August and September. Seems he didn’t just turn it on August 1st because the team needed him. He’s just a really good hitter. Meanwhile Trout was otherworldly.

And ... wait a minute: It looks like they played baseball in June too:

Trout: .372/..419/.531
Caberra: .311/.387.604

Hmm. And wait, what’s this? They played baseball in May too?

Trout: .324/.385/.556
Cabrera: .331/.371/.468

It’s fun to parse the baseball season into nice, bite-sized chunks to make a point. You know from Sept. 25 to October 3 -- the last nine games of the season! The crunchiest of crunch times -- Mike Trout thoroughly outhit Cabrera

Trout: .361/.465/.694
Cabrera: .313/.353/.500

And do you know what that means? Nothing. It's the MVP. Whole season.

Argument 3: Trout is just a rookie ... he will have many chances to win the award.

This one’s just dumb. Let’s talk WAR for a second. By WAR, Mike Trout just had the best season for any American League everyday player the last TWENTY YEARS. Yep, you throw every single season since 1992 into the bin -- A-Rod's best seasons, Griffey's best seasons, Jeter's best, MannyBManny's best, Mauer's best -- Mike Trout is better than all of them. Do you realize how rare a 10.0 WAR season is? Stan Musial had one in his career. Cal Ripken had one in his career. Hank Aaron never had one. Roberto Clemente never had one. Joe DiMaggio never had one. Mike Trout could go on to become one of the greatest players in baseball history and still never have another season as amazing as this one.

Dwight Gooden, I would argue, was far and away the best player in baseball in 1985. Nobody was even close. His WAR was 13.0 -- the highest for any player or pitcher since Babe Ruth. He threw 276 innings with a 1.53 ERA. He won the pitching Triple Crown. He threw 16 complete games and eight shutouts. If you had a MVP award from 1950 to 2012, Dwight Gooden in 1985, Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, Steve Carlton in 1972, Barry Bonds one of his cartoonish years like 2001 and maybe Mickey Mantle his Triple Crown year or Willie Mays in 1965 or Pedro Martinez in 2000 or Bob Gibson in 1968 or Roger Clemens in one of his most dominant years might be the finalists. Gooden’s year, I think, should win.

Gooden didn't come close to winning the MVP that year. He was only 20 that year -- you might have thought he would have those kinds of years again and again. Of course he didn’t. He never even approached that season. Breathtaking years -- even for the best players -- are rare things. Ted Williams, perhaps the best hitter that ever was, only hit .400 once. To comfort yourself for not giving Mike Trout the MVP this year by saying he will win others is nonsensical and just plain wrong.

Argument 4: The players, by large majority, think Cabrera was the better player.

Two people I like very much -- Bob Dutton and Susan Slusser -- both made the point that they asked a lot of players who they thought should win the award and most of them thought it should be Cabrera. Well, Slusser gets docked a few points because she admits talking to Brandon McCarthy who TOLD HER that Trout was MVP, and she decided to listen to other players. Susan, listen: Brandon McCarthy is smarter than all other players. All of them. Listen to him. Always. You should know this by now.

Look, I am certainly not going to in any way knock-down baseball players' knowledge of the game. They know 10 million things about it that we layman who topped out in Little League will never know. But here's the thing: By and large, we are paying a lot closer attention. This becomes all too obvious when so many of these baseball players become announcers. We are spending a lot more time studying the players. We are breaking down their performances. We are measuring them over an entire season. Most of the players Bob Dutton would talk to have been facing Miguel Cabrera 19 times a year for the last  five years. And they have seen Mike Trout play, what, six times? Maybe? Susan is probably talking to players who have seen Trout more this year, but even so Cabrera has been in the league for years, he's been one of the best players in the game for years, OF COURSE they are going to say that Cabrera is more valuable. Except for Brandon McCarthy. Because Brandon McCarthy is paying attention.

The coach's poll in college football is a living testament to the obvious: Coaches don't really pay much attention to other teams. Neither do players.

Bob brought up the idea that he knows baseball beat writers better than anyone and would trust his own instincts over a statistical model. That might be true. But if some 20 year old kid came up and instantly became this legendary beat writer (using all sorts of new technology in new ways), and there was some old war horse of a beat writer who everybody admired and who was having a great year by traditional standards -- who do you think Bob would pick? I know Bob well. I'm pretty sure I can guess who he would pick.* I'm pretty sure he would look at the beat writer statistics and absolutely acknowledge the kid was having a great year but he would still vote for the older guy because that's human nature, and because a reputation has been built, and because there would be some vague idea that the kid will have plenty of other chances.

*Update: Bob makes a good case that he has an open mind and might pick the younger beat writer. I can vouch for his open mind and so soften my viewpoint, but with this caveat: I don't think a lot of people -- or players -- have Bob's open mind.

Asking players is certainly a viable part of voting for the MVP. Ask them. Ask coaches. Ask scouts. Watch them play. Study the stats. Just remember the limitations of all of these. 

And in case of emergency: Just listen to Brandon McCarthy.