DETROIT — Mike Trout? Please. The most relevant comparison for Miguel Cabrera is Carl Yastrzemski.
At this point, the American League Most Valuable Player award should be a formality, a signpost on Cabrera’s increasingly realistic route to immortality. He’s removing doubt about the MVP race with each passing day, smashing two home runs Tuesday in a 12-2 win over Oakland that his Tigers had to have.
He leads Trout in the batting race, .333 to .327. He leads Josh Hamilton in the RBI race, 129 to 123. And now that he’s clinched his first 40-homer season, he’s only two behind Hamilton at 42.
The top of the home run leaderboard is crowded, with Edwin Encarnacion (40), Adam Dunn (39) and Curtis Granderson (39) close enough to spoil Cabrera’s bid. But his opportunity is eminently realistic: Out-homer Hamilton by two over the season’s final two weeks, and Cabrera should become the majors’ first Triple Crown winner since Yastrzemski in 1967. (And if they tie, it goes into the record books as a Triple Crown.)
After Tuesday’s game, I asked Cabrera what he knew about Yastrzemski.
“Who?” he replied.
Carl Yastrzemski, I repeated.
“Oh!” he said, grinning. “A lot.”
Cabrera explained that a friend’s father named his son “Yastrzemski” and told Cabrera all about Yaz a couple of years ago.
And yes, Cabrera knows that Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown.
“It’s not easy, man,” Cabrera said. “It’s a lot of competition. You compete with a lot of great baseball players. That’s a hard thing to do. You’ve got to be lucky. Hopefully we get lucky in our division and win more games.”
That’s Cabrera: He would rather talk about his team (or the subtleties of hitting) than his own statistics. Fortunately for him, he has an experienced MVP campaign manager a couple of lockers over: Prince Fielder.
Fielder batted behind NL MVP Ryan Braun last year. He’s doing the same for Cabrera, who said Fielder’s presence is the main reason for the uptick in his home run total.
“They’re totally different,” Fielder said of Braun and Cabrera. “Miguel, for one, has a different presence. You think it’s a guy who can just slug, but he’s a great hitter. He doesn’t get many infield singles. It’s hard to hit that high — with true hits — every time.
“Not to mention, he dominates this ballpark. Man, this is not an easy place to (hit for power). It really isn’t. He makes it look easy. But it’s really not. Not at all, actually.
“I don’t think he’s been getting enough credit, in my opinion. Right now, he’s the best right-handed hitter in the game.”
Fielder played with Braun for five years in Milwaukee, as well as against National League Central rivals Albert Pujols and Joey Votto. All won MVPs. So it carries weight when Fielder says he’s never seen a hitter perform like Cabrera — in all categories — over the course of a season.
The Triple Crown isn’t Ted Williams batting .406 or Joe DiMaggio hitting in 56 straight games. But it’s in the next tier of hitting royalty, as evidenced by the fact that it hasn’t happened in nearly a half-century — and was most recently accomplished by a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
(An aside: The other day, I asked Tigers assistant batting coach Toby Harrah — who played for then-manager Williams in Texas — what hitting advice the Splendid Splinter might have given Cabrera. Harrah laughed. “Ted would have left him alone,” he said.)
Just how rarefied is the right-handed batter’s box at Comerica Park these days? The peak of the Steroid Era came and went without anyone winning the Triple Crown. There’s a reason for that. The Triple Crown is the ultimate hitting challenge: Hit more home runs than the Dunn types who swing for the fences, while reaching safely more often than the faster talents like Trout.
“If you do it, it’s like, ‘Wow,’” Cabrera said. “In those categories — average, RBI and home run — it’s amazing, because (trying to hit for) average (brings) down your home runs. You want to put the ball in play. You want to make something happen. You want walks, too. To get that together is very impressive.”
Yet, Cabrera has a realistic chance to do it.
“Two weeks left, two home runs,” Fielder said. “He’s definitely capable.”
Now, a word on the MVP race: The sabermetric analysis favors Trout. I understand and respect that. Any MVP voter for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America — as I was last year — should consider statistics such as Wins Above Replacement. Trout, an elite center fielder, is better than Cabrera defensively. He steals bases. His numbers are historic for a leadoff man.
But Trout didn’t play his first game in the majors this year until April 28. That means something. MVP voters are instructed to consider games played. Well, Cabrera had given the Tigers 20 games of value before Trout took his first at-bat. Cabrera has appeared in all but one of Detroit’s games this season, despite battling an injured right ankle recently. He has, as Fielder said, “logged in every day.” And he’s had to post for about three more weeks than Trout.
And remember that the MVP award, as per the BBWAA voting criteria, recognizes the “actual value of a player to his team.” For Cabrera, Fielder’s presence in Detroit is part of that value. If Cabrera hadn’t been willing to move from first base to third base during the offseason, Fielder probably would be a Dodger or Ranger. (Believe it or not, Cabrera is playing decently at third.)
“He came in, lost a ton of weight, worked extremely hard in spring on defense — he’s done everything to be the Most Valuable Player,” Fielder said. “I’ve seen him work all day in spring. I see him every day.
“He’s the guy.”
He is. That’s obvious now. The only question is whether he will be able to sign all future autographs with the inscription: M.V.P. T.C.